I work with young people every day who struggle with mental health diagnoses. It’s my job. According to my colleagues, I’m some sort of an expert in analyzing student behavior, creating behavioral intervention plans for the school setting, and working with exhausted and depleted parents in finding support and hope through community resources. Prior to this current job, I was an elementary teacher. And every year I was given the most disruptive, misbehaved boys in whatever grade level I taught. It was my ‘reward’ for being able to turn them around while providing the principal with some sort of break in his discipline routine. I think the real reason I agreed to take on these boys was so that they wouldn’t be paddled (back in the day). One principal told me I was ‘good at skinning my own skunks’. As my career moved forward I studied a good amount of human psychopathology and abnormal behavior, and thus developed a better understanding of the difficult behaviors our youth exhibit.
Then I became a parent and along with that came a whole new perspective. To this day I think I’ve eaten an entire bakery full of Humble Pie and I cringe at the memories of ‘lecture’ type discussions I used to have with relatives, friends, colleagues and the parents of my students about behaviors and lifestyles and diets, etc. As a matter of fact, I remember one young mother in a playgroup I frequented telling me straight to my face when I was doting over my toddler while berating a mother who had ‘no control’ over her teenage daughter: “You know, your kid’s going to grow up and do stuff just like every other kid. Best to just get over it now.” I remember thinking in my mind that she was crazy. My son was perfect and he would remain perfect. The furthest thing from my mind was the possibility that he would one day grow up to suffer with Conduct Disorder / Oppositional Defiant Disorder. What mother thinks about these things when their children are little? What mother looks at her beautiful little baby or playful toddler or little league player and visualizes countless school referrals, detentions, suspensions, expulsions and juvenile delinquency? Who dreams of the day she will see her son standing in handcuffs in an orange jump suit in front of a judge instead of going to the high school prom? What mother invites drugs, violence, threats of suicide, property destruction and physical harm into her family and home? Who can imagine living with a vindictive, defiant, angry, stubborn and hostile youth who exhausts a parent to the point of surrender? What mother looks forward to spending afternoons and evenings in endless appointments with pediatricians, psychiatrists, judges or school administrators, or sitting in an emergency room looking at her teenager’s beaten and bloodied face? Who is able to predict the day when there are no more hugs or ‘I love you mom’? What mother believes there will come a time when she has to lock her bedroom door at night in fear for her safety from her own son?
I knew my son suffered with CD / ODD long before the diagnosis his junior year of high school. But I was stubborn in accepting it because I knew the etiology of this disorder focused on family problems. My son’s father and I started out believing we were good parents, yet never realized as a couple that our collective problems would interfere with the healthy development of our children. My former husband was a high-functioning alcoholic, verbally and emotionally abused me for many years (subtly for a very long time and then not so much a few years before our separation), used shame and blame with our sons, displayed anger and rage, depression, and increased parental absenteeism as our son got older. There was more and more isolation from friends and family as the years wore on. But I had grown to be dependent on my husband for so many of my needs. He was so charismatic and enchanting in public, with our friends (when we had them), and within the public school system where he was an elementary administrator (school full of women and children). I was also his #1 enabler. I lied for him, preached his goodness to all who would listen, stood by his side when he lost jobs, our home, our friends, apologized to school teachers and administrators when he would rage in meetings about our son, laughed at his hurtful sarcasm toward my sisters and female friends, and turned away when I saw his friendly advances toward other women. Together we created a bubble of dysfunction where we lived with our son in never ending cycles of calmness and complete disarray.
Why do I share such a painful story? Because I know too many Nancy Lanzas. I know too many parents who keep dysfunction to themselves. I know too many parents who are completely confused by the school systems or who can't get mental health treatment for their children because it's too damn difficult. I know too many parents who are caught up in the 'Jones' Syndrome' (we've got to look good to the neighbors and community) and the last thing they would do is show their weaknesses to others.
It has not been an easy task to turn to the very resources I provided to others over the years. It took me a very, very long time to do so, and to also step away from burdening family and friends with issues that needed professional attention. When my former husband had a very public affair within the school system with a subservient employee 3 years ago, our house of cards came tumbling down. For the past 3 years I have attended Al-Anon, consulted with Catholic Family Services, sought the guidance of psychiatrists and therapists, prayed with and listened to my clergy, hired lawyers and begged judges for leniency. I have worked tirelessly with school counselors and taken a class through NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill). I joined Women Against Abuse and attended meetings. And I’ve never stopped reading books on alcoholism, family dynamics, abuse, trauma and personality disorders. I was in denial of my son’s deep seeded problems because admitting it would be shining a spotlight on my own problems. Predictably, these support services brought an acceptance of my reality. Little by little, I have systematically dismantled a dysfunctional life that looked perfect to everyone else but that had been instrumental in damaging the psyche of a beautiful soul. And thus my relief from unbearable pain was to do anything and everything I could to find out what brought us to this place and how we were going to get out. I sort of became for my self and my son the person I was for other parents and children most of my life.
Today my greatest wish is that the other player’s in my son’s life could see how their treatment of him contributed to his very painful existence much more than toward his growth and healing the past few years. His father chose to turn his back and walk away for a ‘better life’ with his mistress three years ago. He hasn't been back. The man my son sought acceptance from for his entire young life relayed the message that he didn’t matter. This same man burned messages into our son’s mind from elementary school until the day he left that he was not good enough, that he needed to ‘man up’, that he was stupid and lazy and didn’t know how to work for anything, didn’t respect his mother, that he owed everything he had to him for working all day long, and that he couldn’t own anything nice because he was spending all his money on his children. My son’s father’s adult family members all but disappeared from his life when he did nothing to deserve such contempt and further abandonment. School administrators ignored my pleas for help, and instead let my son flounder before they punished and humiliated him. An SRO Officer stalked him relentlessly until he lived up to her expectations that he was indeed noncompliant, angry, hostile and dangerous to have on a high school campus. She walked behind him and me with his friends watching as we left a high school campus after an expulsion with her hand on her weapon yelling that we were not welcome back and that my son was a disrespectful delinquent. School administrators denied him the opportunity to play Spring baseball at another high school when he did everything they asked, and more, to prove he was trying to amend his behaviors even with a psychologist's recommendations that he be allowed to play a sport so that he could be in the presence of healthy men. When he didn't have high school spring ball under his belt, the city legion baseball coaches cut him from the team that all his friends played on. A school lawyer sat across from us at a meeting to get him into an online high school and flipped a no trespass contract toward him and said she knew all about his past behaviors and wasn’t taking any chances in her district. He could complete his high school online at home. ‘Family Law’ attorneys ignored his needs and right to be heard and protected from parental abandonment and neglect, and instead focused on keeping conflict high between the parents. A pediatrician, a naturopath, and a psychiatrist each refused to write a prescription for anxiety and depression because he had THC in his system and obviously was a drug abuser in their opinion who needed to come clean before treatment. And somewhere along the way there was a police officer in an emergency room visit who told me while my son laid bleeding from a blow to the head that he was likely to end up in prison.
I consider it a miracle that he did not retaliate or commit suicide.
As a mother, it saddens me beyond belief to share this story. It is a testimony of pain, endurance, madness and the plight of the human spirit. My life as an independent mother has been horrific. Yet never once have I used it as a trump card for sympathy or to be pitied as a victim. What I have done is stood by my son when no one else would. I carried his burdens on my shoulders because I believe with all my being in a hope for our at-risk youth if but only one person steps forth and lends a hand. Each night I ask God for just one more day. One more day to validate my son every chance I get in hopes that he will believe beneath that hard protective shell he wears that he matters, and that his life is meant to be.
And as a public school employee, I get one more day to serve the at-risk youth in the public school for whom I work.
Please people. Open your eyes to the youth around you. Don't overlook the sad, the lonely, the quiet, the dirty, the unkempt, the dorks or nerds. Slow down America. Stop the rat race that leaves so many behind. Reach out. Give until it hurts. Take care of families. Support our schools. Argue the logic behind weapons of mass destruction in the hands of civilians. Educate yourselves about our mental health care in this nation and what the hell is wrong with it.
And then maybe, just maybe, we will see fewer lost boys and fewer unfathomable tragedies.