We Could Be Friends

I was behind her on the road near Target. I passed the time at the stop light reading the mass of bumper stickers that were perhaps holding together the back end of her car.

Two of them were wonderfully memorable:

“I child-proofed the house. But somehow they keep finding their way back in.”

And my favorite:

“Don’t make me release the flying monkeys!”

I have no idea who that woman was, but I’m pretty sure that if we ever met, we could be friends.

wizard_of_oz_0860_wicked_witch_and_monkey

(Photo Source: Google Images)

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

In The Beginning

It began about sixteen months after my husband died.

He’d battled a rare liver disease for a few years, his diagnosis coming less than two years after we were wed. His final two months were spent in the hospital, save for a Valentine’s Day discharge home that lasted less than 72 hours. About five weeks later, we gathered around him, saying our final goodbyes as he lay unconscious. The nurses, by this time very dear to me, were kind enough to turn off the alarms that began sounding after life support measures were removed.

Hospital Monitor

(Photo Source: Google Images)

We had cried, we had prayed, we had sung, we had told him the things we felt were most important to say, many of us at the same time. It was a cacophony of loving sentiments and earnest anguish expressed in the most grievous of times. He breathed his last. We lingered a while.  And then we all went home.

My adult step-kids and their cousins left to return to their families. (I sure love all those “kids”.) My in-laws drove back home after the death of their firstborn. (I love them even now.) My dear mother, herself widowed a few short years earlier, left with what I imagine were difficult thoughts at best.

My son (age 16) was living with his dad, so while he departed to a separate destination, my two daughters and I walked into our darkened and forever-changed home. And while I rarely allowed them to sleep the night in my bed when they were little, we all piled under my comforter together in the cold March darkness. It didn’t matter that they were 12 and 13 years old. No one was going to sleep much anyway.

Life changed, of course. In drastic ways that could not be undone. Grief is an odd phenomenon for so many reasons, not the least of which is that everyone experiences it differently. But we could say the same about life, couldn’t we? Everyone experiences it differently. The triumphs and losses a family experiences together are processed and assimilated uniquely by each individual.

As I did my best to adjust to being a widow, an unexpectedly single mom for the second time, my kids did their best to adjust to life without the step-dad that they had known and loved for more than half their lives. The wound was deep.

My older daughter, a few months shy of her 14th birthday when my husband died, began to grapple with adolescence in more marked ways when she turned 15. It was subtle at first, not nearly as obvious or aggressive as it became in time. She had always been quiet and observant, even as a baby. Though introverted, she was affectionate, with a natural talent for words, music, and bold creativity. But as she prepared to enter high school, any sense of worth or identity she had possessed seemed to disappear into thin air.

When the kids were quite young (ages 7, 4, and 2½), their dad had made the choice to leave our family. Having been the child of divorced parents from years ago (before the divorce statistics were so high, when – unlike today – I didn’t know anyone else whose parents had split) I knew the potential for damage to my impressionable children. I took them to a counselor, and the most useful long-term piece of advice I received was that, as young children of divorced parents, they would most likely struggle more than normal during milestone transitions as they grew up.

This had absolutely seemed to be the case up to that point, so when my daughter started to act out with impatience, eye rolling, frustration, and withdrawal, I chalked it up to the cumulative losses we’d all been through, plus the hellishness that adolescence in general can be. And I reminded myself that the ride would likely get bumpier than most, but we’d get through it.

I saw her as I saw her brother and sister: capable, full of life, with so much to experience and to offer the world. I hoped that as she entered high school she would be able to try a myriad of new things, to find her niche. I expected the confidence in her many talents and abilities would only strengthen. I was wrong.

I am not so old that I don’t remember high school and what it takes to try to find your way socially. In fact, I went to three different high schools in three different states all within the final year and a half of high school. I remember well. But as I said, we all experience life differently, and my daughter’s experience was nothing any of us expected. Her sense of identity and worth were shaken to the core. The beautiful and talented girl I saw was nowhere in her view. While I tried to reassure us both that she would return to herself, she was spiraling into an abyss of confusion and despair.

It’s worth noting that I don’t think there is one particular reason we can point to for this. I believe it was the culmination of so many things, both genetic and environmental, that landed my daughter where she ended up, with peers who tended towards emotional dysfunction and physical self harm. Her black hair, black fingernail polish, and thick black eye liner didn’t concern me near as much as the darkening shadow in her heart. She was trying. She was trying so hard. But she was at a loss, and I was simply not fully aware of all she was wrestling with.

Goth makeup

(Photo Source: Google Images)

At first she tried to make excuses about the cuts I saw on her arms and wrists. At first I tried to believe her. In retrospect, I can see that she was initially reticent and even somewhat delicate with her self injury. But as time went on, as her darkness descended, the increasingly aggressive scratches, cuts, and gashes began to mirror the turmoil she felt inside.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Responding to Your Teen’s Self Harm

“I wish he would just tell me it’s all my fault. Then I would know I could fix it.”  This is what a shocked and saddened father told me recently when he found out his teenager was self-harming. How do we process the fact that our adolescent is purposefully choosing to physically wound him- or herself?  How do we fight the panic as we wonder if this is a suicide attempt? How do we answer the ensuing questions: “Does my child want to die? What did I do wrong? How do I make it stop?”

I have been that parent. I have asked those questions. I have cried in bewilderment and fear, wondering just where I went wrong and how I can back up and make it right again. I have pondered what happened to that toddling child who looked to me to make the world right, just as I have wondered what has happened to me, the mother who lived in the illusion that I could do just that.

Mom and Toddler from Stock.xchng
(Photo source: stock.xchng)

There is a deep and abiding sadness when we realize that what we are dealing with is well beyond the scope of our knowledge or experience, and also has the potential to be dangerous and destructive in the long-term.

IS IT A SUICIDE ATTEMPT?
Many parents wonder if their teen is harboring a death wish, if self-harm is a suicide attempt gone awry. I certainly wondered this. It made no sense to me whatsoever. The good news is that the vast majority of adolescents who self-harm fall into the category of non-suicidal self injury (NSSI).

If the emotional struggles that prompt one to self harm are ignored or left untreated, it stands to reason that this could eventually lead to a higher risk for suicide. And certainly there is cause for concern that self injuries could become more severe and dangerous than intended. This is not a behavior to be ignored, but non-suicidal self injury is just that, self injury without the intent of suicide.

I sometimes explain it this way to friends or parents who are as baffled as I was: When I was young, back in the olden days, and someone was having a tough time, they might get drunk, smoke pot, or engage in promiscuous and risky sexual behaviors in an attempt to relieve their anxiety and sadness, or just to get their minds off their problems. Granted, those are pretty poor coping skills, and self-injury can be classified as that as well, as a poor coping skill.

Like other poor options, it doesn’t mean kids want to die. It means they want the pain to stop; they want a distraction from whatever is causing them distress. Ironically, they are causing themselves physical pain in response to emotional or psychological pain.

But more often than not self injury is a non-lethal attempt to escape distress.

WHY SELF HARM?
Why would anyone choose to carve their own skin to the point of pain and bloodshed? Why do some teens intentionally burn or bruise, pick at, puncture, scratch, pinch, embed foreign objects into, or otherwise harm their bodies? When I was in high school, self injury was simply nowhere on our radar. It just wasn’t thought of. Southern Comfort, joints, and parking cars in dark deserted areas were, but purposefully harming oneself was not.

In today’s culture, estimates say that 1 in 8 to 1 in 5 teens hurt themselves physically on at least a somewhat regular basis. Some numbers indicate that 1 in 3 to even 1 in 2 adolescents have tried self harm at least once. It may be unknown to us parents and other adults, but it’s quite well known among the kids themselves. It’s not an unusual phenomenon to them and science shows the release of endorphins (a ‘feel good’ chemical our bodies produce) when one self injures can in fact give temporary emotional relief. This can lead to repeated acts of self harm, as teens look for a continuing, albeit short-lived, reprieve.

Some teens say they practice NSSI in order to “feel anything at all”. This may not be typical risk-taking behavior as we think of it. For instance, if I wanted to really feel something, I might take a bungee jump off a land bridge just to feel the adrenaline rush. (Thankfully, I don’t need that much adrenaline to get through my days.) Sometimes the rush of self harm can feel addicting. It can be devastating to hear your child say they are engaging in ongoing self harm or other risky behaviors just to feel anything at all. In my experience, this is a clear sign that there are some serious concerns to be addressed.

Self harm is not so much the problem as the symptom.

IS IT MY FAULT? DID I CAUSE THIS?
Short of being an abusive/neglectful parent or person in your teen’s life, I would advise you to not point a finger at yourself or even at a spouse, ex-spouse, grandparent, or anyone else you might like to lay blame on for what your child is experiencing. Of course we have said and done things that have caused our children angst, anger, embarrassment, and exasperation. (Isn’t that our job??)

We live in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people, and neither we nor our children are exceptions to that. We can second guess ourselves until we run out of breath and life, and we will always come up with things we should have or could have done better. Welcome to The Wonderful World of Parenting.

Here is an example from my own experience: My first husband left our family when our kids were 7, 4, and 2 ½. As time went on, it became clear that our parenting styles were very different. By observation as well as admission, it was obvious he was quite permissive, and I felt the kids were exposed to things that they weren’t ready for (such as R-rated movies in elementary school).

In response to this, I chose to be a more structured and sheltering parent, which most likely came across as overprotective and controlling. And perhaps in response to that, their dad became even more permissive. Were we trying to offset one another’s perceived parenting flaws? In doing so, did we cause confusion and frustration for our children? Of course. (And there are plenty of things I did just plain wrong on my own, regardless of my ex-husband’s actions and choices).

Life is challenging, and we all do the best we can with what we have. This applies to our children as well. Sometimes our best efforts fall short of the highest good. We keep trying, but we are far from perfect. Some teens (and some 50-year-olds!) are at a lower spot on the learning curve, and this can be part of the bigger picture of one’s choice to self harm. Sometimes mental health or emotional issues are involved, and sometimes we just need help learning healthier ways to cope.

Usually there is not one specific incident we can point to and name as the cause for self harming behavior.

WHAT DO I DO NOW? HOW DO I FIX IT?
Like the father mentioned above, we parents often question our own responsibility when it comes to our kids choosing to self harm. And like him, we may wish to have the blame placed squarely on our own shoulders so that we can guarantee the result: “I broke it, so I can and will fix it.” We hope to regain something we never really had in the first place: complete control. That control would seem to remove the possibility of an unknown outcome, eliminating worry and pain for both ourselves and our adolescent children.

But it really doesn’t work like that.

Remember that self injury is a poor coping mechanism in response to some kind of emotional difficulty (anger, sadness, anxiety, fear, and many others). Recall also that NSSI is more often than not the symptom, not the problem. We cannot go back and undo the many things that have caused our child’s struggle, nor can we wish into sudden existence the ability for our teen to skillfully and maturely deal with difficulties.

We cannot learn what our adolescents need to know; they must learn it for themselves. They must take in the possibility of acquiring better ways to cope. Then they must actually practice those better ways. Ongoing NSSI issues can, and often should, be addressed with the help of a trained mental health counselor.

This doesn’t mean we renounce the responsibility we have as parents, though. It means we don’t blame our kids or others, especially not in front of our kids.  It means that we take an honest look at things we ourselves could do better, that we have the courage to face the things that frighten us, and that we choose to enter in to the process of becoming as emotionally and mentally healthy as we can be.

The road to wellness can feel challenging and overwhelming. As my late husband used to say, “That’s why parents get paid the big bucks!” (Funny guy, he was.) But as difficult and scary as it may be, facing those big issues is the best road to health for all of us, and we give our children a great gift when we choose to offer such an example.

Threats and intimidation of your teen will do more harm than good, as will pretending everything is fine. Continuing self injury is a sure sign that some emotional distress needs to be tended to. Parental negligence or fear caused by threats will not serve our kids well in any way. While the majority of adolescents practicing NSSI may outgrow the behavior on their own within 5 years, receiving help is still encouraged. If we can offer our growing children better alternatives to handle pain and anxiety, why would we not?

Let go of the concern that your child’s struggles will reflect poorly on you as a parent. Choose instead to seek and make available the best help and support you can find.

And if contributing factors indicate that your teen will not be in that 80% who may eventually stop self harming on their own, then seek immediate help. If you see behaviors that concern you (such as depression, anxiety, substance use/abuse, change in personality or behavior) please be courageous enough to intervene on behalf of your teenager.

Oftentimes, in order for a self harming teen to change and heal, the family must change and heal as well. A good therapist – and a good parent – will look at the family system and help to identify areas that may have contributed to the difficulty. This is not a blame game, this is an opportunity to step up and learn healthier ways of relating to yourself and each other. It’s not a matter of “fix this kid”. It’s more a matter of “how do we all learn and heal and grow healthy together?”

Winter Walk from Stock.xchng
(Photo source: stock.xchng)

My daughter shares that her high school dance teacher used to tell her students, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” Not that we will ever be perfect parents, but we can learn to use better, wiser skills, and to model them for our kids. My formerly self injuring daughter adds her own concluding thought: “In rehearsal, on the stage, and in life, we need to give it our all to expect rewarding results.”

We learn better so we can do better.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

A Great Disturbance in the Force: The Sequel

{Please see the first part of this post here.}

*****

Why does it sadden me that we cannot be always and intensely aware of the suffering in our world? I suppose it’s because it seems to me that, apart from a public tragedy such as the Boston Marathon bombing or numerous others of which we are all aware, many shy away from those who are hurting, or at the very least the wounded become the forgotten ~ not necessarily on purpose, but simply as a matter of course. (I am guilty of this myself. Most definitely.) I know what it’s like to be on the other side, to be the one who wants someone to bear witness to my suffering, even as others may think I should be ‘over it by now’, or are simply unaware of my struggle.

A great disturbance in the Force deserves a great deal of attention.

I believe we are created for connection, and sometimes connecting to someone means feeling their pain. Just as we rejoice with those who rejoice, we need to weep with those who weep. We need to celebrate with one another when there is cause, and we also need to mourn together when necessary. This isn’t easy. It isn’t pleasant. But it’s right and necessary if we are to fully embrace the entirety of who we were made to be.

We cannot all fly to Boston, or Iran or Pakistan, to comfort those in need or pain. Thankfully we will not all experience the trauma of being present at some type of public disaster so that we can step in to offer aid in the midst of violence or loss. But we can all be aware of those around us, if we so choose.

We can seek out the hurting; we can step in without judgment or verdict. We can set aside our own opinion of what we think those in crisis must do, and simply be. Be with someone whose heart is breaking. Hold their hand. Enter into grief with another, refusing to be scared away by the fact that you do not (and cannot) have all the answers. Sit together in silence. Or ask a question about their loss. You may be surprised to learn that they really want to talk about it. Allow them the necessary depth and length of their grief. You would want no less were you in their situation.

I am not here to debate the Why of any tragedy. Whatever your belief or lack thereof may be, the fact remains that sorrow, loss, and heartache surround us. We live in a world where violence, death, and grief are not new, but are certainly more quickly able to be made known than at any other time in history. We may choose to rail against the injustice of suffering, but that makes us no less culpable in relieving what distress we are able.

We have seen an outpouring of goodness in response to an act of destructive aggression. Individuals, groups, even cities have stepped in to show support and solidarity to those reeling and recovering from the attack. And then there were those Bostonians who opened  their businesses, homes, and hearts in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. They had no answers for those who were suffering. They were simply willing to do the best they could with what they had. They took a risk and chose to enter in. May we be bold enough to daily do the same in our own relationships and communities.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

A Great Disturbance in the Force

Like so many in our country, I am saddened by the recent Boston Marathon bombing. The literal loss of life and limb, plus the trauma experienced by so many, is difficult for us to process.

With the clarification that I am not a Star Wars geek, there is one line from Star Wars: A New Hope that has always stuck with me. As the planet Alderaan is destroyed, Obi Wan claims, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.” (Please don’t ask me to quote anything else from Star Wars. Besides some poorly executed Yoda grammar-mashing, the only other line I know by heart is, “Luke, I am your father.” I even had to Google Obi Wan’s exact words in regards to Alderaan’s explosive ending.)

So what does Obi Wan Kenobi have to do with how I am trying to sort out this difficult situation in my own mind? For so long it has seemed to me that when large scale tragedies occur, we should all be able to sense it, to know that a menacing or malicious act has taken place, that fellow human beings are suffering, hurting, and dying. It seems so wrong, that we aren’t aware, that we don’t immediately feel “a great disturbance in the Force” when tragedy and turmoil strike. Short of living in George Lucas’ invented universe, we won’t. And I’m sure that’s a good thing because the constant, uninterrupted anguish and heartache would surely be our undoing.

These types of events occur regularly throughout the world, so we would constantly be quoting Obi Wan, weary with the exhaustion of grief, fear, and every emotion that haunts us when there is such a catastrophe, either man-made or naturally occurring. Consider for instance the earthquake on the Iran/Pakistan border, which occurred only hours after the Boston Marathon attack, or the one that struck just a week earlier in the same region. And then of course there are those areas of the world where bombings and attacks are a way of life, where children grow up knowing to expect chaos and turmoil every day. Even though my daughters were at the Aurora Theater shooting nine months ago, we still live in relative peace and calm compared to so many others sharing our damaged and hurting world.

Still, I am struck by the fact that such dreadful things can happen, and we only find out about them on the television news, via our Twitter feeds, or by scrolling through our Facebook pages. Shouldn’t we all feel the piercing pain and angst of our fellow mortals, wherever they may be? Why is it that I should be shopping or chatting with a friend while others are losing homes, limbs, livelihoods, and lives?

Beyond the calamities that are newsworthy on an international scale, there are millions of misfortunes happening daily on a much more personal level. How is it that I can be taking a nap or curled up with a good book when someone is burying a beloved parent, or watching their child battle for her life? Why should we be gathered around the dinner table while another family has just been killed by a hit-and-run driver? What about my fellow widows, one of whom was jarred awake early one morning by a phone call informing her of her husband’s death, or another whose husband’s unknown illness took his life one Thanksgiving Day a few years ago?

How do we continue about our lives without feeling a great cosmic disturbance from these tragedies?

It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Something along the lines of a severe mercy. Were we all to be constantly and acutely aware of the suffering surrounding us, life as we know it would not exist.

I’m certain that on the Friday night I made the decision to turn off my husband’s life support, there were lots of happy people celebrating the end of a long week. I know that as I signed the admission papers for my daughter at the adolescent psychiatric unit, it was the middle of the night and most of the people in our state (and country, probably) were tucked safely in bed. As my daughters heard the first shots ring out in the theater next to theirs, I was actually falling asleep myself. We can’t know and sense all these things. We can’t.

And I am thankful, even as I am slightly saddened.

*****

{Please see the conclusion to this post here.}

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Theater 8, Part 2

You can read Theater 8, Part 1 here.

*****

I lay in bed thinking it was probably a gang shooting, sadly not an unknown occurrence in the area. I figured the theater staff would come in, explain, and calmly evacuate everyone, handing them their free movie passes on the way out or at least telling them when they could come back to get them. I waited to hear back from my girls. Nothing.

After about 15 minutes, I sent a text to my older daughter, who had been very concerned about her sister’s rising anxiety. “If you have to,” I wrote, “find an employee and tell them your sister is having a panic attack and needs to be away from the crowd. Maybe in an office or something.” This was at 12:55 a.m. I pictured my younger daughter, shoulders heaving as they simultaneously tried to curl around and enclose her, breath catching, sobs racking the way these things happen when anxiety takes her into a place of full panic. Still, I did not yet grasp the enormity of the event. None of us did.

“Mom, I thought we were going to die. But I also thought that no matter what, I would do my best to make sure she got out of there alive, even if I didn’t. I had already decided that I would push people down, run them over, run past them, do whatever I had to do to just get her out of there.”

This is not the story that makes the news, but if you knew this girl, this big sister, and what she has endured in her 20 years, you would realize this protective determination was in itself a bit of a miracle. She took charge; she led her panicked sister out with “We’re going. I’ve got you” as they joined a growing crowd finally exiting through the lobby. They got to the doors leading outside when my younger daughter refused to exit the theater for fear of a gunman loose in the parking lot. “We are leaving and I am taking you home!” was the firm response from her sister.

So the younger, almost ever and always the leader in both mischief and fun, was taken by the usually more reserved elder out past the gathering throng of people, police cars, and emergency vehicles, loaded into the car, and driven the short route to home. Granted, the younger cursed at the older pretty much the whole way. At the top of her lungs, it seems. But she had the grace to apologize a day or two later, after she left the confines of her locked basement bedroom where she hid for some time.

Unknown to me as I waited at home, the police blocked off the theater parking lot, putting it on lockdown just after my daughters drove out of it. As I waited anxiously, having flashbacks of stories from Columbine High School (I’d had friends whose kids were there) and thinking my girls may still be crouched on the sticky theater floor, I was debating whether or not to call, to battle the piercingly loud emergency alarm, movie music, and people that had infiltrated and ended our previous conversation. I was giving it “just five more minutes”, when suddenly there was pounding on my bedroom door.

“Mommy!” My 18-year-old threw herself onto my bed, onto my body, and sobbed in fear, anger, frustration and panic. I stroked her hair. She cannot be held when panic has hold of her, and even touching or standing close to her is normally off-limits until she feels she has regained some control. “It’s okay, honey. You can cry. It’s okay.”

Her older sister came into the room. We spoke a little bit, trying to piece together a clear picture in spite of all the confusion. “I don’t want to talk about it!” was all her younger sister would sob, eventually taking her refuge downstairs. The next hours were spent online and in front of the television, trying to gather information, numb with the realization of what had actually happened and how close my children (young adults, yes – but my children nonetheless) had been to death and destruction. I remember the dawning thoughts of “Okay, wait. I think this is NATIONAL news. This is going to be everywhere. Oh, this is really bad.”

Thankfully, my daughters left the theater quickly enough to avoid the sight of carnage, damage, and bloodshed. They were spared what many were not. I am very grateful. Even so, they were traumatized, adding yet another layer to what seem to be endless layers of challenge for our family. I don’t pretend to understand. I don’t pretend to be okay with it. I don’t pretend to think that the issues they were already facing will not be worsened and intensified by this experience; they probably will be.

But I will do my best to encourage them to face this head on, to allow for their grief and trauma to be processed (and my own as well), but not give it permission to control their lives. These are ultimately choices they must make for themselves, and I don’t think we even yet fully understand what the entire impact of this experience will be. But I am not prepared to give up on their behalves.

One daughter is ready to head back to a movie theater, eager for the enjoyment she derives from films, toying with the idea of film production school. The other is not yet ready to be on the light rail, or in a classroom, and especially not in a theater. These are the first steps and, faltering or not, they are necessary for all future steps.

“Mom, they’re calling it a massacre now.”

“Yes, I heard that.”

“I can’t believe we were there, Mom. I just can’t believe we were there.”

“I can’t either, sweetie. I’m so thankful you are home and safe, but I’m so sorry you were there. I’m so sorry you went through that.”

“Wow. Some day I’m going to be able to tell my kids this story, and that we were there.”

“Yup, you sure will.”

“I had a lot of friends at the movie; some were in our theater. Some were in Theater 9. But they all got out okay. None of them got hurt.”

“I’m so glad they got out okay. I’m so glad.”

“I just wanted to get her out of there, Mom, even if I couldn’t get out alive myself. I just wanted to make sure she was okay.”

“I know, and you did. You could not have made any better decisions than you made; you did everything right. Even if things had turned out differently, you did everything right, and I’m so proud of you.”

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Post Script:

It is now nearly nine months since the internationally publicized Aurora Theater Shooting.

My older daughter loves going to the movies, alone or with friends.

My younger daughter has been to one movie theater since July 20, 2012. It was one of those places that combines movies and dinner, where the seats are bigger, the aisles are wider, and the layout is not like that of a traditional theater. She was flanked by two trusted men, both members of the US Army, which was all by careful design. She knew what she needed, and she made sure she had it. I can learn a lot from that girl.

I am immeasurably proud of both of my daughters.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Theater 8, Part 1

There are several misconceptions that can result from sharing a story like ours. One that strikes me in particular is, knowing that our family has faced and overcome certain mental health issues, people assume we get to move forward without further crisis. There may be a mistaken assumption that struggles are over, communication and relationships are flawless and forthcoming, and there is a big red bow tied around our lives, like those commercials where people give bow-topped new cars for Christmas gifts. (Just where is that universe anyway?!? I might like to live there.)

In families where teens are in an extended time of crisis, their parents and siblings can and often do develop issues and concerns of their own. We have certainly experienced that. And we have also learned the truth that no one gets a pass. One trauma does not exclude anyone from the next. This isn’t necessarily good or bad. It’s simply life. Yes, it can be frustrating and feel unfair. But, as with everything, we get to choose how we approach, resolve, and integrate these circumstances that are life.

The following piece, split in to two posts, was penned on August 6, 2012.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

“Mom, I thought we were going to die.” My daughter tells me this as I gently delve further into the as of yet not-fully-shared story about my girls’ time in Theater 8. Theater 9 was where the gunman began his rampage, and the pops and smoke my daughters and many others mistook for firecrackers were in fact bullets and chemical ‘smoke’ coming through the wall.

At first they were annoyed. “Oh leave it to some idiot at the Aurora Theater to shoot off firecrackers during the midnight Batman premiere. It figures.” But as some people began to get restless and others got up to leave, they were a little confused as well.

I read an online account of a young man who stopped to help a girl who was shot in the jaw by bullets and/or shrapnel from gunshots fired from the theater next door. I learned from his story that there was potential for so much more destruction. I am paraphrasing from memory, but it seems this man got up to leave Theater 8 after the bullets came through the wall. He happened to pass a stranger, the girl who had been shot, and (his mother must be so incredibly proud) he was taking her and her friend out to find help. They made their way to the doors leading out to the lobby, but when he started out, he saw the gunman in full regalia heading towards Theater 8. He closed the door, holding it shut, even against the sound of someone banging on the outside of it. (The gunman? Someone needing help or refuge? Who could know, but we do know that whoever it was, there were no shots fired in the lobby. So it could have been either.)

At this point, the kind stranger tells another theater patron to pull the emergency alarm. The story I read did not tell the details of what else he did or how/when they finally got out, but they did. Or maybe it did tell, but I don’t remember. I had to stop reading and watching.

My daughters tell me that someone started yelling out to the moviegoers in Theater 8. “I don’t work here; I’m just a patron. But there has been a shooting, and there is a gunman in the lobby. Don’t go out there. It’s not safe.” I’m not sure if I would have believed it. It makes sense to me that it could have been the next part to a stupid prank that began with the ‘fireworks’ that sounded a few moments ago. Because really, it’s a midnight movie, not a battleground. Someone just has a sick sense of humor. I could have thought that had I been there. Definitely. My girls made the decision to try the emergency exit. They and the others who wanted out were told, “I saw someone out there. It might be a shooter. Don’t go out there. It’s not safe.”

There was no way out. They were told that no escape option was safe. They made their way to seats near the front of the theater. “Some people scooted in for us, and we crouched down on the floor between the seats.” This is when I got a phone call. I had only been sleeping for about 20 minutes (curses on my night owl tendencies), so my mind was in that dizzy place between wake and sleep, and I recall stumbling across the bedroom to find my ringing cell phone sitting on the floor next to my purse.

“Mom! Someone set off fireworks in the theater or something! We were just trying to watch a movie and someone does something stupid, and now we …” I really can’t recall the rest. My youngest was having a panic attack, and became irritated because I was repeating her words back to her as I tried to make sense of them, and also as I tried to make my brain wake up more quickly. She was fighting the anxiety as her voice strained and she held back the sobs that nearly always accompany her panic attacks. This made decoding her words even more challenging. To try to calm her and stem her frustration with me, I said, “Sweetie, I am having a really hard time understanding what you’re saying. I’m just repeating back to you so I can try to make sense of it. I’m really not trying to anger you.”

“No, Mom. It’s me.” My other daughter was on the line now. Her sister had thrust the phone at her in frustration. She tells me some of the same things I’d already been told, and explains that they are crouched on the floor between rows of seats. What? This is something I cannot process. I simply cannot wrap my head around it. Even the fear that starts within me is somewhat muted, somewhat confusing and surreal. I am thinking, “Why is there no theater staff in there taking charge? Why is some stranger saying there’s a gunman? Who knows what’s true here? They better refund those theater tickets or give them passes for a free movie after this.”

(Yup. Straight to the bottom line; that’s me. But I knew my girls had bought their tickets days earlier and had been waiting excitedly for this night. We had even bought Batman Mountain Dew in the color changing can. I was angry that some jerk had played a joke and ruined it for everyone. And I was slightly conscious of the fact that there really may be a gunman in the lobby.)

The movie was blaring in the background as we spoke. Dialogue and music swelled, but there was also an exceptionally loud sound my mind was trying to comprehend. They told me they were on the floor hiding between rows of seats, but this noise suggested they were outside instead. “Are you standing next to an ambulance? It sounds like you’re standing next to an ambulance. What is that awful noise?” “It’s the emergency alarm in the theater, Mom. It’s going off.” “Oh. It sounds like you’re standing next to an ambulance.” Very intelligent response, right? Which led to the next comment, “Mom, it’s too loud in here to try to talk. I’m going to hang up now.”

This is the time, I later learn, when she was pretty sure they were going to die.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

I Didn’t Know How

It’s not that I didn’t want to believe it. It’s more that I didn’t know how.

I’d had plenty of “Believe this and figure out how to live with it” challenges up to that point. I really had.

Years earlier my first pregnancy had ended in a complicated miscarriage that landed me in the Emergency Room. The graphic nature of the loss was jarring and disconcerting, to say nothing of the accompanying pain, both physically and emotionally. The grief was intense and stayed with me for what seemed like a long time, even though my son was born a year later.

But there was a mental file cabinet for that, helping me to make as much sense of it as possible: Miscarriages happen. This isn’t the first time in history, and life can move forward from here. It really can.

Eight years and three kids later my first marriage came to a devastating and difficult conclusion that landed me in my first therapy session. The surprise nature of the circumstances caught me more than off guard as the truth of my husband’s infidelity and willful departure from the family we had created together left me wounded, but wiser.

But there was a mental file cabinet for that, helping me to make as much sense of it as possible: Marriages end. And I will take this chance to learn and grow, and figure out ways to make more prudent decisions in the future.

Nine and a half years after that, my six-and-a-half-year-old second marriage came to a heartbreaking end when I was widowed, landing me on my own once more. The life changes were monumental, to say nothing of the heart changes that I had to face.

But there was even a mental file cabinet for that, helping me to make as much sense of it as possible: None of us will go through life untouched by the death of someone we love. And among the many gifts my late husband gave me was the fact that he believed in me before I was able to believe in myself. And so I knew that to honor him well, I would have to learn to live a new life without him next to me. It would not be an easy thing to do, but it would be the right thing to do.

Fast-forward about a year and a half, when my fifteen-year-old daughter began a supremely intense wrestling match with life, with herself, with all of us. And then she began to cut, to carve her beautiful porcelain flesh with sharp objects, leaving blood stained sheets and pillow cases, tender scabs that became fleshy scars, and an absolutely terrified and bewildered mother.

There was no mental file cabinet for this, nothing to help me make any sense of it at all.

It’s not that I didn’t want to believe it. It’s more that I didn’t know how.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

To Walk in Another’s Shoes

Warning: This is a rant of sorts. I admit it. I rarely do this (beyond anywhere but in my own head). And perhaps I am guilty of doing what I am saying others should not do. I get the irony. I do. But here goes …

I am one to believe that no matter what difference of opinion may exist, people ought to set aside judgment and simply walk alongside those in grief. It’s naïve of me, I know, and perhaps it is born of my own experiences, the times when I have felt so alone and abandoned, and subsequently shocked by the insensitivity and abrasiveness of people I may or may not know. My belief system leads me to surmise that, apart from sheer ignorance, people who hurt others the most are the people who themselves are hurting the deepest. Maybe their pain displays as arrogance, bitterness, indifference, or outright assault either verbally, emotionally, or physically. It is heartbreaking to me to see this type of reaction by people who more often than not think they know a situation in its entirety, even though they’ve only caught glimpses of the most peripheral details. From there, right-and-wrong and black-and-white judgments and declarations abound, and the lack of gray (and grace) leaves little to no room for compassion or mercy.

The recent suicide of Matthew Warren, adult son of California pastor and author Rick Warren, is a sad example of this situation to me. I have never read any of Rick Warren’s books, but out of curiosity, I went on a few websites to read comments in response to articles about the Warren family and Matthew’s death. Knowing that mental health issues play into this, I was very interested to see what I would find. Setting aside the fact that this could easily be my family – or yours – I am dismayed at those who are using this grievous situation to speculate, to mock, and even to gloat. Some may blame this on our celebrity-worshipping culture, and the fact that many feel justified in drawing their own conclusions because they read an article or heard what someone said about some hot-button issue, so they feel warranted in making their ill-informed proclamations. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s part of the equation.

Admittedly, I didn’t stick around to read all of the comments; there were just too many. There were those who expressed sadness and support, but it seemed they were greatly outnumbered by those who blamed the parents, blamed their faith, blamed reasons that were admittedly speculative at best. I won’t go into the details because they really are mere speculation. But I will say that I was most taken aback by those who mocked the family, as well as those who felt they had a right to demand more information (as if this family’s grief is any of their business), and those who intimated that Matthew’s struggles with depression were just an excuse for him to be selfish enough to take his own life. Really? To make such blanket statements, to presume that you know the details of, or what is best for, anyone else’s life is sheer arrogance at best. Truth be told, most of us are having one heck of a time just trying to keep our own lives in order. How dare such pronouncements be made upon a grieving family simply because they happen to be more well-known than our own.

As a parent who has walked the path of mental health issues (both my own and that of my children), I find this appalling and offensive. Living with mental illness (however brief or extended the experience may be) can be a living nightmare. To simply wake up and fight to put one foot in front of the other, to dread the thought of going to bed because it leads only to waking up and wondering if your daughter will be dead or alive in the morning, driving your desperate teen to the Emergency Room for psychiatric care, or being forced to call 911 because the child you bore is suicidal and raging … I have lived these things and more. No amount of denigration or finger wagging from those who demand to know details, or think they have it all figured out, does anything to help anyone. Ever. These things are added violence to the already swirling mayhem that for some is daily life.

It takes courage to walk alongside those we love in the best of times. When depression or other mental issues are present, we must gather together more courage than one person alone can possess. We must ask for and accept the courage and hope of those willing to loan them to us, of those willing to bear us up when we are barely able to crawl. Shame on those who think they can render a verdict about a situation in which they are not intimately involved. And at the same time, my heart breaks for you who behave that way; I am sorry you are so wounded that upon seeing another human soul or family in pain, you cannot muster enough kindness to offer a word of sympathy. Or at least keep your mouth shut out of respect. I suspect this is the very thing you want and feel you have not received, either from the ones you harass or from someone significant in your life. And this makes me sad for you.

Some people are still so stuck in the dark ages about mental illness. Why are they so reluctant to admit that there are some things that are beyond our (and their) control? Why the reticence to simply say, “Sometimes things are awful and scary and hard, and we just do our best to love each other through them”? Perhaps because acknowledging that it can happen to others means acknowledging that it can happen to you, too. Knowing that some things are so grievous and difficult that they can actually cause death … this is a terrifying concept, but it is real. Sometimes treatment works, and sometimes it does not. And whether you want to believe it or not, many people wrestle with that truth every day. We are sorry if it scares those of you who have never experienced it, but we ask that you not condemn those of us who have simply because you may not fully comprehend it.

Instead of judgment, a good and courageous start in response to the struggle of another – whether stranger or friend – is compassion, which can be defined as “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune”. Compassion is simply imagining what it would be like to walk in another’s shoes, then responding with empathy. I believe we all long for this most basic of human connections, but our woundedness and fear can make us reluctant to give it.

Compassion is a powerful weapon, one that we must use to fight against the stigma of mental illness as well as many other societal ills. It is one weapon that is, ironically, inherently devoid of violence.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Caught Off Guard

I smile widely, uncontrollably, as I watch, ignoring the wind swirling dust all around me, blowing my hair into knots. I stand on a short wall to avoid the cigar smoker who stepped in front of me moments before. A better view is an added bonus.  I watch as weeks’ worth of practice come together, choreographed steps and shouts meld as they dance their way into hearts, engaging and entertaining the audience. Some of us knew to be here at the appointed time, others just happen to be strolling the outdoor mall and have found an unexpected treat, a flash mob of costumed dancers.

I try to take in the whole scene, the group of familiar faces and bodies, the ease with which they’ve learned to work together, to trust each other through a performance. But my eyes are drawn back time and again to her, to my daughter, to her fluid and sure movements, and the obvious joy of the dance in her. Suddenly, probably rather predictably, tears spring to my eyes. My lips quiver and my smile is gone. The familiar feeling returns, the one that sends my stomach roiling and my mind reeling. This sensation was so familiar to me during her final two years of high school. It was also likely the main reason I usually sat alone watching her onstage in a dance, choir, or theater performance. Really, who wants to sit near a lone, blubbering mom anyway?

But the words would always run through my head and my heart, and I could not stop them, or perhaps I simply did not want to. In fact, I wanted to jump up on my chair and shout them to everyone in the crowd. I never did because of, among other things, fear of a forced exit accompanied by stern security personnel. Despite the familiarity of the sentiment, I always felt caught off guard. I still do. I hope I always will.

“Look at her, people! LOOK AT HER! She is ALIVE! She didn’t want to be for a while there. And she tried, as much as she dared, to not be. But look at her. She has worked so hard. WE have worked so hard. Do you see that beauty in her? The talent and passion? The determination? The courage? To you she is just another girl up there, another performer, a face in a crowd, maybe indistinguishable from those who surround her. But know this: that young woman ~ my daughter ~ is a triumph, a warrior, a courageous soul who has fought darker demons than most of you have ever seen or dared to imagine. And she’s ALIVE, people. She almost died. But she didn’t. She’s here. And she’s alive.”

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013