Dad’s Grave

by J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP, Preacher’s Kid

The Summer of 1977 is forever burned into my brain as a collection of hallowed moments experienced while on a cross-country, family car trip in a Pine-Green Chevy Impala Station Wagon: Seeing a lightning storm roll toward St. Louis from the top of the Gateway Arch, enjoying a traditional Chinese wedding banquet in San Francisco, swimming in Lake Michigan, watching “Star Wars” at a theater in Chicago when we were unable to procure tickets to the King Tut exhibit. (As a decades-long fan of the movie, it pains me to note that I nodded off sometime after the scene of R2-D2’s capture, later jarring awake to the battle cry of a Tusken Raider).

There were days-long visits to farms in communities we had lived in before I was old enough to remember, where I got to ride a horse for the first time, play in a rubber raft in a flooded cornfield, and experience the frightening speed of an angry mother pig as a newfound friend and I were made to race it to the fence of its pen after said friend pelted the sow with a dried-out corn cob. There was the morning I inadvertently released the inmates of a henhouse as I made a rather misguided effort to helpfully gather the eggs before breakfast, and the wonder of first experiencing the Beach Boys’ “Endless Summer” surf anthems from a landlocked farm community in the midwest.

Somewhat more mundane moments have stuck with me as well—attending a Saturday night church service in Sheboygan; staying up late to watch “Sssssss” on TV on a rainy night in Independence, Missouri; settling into the perfect stereo situation in the back seat of the Impala as my brothers played Blue Oyster Cult’s “Agents of Fortune” on the car’s cassette deck—“This ain’t the Garden of Eden,” indeed.

But there was one great disappointment in the whole epic adventure: the trip to my father’s grave in a small town in Nebraska. The victim of a stop-sign-running driver, and the shoddy engineering of the late-60s AMC vehicle he was driving, my father, the local Missouri Synod Lutheran minister, lost his life in the late summer of 1971. I am writing and posting this on the 43rd anniversary of that unhappy day—a day I was too young to remember or properly process—a day that gave birth to the attachment issues referenced in the subtitle of this blog.

Pops at 21...on his way to change the world.

Pops at 21…on his way to change the world.

The occasion, for me, was already lacking the appropriate sense of solemnity, with the shouting from a baseball game just across the road filling the bright, evening air. Things seemed even further amiss as we headed in the direction of…well, what seemed to be nothing.

Where was the towering monument? The magnificent marble Pieta? Or at least a moderately ornate cross?

Being a big fan of horror movies, and fascinated with the ornamentation and mythology of the church, I had built up the idea in my mind that my father’s grave would be marked by something appropriate to his stature as an important religious leader. My ideas were perhaps weirdly informed by my recent reading of Scott Corbett’s “Here Lies the Body”—a story set in a graveyard, and involving a massive grave marker with a statue of a pointing, judgmental angel—not to mention occult symbols scrawled in blood, and a murder mystery. On top of that, to pass the time on the drive from state to state, I had also read and re-read a book of “real life monsters,” which included stories of Vlad Dracula, and Haitian zombification procedures.

So when I saw the flat, drab grave marker, I wouldn’t say my heart exactly sunk, but my 8-year-old mind certainly underwent some shifts in its understanding of the world–shifts I filed away for later examination.

A little over a decade later, when I bought a copy of Tom Waits’ “Blue Valentine” album, and heard the song “A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun” (about the 1977 suicide of a 15-year-old girl who jumped from the 17th story of a Hollywood hotel with her guitar) which contains the line, “Nebraska never lets you come back home,” that scene of my father’s grave came back to me, despite not having given it much thought at all in the interim.

The passage of time, and hopefully the acquisition of some tiny bit of maturity, led me to reassess the precise meaning of my father’s grave. I realized that that grave marker wasn’t about his importance in the world, or his stature in a small Nebraska town. It was just some sign, marking the place where the material–or perhaps more preciseley, the matter-bound–part of his existence was left. His influence, his importance, extends way beyond that little concrete or stone marker.

My father’s influence in the communities he served extends to this day, in part through the connections my family made in those communities.  His impact, which, combined with the hard work and diligence of my mother, who raised five sons and a daughter in the years after my father’s passing, extends out into the world in myriad ways, through the hard work and community involvement of all of my siblings and their children—all in their own ways striving to make the world a more humane place.

For my own part, struggling to understand my father’s path in life before it was cut short, and trying to find my connection to it, has been a lifelong endeavor. And while I may have, at times, viewed my father and his life in weirdly iconic terms—iconic in the sense of symbols, signs, and signals to the outside world—I now view it as iconic in the sense of legitimate meaning and influence, the ability to impact the world positively by being a decent person…the same sort of influence I can only hope to emulate.

Happy death day, pops!

Sons of Guns & Daughters of Rapists

by Jonathan C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

The last several weeks have seen charges of molestation, “aggravated crimes against nature,” and rape of a child, among others, brought against Will Hayden of Red Jacket Firearms and the Discovery Channel’s “Sons of Guns” reality show. Hayden has protested that the alleged victim, his own 12-year-old daughter, made the accusations only after his angry ex-girlfriend put the child up to it. The police and many news sources are now walking back their identification of the victim as Hayden’s daughter under laws that protect the identity of minors…but since it’s already splashed all over the Internet, I’m not sure what good that’s supposed to do.

I’ll put forth the disclaimer that anyone accused of a crime in the U.S. is innocent until proven guilty. I’ll also say I’m all for keeping things like this out of the media—but that’s clearly not the world we’re living in, particularly when such charges involve a public figure. After all, Hayden’s show was abruptly cancelled, and his business partners openly distanced themselves from him as a form of damage control to keep their custom gun business afloat. In addition, in the time since the accusations from Hayden’s minor daughter first surfaced, multiple other alleged victims have come forward, including Hayden’s adult daughter Stephanie, who initially defended him against the charges, but is now reportedly slated to appear on the “Dr. Phil” show later this week to explain that she was molested and raped by Hayden when she was a child.

And to add to the various disclaimers and caveats, I must also say I don’t know enough about Hayden’s past, or his current behaviors, to suggest that I, in any way, know that he fits, or doesn’t fit, the general clinical conditions suggesting high-risk behaviors for pedophilia or sexual abuse of a minor.

Let me also put forward that as much as there is an assumption of innocence for the accused, if we really want to make any headway on addressing sexual abuse of children, the assumption needs to be that children who come forward to seek help for sexual abuse are not making things up. When children are lying, their stories do not hold up particularly well, although depending on how skilled or unskilled, careful or careless, someone is when interviewing children, plenty can go wrong with the information that is gathered. But if our first reaction to children who report sexual abuse is to shut them down, or leave them in the homes of the accused, they are potentially being put at further danger, and a likely increase in the level of that danger.

And speaking of making headway in addressing issues of sexual abuse, I’ve noticed, at least as indicated by Internet comments, that when it comes to stories like this, we can count on public opinion to fall into a small number of categories:

1) Kill ’em all: This just involves amped-up vitriol aimed at sex offenders, and those accused of having committed sex offenses. I understand the anger. But, seriously, if you think that killing more people, or addressing problems of abuse with violence is the way to move toward a better society, a more healthy understanding of human sexuality, or better protection for children, you’re taking an overly simplistic view of the way the world works. And if you think this approach has some merit, why weren’t you able to spot Hayden and bring him to justice earlier? Is that anger and all those demands for vengeance really accomplishing anything?

2) “He’s obviously a rapist because he does/likes/thinks X.” Whenever somebody is in trouble for being an (alleged or convicted) sex offender, people like to equate the offender’s other behaviors and beliefs (that don’t jibe with their own) with the offense behavior. In the case of Hayden, some have connected “gun culture” to sexual abuse of children. And while, as anybody who has read my other posts knows, I am no fan of guns, I just can’t see anything productive coming from conflating gun ownership or gun manufacture with child molestation. Of all the people I know, holding varying levels of support for gun ownership or gun control, none of them have ever expressed an endorsement of sexually abusing children. This lack of support for sexually abusing children is pretty universal, regardless of one’s political beliefs, religious beliefs or hobbies.

Furthermore, while I have worked with a few offenders who have had guns figure prominently or incidentally in their abuse behaviors, they have been the exception, not the rule. In terms of grooming behaviors, things like money, jewelry, candy, drugs/alcohol, video games, clothing, toys, and porn have been involved in many more of the offenses I’m aware of than have guns.  And I’m not going to advocate for the banning of any of those items based on the ability of abusers to involve them in abuse patterns. I’m more than happy to advocate for a ban on guns based on their use in—well, shootings—homicide and suicide and attempts at both, not to mention all manner of other crimes and accidental deaths, but as for their involvement in child molestation–not a huge concern, at least from what I’ve personally seen.

3) “How can somebody do this?” This is usually sideways of the “Kill ’em all” concept, and often involves plenty of name-calling. I get that it is very difficult to understand how somebody could rape their own daughter—or sexually abuse any child—but many of the factors involved are not beyond explanation. Most people just don’t want to hear the explanations…or deal with them…except in punitive, harsh ways once somebody has committed such acts.

Generally speaking, though, a person doesn’t sexually abuse a child because he or she is thinking clearly, or because he or she has just suddenly come up with such an idea after a long life of healthy relationships. If Hayden was engaging in sexual abuse of children, he wasn’t, one assumes, doing it out in the open, as such behaviors usually involve a great deal of secrecy and manipulation, like Hayden’s alleged warnings and threats to his daughter not to tell anyone, because, “I’m all you’ve got.”  In short, people who sexually abuse children are ill and engage in a number of behaviors to try and mask that illness, or keep others from learning of it.  I’m not sure how to properly emphasize this enough.  Sexual abusers of children are not just random guys who are bored and horny.  There are a lot of factors involved, including a huge number of elements (rationalizations, justifications, creating situations where one has access to children and is willing to take advantage of that access while plotting to keep anyone from findingi out) that involve breaking down the normal barriers that prevent such sexual abuse.  In other words, “How does somebody do this?” is a question that involves a long and extended answer.

…And now for a clip of Hayden that seems weirdly re-contextualized, check this out–especially the last 20 seconds or so…y’know, where he talks about people becoming bad headlines and how he tends to his own conscience.

Anyway, let’s say that way back before Hayden had ever (assuming he did) touched his daughter or any other young girls in a sexually inappropriate manner, he realized he was having thoughts in that direction, and that he needed to do something to steer clear of that behavior. What would he do?

For those of you who know what kinds of resources are out there for dealing with someone who is having thoughts of sexually abusing a child, bravo. Please do what you can to make sure others know. I will say that over my years working on the crisis line, I have fielded a very small number of calls from people (both men and women) who were concerned about the nature of some of their sexual thoughts towards minors—either specific minors in specific situations, or more generalized sexual thoughts—and were seeking help.  In my years of dealing with offenders, I have seen numerous people who just might have sought help if they had any idea how to, and if they hadn’t felt like total garbage for acknowledging that they needed help.

But most people facing thoughts of sexual attraction to children do not have the wherewithal to seek help, much less have any idea where such help could be sought. It is a much more common reaction to deny that there is a problem, to try to push the thoughts away, or even to feed the thoughts (as in masturbating to inappropriate fantasies) while assuming that the actual offense behaviors can still be avoided.

Furthermore, treatment providers in the field of sexual abuse can have a difficult time promoting services. People tend to come to providers by referral from a lawyer or a community corrections officer (CCO) after they are already in trouble or have already served time, even though the same types of treatment could be just as effective before any offenses were committed. After all, just how welcome do you think a provider would be if they hung a sign out on their business that said “Sex Offender Treatment” or “Specializing in the Treatment of Sexual Deviancy,” or something similar? The stigma and shame that prevents people from seeking help for mental health issues as relatively common and accepted (and I mean relatively accepted) as depression, is increased a great deal for issues surrounding sexually inappropriate thoughts and behavior.

So, regardless of all that business about stigma and secrecy and providers protecting the privacy of their clients and confidentiality of their services…here’s a site that has a directory of providers throughout the U.S.  It’s basically set up for people who are already in trouble.  But it doesn’t have to be.  This is through “Stop It Now” which has referrals to the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) and numerous other organizations.  Get help if you need it.  Get help for others if they need it.  That’s right, help, and try to discontinue the hurt.

http://www.stopitnow.org/faqs_treatment

Maybe if everybody calmed the f*ck down and decided they were more interested in actually protecting children than in getting angry at offenders, we might make some progress.  And mabye tend to that part of your conscience that’s problematic before you become a bad headline, or before you celebrate a bad headline.

Peace.

You Are Here

By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP, Carbon-based being

If any of you pay all that much attention to this blog, then you may have noticed it’s been a little quiet over the last few weeks.

When I look at it objectively, the inactivity here makes plenty of sense. I caught a nasty summer cold at the same time I had a lot of extra work at my second job, along with the usual work at my full-time job, which has been predictably plagued by the summer vacations and seasonal staffing changes, leading to workload strains.

I was also trying to finish some of those summer projects—particularly the pressure-washing and re-coating of the deck. Even in summer, trying to get the weather to cooperate with my days off can be a challenge, not to mention my complete inability to accurately predict how long any project will take me. I’m working on a formula that is something like AT = h x 4 + 36d, where AT = actual time, h = the total number of hours I predict something is going to take, and d = days.

Whatever the equation or excuses, it’s not like I haven’t had plenty to write about. Hell, I’ve even cranked out a thousand-plus words on each of a few posts—a follow-up piece to one I wrote about a conversation I had with my niece; and one on Will Hayden of “Sons of Guns” getting arrested for allegedly raping his daughter repeatedly over the course of two+ years. (Just now, it occurred to me that the way to make those two posts work might be to combine them and dump at least half of what I wrote). When I couldn’t make these newer efforts work out, I tried re-tooling some things I had written earlier that I never liked enough to post. But all of it was turning into disjointed, bland, repetitive…stuff…stuff that I couldn’t quite untangle and reweave to the level I wanted. Trying to make any of it work at all started to feel too much like drudgery and burdensome obligation.

There were other things going on as well—upsetting situations with friends that, although, or perhaps because, I couldn’t do anything about them, were very draining. On top of that I was jumping through hoops to try to get adjustments made to the particulars of a contract, after spending over a month jumping through hoops to get to the point where any contract had been established at all. Expressing an intention to walk away rather than trying to fix anything more turned out to be just the thing to motivate a real resolution. Now why hadn’t I thought of that sooner?

A number of valued co-workers have also been moving on to what I hope are greener pastures for them, pastures that I hope will not become so lush and large that they put us out of contact. Among those who are moving on is a talented, funny, and inspirational artist.  Another who has made the big career shift is an ever-observant thinker who, with a few counselor-ly questions and observations—including pointing out the need to ‘mourn’ or otherwise acknowledge the little losses, such as co-workers moving on—has repeatedly helped me recognize whether I’m actually charting a course, or merely bobbing about in the tides.

Straddling the line of done and undone, looking for the passage to motivation.

Straddling the line of done and undone, looking for the passage to motivation.

I could turn this into a more deliberate post about self-care and minding one’s moods—about paying attention to those signs of situational depression—like pushing too hard and not having enough fun when trying to write one’s blog pieces. But really, getting this out was just about writing something that wasn’t a big struggle to be clever or original or even relevant. It was about scanning the map for that red dot or arrow that says, “You Are Here” so that maybe I could make my way to an exit and head back home.

In truth, none of the points I mentioned above are completely resolved. But at least I decided to go find that big, light-up plexiglass mall-map rather than wandering about looking at things I don’t want or need.  And now that I have some idea of where I’m at, it might be a little easier to get back to where I parked my car…after I hit a restroom.

 

 

 

Suicide?!? Shazbot!

By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

Before we get started, let me just mention that I spend the better part of my workweek involved in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. And let me note that anybody’s reaction to the death of another is going to be personal, and related to the kind of connection between them.

Now, let me tell you something horribly, selfishly, insensitively awful about me.

When I first heard of Robin Williams’ death by suicide, my thoughts were, more-or-less in this order…

1)  Damn!

2)  60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.

3)  I wonder what else was going on with him.

4)  I am NOT going to write a blog post about this.

5)  Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!

Somewhere down the line was, “Shazbot!!” I totally f*cking wish “Shazbot!!” had been my first thought.

Anyway, before you climb all over me for my previously-mentioned insensitivity and selfishness, or whatever you might want to call it (I think I’ll call it “appropriate clinical detachment”), let me explain, in order of those thoughts.

1)  Yes, “damn!” It was shocking and unexpected to hear such a thing, essentially out of the blue. As for the context…I received a text message from my daughter about Williams’ death while running a plethysmography assessment (look it up). What this means is I was sitting in a small, dark, very stuffy and hot room running what I imagine would seem to most people to be a very disturbing clinical assessment to determine what kinds of really terrible things might lead to…ahem…responses for somebody with some admittedly inappropriate arousal patterns.

In such a situation, I didn’t have a lot of options for furthering a conversation or following whatever breaking news may have been happening. I had to shelve whatever thoughts or emotions I was having, and continue on with the assessment.

(You may ask why I wouldn’t have turned my phone completely off during a forensic assessment, but the reality of it is that the trace of the assessment is being recorded for later review, where it’s much easier to spot problem situations, and that turning my phone off only leads to things like my daughter destroying a sliding glass door because she locked herself out of the house on a cold day in early March—long story—well, not really, I think I just told it).

2) Which leads to…”60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.”

Sitting in that dark, stuffy, hot room, staring at a double-lined forensic “trace” on a computer screen, with few responsible options available for furthering my knowledge/understanding of the situation, the defense mechanism of clinical detachment kicked in. Think about it, yelling “Oh my God!,” or sobbing openly, or exclaiming, “Shazbot!” all would have been pretty inappropriate.

At any rate, the quick run-through of Williams’ risk factors is the kind of clinically detached comment that I suppose is hard for a lot of people to take, especially when it has not been filtered at all. I can’t speak for everybody in the field of counseling/therapy, mental health, or even crisis intervention and suicide prevention, but there’s an odd dichotomy that exists in most people who get involved in such fields: we tend to be highly sensitive people; we learn to be very objective about that sensitivity.

If I wanted to get all sci-fi, I could say people in this field are empaths…empaths who have honed their skills away from making them one big, raw nerve, and toward using that sensitivity to discern a deeper sense of what is happening in others without being overwhelmed by it. Most of us have some pretty pronounced defense mechanisms. So, ideally, our training leads to an ability to pick out risk factors and make judgments about how those risk factors affect a situation, so that an appropriate course of action can be taken. Such risk factors are not predictive, but tend to be more actuarial.

Furthermore, the assessment of risk factors tends to weed out irrelevant elements. I’ve heard so many people go off about Williams’ fame and money as if that should have kept him from suicide, but those factors are irrelevant to a suicide assessment…except perhaps in the context of Williams’ available resources for obtaining help. But, and here’s a big generalization (as well as a big but), for somebody who is at the point of committing suicide, the concept of “help,” regardless of one’s resources, has become rather abstract and unreachable. From such a viewpoint, the available “help” appears to have been exhausted and shown to be inadequate. So, pushing past the money and fame, if one looks at Robin Williams from the standpoint of demographics and his personal history, he fits into a high risk category—or, rather, multiple high risk categories, even before other information about his health was revealed.

3)  “I wonder what else was going on with him” was merely a further part of the assessment of risk and what led Williams to his course of action. In suicide risk assessment, this is a huge factor. (Can I get a ‘duh’?). If the demographic factors alone played the deciding role in whether somebody was going to commit suicide, then we’d have near-universal suicide by people who fit into the same demographic categories as Williams.

Hence, one of the things that is always asked of people expressing suicidal thoughts is some variation on “Is there anything in particular that’s leading you to feel this way?”

The big idea behind such a question is to open up a conversation with someone who has, perhaps, not had such an opportunity to discuss what’s going on with them. A lot of people who attempt suicide, or are headed in that direction (here’s another big generalization) have been very closed off about their thoughts, and what they’re going through. Sometimes, broaching this conversation, being able to “normalize” suicidal thoughts (let people know they’re not as rare as they might think), and giving somebody a chance to talk through their immediate experiences, can lead to a person discovering that they have supports and strengths they weren’t considering when they were staying closed off and keeping it all to themselves.

4) The idea that “I am NOT going to write a blog post about this” came from a number of places. As someone who works in suicide prevention, and who writes a (mostly weekly) blog it seemed almost obligatory for me to at least note Mr. Williams’ passing. I shudder at “obligatory.”

Also, following any highly-publicized suicide, a whole slew of TV pieces, articles and blog posts (among other things) commenting on suicide and depression and the lives of those who complete or attempt suicide go flooding out into the world. It makes sense that people want to find out what happened, or understand how it could’ve happened, or share their personal feelings, or pay tribute, or say obnoxious, ignorant things…and there is often plenty of overlap in all of that.

And all of the posts and articles, and TV pieces close out with the phone number for Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, urging people to get help for themselves, or for anybody they know, who is considering suicide or having suicidal thoughts.

As I’ve noted in other posts, I don’t do death too well. And I don’t really like talking about a particular celebrity because they died, or talking about suicide because that’s how someone famous died. I don’t generally shy away from talking about suicide, but I’m not deep into worrying about what celebrities are doing in their private lives. At any rate, when such conversations happen, I find myself slipping too far into the clinical, or just keeping my mouth shut. As for Robin Williams…I’m pretty sure I saw the entire run of “Mork and Mindy” and the “Happy Days” episode that spawned Mork, although I couldn’t really tell you much of anything about any of those storylines…as apparently memorable as they were, what with the rainbow suspenders and flying eggs and all. I’ve seen several, but definitely not all, of Williams’ movies.

Williams, like almost any accomplished artist who is around long enough, and productive enough, is going to put out work that is great, and some that is less great. The last thing I saw him in was “World’s Greatest Dad”—strangely enough, a story about a man who becomes a sort of celebrity after he ghost-writes a suicide note to cover up the fact that his teenage son died from autoerotic asphyxiation. I really enjoyed this movie, like I’ve enjoyed all of Bobcat Goldthwait’s movies (the ones he writes and directs). They tend to involve a kind of dark humor and exploration of at least mildly taboo subjects that are right up my alley. And, as a special bonus, “World’s Greatest Dad” was partly filmed at a bookstore and “mall” about five minutes from my house.

Williams as the most talkative mime ever in "Shakes the Clown"...shattering expectations for better or worse.

Williams as the most talkative mime ever in “Shakes the Clown”…shattering expectations for better or worse.

But then again, I had also written some spotty notes about how “Good Will Hunting” is one of numerous movies that gets the therapeutic relationship all wrong. I could continue on about liking how “Alladin” made good use of Williams’ rapid-fire joking, as did “Good Morning, Vietnam” and how he did some good stuff around mental health issues, like “Awakenings” and even “Patch Adams.”

I could tell of how I once spent half of a 9th-grade biology class trying to stop laughing uncontrollably after attempting to relay part of a Williams comedy routine to my lab partner (who is still my closest friend, not counting my wife). To completely butcher the joke, it involved Williams doing an impersonation of E.T. saying “ouch” because he was standing on his testicles.

5) Which leaves only “Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!”

I’ll concede that this is a pretty damn selfish thought. But, to provide some context, the call volume on Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline on Monday, the day of Williams’ death, was double the call volume of the day before. On Tuesday, August 12, Lifeline had its highest call volume ever in the history of the service.

It’s true that not all of those calls involved people with suicidal thoughts, or suicidal intentions. The calls were not all from people standing on a bridge, or sitting in their living room with a gun in their lap, or lying in bed with several containers of pills and a bottle of gin beside them. Many of the calls were people asking how to get help for people they know. Many were people upset and sad at Williams’ passing, and just trying to process their own thoughts. But many were from people struggling with suicidal thoughts and intentions, several of them consumed with the idea that if Williams, with all he had achieved, was going to kill himself, then why shouldn’t they?

And, of course, people being the way they are, whenever the Lifeline number gets widely published and shared around on social media, there were more than the usual number of prank calls. (Quick note, kids: DO NOT prank the Lifeline—we have to take suicidal threats seriously, which means you might get a visit from the police as the price of your little joke, and as the price to the people of your hometown, who now have police officers responding to a non-emergency situation because you thought it was funny to be the kind of asshole who mocks people suffering from depression).

On top of the massive increase in Lifeline calls, most of the Lifeline call centers also serve as local crisis lines, and there was a huge uptick in the calls to local crisis lines (I don’t have specific numbers on this one yet, but trust me). Several of the Lifeline call centers, including the one I work in, also serve multiple functions within the local mental health system. To say the least, things got a little overwhelming.

I could go on about a number of other factors involved here, like how, while some call centers may be able to call in additional volunteers to address the short-term spike, generally speaking, the staffing, as with any business, is aimed at addressing an ‘average’ workload.  And there isn’t any way to suddenly increase the number of telephone lines and work stations to deal with what is, ultimately, only going to be a short-term (even if massive) increase in call volume.

By Thursday night/Friday morning, things seemed to be calming down a bit, easing back down to normal…at least in terms of call volume.

But we’re all still left with the sadness and the loss of an entertainer who reached people worldwide, and the struggle to understand and accept whatever this means to us personally, or societally, or clinically.

And, oh yeah…

If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE call LIFELINE, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, at 1-800-273-TALK.

Why Would You Work in the Field of Sexual Abuse?

By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

There are few circumstances where one would relish the opportunity to talk about sexual assault with one’s niece. But given that my niece and I both work in fields related to sexual abuse, and don’t get to see each other very often, chances to “talk shop”—despite “shop” involving some rather heinous things—are pretty great.

You see, my niece, I’ll call her SC for short so I don’t have to keep calling her “my niece” and so I don’t have to use her actual name, spends a portion of her workweek as a Forensic Nurse Examiner (FNE). I spend a portion of my workweek as an (Affiliate) Sex Offender Treatment Provider, and have worked with offenders in one capacity or another for over seven years.

Among the topics we discussed was the rather personal issue of why anyone gets into a field related to so much trauma and other forms of ugliness.

One big similarity we found is that, on learning of our professional lives, most everyone says, “I couldn’t do what you do.” In fact, we said it to each other. I have zero desire to be involved in anything that involves touching patients or perpetrators in order to draw blood or gather other bodily fluids and materials. I cannot imagine dealing with people who have just been traumatized, when the wounds are so fresh and the pain is still so raw. SC has no interest in engaging with those who commit sexual crimes, in order to get them to accept responsibility for what they’ve done, and unravel the knots they’ve tied themselves into on their way to convincing themselves it was okay.

One huge difference SC and I found in relation to the subject of why we do the work we do is that almost everybody asks me how I got into the field, while almost nobody asks her the same. The split in questions about why anyone goes into any career built around sexual crimes may be based largely on gender, and stereotypical beliefs about how one’s gender informs one’s connection to sexual assault. Then again, the particulars of our jobs might connect to different expectations. She’s involved in the early stages of trauma intervention and evidence gathering. Generally speaking, I’m involved with people with impending court proceedings or who have already served time for their crimes.

At any rate, in her estimation, it’s likely that nobody asks SC about her entry into the field because there is an underlying assumption/fear that she chose her path because she was sexually victimized. There is an assumption that asking her will unleash some history of traumatic experiences that will lead to all manner of emotional unpleasantness and the conversation rapidly turning uncomfortable.

Anna Gillespie's "I Don't Want to Know"

Anna Gillespie’s “I Don’t Want to Know”

On the other hand, people ask me because they assume that, since I’m a guy, I’ll have some interesting tale that is much less likely to involve me having been sexually victimized. From a purely statistical standpoint, the gender-based assumptions make a fairly good bit of sense. Although, with SC working mostly with adult victims of violent crimes, and me working mostly with offenders who groomed and manipulated underage victims, and no fully accurate statistics existing for crimes in either realm, statistics only say so much.

On top of the statistical inadequacies, despite such gender-based assumptions, I’m really not sure what people might think would be my reason for getting involved in the field that wouldn’t involve at least some form of indirect (to me) trauma—such as someone I know and love having been victimized. Or perhaps there’s some stereotypical thought that men in this field are engaged in matters of clinical interest due to career-building, problem-solving pursuits, while women are involved with their choices for more personal reasons. Perhaps a bit of research on gender-based perceptions of the career choices made by other people is in in order.

Inevitably, when I attempt to explain my involvement in evaluating and treating sex offenders, and I mention a connection to a pastor at the church I attended growing up, I get a “say no more” response. That is, once a pastor is invoked, the person asking me makes a quick re-evaluation of their question, resulting in the immediate reaction of trying to cut me off before I say anything they’d rather not hear.

But the connection to the pastor has much more to do with struggles of faith, and just what it means to have a significant portion of one’s religious education delivered by a sexual abuser of children, than with having been victimized. It has to do with understanding how anybody, let alone a religious leader, could have developed such behavior. But I rarely have the chance to get all of that out once the question has been raised.

And now that I think of it, while talking with SC, I didn’t get through much of that either—through no fault of hers, but due to my own hesitation/difficulty at explaining myself in this matter—or perhaps because I’m so used to being cut off. I did get to the “I’m not doing this because I was molested by a pastor” part, but didn’t get into the more esoteric components of my attraction to the field.

I don’t fault people for their (perhaps prurient) interest in hearing disturbing tales of twice-removed personal trauma. Anybody in this field has at least a clinical interest in such stories and understanding what is behind them, or how those involved might be healed or rehabilitated to the extent possible. Still, it’s much easier for most people to deal with such tales when they involve an unknown or distant victim, or when a computer or TV screen or a printed page is safely containing that victim’s story, than it is to deal with somebody whose emotional scars may burst open right in front of you.

In my work, I am much less likely to deal with such potential emotional eruptions than SC is. I’m used to dealing with all manner of misdirected, sometimes explosive, anger and shame. Still, the focus of my work involves a significant amount of distance from the victims of sexual crimes, and the pain of those experiences. As much as those of us who are involved in the treatment of offenders may attempt to dig in deep and uproot the sources of objectification and emotional distortion that may lead to further offenses, we providers are spared that intense level of immediate pain that comes from sexual assault. Even when dealing with offenders who have a history of victimization themselves, providers are generally removed from such experiences by years. In other words, I’m afforded a high level of abstraction of the victims and their pain that SC is not allowed in her work.

It may ultimately be that the distance from, and abstraction of, pain and victimization involved in my work makes it easier for people to ask me why I do what I do. In fact, the people I deal with are, to the general public, abstractions themselves. “Sex offenders” and “pedophiles” are little more than skewed ideas to large portions of the population. People want to know what such offenders are like, and if they fit the pervasive stereotypes. In that context, asking me what I do is merely a precursor to getting to “the good stuff,” the hope for a glimpse at the back-stories of true crime tales, as well as the actual true crime tales.

In contrast, the immediacy of the hurt SC deals with as a routine part of her job, and the connection to so much pain, is perhaps too real for most people to want to delve into. It doesn’t involve that level of abstraction, where offenders stay as cartoon characters, and, where the bad guys have already been caught and made to pay.

Or, to put it another way…SC deals with “us.” I deal with “them.” We all know what “us” is about. But what’s up with “them”?

People understand how a person could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, how someone could be so unfortunate as to become a victim, and they want to keep that out of their mind as much as possible, because it suggests their own vulnerability. They really want to know how a person becomes the factor…the thing…that causes that shift in time and place that makes that time and place all wrong. What they don’t realize is they’re still touching on another form of vulnerability, but one that they can’t acknowledge in themselves. They want to remain “us”—potential victims but still ‘normal’—while looking at “them”—the offenders as something alien.

Perhaps it’s just that people want to know more about my work, or why I’m doing it, because it involves the more unfathomable end of the abuse equation, the place where they cannot imagine themselves being, while they don’t want to know about SC’s work, or her connections to it, because that speaks to a form of vulnerability they more immediately understand…how they could be assaulted. Failing to imagine how anything could ever happen to lead them to become a victimizer (although, statistically speaking, a huge number more people victimize than are ever held to account for such behavior—whether with adult or child victims) people are much more comfortable asking me, “Why did you get into this field?”

Not Oriented to Day/Date

by Jonathan C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

In any good vacation, there comes a point where the day and date are completely lost to one’s immediate recall.

I’m not talking about the “I keep thinking it’s Thursday, but it’s only Wednesday,” kind of thing that happens anytime there’s a holiday or some other minor shift in one’s schedule…or that just happens from time to time for no apparent reason. I’m talking about hitting that point where you make the definitive claim, “It is Thursday,” when it is only Wednesday.

On my latest vacation, this happened Saturday night, or, rather, Sunday morning, when, with the wind outside too severe to build a fire and sit out under the stars, I had flopped out in the living room of the rental beach house with my (adult) niece and nephew, to knock back a few, b.s., and flip channels as we half-watched TV. I suggested they could tune in “Saturday Night Live,” then quickly retracted my suggestion, believing I was righting myself by saying it was only Friday night.

My nephew said drily, “Uh, no…it’s Saturday.”

“It’s actually Sunday,” my niece further corrected. Sure enough, we were all of two minutes into Sunday…assuming it really was Sunday.

Since my niece, in charge of the remote at the time, did nothing to confirm that it really was Saturday (like switching the channel to NBC so I could see that a “Saturday Night Live” rerun was really on), and the on-screen programming guide—still up in the realm of NatGeo’s “Drugs, Inc.”—showed the time, but not the day or date, I had to puzzle through the events of the day, and previous days, to try to gain some kind of bearing.

That most patriotic of birds, a seagull, drifts above an American flag, bent in the wind, signaling that all is well…whatever day it is.

That most patriotic of birds, a seagull, drifts above an American flag, bent in the wind, signaling that all is well…whatever day it is.

It should have been obvious enough, as some cousins had stopped by the beach house earlier in the day, and I was well aware that they were expected on Saturday. But that little item escaped my scan of the day’s happenings. Instead, my mind floundered through things like what I had eaten earlier in the day, and what, if anything, occurred while I was out beach-walking. Finding nothing specific enough to give me the proper cues to place myself along a timeline, I counted from the days I left home—leaving me with the conclusion that it absolutely could not have been Friday night/Saturday morning.

Such occurrences give me pause when thinking that people are routinely asked what day/date it is during mental health assessments, say, at a hospital ER or an agency intake appointment, since I realize how easy it is to be thrown off once one is not tied to a schedule. (I get that asking the question is useful for a number of things, like head injuries and anything else likely to disengage somebody from reality and/or memory). But still, a few days of being away from all the appointments, shifts, and events that I am normally tracking, away from the pressure to be anywhere in particular at any time in particular, and I start to lose my grip on just what day it is.  And that can be a very healthy thing.

For the purposes of measuring the usefulness of the question about the day/date, just imagine a person on disability with few regularly scheduled places to be…or someone in assisted living who has other people attending to the details of his schedule…perhaps somebody who has been retired or unemployed for an extended period of time…an individual who has made a serious attempt to kill herself by overdose, still in a haze of medication or illicit street drugs.

Okay, that got a little dark. But there are plenty of reasons someone could become distanced from knowing the day and/or date.

If it weren’t something of a lifelong trait, I might say that my knowledge of such assessment questions informs my tendency, once I get to the point of losing my sense of time, to tilt back into the land of the worried, and start to obsess over how many days of vacation are left, and what still has to be accomplished or avoided between now and the end of the getaway. I soon find myself mentally checking the date in my head several times a day. I pester myself out of living in the now, of enjoying the blissful forgetfulness that can, and really should, tag along on vacation when you’re not required to remember much of anything except maybe how to get back to a rental in a town you’re not familiar with—which I suppose would come under ‘orientation to place and situation.’

Such worrying and failures to maintain forgetfulness are, of course, detrimental to properly sinking into a vacation—to fully resting and restoring oneself. It’s not like the others with you on vacation, or the property owners, are going to let you forget, when the time comes, that you have to leave. Of course, I suppose there’s always the possibility that you own the place where you’re vacationing, you have nowhere else to be, and you have the option of staying as long as you want. I am not yet burdened with such problems involving the absence of obligation or other relevant forms of boundlessness…perhaps one day.

Maybe it’s good to lose that day/date orientation from time to time. Such orientation necessarily serves us when we have to be somewhere or doing something at a specific time—which seems to be an increasing portion of our lives in all of our overbooked-, overscheduled-, overworked-edness, where we are constantly prodded into mild anxiety at the need to know what’s coming next.

But goal-oriented vacations are no vacations at all…at least not for me. Some people like to have vacation plans—places to be, things to see. I most enjoy vacations that involve finding a comfortable place with a nice view, then settling in for plenty of good eats, good drinks, good company, good reading…and whatever else comes about as I occasionally wander from that temporary home base.

With the array of wonderful family and friends who join us, or invite us along on vacations (as in this case), our meals, excursions, and any other interactions become occasions for a great deal of laughter.

And I laughed a lot on this most recent vacation…including the small bit of laughter when, as we pulled away from a roadside coffee drive-through on our way home, my wife asked if it was Monday or Tuesday, then ticked off a quick inventory of items trying to orient herself to the appropriate day and date.

How About We All Stop Using “Schizophrenic” as an Insult?

by J.C. Schildbach, LMHC, ASOTP

One night about two years ago, I challenged a friend for describing his behavior as “schizophrenic.” In an admittedly snide tone, I asked a quick barrage of questions referencing various types and symptoms of schizophrenia: Are you catatonic? Paranoid? Suffering from delusions? Auditory hallucinations? Visual hallucinations? And so on…

Somewhat unexpectedly, my friend responded with an apology for his use of the term, and didn’t engage in any kind of defensive posturing or attempts to justify his word choice. He clarified that he meant he had changed his mind back and forth several times in relation to a particular situation.

I was a little surprised that I had reacted in such a way to what was supposed to be a self-deprecating comment from a friend. But there were a number of things weighing on me at the time, not the least of which was that my friend was seeking advice on a matter that was best kept between him and his partner, and maybe a good couples counselor. As with most of the times he sought advice, he had already made up his mind about what he intended to do, and was looking to have his intentions validated, or to have them challenged with an argument so compelling that he would have no choice but to turn from that position.

Aside from my irritation with the immediate situation that evening, I had been in contact earlier in the week with a young man diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was in some pretty serious legal trouble, and did not appear to comprehend all that much about it except in the most concrete of terms. That is, he knew what law he had broken and why it was problematic. That information had been drilled into him during his time in court and a stay in jail. But his sense of what the crime meant, and how it was going to impact him, his connection to others, and the choices he was going to have to make, both short- and long-term, was murky at best. It struck me that he was so used to being marginalized that his current situation involved just one more bureaucratic system to interact with—as if this latest set of restrictions was little more than an additional cluster of tasks to occupy his time.

Working in crisis intervention, I also have fairly frequent (phone) contact with people coping with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses that involve psychotic symptoms of varying levels of severity, and which often fluctuate over time. There are few, if any, blanket statements that would accurately cover them all, or make a nice, tidy explanation of what they are dealing with. But, unlike the popular usage of the term “schizophrenic,” the way my friend had engaged it, the behavior, thoughts, and challenges of those dealing with schizophrenia are not simply a matter of being indecisive or changing their approach to an issue.

In the time since I first barked at that friend about his use of the word “schizophrenic,” I have seen it become more and more commonly used (or, perhaps, it was used a great deal before that, and I just hadn’t noticed). Currently, in addition to the way my friend used it, to describe his somewhat erratic decision-making behavior, it is used quite often in relation to politics, and often by writers and other figures I respect or at least tend to agree with. Such uses, though, are potentially offensive, and even insulting in a way that is beneath anyone attempting to make a serious point.

For example, in recent weeks it has been relatively easy to find articles, or to come across people on television news/opinion shows, complaining of politicians behaving in a “schizophrenic” fashion toward immigration policies. Generally, what the use of the term “schizophrenic” means in such a context is that the politicians are saying one thing and doing another, or that they have changed their position on an issue multiple times. It is basically used to mean that a politician or group of politicians have been inconsistent on an issue.

A quick Internet search can find all manner of uses of "schizophrenic" as a derogatory label--frequently in political discourse.

A quick Internet search can find all manner of uses of “schizophrenic” as a derogatory label–frequently in political discourse.

But the problem with using “schizophrenic” to describe contradictory political positions is that it suggests the politicians are suffering from a diagnosable mental illness that is beyond their immediate control, and which can interfere with their perceptions of reality, rather than that said politicians are making rational decisions based on what they think will get the most traction with their “base” or constituents. Politicians shifting their political positions is something that is done with the assistance of political strategists in an attempt to get a message out to voters in a way that might provoke support of a carefully crafted message, even if that message is inconsistent over time.

Schizophrenia, on the other hand, is not volitional. It is not deliberate. People who are living with schizophrenia are not choosing one day to deal with only minimal or well-managed psychotic symptoms, and the next day to pursue the exact opposite. People coping with schizophrenia do not, for example, determine that they will change the content and intensity of their auditory hallucinations based on political polling and messaging strategies. They are not thinking of the gains to be made by crafting an elaborate delusion wherein their friends and family are colluding with various government agencies to monitor and control them.

In short, saying that one’s political opponents are “schizophrenic” is just a different way of labeling one’s political opponents with the big, sloppy label of “crazy”—of indicating that their ideas do not merit any consideration because the people presenting those ideas are not grounded in reality. But, because “schizophrenic” is being used as an insult, as a way of accusing somebody of being worthy of ridicule and dismissal, by extension, it implies that people with schizophrenia are also worthy of ridicule and disrespect. Using “schizophrenic” as an insult encourages ongoing stigma towards those with mental illness. It encourages a lack of understanding of mental illness, and of how to address the needs of those struggling with it. It is dehumanizing in the way that all insults aimed at one’s “enemies” are intended to dehumanize.

And people with schizophrenia are not our enemies. They are people struggling with something that we only barely understand. They are people who, at the very least, do not deserve to be lumped in with politicians who are fine-tuning messages of anger and outrage to try and get votes.

Now, lest anyone think I’m engaging in “word policing,” let me say that I am. As much as language is a dynamic thing, there are still right and wrong ways to use words, or rather, more and less accurate ways of using them. We still make daily decisions about whether we are going to use words to clarify or to obscure, to increase understanding or to confuse. The word “schizophrenia,” unlike a number of other words used in mental health diagnoses (anxiety, narcissistic, etc.) was coined, by Eugen Bleuler around 1908, specifically to refer to the mental illness. It literally means “split mind.”

Arguably, the literal definition of schizophrenia could easily be applied to various other situations such as the one’s already described, and it would not be inaccurate. And, arguably, the mental illness or cluster of illnesses known as schizophrenia involves a broad enough range of symptoms and presentations that the diagnosis requires specifiers for clarification in individual cases. Still, rather than taking a word created to refer to a mental illness, one that will always have ties to that mental illness regardless of how one claims to be using it, and expanding the use of that word to include any behaviors one perceives as inconsistent or otherwise in opposition to one’s own beliefs about appropriate behavior, why not pursue more accurate understanding of the word, and a greater understanding of what the mental illness means, and does not mean?

It seems to me that, rather than calling politicians “schizophrenic,” it would be much more damning to say that one’s political opponents are completely inconsistent in their approach to an issue because they feel that they can achieve greater political gains by changing their position and their message, instead of sticking with real principles or working hard to find real solutions to complicated problems.

And instead of labeling our own actions, or the actions of others as “schizophrenic,” simply because they are inconsistent, appear contradictory, or we disagree with them, why not just acknowledge that most of us are not as steadfast and true as we like to imagine, and that we often don’t make decisions unless and until we have to? Why insult people with schizophrenia by suggesting our poor decision-making skills are the result of a serious mental illness, one that involves much deeper struggles than indecisiveness or occasional mild impulsivity?

How about we all stop using “schizophrenic” as an insult?

Requiem for a Snake

My daughter’s pet ball python, Smeagol, died over the weekend. We had no reason to think anything was wrong with him. The last time I observed him for any length of time—Friday, as I was yawning through the long pauses of eliminating a computer virus—he seemed just fine, climbing the ceramic branch/rock fixture in his cage. Sometime between then and Sunday, he vomited up his last meal—a partially-digested black mouse, eaten several days before—and shuffled off this mortal coil, while coiled on the floor of his cage.  I first took notice because he was lying there with his “nose” up under his body, which would have made it extremely difficult for him to breathe—had he still been breathing.

Smeagol was only about ten years old—not all that old for a ball python. And he wasn’t around long enough for me to resolve my mixed feelings about him. To put it mildly, I am not a big fan of snakes. To put it less mildly, they freak me the f*ck out. Constrictors, like Smeagol, don’t raise a panic in me as bad as smaller, squigglier snakes, or, of course, vipers and the like that can cause all manner of swelling, necrosis and more complete death with a single bite. But, still, he was a snake. And for me, that took a lot of getting used to—or not getting used to.

When my wife questioned my dislike of snakes, and more specifically, my queasiness toward our daughter’s pet, I told her that snakes are essentially tubes that crap out of one end, and bite with the other, and that being shat on and bit are not high on my list of favorite things. I didn’t explain to her how, when I saw a snake just out and about, say, in a field or a forest, I would completely lose my mind. She’s only come close to witnessing a subdued version of that once or twice. She still tried to convince me that Smeagol was cute—and he was as far as snakes go. He was pretty, even, with a funky black and brown pattern, a white underbelly, and a face that looked to be smiling.

Smeagol investigates some ice cream.

Smeagol investigates some ice cream.

We had invited him into our home under the thought of good parents supporting our child’s interests. Back when she was in the fourth grade or so, our daughter got caught up in the idea of having a pet python. I told her if she could save up the money for a snake, I would buy the cage—a large, glass tank, with a screened, slide-out lid—for her birthday. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure she would meet the challenge. Ball pythons are not cheap; and I figured something else would capture her attention before she finished piecing together the money. But cash received as birthday gifts put her over the top of her fundraising goal, and she held me to my promise.

On the night we first brought him home, Smeagol bit my daughter, who admittedly was not exercising any caution whatsoever toward a small, confused animal who had just been stuffed into a box and transported through a cold, November night, to his new and unfamiliar home. I tried to tell her to just put the box in the cage and open it there, to let him come out in his own time. But instead, she set the box on a table, flipped it open, and reached in. Chomp!

Granted, when Smeagol bit anybody, it was more like a nip, designed as a quick warning. But he invariably drew blood with his little, hooked teeth when he did it. It was lightning fast, too, almost impossible to escape once he had a mind to do it. I know of two occasions, aside from his first few minutes in our home, when Smeagol bit my daughter. I also remember him taking a shot at one of our dog’s noses. The dog was just curious and unsure what to make of Smeagol. Smeagol took the dog’s face, with its looming mouth, to be a threat. Both dogs steered clear of him after that—she because she’d been bitten, he because I like to believe he shared my general belief in the benefits of snake avoidance.

Although it’s not good to speak ill of the dead, at times I wondered if Smeagol was perhaps something of a jerk among pythons. But then I figured he had, on average, only committed about one quick bite every two years—not bad considering everything he was put through, including visits to my daughters’ classrooms, and my wife’s classrooms, where he behaved around preschoolers and grade schoolers, even when one or two of them made lunging grabs at his face.

Personally, I never got bit by Smeagol, most likely because I kept my distance, even though, with my daughter spending less and less time at home, it fell to me to take care of most of his feedings and cage cleanings. My wife was the main one to spend time “playing” with Smeagol–letting him roam outside of his cage or drape himself over her shoulders. But, sometime in the last year, he bit my wife as she tried to retrieve him from behind a huge bulletin board that was leaning against a wall. Prior to the wife-biting incident, I had a theory that Smeagol’s likelihood of biting someone was, like with German Shepherds, tied to some sort of fear-sensing mechanism. With that one bite, my theory went out the window, as I knew my wife was the only one who had always approached Smeagol with a complete lack of fear, and a full sense of trust and love. This one bite sharply reduced my wife’s willingness to provide Smeagol with passes outside of his cage.

The need to take him out of his cage, or rather the need to keep him in a cage, or perhaps, the whole situation of pets in cages, had become increasingly troubling for me in the past few years. Part of my growing discomfort had to do with seeing Smeagol, essentially a wild animal who had grown to about four feet long, confined to a glass box, where he seemed to spend a good amount of his time searching for a way to get out. Snakes, as a rule, are pretty darn good at finding ways of getting in or out of wherever they want. So I imagine being trapped in such a way was maddening for him.

Part of my growing discomfort had to do with having dogs who have fairly free rein to go anywhere they want within the house and backyard—something I marvel at from time to time in the sense of, “Wow!  We have some fairly large animals just wandering around our house.”

When I was very young, we had a dog that was on the scene before I was, and who didn’t have much use for me, and vice versa. I never marvelled at her, and rarely even realized she was around.  Seriously, I can barely recall her existence, aside from some vague memories of my siblings’ reactions from around the time she was put down. I also didn’t give much thought to the idea of keeping animals confined to cages. In junior high and high school, well after the dog was gone, I acquired quite a few reptiles and amphibians (no snakes), and occasionally rodents, that were kept in a variety of fish tanks, mostly in my bedroom. Hell, once, with the help of my younger brother and a friend, I even transplanted a (slightly-larger-than-puddle-size) pond’s worth of native Oregon frogs (tiny little creatures) from their home in the suburban wild to a tank in our backyard—never thinking about just how difficult it would be to sustain that little ecosystem as the summer wore on and the heat became unbearable in that glass box. They were tadpoles when we caught them, and monitoring their transformation to frogs was pretty amazing. But we could have just visited the pond repeatedly and gotten the same basic show, all without wiping out the small frog community.

The vast majority of the reptiles and amphibians I collected met with premature deaths, often for reasons unknown, but more often through my own failings. There was a red-eared slider (turtle) who died shortly after I fed him bologna, unaware that turtles cannot physically process fat in their food.

There was the fire-bellied newt who escaped his cage (how a newt climbed out of a fish tank with only a few inches of water in the bottom, and a few flat rocks and a small branch poking out of the water is beyond me). I found the newt several days after his disappearance when I stepped on his dehydrated, crunchy little body, tangled in the shag carpet downstairs by the front window. I can only imagine the adventure he had making his way down the steps.

There was a procession of anoles (small lizards they sell in pet stores as chameleons), one to three at a time, who all caught the same wasting disease, despite thorough cleanings of the cage between inhabitants.

Various other turtles and lizards succumbed to death prematurely, with no real indication that anything was wrong until they woke up dead.

Later, well before my daughter acquired Smeagol, she had a pair of Russian dwarf hamsters—one of which completely consumed the other, except for its pelt. I kid you not.  There were no bones left or anything else aside from a well-preserved fur, in the style of a stripped and cleaned item you would find at an actual furriers. What was left of the devoured hamster would have made an excellent rug for, say, a beetle’s bachelor pad. I’m not sure if the consumed hamster died of natural causes before it was cannibalized, or if the carnivorous hamster just decided he’d had enough of corn and seeds, or maybe had had enough of her roommate’s bad habits.

But enough with the tales of animal woe. At this point, I’m going to make a little pledge in honor of our too-soon-taken Smeagol. I’m done with pets that have to be kept in cages. I don’t want to contribute anymore to the kind of recklessness that involves people boxing up animals in the first place. This is not to say that I think it is inherently wrong to have pets that are kept in cages. I suppose in some cases, it makes life more pleasant and less dodgy for the animals, and hopefully involves children learning some measure of responsibility, and hopefully a great deal of kindness and love. But in my personal weighing of the situation, I’ve made too many dumb mistakes. And I’ve failed to provide adequate levels of life outside the box. I’ve apparently failed to monitor properly for signs of illness, and to make sure I was avoiding harm.

Smeagol deserved a greater measure of freedom than he got. Of course, a ball python could do worse in life than to have a safe, warm home with regular feedings. But a snake native to the East coast of Africa probably could have done much better than to be kept in a glass box in the Northwest corner of the U.S., cared for by someone with a large measure of phobia aimed at him.

So, peace to you, Smeagol. May you pass through the fires of Mordor to the place of white shores and beyond—a far green country, under a swift sunrise.

 

Teddy in a Dress, Broadway Joe in the Toilet

By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

As with so many largely pointless childhood stories, the exact why and how of Mego Joe Namath ending up in the toilet are lost to time, blurred in a haze of retelling and embellishment, and perhaps a heavy dose of blame-shifting.

I’ve always carried a sense that whatever bad happens to me, I am somehow deserving of it, usually because I can trace a path through the exact actions I took that led to the consequences. When it comes to arguments with siblings, those paths are usually pretty clear.

With Mego Joe Namath, the clarity’s not there, perhaps due to my own desire to forget.

Mego was a company that once largely had the corner on the action-figure market, manufacturing all of the DC and Marvel superhero dolls, most of which were crafted with identical bodies—the hands, feet, and heads the only variable parts—with clingy, fabric, footy-pajama-like costumes to provide the rest of the customization. Anyone familiar with Cartoon Network’s “Robot Chicken” has seen plenty of Mego toys.

Mego Joe Namath, who had a decidedly different style of dress compared to the superheroes, was a birthday gift from my paternal grandmother. It was totally unexpected, given that she usually only sent cards with checks or cash for birthdays, and a Hickory Farms gift pack as a family gift at Christmas—something that, to this day, makes it mandatory for me to include summer sausage in my Christmas Eve festivities. Mego Joe Namath was also totally unexpected because I had zero interest in football—and may not have even known who Joe Namath was at the time.

Broadway Joe ponders the great mysteries of memory and intent.

Broadway Joe ponders the great mysteries of memory and intent.

I like to attribute my sense of confusion over the story of Mego Joe Namath to my grandmother’s penchant for revisionist history, as if some of her mojo got on that Joe Namath doll, and made it impossible for me to own up to the specifics of what happened. A refugee, along with my grandfather, to the U.S. of A. just prior to WWII, grandma squished and squashed the family history into something palatable for that era, and then for a later era, the story always holding too many contradictory elements for anybody who knew more than the small slice she was dishing up at any particular time. And, I should also note, I don’t know that grandma was the source of the stories. I just don’t know who else to blame.

In Grandma’s telling, we came from a line of German barons, low-level royalty of sorts, but we were also Jews, dodging Hitler by changing our name from Schildberg to Schildbach.  I’m not sure which part of the story is harder to swallow–that a Jewish family attained noble status in Germany, or that our family’s heavy Lutheran leanings were born of a conversion of convenience–a cover story that resulted in such a complete abandonment of our heritage that the family attended church–well, religiously–and my father became a pastor. We were Nazi fighters, or fighters of Nazis.  Or perhaps we were communist fighters, or fighters of communists. And maybe, just maybe, we were Nazis fighting the communists, or vice versa. However it turns and churns, we were never whatever was bad.

And whatever happened, the family got out of Germany at a pretty good time to get…so hooray for not ending up dead for some political or religious leaning or another.

The shifts in my rememberances and interpretations of the Mego Joe Namath saga could also be attributed to my last memories of my grandmother. She had come to visit my mother’s home around Christmastime during my college years. Before I made it home for the holiday break, my younger brother had already sent notice that grandma was spending most of her time in front of the TV complaining—frequently about communists and gay people—and this was in the days before Fox News. I can only imagine what mainlining such misappropriated anger would have done for her, when a news story about the Soviet Union would send her into a grumble about how we don’t need communists on the TV at Christmas, or seeing Brian Boitano in Olympic trials would launch her into a confused rant about how “they” had accused one of my cousins of being gay—maybe she meant the United States Figure Skating Association, although that seems unlikely.

At some point, I conflated these late memories of my grandmother with why she ever would have sent me a Joe Namath doll in the first place. I figured that maybe, in my early primary school years, she had become concerned because, along with my girly curly hair, penchant for art projects, and general lack of interest in sports, I carted around a dress-wearing teddy bear named Cindy. Grandma may have decided that the antidote to such anti-masculine behavior was a doll that played football. And, speaking of things I really don’t remember, I’m not sure where the teddy bear came from, or why I was convinced it was female and asked my mom to make a dress for it, but I suspect that my sister had a strong hand in all of it.

It was also by my sister’s hand that Joe Namath ended up in the toilet. I’m sure there were numerous warnings leading up to the actual toilet incident. I just don’t remember the triggering event. It could have been that I snuck into her bedroom while she was in the shower, and played 45s on her portable record player. I thought maybe it had something to do with me stealing her Sunshine Family Farm chicken again, so I could make fart noises as I made it squeeze out eggs—but the timeline for that toy’s release placed it far too late to match up with Mego Joe’s trip to the pool. It may have been that I stole Sunshine Family dad’s sweater, so that Mego Joe Namath would have something to wear other than his football outfit—a likely possibility, given that, while Joe’s shirt went into the toilet with him, he was not wearing it.

Chances are, the event that led to Joe taking the plunge was little more than my bragging about how grandma had sent me a present but hadn’t sent one to my sister…or some other antagonistic foolishness…singing an annoying commercial jingle over and over again, calling her names, suggesting she was in love with somebody…I could be pretty damn annoying with very little effort. I can’t remember if the event took place in one fell swoop, with my sister grabbing up the doll and accessories and dropping them all in the toilet, or if it happened in stages, with me refusing to give up whatever it was I was doing that was annoying her, as she dropped items of clothing into the toilet, one by one, finally plopping Joe in as the final measure.

There is also the matter of just who hit the handle on the toilet, flushing as much as would go down—which I think was only Joe’s shirt, football, and helmet—maybe one of his shoes, too. Joe himself was spared the trip to the sewer by dint of his size, or positioning–an inability to navigate the crooks of the toilet piping.

I have a vague recollection, obscured by the lies that took place in its wake, of staring down at Joe in the toilet after my sister stomped triumphantly out of the bathroom, evil grin on her face, or maybe with her standing right there, relishing my disbelief. And as I looked, and imagined having to fish him out of the toilet to clean and dry him off, and admit my sister got the best of me—that she had completed an unspeakable act I was sure she would never dare—I was filled with anger…anger that could only be redeemed with destruction. Joe would go down, a sacrifice to Mars, and I would blame it on my sister, pleading with my mother to punish her for the destruction of such a beloved gift.

Truth is, from the time I got Mego Joe Namath, I was puzzled. What the hell did I want this for? But it was a toy, right? A gift? Something I obviously was supposed to want. And given my unnatural attachment to objects, I had to keep it. It had to mean something more than I could quite fathom. It was as important as all material things, as all toys I longed for…right?

But I believe it was me who hit that handle, not only to get my sister in trouble, but because I was finally presented with a way to get rid of that weird, incomprehensible, whatever of a gift. The guilt of trying to flush him was roughly comparable to the guilt of not wanting him in the first place. Perpetually vexed by the tension between trying to accept and do what adults expected of me, and the desire to just melt down or blow up, I was a bit of a mess as a child…as I suspect all children are, in one way or another.

Feeling that you want what others think you shouldn’t, and that you don’t want what they think you should, is a hell of a thing.

So, Joe didn’t go, but he didn’t stay whole. And that became excuse enough for me to leave him behind…something incomplete I had an excuse to no longer play with. Back to teddy bears in dresses for me, with only a small lump of guilt for the subterfuge visited on Joe. And grandma, living several states away, never needed to know.