Thanksgiving Greetings from an Ingrate, 2016: Where’s the Mashed Potatoes?

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

Okay…this post has nothing to do with a lack of mashed potatoes.  I just love that line.  It’s become a staple of M and my faux-complaining about, well, really any meal–not just Thanksgiving.  Not that we want mashed potatoes at every meal, but anyway…

A friend recently called me out for not being an ingrate. This via a Facebook post, wherein I was responding to her efforts at working through the 24-days-of-gratitude challenge, or whatever it’s called when you note something you’re thankful for every day throughout November until Thanksgiving. I commented that I had been planning to do the same, although “planning” is perhaps too strong a word…it had occurred to me that I could engage in that challenge, and that I had done it in the past…although, maybe not in November. I might have just chosen 24 or 25 random days, having missed the point entirely…or maybe having expanded the point out in the most glorious of ways by refusing to confine my thankfulness to some specific stretch on a calendar. At any rate, not being an ingrate perhaps takes away from these annual posts, but at least somebody gets the point…that I’m not really an ingrate.

To those who don’t know me, it might be easy to imagine I am such. I enjoy complaining–embrace complaining–as an art form. It’s performance. It’s fun. It’s pure joy, garnering accolades and laughs when in the right company—and disturbed, ‘are-you-okay?’-furrowed-brow looks when in the ‘wrong’ company.

You see, when a big portion of your work is devoted to listening, absorbing, and redirecting the misery of the world, complaining is life-saving, life-affirming, the stuff of thanks.

Or not.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Much of the ‘wrong’ company involves people in my same field, but with a vastly different view of how we need to approach life in order to receive the blessings of thanks, or the thanks of blessings, or whatever life-denying positivity they think will cancel out the darkness of the season…that same darkness our ancestors feared was the impending end of time.

ingrate-thanksgiving

Blurry and off-color…just like misplaced anger!

When I set out to write this annual exercise in ingratitude/gratitude, I tried to think of a good Thanksgiving story from my past.

As I’ve noted in previous ‘ingrate’ posts, I have very few specific childhood memories of Thanksgiving. It was just some day off from school—two days actually–where things were, perhaps, much worse than school…having to put on church clothes only to have a meal that wasn’t particularly interesting.

Perhaps my emotional deficit around Thanksgiving is that it comes between my own balls-out/dress-up/mess-up-the-house-with-monster-decorations/get-candy enthusiasm of Halloween, and the hyper-sentimentality/religious significance/songs/smells/twinkling-lights/PRESENTS!! of Christmas.

How can Thanksgiving compete with that? New Year’s doesn’t fare all that well in comparison, either. Perhaps as a child, I was too close to family, too frequently in contact with them, to realize the value in being able to meet up yet again.  Getting together with family is something that’s become far too infrequent, with siblings spread out across six states, and cousins across at least four more that I know of.

In the absence of the frequent family gathering, I have grown to love, if not the sham history of the holiday, then what the idea of the holiday represents…coming together, helping each other out, recognizing what we have, and why all those elements are potentially so great.

Again this year, my immediate family and I are going out to eat for Thanksgiving–at a favorite restaurant where we’ve enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner before. Again this year, it is a function of our work schedules. That is to say, we could request time off, but, as with every year of the last decade, I work in a 24/7 operation, and M works at a school that caters to doctors (who work in a 24/7 operation). So, we pick and choose which holidays to celebrate more or less enthusiastically.

M was insisting she wanted to make a Thanksgiving meal this year. When the idea was first proposed, I went along with it. Then, at some later time, the kid and I ganged up on her, and pointed out that she had to work the day before, and the day after, Thanksgiving, as do I.  Well, actually, I’m working the day before, the day of, and the day after Thanksgiving, which means a portion of the argument rested on what a pain it would be for me to help do the shopping and cooking and all that, while still attempting to get any sleep–have I mentioned that I work nights?  Coordinating the menu, the purchase of the food, and the preparation of the food, was far more work than we were all ultimately prepared to do, all for just the three of us.

We managed to nail down Christmas plans that would allow more time before and after that holiday to indulge in such excessive amounts of preparation and work, and still get in a fair amount of relaxation, all in the company of family. I’ll hold to my feeling that thanks shouldn’t be a chore, and that holidays should be centered around a desire to celebrate, rather than an obligation to go through the motions of celebration.

I am incredibly thankful, once again, that I have the great fortune to pay to indulge in the hospitality provided by others. And once again, I intend to tip with guilt-laden generosity.

Wherever you are today, I hope you have reason to recognize your situation as one of great fortune as well.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

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Yes, Gina, There is a Bipolar Disorder: Tom Sullivan’s Pretend Apology

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

I have a hard time believing anybody really cares about anything Fox News Radio Host/Fox Business News Anchor Tom Sullivan said two weeks ago, or a week ago, or ten minutes ago. But, after a segment on his radio show, wherein Mr. Sullivan expressed his belief that Bipolar Disorder is a made up malady, Mr. Sullivan got a bit more attention than he maybe wanted.  And then he apologized.

I feel compelled to share Sullivan’s apology in all of it’s glory, because it is such a perfect example of a non-apology, the kind that one writes when one is drunk, and mad at the people to whom one is being made to apologize–the kind of apology that would properly elicit a playground response of “If you were really sorry, you wouldn’t have said it in the first place.”

You can hear the questionable five minute clip of Mr. Sullivan’s rant–mind you, on the web site for his own show–here: Bipolar “not a problem” and “not a disability” says Tom Sullivan.

To access his apology, you need only scroll down through the Facebook-linked comments on the same page.

Sullivan’s apology starts off thusly: “Gina, Thank you for your email.” From the get-go, it’s just plain weird. Sullivan is apologizing via Facebook to an (alleged) email that nobody can see. I’m not sure if Gina’s email is presented somewhere on Sullivan’s Facebook page, or elsewhere. I have the feeling he doesn’t want anybody to see the alleged email he is pretending to respond to, because Sullivan isn’t actually addressing any concerns that any real person has about what he said. He’s interested in presenting himself as the victim in the ruckus he started, as a means to reiterate some of the same obnoxious points he made in his original rant.

He continues: “May I tell you I have received a number of similar messages but usually laced with profanity. Your message stood out for the kindness of your words.” Oh, poor Mr. Sullivan, bombarded with bad language from nasty people. But, lo—here is one kind soul, just one person moved to express words of concern and seek clarification about just what happened in this horrible controversy that was visited upon the abused Mr. Sullivan.

“First,” Mr. Sullivan goes on (in sharp contrast to his original words for which he is now apologizing), “I need to tell you I do believe in bipolar disease.” I won’t hammer on Mr. Sullivan too much for not using the proper term “Bipolar Disorder” rather than “bipolar disease.” But I do have to question what he means when he says that he ‘believes in’ Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar Disorder isn’t some mythical creature like the Yeti or the Easter Bunny to entertain or scare people or to serve as a fun part of some childhood tradition. It’s not, as Mr. Sullivan says in his audio clip, some disease made up by pharmaceutical companies and the mental health industry for the purposes of financial gain. But, I suppose when you work for a network that promotes the idea that climate change is a hoax, and white privilege is mythical, your sense of reality can get knocked out of whack.

And speaking of having problems with reality, Sullivan then writes, “There is a two minute clip going around of my comments out of a two hour discussion. It is easy to take comments out of context.” Sullivan’s complaint of a two-minute, out-of-context clip is just a few scrolls down from a five minute clip, again, on the web site for his own show, in which he says he does not believe Bipolar Disorder is a real thing, but a ‘created’ illness.

He then repeats his newly-found belief system: “Of course I believe bipolar is real and is a mental illness that needs to be treated.” Well, of course, Tom! Why would anybody think you would have any other view–I mean, aside from the five-minute (not two-minute) clip where you repeatedly say that Bipolar Disorder didn’t even exist 25 years ago, and is completely made up?

Sullivan does a 180 and becomes a champion for those with mental illness--asks why people think he said things he plainly said.

Sullivan does a 180 and becomes a champion for those with mental illness–asks why people think he said things he plainly said.

Sullivan clarifies: “The program began with the subject being the huge increase in disability claims made to the Social Security Disability Fund which is going broke in 2016.” Never mind that what Sullivan means is that the Social Security Disability Fund could be insolvent as early as 2016 if changes aren’t made to the structure or funding of benefits—saying it is going broke in 2016 is much more alarmist and easier for his audience to understand, so that they can get angry like he wants them to.

Then, explaining (well, sort of) why he chose to target people with Bipolar Disorder, Sullivan writes, “The increase in claims is startling and the number one reason for the big increase in claims is mental illness and a subset (according the way Soc Security categorizes) of mood disorder.” Sullivan doesn’t bother to explain that what now comes under multiple categories of “Mental Disorders” used to be categorized as two separate categories: “Mental Retardation” and “Neuroses and Psychoses.” It wasn’t until 2010 that Social Security broke down those two categories any further, to include numerous items, including the “mood disorders” that so irk Sullivan.

Sullivan pouts, “All I was trying to do was to point out that out of that big increase I suspect there are people who are not sick but looking for a disability check.” Yes, “all” Mr. Sullivan was doing was accusing people on disability of trying to cheat the government. No big, deal. Everybody likes to take pot shots at people on disability, right? But Mr. Sullivan didn’t just voice his ‘suspicions.’ He outright said that Bipolar Disorder is “not a disability.” In other words, Mr. Sullivan said that anybody receiving disability payments due to a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder is cheating the government. In fact, the title of the same page of Tom’s website where he posted his pretend apology is “Bipolar Woman Says She DESERVES Disability Benefits. Tom Tells Her She’s WRONG!”

The pout goes on: “My further point was by doing so, those people were hurting those who really are sick and need help, i.e. funding, treatments, etc.” In other words, people who get disability payments for mental illness are not really sick—people who can’t walk, or who have cancer are sick!! This is perhaps the best part of Sullivan’s whole apology—the part where he truly demonstrates that he’s learned nothing from the reaction he provoked with his ignorant comments by engaging in the exact type of behavior/speech/thinking that demonstrates classic stigmatization of people with mental health issues: the ‘you don’t really have an illness, you just feel bad’ way of thinking.

And then comes the righteous indignation of a true champion for those with mental illness: “I have for years advocated on my program for more funding and insurance coverage of mental illness. Too many have ignored it and as a result our jails are now the ‘mental institutions’ where the people get zero help.” First of all, if you have advocated so long for “more funding and insurance coverage of mental illness” but are now mad that there is more funding and insurance coverage of mental illness, what is it you really want? Where is this funding and insurance supposed to come from? What form is it supposed to take. Oh…I get it. You mean that when there have been mass shootings, you’ve complained that we do not need gun control, but we need more funding for mental illness. Got it. The jails…right. So, yeah, more mental health funding to stop people who might go on a shooting rampage—but anybody else can step off. Way to advocate, Tom.

Sullivan then writes, “I apologize to those who were hurt by the clip of my comments.” I think he might be apologizing to himself right here, as he seems to think he’s the victim in all of this, and the only one who was really hurt by the unfair “clip” of his comments—which he maintains is all out of context. It’s one of those classic ‘I’m sorry you got upset about what I did’ apologies. He doesn’t actually say he’s sorry for what he said—he says he’s sorry if you had a stupid reaction to it.

Mr. Sullivan then explains that he is just misunderstood: “I am a somewhat jaded person who thinks some people are gaming our system due to their greed.” Yes, plenty of people are out there pretending to have Bipolar Disorder because of their all-powerful greed–the kind of greed that drives them to want to live off of an $1100/month disability check. I can see how life as a corporate accountant and media figure has caused you to see the true evils in life and become hardened by them, Tom.

“But,” he goes on, returning to his sensitive side, “I also believe mental illness is a very serious problem that is ignored by too many.” Well, at least you aren’t ignoring it, Tom, like those “many” others.

Quick switch back to victim: “This episode shows how easy it is to distort a persons (sic) comments, especially when the subject is very important.” Wait, where’s the distortion, Tom? You do realize that there is a five-minute audio clip of you talking smack about people with Bipolar Disorder and mental health professionals, right on your web page, just slightly above your apology—don’t you?

Then, he brings the powerful close: “It will and has reinforced my commitment to making mental illness on a (sic) equal par with physical illnesses instead of the stigma it currently receives. Again, thank you for your email and your concern, Tom Sullivan.” Well, it’s a good thing Tom’s had his commitment reinforced, because in that five-minute clip there, it sounded a whole lot like he was super-supportive of stigmatizing people with mental illness—especially phony mental illnesses like Bipolar Disorder. And, really, could that sentence about stigma be any worse? It’s like somebody read over the rough draft and said—‘Not bad, just make sure you add in some bullshit about stigma and how mental illness is just as important as physical illness in there at the end,’ but Tom wasn’t quite sure how to properly use the word “stigma” in a sentence, and didn’t feel like taking the time to look it up.

In the end, Sullivan wants to be viewed as someone who is just the victim of vicious attacks, with his words taken out of context. Unfortunately, it’s hard to have much sympathy for someone claiming his words were taken out of context when, well, they weren’t, but also when he made no effort to provide any context for anything he said in the first place, such as by touching on the way Social Security disability operates, the different categories now used, and why those changes were made. The simplest explanation (although there are a wide range of factors) is that there has been an evolution in the way “disability” is viewed and understood—in terms of both physical and mental illnesses. And, in terms of Social Security disability, there have been changes in the ways statistics have been kept and various issues have been categorized.

To give some credit, there is support for Sullivan’s complaints that the number of disability claims for “mood disorders” is increasing substantially. However, that increase is not grossly out of proportion to the increase in overall numbers of disability cases, particularly when one considers that mood disorders such as Bipolar Disorder and various forms of Depressive Disorders are more widely understood today than they were 25 years ago (when Mr. Sullivan apparently thinks the mental health community, in cahoots with pharmaceutical companies, fabricated the idea of Bipolar Disorder as a way to make money).

So, as I said in an earlier piece about Sullivan’s original comments (which you can read here), we can either find legitimate ways to address issues like the funding of Social Security disability, and support those suffering from mental illness, or we can demonize them and…uh…let them…er…receive stigma like always. And now, at least we all know where Mr. Sullivan stands—right, Gina?

Sylvia Frumkin’s Place

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

I’d venture a guess that many who enter the mental health field, as with any potentially dramatic profession all the way from police to executives, do so with visions informed by Hollywood. One of the main Hollywood portrayals of the mental health worker is is that of the therapist/psychiatrist as a well-compensated genius, ensconced in a plush office, treating the worried well or other “eccentric” or “neurotic” types, while constantly being admired by clients for one’s observational skill and ability to call forth ‘breakthrough’ moments. The other end of the spectrum is the heroic social worker who, through sheer tenacity, overcomes all the problems an impoverished neighborhood can throw at her, overcoming multi-generational patterns, and very recent traumas, to really, really make a difference in the lives of an entire community.

Many in the field are drawn to books by Yalom, or Rogers, or perhaps even some acolytes of Oprah, who tell us that just by listening and accepting our clients, or by throwing the right bit of tough-love advice a client’s way, true transformation will take place, and clients will make huge leaps forward, forever changing their lives for the better.

Susan Sheehan’s “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” is perhaps the perfect antidote to the pie-in-the-sky visions of one’s brilliance and dedication making all the clinical difference in the world. It balances out the ideas about the wondrous gift of therapy with the reality of chronic and severe mental illness, and its resistance to ‘ah-ha moments’ and dramatic progress. It pushes past that “we don’t need no medications” mantra, which can, in fairness, apply to a lot of mental health issues.

“Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” was first published as a four part series in The New Yorker in 1981, then published as a book in 1982. For it, Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1983. A new edition of the book was released roughly a year ago, including a new afterword by Sheehan. On reading about the re-issue in the online version of the New York Times in January of 2014, and having never read it before, I put it on my ‘to read’ list, and eventually checked out an old edition from the library.

Frumkin cover

The book, written from the perspective of a journalist, and not of a therapist trying to convince the readers of the efficacy of particular approaches to treatment, is involved in ways that few case studies can be. Sheehan spent over two years with Sylvia Frumkin (not her real name), a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia. Sheehan had a great deal of access not only to the information on Frumkin’s treatment and behavior during the period when Sheehan shadowed Frumkin, but also to family members and others, getting a great deal of background on Frumkin’s life prior to her diagnosis, and the progress and setbacks that took place before Sheehan had ever met her.

Having had numerous contacts with clients diagnosed with schizophrenia, or suffering from other forms of psychosis, most often from a distance, it took me a while to get through the book. That is, the kinds of delusions, rants, and flights from treatment that plague Frumkin and those trying to help her, and which Sheehan documents in detail, were familiar to me—of course, with Frumkin’s behaviors being particular to her own case. Still, it was like trying to read about many of the most frustrating aspects of work during one’s down time.

For the uninitiated, I imagine the book is much more compelling, rather than overly familiar, and thus, somewhat draining. In discussing “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” with colleagues, I’ve most often likened it to Kafka’s “The Trial”—a book that is deliberately tedious in its depiction of a bureaucracy more intent on sustaining itself than serving any clear purpose—although, that comparison probably has much more to do with what I bring to the reading of Sheehan’s book than to what she has documented in such depth of detail. Also, I don’t think the mental health system—either now or at the time—is deliberately set up to be frustrating…it just frequently is, particularly for those most in need of help.

In addition to capturing the daily details of the behavior of a (this) client with schizophrenia, Sheehan also does a masterful job of explaining, simply and concisely, some fairly complicated legal, medical, and treatment-related concepts. For instance, Sheehan outlines the concept of “least restrictive” forms of treatment, both the bane and the beauty of our mental health system, which has been around since well before the current lack of options made it so completely mandatory.  In doing so, she answers that most familiar of questions about why we can’t “just lock up” people suffering from chronic forms of mental illness who can become rather taxing to a variety of public and private resources.

The most fascinating elements of Frumkin’s story to me, though, were the ‘side treatments’—pointless, and sometimes dangerous, programs that Sylvia was subjected to. Without going into a great deal of detail, the treatments ranged from moving in with a relative and his family who believed that all Frumkin needed was a good dose of Jesus and discipline to overcome her laziness and wicked ways, to a doctor who felt that manipulating the insulin levels of patients to extreme degrees could cure them of schizophrenia.

Ultimately, what works for Frumkin (or worked back around 1980) is what still works for clients today: a small number of medications that prove effective in treating schizophrenia, as well as (to greatly simplify things) a structured environment and supportive professionals. Unfortunately, said medications can lose their effectiveness over time, or the side effects can become increasingly detrimental to the clients. It is also quite common for clients to simply quit taking their medications, feeling them unnecessary or viewing them as the root cause of various forms of discomfort or other troubles in their lives. In addition, the structured environments can only be maintained for as long as clients are compliant with treatment, and as long as the treatment remains effective, and as long as funding and various programs allow. On top of that, anything from the restructuring of institutions, to changes in law and other policy, to the career changes of providers, to differences of opinion between providers and family members, can lead to new doctors and other providers making changes, sometimes rather arbitrarily, to a client’s medication regimen or support systems. In Frumkin’s case, alterations to her treatment and medications were made numerous times, in the most haphazard of fashions, often by doctors and other providers who seemed ignorant of her case history, or of how the medications work.

One might also note that this book was written back before the U.S., under President Ronald Reagan, decided that people with chronic mental illness enjoy the freedom that homelessness brings. So, Frumkin’s movements within the system are relatively easy in terms of her various forays into decompensation leading to fairly quick, and relatively long-term inpatient placements, with step-downs to semi-independent housing, and other supports that are much rarer today (and for most of the last three decades).

Ideally, Sheehan’s book would be taught in graduate schools, or maybe at earlier levels, by instructors who are familiar with the clinical aspects of schizophrenia; the current and historical treatments for it; and the current and historical state of affairs with regard to mental health facilities, available inpatient beds for clients with mental health issues, and legal and systemic complications to accessing those beds or other program options.

To be clear, it is necessary, as therapists, or in other capacities in the mental health field, to come equipped with a belief that we can make a difference. Without a bit of the dreamer in us, we would never head down this path to begin with.

But it is also necessary for providers at all levels to understand just what they are up against, particularly given that almost all providers in the mental health field will end up doing at least a round or two in the public mental health system–from practicums/internships to early jobs to entire careers–where the most challenging of clients often end up by default—frequently after being abandoned by families and other support systems, including insurance companies.

Frumkin’s family, as dysfunctional as they are, and as frequently detrimental to her treatment as they can be, at least hang in there to the extent that they can—which I imagine was at least somewhat less difficult when hospital beds and supported living options weren’t at such a premium as they are today. In the end, though, this isn’t a story of a family hanging together and triumphing over a terrible disease. It’s the story of a debilitating mental illness, and the toll it takes on the client, as well as those around her, and the wildly inconsistent efforts by a variety of people and systems to help her cope.

Welcome to Sylvia’s Place.

The Old Normal

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Just how the hell does anybody on a regular Monday-to-Friday workweek ever get anything done?  I mean, aside from work work?

For the entire month of November, and the first few weeks of December, I was on a Monday-to-Friday, 8-to-5 schedule. This was only the second time in over 20 years that I had been on such a schedule—the previous time being the training period for a new job, just like the most recent episode of “normalcy” was.

I was commuting at the same time as everybody else (read: taking almost three times as long to get to and from work as the trip should actually take). I was having lunch at the same time as everybody else (god help anyone who only has a half-hour at noon to try and get out to procure some nourishment—thankfully, I only had to do this a few times, and had a full hour for lunch).

I was doing my grocery and other shopping when everyone else was—either on my way home after work, or on the weekends—when the stores are at their peak crowdedness.  Navigating a single aisle at the grocery store, waiting for people to make their decisions and get out of the way, or waiting for them just to notice they were blocking the entire aisle by hanging onto a corner of their angled grocery cart while staring at a wall of spaghetti sauce, was trying.  And forget all of those little errands—running to the post office, for example—the extra-long lunch-hour or Saturday morning lines—uggh!

Everything seemed to take much longer than it should have. Everywhere seemed so much more crowded than it needed to be.

I felt crushed by this tyranny of scheduling normalcy, this chronometrically-imposed and enforced bottlenecking. Just how do people do this, day in and day out? How do they ever get anything done beyond the extra-slow commutes, and the added imposition of everybody else doing the same damn thing at the same damn time—or at least trying to?

Aaaaagh!  I feel like a stretched-out, messed-up face pinned down by a floppy clock!

Aaaaagh! I feel like a stretched-out, messed-up face pinned down by a floppy clock!  Or is that a decapitated, vomiting swan, wearing a fake beard pinned down by a floppy clock?

I forced myself through the daily tasks I absolutely had to complete, and blew off the rest for the weekend, and then blew them off again, as if maybe this next week I wouldn’t feel so tired after spending most of my waking hours devoted to work and the process of getting there and back.

Weekends felt short. By the time I felt rested and started in on that to-do list, the to-do list was necessarily pared down a great deal, with Sunday evening and Monday morning hanging over my head–sending me into to-do list despair.

I suddenly understood the asshole-ish behaviors of driving a bit too fast and recklessly to get that parking spot, the feigned ‘oh-I-didn’t-see-you-and-that’s-why-I-let-that-door-swing-shut-in-your-face-rather-than-chancing-you-getting-ahead-of-me-in-that-long-f***ing-line,’ the impossibly tight closing of the gap between one’s own car and the one just ahead to prevent anyone from merging and making the commute take even nine seconds longer. I suddenly understood these behaviors. I did not engage in these behaviors. It seems it would take years of this ‘regular workday’ harshness before one would be pushed to such extremes.  But I was just a tourist here in normal-land. I knew I would be leaving before long. I didn’t have to act that way.

The particulars of the situation helped me appreciate what I had experienced for so long, in terms of scheduling and work. When my kid was little, I was self-employed, working out of the home. All that time, getting her to and from school was a pleasant walk or a short drive—a little break in the work day.  I could attend to tasks at my own pace, except in the few ‘busy seasons’ when all hell broke loose and I had to hunker down for a few weeks or a month, working every waking minute, except for those quick trips to the school and back.

Later on, when I angled toward jobs in the mental health field that required shift work, it was so much easier to work all night, or in the evenings, and take care of all those other daily tasks when very few others were. There were several periods when I was allowed to knock out 40-hour workweeks in three days, leaving the rest of the week free—or for much of that time, free to go to grad school or work a second job. At any rate, I wasn’t tied to the same schedule as the bulk of the rest of the working world.

I’m now back to a bit of the old normal—a work schedule that helps keep me from needing to move about too much in the peak hours of the work-imposed world. I’m thankfully off of graves—not that I hated that—but it takes a toll, especially when you’re trying to spend some normal day hours with family and friends, and working occasionally at a second job that takes place during the day.  I’m back to having a few weekdays and a weekend day off, a schedule of four tens–and with no second job sapping hours from my days off.

I’m trying to get back to where I can spend my days off getting some stuff done—like writing on a sort-of-regular basis, or getting back to those projects around the house that are perpetually sidetracked or shelved. But I’m also having to undo a number of bad habits and weird practices that still linger after years of being up all night most nights, and sleeping during the day. Hell, I started writing the rough draft of this just before 2 a.m. since I fell asleep early and then couldn’t stay asleep through the night.

Still, the adjustment to the new schedule isn’t nearly as rough as the adjustment to the ‘normal’ world of the rest of the day-walkers. I’m settling in to something of the old normal—awake and working during the days—just not always when the rest of you humans are clogging everything up.

While I enjoyed the training I was doing, it wasn’t really all that fun visiting your overcrowded, poorly scheduled world, and I definitely wouldn’t want to live there.

Dropping Keys, Dropping Letters

by Jonathan C. Schildbach, LMHC, waning ASOTP, reforming soul-eater

An eighth-season episode of The X-Files was built around a “soul-eater”—a person who could draw the disease out from others into his own body, eventually vomiting it out. The concept of the soul eater is based in various forms of folklore involving a range of ideas about curses and cures, and the ability of some to take away those things that most harm or most sustain a person. Unfortunately for this particular soul eater, the demands of those who knew of his powers began to overwhelm his ability to process and expel the disease. He existed in a perpetual state of deformity and misery.

I like the soul eater as a metaphor for the work done by many people in “the healing professions.” In this field, many of us work at building a skill set that allows us to help extract the mental and spiritual toxins in others. Ideally, those receiving help will find a way to vomit out the toxins themselves. Yet, such toxins are in no short supply, and many who are most in need of help thrive on a constant diet of disease coupled with a willingness to let others take on the burdens of that disease. It becomes far too easy for helpers to end up like the suffocating soul eater, awash in the illness of others.

In the professional parlance, we call all that business of being overwhelmed by the problems of others “secondary trauma.” There’s a tendency to assume that, as trained professionals, we are able to recognize and address our own forms of distress. But, like many people in positions of suffering, particularly those who are considered high-functioning, it is entirely too easy to soldier on without addressing our own needs. We know how to address all this, and yet we often don’t, or we often address it in an unhealthy fashion, assuming it will pass in time. We take on more than we can handle, and think nothing of it. Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me more convinced I’m strong enough to take it.

Hey--eat any good diseases lately?

Hey–eat any good diseases lately?  The X-Files’ soul eater.

I bring this all up by way of saying that I’m in the midst of a career shift—not out of the helping professions, but into some different channels in the same field.

In particular, last night I dropped off the keys to the office where I’ve been serving as an ASOTP for the last year-and-a-half, at least temporarily distancing myself from a particular portion of the field that I have been involved with for over seven-and-a-half years—the treatment of sex offenders.

The change was forced by way of making a shift in my full-time employment in crisis services. As I write this, I am deliberately allowing myself only some small bit of awareness of the insanity of my professional life over the past several years. Yes, I have been working full time in crisis services, while also working anywhere from zero to ten hours per week with sex offenders. Such arrangements are not unusual in the helping professions—where we are pushed to learn our craft in rigorous, unpaid positions, while also attending school and working a paid job just to stay afloat. The habits of overextension established while in graduate school can extend out into professional life, and feel totally normal, even as we are pushed toward deformity and misery.

Currently in a break from a years-long pattern of toxic soul-eating, and ready engagement with secondary trauma, I realize I’ve become numb to plenty of very bizarre things. Running plethysmography assessments, I can sit through audio scenarios of sexually violent behaviors, paying them as little attention as if they were overplayed Top 40 hits from yesteryear piped over a grocery store or dentist office sound system. I’ve become entirely too comfortable asking people about their masturbation habits, and pressing them when I think they’re lying (only in the course of assessments, of course—well, mostly). Fortunately, I haven’t become so numb that I’ve lost all awareness of the twists and turns of my mind, although I frequently find myself stumbling in otherwise polite conversations when frighteningly dark and vulgar jokes spring to mind—an entirely appropriate coping mechanism in certain circumstances and with particular people—but definitely nothing you want to spring on friends of friends who don’t even have the most limited of contexts for understanding where such thoughts could come from.

And all of that was on top of 40-plus hours per week of run-of-the-mill crisis intervention, suicide prevention, utilization management…

So, if I want to mix in some metaphors, I can say I’m now a ronin—a samurai without a master—an ASOTP without a CSOTP—which, really just makes me a guy with an expensive piece of paper that says I’m an ASOTP until next September, but which conveys no real ability to treat any offenders unless and until I take on another master/CSOTP. Weighing the massive number of hours I still have to accrue across assessment, face-to-face treatment, and supervision, in order to get the full credential myself, I think this may be it for my involvement in offender-land.

I’ve dropped off the keys; and, with no further action, the letters, too, will drop—as will the level of…expulsion required of me on a regular basis. Sure, I’ll still do what I can to draw out various forms of mental/spiritual disease when that is required of m—but hopefully now in more manageable, fun-sized portions.

 

 

The Stigma of Mental Illness and the Noble Savage Myth

Okay, I’m kind of cheating here.  I haven’t posted anything for a while, so I’m popping this up.

This is an article I worked on with Dr. Jeffrey Guterman, based in part on a post I did for this blog (which was a great deal snarkier, and which I will re-post at a later date).

Enjoy… The Stigma of Mental Illness and the Noble Savage Myth

noble savage photo

Happy Birthday to Me II: Contemplate This on the Cake of Woe

by J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP, Fashion Icon

(for part one, click here https://respecttheblankie.com/2013/09/20/happy-birthday-to-me/ )

Check out this picture:

It's 1971--do you know where your emotions are?

It’s 1971–do you know where your emotions are?

Pretty amazing, right?

No, no, I don’t mean the fetching haircut accentuating the perfect, potato-esqe shape of my head. That haircut was a dad special a la 1971—the hairdo all of my brothers and I had by dad’s decree. I’m thinking a “1” setting on the clipper.   Quick and easy, nice and tidy.

And, no, I’m not talking about the fashion, although I am pretty damn suave in that dual-layer, v-neck with mock-turtleneck, combo. Or, more accurately, I guess that would be a mock-mock-turtleneck, given that it’s not even a real mock turtleneck, but just the neck and a little bit of the chest of a mock-turtleneck sewn into a shirt. The dead giveaway is that the striped part of the outfit is short-sleeved, and who ever heard of a short-sleeved mock-turtleneck? Right? The dove-gray slacks perfectly compliment the olive stripes sandwiched between the ocean blue stripes that match the mock-mock-turtleneck.*  Still, I’m thinking that this getup would definitely make it into a top ten list of my all-time most fashionable outfits, such is the limited ability I have to dress myself.

No, I’m not even talking about the gift, proudly displayed—that Fisher Price Little People airplane—the red winged version. Pure brilliance of design, down to the weird, yellow plastic string tied to the front so it could be pulled along the ground, the pilot, head flipping back and forth, ever vigilant. Of course, the pilot eventually wanted to break free from the tarmac, and I obliged. The plane today (still in a closet of my mother’s home, or perhaps in a box in the “workshop” of my house) is missing the door, and a chunk of one of it’s horizontal stabilizers, courtesy of a few attempts over the years to see if I could get the thing to fly properly. Perhaps such confusion over aerodynamics is tied to why I became a therapist, and my older brothers went into the “hard sciences.”

Anyway, any other guesses as to why the photo is so amazing? The cake? Well, I did reference it in the title of this piece, I suppose. And it is pretty impressive—home-baked, double-layer, chocolate frosting on devil’s food, set atop a shimmering, crystal cake stand, the candles, playfully askew. But, that’s not it, either.

Are you ready for it? The big reveal?

What’s so amazing about this picture is that it was taken, by my mother, one week after my father’s rather unexpected death. That the picture is so normal, that it fits in so perfectly with the small parade of yearly birthday pictures of all of my siblings and me (all featuring the birthday kid, with a cake and a gift, either posed alone or with that year’s cadre of siblings) is what is amazing to me.

My mother managed, seven days after what I assume was the absolute pinnacle of the sadness and distress in her entire life, with that sorrow still hanging heavily over her and the entire family, to make a cake, wrap a gift, and provide me and our family with some small bit of normalcy. I can imagine my mother just realizing that it was her duty to do so, that she signed up to have kids, and, well, that’s what you do when you have kids…you soldier on and keep things as stable as possible even if everything just collapsed right out from under you.

I have always wondered (and I suppose it wouldn’t take all that much to ask, but since mom will be reading this, I’m sure I’ll get an answer of some kind) if that plane was purchased before or after my father’s death…since it wasn’t until after my father’s death that what would be my first plane ride—out of Nebraska, and on to Oregon—would even be a thought. Was it a gift meant to help prepare me for that trip, or was it merely a coincidence? Was I fascinated with planes at the time? Was it just kind of a cool thing my parents thought I would like? Or was I manipulated by television commercials telling me I wanted that plane?

As a bit of an aside, here’s a Fisher Price commercial from 1972, including the plane, and narration by Dick Cavett. The gentle pitch to parents (although the images would definitely grab the attention of children) is rather quaint now, compared to todays ads telling kids that they MUST HAVE THESE TOYS NOW!!

At any rate, one thing I never noticed in this photo until I scanned it and really looked at it earlier this morning—is that the door behind me opens onto my parents’ bedroom—or what had recently become only my mother’s bedroom.   I can clearly see the same bed that my mother still sleeps in through that open door just behind me.

Not long ago, I told my mother that one of my earliest memories was of going into her bedroom (I believe after being told to leave her alone) and finding her lying on her perfectly-made bed, crying. I asked her why she was crying. I don’t recall that she said anything, only reached out to me and put her hand on my arm, which I had rested on top of the bed. Soon thereafter, somebody—a brother? Some other relative? A family friend?—stepped in and ushered me out of the room, closing the door behind us.

In my mind, the setting for this memory always defaults to our house in Oregon, because that is the only house my family lived in that I consciously remember. But seeing that, in this photo, the bed is covered in a white bedspread, just as it always was in our house in Oregon, it is easy to imagine that same scene playing out here, in the Nebraska house, although to ‘block out’ the scene would require flipping certain elements in different directions. I can definitely imagine that the dining room furniture in the photo here would have provided me with some measure of blockage between me and whoever (may have) told me to leave my mother alone, just as the short distance between our dining room and my mother’s bedroom in the Oregon house would have given me that tiny bit of time to do the same. Nebraska in September (probably more likely) or Oregon in November, it makes sense to me either way.

Getting back to the specific elements of the photo, certainly, other mothers have done the same as my mother did, in similar circumstances, just as other mother’s have fallen apart. Certainly, plenty of fathers have also had similar experiences following the loss of a spouse, and the effort to carry on and keep things stable for their children (or of falling apart). But it’s my birthday, and if I want to tell my mom she did an amazing thing—then I get to do that.

So, happy birthday to me, and thanks, mom!

 

*Color matches approximated using Ingrid Sundberg’s “Color Thesaurus” which can be found here: http://www.boredpanda.com/color-thesaurus-char-ingrid-sundberg/ .  If you have suggestions for better labels of the colors in the photo, feel free to submit them in the comments section below.

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 finding 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 maybe tend to that part of your conscience that’s problematic before you become a bad headline, or before you celebrate a bad headline.

Peace.

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?”

God Looks Away, Youth Minister Sex Offender Publishes Self-Serving Article (TW)

At the core of “My Easy Trip from Youth Minister to Felon,” an article posted in the online version of Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, is an odd and self-serving theological point: that God does not look upon sin, and that when sin continues long enough, God gives us over to it so that we might hit rock bottom and then seek redemption. God turning away is, according to the anonymous author, a convicted sex offender still in prison, the reason Jesus felt God had forsaken Him while He was on the cross—God could not look on His Son/Himself as His Son/He took on the sins of the world. It is God’s looking away, the author suggests, that allowed King David to embrace selfishness and send Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, into battle to die, so that David might have sexual access to Bathsheba. In this same fashion, the author contends, God looked away so that the author might plunge deep enough into sin to be made to answer for those sins.

The author provides no theological discussion of why God also looked away from the victim of the author’s sin, implying (through the author’s shaky theological discourse, and his frequent use of “we” and “our”) that the teenage girl who had been manipulated into a sexual relationship with her youth pastor, shared in the sin, or simply had to be sacrificed so that the author could be redeemed. Without ever naming his actual crime, the author crafts a tale of a sexual predator in need of redemption, and a sexual assault victim as sacrificial lamb, all with God’s blessing/God’s inability to stomach what was happening. But if we are to look at God as incapable of looking on sin, or even the victims of another person’s sinful behavior, then it seems only right to assume God looked away throughout the process that led to the publishing of the article.

The article, taken down from Leadership Journal after much public pressure, can be read from an alternate site here.

I’m a bit torn about whether I think people should read it—not in the sense that I think it deserved to ever be published in the first place—it didn’t—but because it provides an interesting look into the kinds of self-centered justifications, and victim-blaming that sex offenders will endorse in an effort to convince people around them that they’re sorry and won’t ever do anything like that again, because, boy, they’ve learned their lesson, and (in this case) Jesus forgave them, so you should, too.

What was meant by the editors to be taken as a moving story of sin and redemption was, instead, merely a continuation of the abuse, prettied up with self-aggrandizing mock-contrition and Bible verses. And, sadly, the editors saw fit to tag it with the “related topics” of Accountability, Character, Failure, Legal Issues, Self-examination, Sex, and Temptation. Of those tags, “Failure,” and “Legal Issues” seem the only appropriate ones. “Sex” only fits in the broadest definition; whereas “Sexual Assault” or “Sex Offenses” would have been much more fitting. “Temptation” is little more than a label that normalizes the sexualizing of underage girls.

It's not somebody who's seen the light...It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

It’s not somebody who’s seen the light…It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

What I keep wondering in all of this is how the article came to be posted in the first place. Did the editors of Leadership Journal coordinate with prison officials to approve the project, or did they just accept it from some inmate, insisting via e-mail that he had a unique tale of a fall from grace and a re-acquaintance with God? Did they know the author prior to his incarceration? Is the author in a treatment program in prison? If so, were his treatment providers at all aware of what he was doing? Were lawyers for the author, lawyers for the victim, or the judge in the case aware of the intent to publish such a piece? And, perhaps most importantly, was the victim, or the victim’s family aware that any of this was happening? And did she/they have any say in the matter?

I ask the above questions because I cannot imagine that, prior to publication, the article was examined by anybody with any clinical knowledge of offender behavior—or, for that matter, by anyone with any sense of the damage done to victims of sexual assaults. If I give the editors the benefit of the doubt, then maybe I can view them as possibly well-meaning, but definitely confused/ignorant people looking to generate an attention-grabbing conversation about statutory rape. And while, it certainly grabbed plenty of attention, that was because it took a story of sexual assault and transformed it into a discussion about how easy it is to be seduced by a teen when one takes one’s eyes off of God, and vice versa. The sexual content is so subdued/obscured that it comes across as if it is intended to describe temptation only—definitely much more so than if it was labeled appropriately as child molestation, pedophilia, hebephilia, exploitation of a minor, statutory rape, or rape.

Any sex offender treatment provider who knows anything at all about what she/he is doing certainly would never have approved of the article as it appeared. Offenders in treatment (in or out of prison) are often given writing assignments wherein they are required to relay details of their behaviors and thought processes and demonstrate an understanding of the damage they caused, as well as the way they convinced themselves it was okay. And while I recognize that it wasn’t specifically crafted as a treatment assignment, the Leadership Today piece reads like an eloquent first draft of such an assignment, crafted with care before a treatment provider and/or members of a treatment group demanded changes due to the author taking a victim stance, failing to acknowledge the actual crime or its impact on anyone other than himself, and refusing to incorporate even the most rudimentary sense of understanding about how he built up to the offense and kept it secret for as long as he did.

Or perhaps it’s more like a second draft, after the offender removed most of the overt blaming of the victim, and switched, instead, to implied mutual blame or implied consent for the crime.

I have heard hundreds of variations on the same basic story told in the article, from the mouths of offenders, emphasizing the frustrations in their lives, the reasons they had contact with the victim to begin with, and the reasons they are not to blame (and, yes, a lot of them invoke religion as part of that). It is rare to come in contact with an offender who, from the beginning (not of the offense, but of contact with the justice system and the need for an evaluation for sexual deviancy) is capable of outlining how he (or occasionally, she) manipulated the victim to engage in sexual acts and to keep it a secret, how he justified the crime to himself, and what specifically happened (in clinically appropriate and criminally accurate terms), without putting a large portion of the blame on the victim for somehow enticing or seducing him.

Despite the author’s claim, added after the controversy erupted, that he takes 100% of the blame for the crime, and recognizes that what he once viewed as a consensual relationship was no such thing, the article itself tells a much different story—of a man who worked hard to build something up for the glory of God (and how he was really amazing at doing that work), and then how he accidentally broke it because he was being selfish. Without ever acknowledging the severe harm he did to the victim, harm that is likely to last a lifetime, he signals that he has returned to a life of service to God because he is involved in leading a ministry group in prison (another thing I have a really hard time with anybody allowing).

And while the author touches on one of his justifications for engaging in his behavior—that his wife was paying too much attention to their children, and not enough to him—he is only able to acknowledge the impact on his wife in the form of the fight they had when she found out about the crimes, and how she left in the middle of the night with the children. The author laments that he has not seen his children since, but doesn’t even mention the extreme embarrassment and devastation he caused his wife and children. Nor does he ever fully indicate that he recognizes how childish his justifications for his behavior were, or how those justifications were merely the starting point for a cycle of lying and manipulation committed for the sole purpose of having repeated sexual contacts with a minor.

In a truly terrible minimization of his behavior, the author compares his repeated sexual abuse of the victim (while implying she shared in an identical struggle with him) to the difficulty of smokers trying to turn away from cigarettes.

From the complete dearth of information in the article, if this really were a treatment assignment, once all the extraneous details, self-promotion, and claims to deserved forgiveness are removed it might sound a little more like this:

“In my 30s, I accepted a position with a church as the coordinator of youth ministry. I built up the group from just a few members until it was one of the largest youth groups in the region. I realized I was experiencing sexual attraction to one of the underage members. I manipulated her into having sex with me, and justified my sex offenses, in part, by blaming my wife for not paying enough attention to me. I had sex with the teen repeatedly. When my wife found out, she took our children and left. I was convicted of sex offenses and sent to prison. I am currently still in prison. I will be a registered sex offender for the rest of my life.”

And, if the author began to actually include the most obvious missing items, the skeleton of a real assignment, or perhaps a combination of real assignments, would start to look like this:

“In my 30s, I accepted a position with a church as the coordinator of youth ministry. I built up the group from just a few members until it was one of the largest youth groups in the region. I realized I was experiencing sexual attraction to one of the underage members, and that she looked up to me in a way that made it possible for me to manipulate her. I set about grooming her. I justified my sex offenses, in part, by blaming my wife for not paying enough attention to me. I managed to work up to the point where I convinced the girl to have sex with me. I then had sex with her repeatedly while convincing myself that she wanted to have sex with me as well, that she was mature enough to handle a sexual relationship with an adult who is an authority figure in her spiritual life, and that I was in no way manipulating her. I managed to keep her from telling anybody about our relationship through various forms of coercion, and went to great lengths to keep anyone from finding out about it. We eventually got caught. My wife, understandably, left me and took the children with her. I was arrested and convicted of sex offenses. I am currently in prison. I will be a registered sex offender for the rest of my life. The teenager I manipulated and raped will need a great deal of therapy and other supports in order to cope with the aftermath of my actions. My wife, my children, and numerous other people impacted by my behavior will also need support to attempt to repair the damage I caused. I recognize that I need to stay away from minors for the rest of my life, and that I can never be placed in any kind of position where I might have authority that can be abused, particularly over any people who could be considered ‘vulnerable.’ I also manipulated editors of Leadership Today into publishing an article I wrote that completely justified my behavior, and suggested that the victim was equally to blame for my sex offenses.”

The assignment would be given back with numerous, specific requests for much more “self reflection,” “accountability,” and actual identification of his specific behaviors and thoughts.

Becoming a sex offender isn’t an “easy” path as the author’s title suggests. It is one that is pieced together with care by the offender, and crafted to secure the cooperation of the victim(s). It is not, as the author portrays it, a little trouble in a marriage, a dash of arrogance, and some innocent flirtations evolving over time into mutual passion—passion that makes God look away, as if God were easily embarrassed. Such a description may be a very simplistic explanation of how an extramarital affair (the words the author uses along with “adultery” to describe his sexually exploitative behavior of a child under his care) evolves.

Unfortunately, by diving into this discussion, without any sense of just how manipulative the author was, and how harmful his words are, the editors of Leadership Journal have put themselves in a place where they must now back away from this discussion entirely. Rather than promoting a meaningful dialog about forgiveness and redemption, they allowed a sex offender to promote himself as a victim of the temptation to have sex with minors.  They allowed him to promote his story of redemption—a story that rings as false as any rapist having the arrogance to compare himself to Christ on the cross, as he suggests that God’s mercy has saved him, all while implying a teenage girl entrusted to him for guidance and education was just as responsible for being raped as he was for raping her.