heroes and boogeymen
I’ve been in school for the last thirty or so years. I was four when I first stepped into a classroom. My Mama would walk me the block to the local HeadStart, and I would join Teacher Mary and Teacher Shirley for half a day of learning–which was mostly arts and crafts, snacks, and storytelling. Teacher Mary was kind of mean and had it out for me. She would later tell my Mama she was hard on me because she knew I had potential. Teacher Shirley, for that year, was my best friend.
I was always a pretty introverted kid–or, as they called it back then: shy. I would hide behind my tiny mother’s pant leg in some effort to disappear. I had some speech issues, so for half of my day, I also worked with a speech pathologist. Which meant I was kind of always separated from everyone else. Always a helper and a people pleaser, I worked hard to be liked. So, when other kids did bad things, I took responsibility for them and accepted the punishment. Which I often thought was unfair anyway.
When I think of being a vulnerable child, this is the person I remember being. For that quick year or two before my father finally ended his long-held love affair with Budweiser, I was this kid that didn’t know anything about death and could only try to make things okay for everyone.
When I was six years old, my father died. I took responsibility again and blamed myself for his death. Had I been better, somehow, perhaps he wouldn’t have drank so much. Had my pleas for him to stop drinking been more convincing, maybe this rehab center would have worked. Had being my father just been enough for him…
I became stoic in a way children never should be. I had an amazing mother who loved me, but she herself was ill-equipped to deal with our personal tragedies. People like us didn’t get therapy–and, even if we did, we couldn’t afford it. So, as a six year old, when scary things I couldn’t comprehend visited me, I filled in the blanks because no one could give me a story to hang on to.
For most of my life, I lived in fear–fear of being found out, fear of being like my father, fear of letting people love me. I created realities for myself that were safer–or so I thought–realities where I could hide like my father did–always keeping everyone away from me on some level because letting them touch the real me could actually break me. Because everyone, in my opinion, was going to hurt me.
I went along like that for a long time. I had many acquaintances. I did well in school. I was well-liked and didn’t have many complaints. I worked hard and made some of my dreams happen. But I was alone, always, and no one ever knew me. Hell, I didn’t know me.
At one point, I got into recruiting. It was not something I intended. It was something I did because it was offered. And I was good at it, somehow, despite my utter fear of people and my introversion. I had a knack for listening to people, understanding their needs, and being likeable. People wanted to work for me. I knew my stuff, and they could trust me. During that time, I met some great people–some of which I no longer speak to because time and space are strange things. But I still miss them and hold them in my heart as precious. This time was also the first time I actually knew someone who suffered from mental illness.
There was the sweet woman I worked with who was being beaten by her husband–who my dear work friend tried to save. She had some sort of break one day and walked into traffic–naked. She never came back to work. And then there was the funny, talented man I would talk to on the way home each day. We had worked together across two employers. And he was a bright light, but so much like me, it sometimes scared me.
My friend shot himself just before Halloween, in the park that I now live next to. It was a wake-up call for me–a reality check that I had not been living, and that I would die too if I didn’t stop hiding. And so, I made some changes–deciding to pull down the walls I’d erected and attempt actual feeling.
When I look at my family history, I sometimes wonder when it all begin. What was the inciting incident that led to so many people self-destructing? I come from a long line of alcoholics. My father started drinking as a toddler. My mother was an alcoholic. My Papa (grandfather) was an alcoholic. And there are so many others. But every person little Alma loved and adored battled addiction. Some recovered. Some died.
As a kid, I never had a vocabulary for death or crazy. These were things that no one talked about, after all. Drinking too much was just drinking too much. It wasn’t about depression or some sort of mental thing. It was about your baby dying. It was a reasonable response to a cruel world. An escape hatch.
It was not the same kind of crazy that happened elsewhere. Although, we knew that crazy too. My mother had a crazy half-brother. But then, he wasn’t really. Both of my grandparents stepped out on one another and had children with other people. My grandma slept with my grandpa’s brother–which resulted in my Uncle E. My Papa slept with a young woman who died giving birth to my Mama, in my grandma’s bed. So, maybe, I have no relation to “real” crazy. But it existed in our world as a soft hush.
Times were tough when Mama was little, and for a while, her parents sent their oldest boys away to work on another family’s farm. That was probably a mistake because, upon returning, one son was blind due to an accident and the other was institutionalized. But they did what they thought they could do.
My Mama always talked fondly of Uncle E. I remember wondering why. He seemed scary to me. She would tell me of this young man who was handsome and funny. And then she would tell me what he did and why I would never, ever meet him.
He had raped a young girl. She was two, I think, and they put him away. It ruined her life. My grandma visited every week. My Mama said he hit his head somehow and changed. That was the story she told herself to reconcile it all. I don’t know the details. I can’t wrap my head around it–never could.
He died in that institution when I was 14, and I never ever met him.
After graduating with my bio/comm degrees, I felt like I was flailing around. I had spent almost my entire life in school–focused on something. My entire identity was wrapped up in achieving, and now, I was just some stupid recruiter–some thing I never intended. I had never really done anything just for me–just because I loved it. Even writing, my first love, came about as a necessity rather than a conscious choice. Ironically, I made the choice to go back to school and learn what I wanted to learn before my friend died. But I can see now that I was already moving slowly in that direction. It took me a little while, but I enrolled in another Bachelor’s program–which was insane because I already had two. But, for the first time in my entire life, I was going to learn what I wanted to learn. I decided I was going to give writing a go–creative writing–that thing I did to heal myself–that thing I was so undisciplined about–that scared me.
I met someone during this strange time in my life–and for the first time, I was in love. Like stupid love. We were going to get married. I was finally going to have my happy ending. He was a writer, too, and I was inspired like I’d never been before. I threw myself into that world. I took classes with two particular people. One was a poet I’d never heard of. If I had met him on the street, and someone told me he was a poet, I would have laughed at the idea. He was hard on me–ripping apart my poems–my darlings that had fixed me so many times. He told me I used language recklessly and was too sentimental. These were deep wounds, and I couldn’t handle it. I was too fragile. So, I changed focus with my program and decided to scale back–to go back to my comfort zone while still testing the waters. I changed majors and only took the courses I wanted to take. He talked to me about it–asked me why I had run away from it. I was convinced he hated me and thought my writing was worthless. And in one of my top-five most vulnerable moments ever–I told him I didn’t think I could do it. I told him I had things to say, but that I could never say it in those pretty ways that poets do. That I was not part of that in-group–that I just wrote to survive–nothing more. I didn’t need a craft.
I don’t remember everything he said to me that day, but I do remember it made me cry. I remember it was something about truth and that my work was good but that I was layering things on top of it to protect myself from it. And he said that maybe I needed a break from it–that maybe what I needed to do was write stories.
And so, I did–though I had never really written stories and didn’t think I could. I took a few courses in fiction. And that’s when I became a more honest writer. And because of that suggestion, I bumped into playwriting. And now, I am a playwright. And I tell stories.
I am a poet, too, though. I never stopped writing poetry. I just stopped trying to make it good. I focused instead on making it mine–on peeling back layers and letting it be ugly. Poetry is what I do for me–no one else. And I learned that, I suppose, from my professor.
Those days have defined everything about the writer I am today, and I will never ever be able to say enough thank yous to those two professors who helped me understand who I am as a writer.
This week has been hard. This week is always hard. December is hard. I doubt there will ever be a time when it isn’t. But I’ve been weathering the season well–actually feeling joy and looking forward to Christmas. It’s been interesting and comforting. And for the first time since 2004, I am not hiding from jingle bells or Christmas carols or red stockings. I have healed, as much as anyone can.
This week is the hardest, though. It’s couched by the anniversary of my father’s death and my Mama’s birthday. This week is an audition for Christmas Eve, the anniversary of my mother’s death–whose vigil actually begins around the 21st–the anniversary of the surgery that ultimately took her life. For shits and giggles, it’s also the anniversary of a lot of other deaths of family and friends with a painful relationship’s ending anniversary thrown in too.
I’ve been weathering it well. In fact, I almost would have said I was alright…not great…but alright. No tears for me. They come few and far between these days. And not because I’m holding anything back. They just don’t seem to exist.
And I was so grateful.
As the week began, I started hearing things though. A mentor of mine who had been in the hospital and was expected to recover–collapsed on his way to a treatment and died. Another mentor of mine also passed. At least 12 people I know lost their parents or grandparents this week. Many others are suffering from other lost loved ones lost in previous years–wounds still fresh. Others are missing people who are alive, but estranged for dumb-ass, even cruel reasons. And then came Sandy Hook and all those sixes. It was like the world was throwing snowballs with rocks at my head.
Mostly because I’m someone who tries to reach out to people who are hurting. I plan on being a counselor eventually, but I’ve always been someone people told things to. There’s a responsibility I feel, I guess. I’ve had so many horrible moments, and so many people have stepped up for me–people who never had to. I don’t really have family anymore, so I’ve had to do a lot of things alone. Small kindnesses mean the world to me. I try to pay it forward. As an introvert, by nature, though, it’s a heavy burden. I have learned to put boundaries in my way because it’s very easy for me to fall down the rabbit hole into my own despair. I’ve learned to keep myself strong. By Friday, I was pretty devastated. And angry–which is really how I allow myself to be sad.
But I couldn’t bawl my eyes out and have 12 million breakdowns. I had things that needed to be done. Things that could make life hard if I failed. And I’ve been sick for weeks–something that seems to happen this time of year–like my body gets weak as these crappy days come. I spent most of the week just trying not to feel like ass. Trying to keep it together so I could finish my final for this last course–so I could finally fall apart and take a break for a couple weeks before diving back in to grad school life.
Yesterday, I felt myself unraveling, bit by bit–finally grieving. Finally feeling everything I tried not to feel. And then, I went on Facebook and saw a post from an acquaintance about that old professor–how he was in critical condition. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years. The last time, I worked in his department at the college–long after graduating. Returning to the campus was not something I actively chose. My ex had pressured me into quitting a job I loved and then asked me to take this one so we wouldn’t be broke. I hated every minute of it. I was laid off from that job, though–and after the break-up that happened two weeks after I took it–honestly–I would have quit if that hadn’t have happened. There were too many ghosts there. That time in my life became sort of another death spiral where I learned, again, that I could choose my life. It took me a long time to stand back up. I just started feeling like me again this year.
I always had meant to say hello or something, after the friend request came through, but it felt awkward–so I didn’t. It’s hard to interact with people who have witnessed your unraveling when you still don’t know how to witness it for yourself. But, in recent months, I have become someone who tries to lean into awkward–or I’m trying to be–and so, I went to his profile to share a get well wish–and then saw messages saying rest in peace. He was young–only a handful of years older than me. And that’s when they started posting the pictures of the Newtown victims–their eyes still wide. And that’s when I finally lost it.
Our nation is grieving right now, and you would think that collective grieving would somehow make us closer–that it would bring us all together in some supportive community. You would think that, but you’d be wrong. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about grief, it’s that it’s different for every person and each person has to face it alone–even when in a crowd of mourners.
When my Mama died, it was right around the time of the tsunamis that hit Asia. The one that killed all those people. It was only last year that I realized that happened at the same time as her death. While it was happening, I was in my own world where only my grief mattered. I was completely unable to comprehend anything else. I was trying not to drown.
It was different during her sickness. I remember the early days of her diagnosis–during those days when ERs were as familiar to me as my front porch. I remember a particularly upsetting day–coming home from University hospital. It was dark and cold when I left. I had to take two buses that didn’t quite connect. And I missed the one that would take me home. I remember walking in a part of town that made me feel afraid at night, normally. I didn’t care. I just went–walking and crying till I couldn’t feel my feet or my cheeks. And then getting on the bus–bawling on that bus–something I never ever did. I have never been someone public with emotion. It just poured out of me, like every filter I ever had had suddenly disappeared. And how, the nighttime passengers seemed to understand and let me sit there and didn’t stare at me. I remember looking at each of their faces–wondering what stories were inside them–knowing that we were all together in our own way–that each of us had pain and grief that we were uniquely built to understand, but then could never quite understand. Somehow, that made it easier to hold. But everyone else chose to keep it to themselves.
For the rest of my life, I’ll hold on to moments like that–knowing that while I cannot always connect with people in the ways I’d like, there is a common connection that I can hold onto if I choose to. After my mother died, that’s what I held onto and–as difficult as it was–as much as I wanted to shut down and erect walls–I found that I couldn’t because that was too painful and selfish. And so, every day, I made a choice to try. I stopped keeping most things to myself.
I have had so many conversations–and witnessed so many conversations–about Newtown in the last couple of days. Even when all I was trying to do was mourn–express my shock and horror. They all seemed to come down to political rants and then namecalling. So many friends have shut down Facebook accounts because they simply can’t deal with the meanness that seems to be happening–all so passionate and violent.
There are many ways to be violent–just as there are a million ways to die. There are thoughts that always seem to manifest themselves into our realities like dreams of airplanes crashing into buildings. The bad things always seem to come true. Mostly because they’re the easiest to remember. There are words that cause people to think less of themselves–because we create reality. Why can’t we understand that? And then, there’s the physical ways we maim each other. Almost anything can be a weapon. Live carefully.
I’ve heard people say that “crazy” people will always find a way, if they really want to hurt people. I think that may be true–and certainly it applies to the sane. Why? Because anything you give energy to exists and flourishes based on your attention. I am not anti-gun. Guns have a purpose. For the most part, I am glad soldiers and cops have them. I understand the argument that people need to protect themselves against the government. I certainly don’t trust many politicians. But then, I suppose I feel arming every person isn’t the best solution either. If you really feel you’re in that much danger, kick the dweebs out of office. Start a revolution. Or move. We all act like we’re helpless. I mean there are plenty of places to live. And I bet some of them will let you have your gun, and I bet you can shoot anyone you want in some places, too. For a price. There are always tolls. I don’t know that I’d want to live there, though. Remember, you are not helpless. You have choices. In fact, as Americans, we probably have more abilities to choose than anyone else.
That said, is protecting our Second Amendment rights working so well? What does that Second Amendment right mean, anyway? Can anyone agree on that? Can we agree on anything AT ALL? We say that the Constitution and the yadda yadda are all living documents. We have enacted laws to give rights to women and non-white people. We get rid of language that refers to things that don’t exist anymore. So, why can’t this breathe and age, too? Why do we cling to a past that is irrelevant? Maybe because we’re too afraid to admit we may not know everything?
And why do we make it easy to hurt people–or for people to accidentally hurt themselves? We can’t have special locks–much like breathalyzers on cars–that prevent people from using deadly weapons? We can’t make sure that the person who is authorized to shoot a gun is the one actually shooting the gun? Why do we need weapons of war in our homes? Why does one person need more than one weapon? It kinda becomes excessive, no? Like one too many pieces of piece on Turkey Day. Why is it that we allow someone who has family members with mentally unstable backgrounds to keep guns in their homes?
Guns are tools, though. They are not evil. A hammer is not evil. An electrical circuit is not evil either. But an unskilled, insensitive user of any of the above becomes a threat to someone–who may or may not be the right target and/or “deserve” it. And part of the problem is that we live in a world where people are either terrified of guns or desensitized to the violence that comes from reckless use of guns. We have media outlets that don’t even interrupt The View when there’s been a mass shooting of children. People see guns as toys because we give toy guns to children and infuse movies and video games with them. War is sterile and at arm’s length.
We do not value human lives. Let’s be real about that. We do not value human lives.
If we valued human lives, we would make damn sure that the people still on this planet had good lives. Each and every one. We would feed the hungry. We would take care of our elders. We would invest in education. We wouldn’t let people live on the streets. We wouldn’t allow children to be molested. We would change our language to be more loving. We wouldn’t argue and call each other names when we are all grieving.
This is not a culture of love. This is a culture of death and grief. This is a culture of avoiding root causes and easy ways out.
We can’t even talk about mental illness in a loving and respectful manner–just in ways that make others more unlike us–more worthy of shame and pity. So we feel a little more sane.
I was reminded of this when I read post after post from friends talking about the crazy man who shot the kids. I was reminded of this when I saw the well-intentioned, smart people I know posting the viral blog post from a mom said she was Adam Lanza’s mother because her child was mentally ill.
I’m not going to drink the Kool-Aid.
When people do something horrible, our society–each and every one of us–says that person is crazy. We use that word too easily, and it means more than what we intend. And that creates something we don’t realize. Choose your words more carefully. Crazy means ill. Crazy means in need of help. Crazy means disconnected, in some way, from reality. We are all crazy. We live in a crazy world. Crazy is an adjective, not a definition of a human being. We are all many adjectives.
We don’t know why Adam Lanza killed anyone. He is said to have had a personality disorder. That can mean a lot of things. Plenty of people who are mentally ill live peaceful lives. They exist in our communities and never harm a single soul. Some of them you’d never suspect. Mental illness doesn’t mean violent, always. We do not know if he was being treated or if he was being medicated. These things change stories. We do not know what happened to him in his life, outside of his mental illness. We do not know anything.
All we know is death.
We just have the gaps in the story that we fill in to try to make sense of this story. To make sense of this world. So we can still exist in it and be okay. Because the idea of not being okay scares us too much and makes us too much like him.
We should have some discussions about mental illness. About how we treat one another. How we talk about one another.
We still live in a world where most people–especially children–never receive help even when there are many treatments available for their particular deficits. Which means that people suffer for years–thinking they’re crazy–and falling into deeper pits that are harder to treat and more likely to maim all of us. This happens because we let it. We let people be poor. We reinforce stereotypes. We laugh at the crazies.
Crazy still means something. People still face discrimination. People are still ostracized and made to feel different. This is real and has real consequences.
They are different. Let’s be real. They are. But then, so is everyone. That doesn’t make them any less human or any less worthy of love or respect. Heck, different makes people more interesting and better able to teach us what it means to be human.
When I see a blog post like the one from that mother–that one so many people put up as some amazing model of something or other–some battle cry for conversing about mental health…finally–I cringe.
Because every mentally ill child is not Adam Lanza. The Adam Lanzas of this world are the exceptions. There are many, many extremely troubled children. They are not Adam Lanza, and they may never be Adam Lanza. Let’s assume their innocence first before we condemn them to our expectations. Each child is different and is worthy of understanding. There’s a difference between someone’s behavior and who they are as people. Belief is a powerful thing and provides subtext to every interaction. When you are afraid of someone, they become someone worth being afraid of. If someone believes in you, you’ll live up to those expectations. But the truth is that there are many possibilities. I don’t know this person. I don’t know her son. I do know that she’s powerful, and that part of who she is created who he is. Just as part of who she is was created by his life.
Which also probably goes to the whole responsibility we have as people to withhold our expectations and respect the journeys of other people–right or wrong. It is easy when we blog to vent–to put our opinions about other people into our blogs for comic effect or cathartic effect. This is probably human. I certainly have done it, but I have tried to stop myself because the people I am talking about are real. And often, my pain is coloring my story. And often, that’s unfair to that very real person who I couldn’t understand–who, for better or worse, was doing the best he/she could. I am often ashamed of how I’ve written about people I loved because they hurt me. So, when I write now, I try to tell the truth–as barebones as I can–acknowledging that it’s MY truth–and then I talk about me. Because anything else is gossiping.
I think, for parents especially, there is a responsibility to protect children and to support them. Adding his picture to a blog and talking about him in identifying ways when the Internet is no longer some place where anonymity is possible creates very real consequences for a child who cannot protect himself. I hope this was done out of naivete, but it’s something we should all remember. What we say here has lasting consequences. And not just for us. Can you imagine finding an old blog post where your mom told the world you were about to become a mass murderer? These are private, extremely personal struggles. These things can break a person. And while she should be able to work out HER stuff on her blog, she should also take care to observe his rights. Sometimes, the truth isn’t as true as we’d like it to be. Her story is just one of many versions of it. And it’s sad to me that most people will only know that story and won’t question it or ever ask for his version of it. He still has no idea who he is right now, but we are helping to define it for him. To me, that’s the worst thing you can do to someone, but I’m not really judging her. She’s human. And that’s part of why discussions about mental health are so hard.
There are no monsters. There are only people trying to figure it out. Some of us make terrible decisions and hurt people. Some of us choose to be helpers. But we are all human beings, doing the best we can with what we have. Demonizing anyone doesn’t make us more safe or more us. It makes us more alone and more vulnerable to things we don’t understand. Mostly because we choose not to try. And that’s really the only thing we can do: keep trying and keep questioning the things we think we know about ourselves and everyone else.
I’d rather keep my eyes wide open. I’d rather believe people are good. I’d rather be a helper than someone who’s constantly trying to protect myself from some boogeyman I can’t quite see. I want to turn on the lights.
Talk to your children. Show your kids you love them. Tell them you will do anything to protect them, and that the world is full of good people. Because it is. Tell them you’re sad and afraid. Be human. They see you. And every time you cover up your humanity with “parenting” instead of candor, you erect a wall. They see you, and they want to know you. And this is how they learn to be seen and known.
Empower your children to make choices. To choose who they will be. To choose how they will live. To open their mouths because they still have voices. To extend their hands to people who are different and champion the ones who can’t fight back. To tell people when they are scared and to ask for help. To tell people to stop because they are powerful and they can choose what exists in their world. To open their hearts to the world, especially when it scares the shit out of them. To forgive and to trust that–we will always be okay–no matter what happens. And okay sometimes means really, really sad.
This is what I learned from my parents–both from what they said, what they did, and how they lived. This is how I live my life and how I try to approach every human being I interact with. I often fail, but I keep trying.
Please let that be the lesson we get from this.
Otherwise, we just keep filling in the gaps with the things we can only imagine because we have no idea who we are now or what really happened or why. And no one who can tell us is courageous enough to acknowledge any of it.
This is a time to stop and be courageous for a change.