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.

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 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.

 

God Bless Anita Bryant

Friday, May 16, I had my first experience with a mental health/chemical dependency conference hosted by a drag artist. The incomparable Aleksa Manila presided over the “Saying it Out Loud” conference, complete with multiple costume changes and delightfully tasteless jokes between various announcements, awards, introductions, and seminars. This was the thirteenth annual gathering of this conference, which was created with the goal “to continue to co-create learning, growth and understanding of the best practices and relevant clinical services needed to support members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning communities.”

Dr. Ronni Sanlo served as the keynote speaker, as well as screening a new documentary, “Letter to Anita,” about her almost-wasn’t involvement in LGBTQ activism. Now I’m going to get into a few spoilers here, but I don’t think the basics of Sanlo’s story are the heart of the documentary, as much as is the personal perspective she brings to them. So, when I say her activism “almost-wasn’t,” I mean that Sanlo, like a number of lesbian women of her generation, went about her life as a heterosexual woman, married (to a man) with whom she had two children, not really aware that there were other options.

Unfortunately, just as Sanlo was realizing that there were other options, that the attraction she felt to women wasn’t something that made her completely alone in the universe, Anita Bryant was ginning up Florida’s legislature to pass laws denying parental rights to gay parents. Sanlo’s divorce went through.  Her children, for all practical purposes, were taken away from her.

Liberty turns her back as Anita Bryant looks to the sky, expecting Jesus to fly down and smite the gays.

Liberty turns her back as Anita Bryant looks to the sky, expecting Jesus to fly down and smite the gays.

Hearing the story now, it seems unfathomable to me. In part, my disbelief comes because at the time Sanlo was being viewed as an unfit parent simply for acknowledging who she was, I was living a few doors away from a blended family—two lesbian mothers with three teenage children among them. Granted, at the time, I was in grade school and not really aware that the two parents in that household were ‘romantically linked.’ I was under the impression, for whatever reason, that the families were living together for other reasons—economic? ecological? I remember that, in the fifth or sixth grade, when our class was given an assignment to write an editorial letter about an issue of concern, I mentioned the family as I explained why we shouldn’t be mowing down forests and fields to build new houses when there were other options, including multi-family homes, that would allow greater preservation of nature. Clearly, I had missed the more important political/social issue facing the family.

At any rate, the nature of my neighbors’ relationship was eventually pointed out to me by gossiping peers, with the implication that I was stupid for not having realized it, along with the weird sexual goings-on that were certainly a part of that relationship. Not to say that I was super-forward-thinking at the time, but I knew the two women as my neighbors who had been pleasant to me whenever I encountered them. So whatever sexual things may have been going on between the two women were of about as much interest to me as those of the parents of anyone I knew. That is to say, I really didn’t devote much time at all to thinking about sexual things between various peoples’ parents, and may, as I tilted toward pubrerty and all manner of prurient thoughts, have actively avoided thinking about them.

As far as I was concerned back then, anyone who was cool and/or innocuous toward me warranted much less concern, anger, or fear than the bevy of teenage male piltdowners who seemed to have little more to do than roam the suburban streets trying to prove their masculinity by tormenting children much younger and smaller than them—a model of “manhood” I unfortunately subscribed to briefly when I hit a similar stage in life.

I can only imagine that the lives of the couple from the blended family had some parallels to Sanlo’s—at least in terms of them apparently having partnered with men to build families in order to live out the deliciously limiting American Dream. It’s not too big of a stretch to believe my neighbors, like Sanlo, had seen few other options for relationships but hetero marriage and procreation. It was my understanding that both of my neighbors were divorced, although, like same-sex partnerships, such things were not discussed a great deal at the time, despite divorce quickly becoming commonplace—something that would reach almost all of my friends who hadn’t, like me, experienced the death of a parent. And if the exes of my neighbors were still coming around to visit their teenage children, I wasn’t aware of it. Then again, I wasn’t aware of much that went on in the lives of those teens, since there was far too great of an age gap between us—that impossibly vast chasm between elementary school and high school—for us to concern ourselves with each other.

Speaking of parallels and gaps, “Letter to Anita” touches on another critical piece of Sanlo’s life that fits in with the development of my own understanding of individual rights, freedoms, and what it actually means to be something “other” than heterosexual: Anita Bryant’s crusade against, well, all people who don’t fit her very narrow definition of appropriate relationships (never you mind Bryant’s own divorce).

As I’ve noted before on my blog, I was raised religiously, in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. My father was a pastor in said church. My father died when I was rather young. I spent a great many years struggling with religious ideals and how they fit into the world. And despite my current agnostic tendencies, I still hold onto an idea of religion as an expanding element in peoples’ lives, a force that should open people up to larger experiences, a force that should create love and acceptance, as opposed to a limitation on peoples’ lives that causes anger, hatred, judgment, and closed-mindedness. I spent a lot of time struggling over moral issues, their relation to legal and spiritual concerns, and how we all get along as a people who are supposed to be dedicated to personal freedom, personal responsibility, community ties, love, and all the rest of that stuff.

But Anita Bryant, with her perfectly coiffed hair and starchily-pressed orange and brown polyester outfits, was telling me, in her own, orange-juice-endorsing way, to fear, hate and distrust people I knew, people who had shown me kindness, people I knew to be funny, smart, and no threat to me at all. She put out albums (which, as a teen, my younger brother delighted in purchasing from the local Goodwill for the purposes of mocking and destroying) filled with patriotic and religious songs, promoting the goodness of the USA and Jesus. Yet, everything she said, every objective she pursued, was in contrast to freedom, goodness, and the anti-judgmental stance that Jesus and America were supposed to represent.

Yes, Anita Bryant, in contrast to all she stood for, or wanted to stand for, had helped turn this white, hetero, suburban boy, and his white, hetero, suburban friends, into supporters of gay America…into people who would forever see the gay menace she was so sure was destroying us all, as nothing more than the paranoid delusion of close-minded, controlling, angry people who were completely incapable of seeing the irony of their anti-freedom, anti-love stance as they waved their flags and thumped their Bibles.  Anita Bryant, as Sanlo notes, managed to galvanize opposition to gay rights opposition–even out into the hetero world and parts of the Christian community she was so sure she could count on to share her views.

So God bless Anita Bryant. God bless Ronni Sanlo. And God bless us everyone.

Crisis Line Prank Call Reviews: Ownage Pranks & the Wacky World of Rape Jokes

On the eve of April Fools’ Day, it only seems appropriate to look into the hilarious world of Crisis Line prank calls. The majority of prank calls to regional crisis lines and to the Lifeline Suicide Prevention Hotline involve humor of the sort that is enjoyed by middle-school males who fall on the low end of the socially-conscious and critical-thinking spectrum for that age group. And Ownage Pranks’ work in this area is no exception to that rule. (From here on out, I will be referring to the auteur/auteurs as “Ownage” since I don’t have any other name to associate with the site—withholding the names and hiding the faces of those involved being perhaps the only intelligent thing about Ownage).

The real achievement of Ownage, though, is that it has become the top Crisis Line prank call video on YouTube by exploring a juvenile fascination with anal penetration, engaging in racist stereotypes, and making light of domestic violence, rape, and spousal murder.  With this winning formula, Ownage managed to get well over 2 million views of it’s post titled “Asian Crisis Hotline Prank Call HILARIOUS!”  The title is perhaps best described as inexplicable, as it both identifies the prank as involving an Asian Crisis Hotline—whatever that’s supposed to mean, and refers to the prank call as hilarious—which is only appropriate if one believes the definition of “hilarious” to be “supportive of rape culture.”

The video, which is not exactly recommended viewing, was originally posted in March of 2009 and is comprised of audio with subtitles.  In case you haven’t had your fill of rape jokes and racist stereotypes for today, and you don’t trust me to accurately describe it, it is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9THBsHeODQ

Just be aware that by clicking on the above link, you’re going to build up the view tally for this video, and then have to live with yourself afterward.

Ownage Pranks is the brainless-child of some unknown person who bills it as “Nine stereotypical characters, one hilarious adventure.” Apparently, this is the tagline because Ownage believes that the people who would willingly view/listen to his pranks are too stupid to realize that the characters are based on stereotypes, and, as already mentioned, lack any knowledge of the definition of “hilarious.” The mascot for the site looks something like the Lamisil mascot “Digger,” the little toe fungus monster that, in one of the most disturbing series of commercials ever produced, lifts up toenails to crawl in under them. Visually associating Ownage with Digger is entirely appropriate, as both are roughly as pleasurable as toenail fungus and/or having one’s toenails lifted away from one’s toes.

Would you rather...have your big toenail pulled off, or listen to 7+ minutes of rape jokes?

Would you rather…have your big toenail pulled off, or listen to 7+ minutes of rape jokes?

At any rate, the Crisis Line prank involves Ownage “voice acting” as a woman that Ownage identifies as “Chinese—sorry Vietnamese.” When the crisis line volunteer, a 76-year-old woman, asks the caller for ‘her’ name, Ownage says, “Rangnahhahbilmangoyumdidahmgeh” (Ownage’s spelling from the subtitles). The Crisis Line volunteer then asks him to spell it out, and is told, “W-O-R-Q” for the first name, and “G-U-I” for the last name. Are we all cracking up, yet?

Ownage quickly dives into sexual abuse/spousal abuse/anal rape jokes with the caller explainnig that ‘she’ wants to have a family but that “every time we sleep together he want” (sic—as in deliberately ‘broken’ English) “to put it in the wrong area.”

The Crisis Line volunteer isn’t quite sure how to approach the call. Keep in mind that Crisis Line workers have to take every call seriously unless/until they can be certain it’s a prank. The volunteer’s task is made particularly difficult because Ownage keeps talking as much as possible, while asking only minimal, ridiculous questions. For instance, Ownage asks the Crisis Line volunteer if it would be a good idea to defecate on her husband’s penis while he is anally raping her in order to get him to stop.

Ownage goes on to say, “He force me. It like a rape.” Now, by saying it’s “like” a rape, I’m not sure if Ownage is making fun of the allegedly Vietnamese-American woman for not recognizing that her husband forcing her to engage in anal sex is actually rape, or if Ownage just doesn’t think that women who are married can be raped by their husbands. There are numerous other possible explanations behind what is supposed to be a joke, which I will leave out. I will just say that any woman who is forced into sex by her husband is, in fact, being raped, regardless of what part of her body is being penetrated, and regardless of what is being used to penetrate it.

Which leads us to our next point…Ownage proceeds to make jokes about the caller’s husband inserting baseball bats, wine bottles, beer bottles, and a watermelon into ‘her’ anus.

Following the watermelon comment, the Crisis Line volunteer states, “You need some help, you really do.” Ownage jumps right back in talking, I’m guessing, because he realizes that if the Crisis Line worker were to mention domestic violence shelters or resources for sexual assault victims, it would have ruined the glorious fun of his little prank. After all, nothing brings down a good rape joke like pointing out that it involves laughing at victims of sexual abuse.

Ownage also touches on the topic of men viewing porn and then expecting their wives/girlfriends to behave like the women in pornographic videos.   The caller reports that her husband watches videos that depict teen girls engaging in anal sex and enjoying it, and questions if there is something wrong with her for not enjoying anal sex like the performers in the videos. OMG, isn’t it so funny to think that men would watch porn, and then force their wives to engage in acts they viewed, whether or not their wives were comfortable going along with it? Oh, wait, that’s laughing at rape again, isn’t it?

Providing a brief break from the sexual violence jokes, the caller then mentions that ‘she’ thinks her husband is waking up and is in the bathroom. The husband in the bathroom becomes an excuse for Ownage to play some diarrhea sound effects—definitely the high point of the prank.

The husband eventually joins the conversation, and guess what? The husband is (supposed to sound like) a stereotypically abusive African-American man.  At this point in the prank, Ownage (via text) provides the little behind-the-scenes detail that, “I did both voices, by moving the mic away from me and turning away from the mic :).”  Yes, if ever there was a reason to use a smiley face emoticon, it’s when one is engaging in multiple racist stereotypes at once, all in the service of making jokes about sexual abuse.

The husband is then heard saying, “I’m not playin no games, you bitch. Now get your ass over here. Pull yo pants down nigguh” (Ownage’s subtitles). When the caller/wife protests/pleads that she does not want to engage in anal sex, and states that the “counselor” said “fack you,” to the husband, the husband gets on the phone with the Crisis Line volunteer and demands to know who is on the phone.

The prank ends with the ‘husband’ saying “fuck you” to his wife, followed by the sound of two gunshots, and then the wife wimpering for help. Are we all ROTFLOAO now?

Ownage’s prank lasts roughly 7 minutes, which can be enough time to de-escalate a person from a panic attack, or to help ground a person suffering from chronic mental illness.  It is enough time to determine a person is at serious risk for a suicide attempt, or perhaps has actively engaged in a suicide attempt, and is in need of intervention by emergency services.  It is enough time for a volunteer or paid professional to lend an ear to someone who has hit a rough patch in his/her life, and to provide that someone with a little solace.  But, instead, Ownage thought it would be funny to take up that time by trying to shock a 76-year-old woman with moronic jokes about anal rape, diarrhea sound effects, and racist “voice acting.”

As I’ve pointed out in other posts, when people point out problem “jokes” like this gem of a prank call, it is common for some backlash—accusations of excessive sensitivity, demands to lighten up, explanations that it is “just a joke.”

So, let me ask—on a scale of one to five—how many stars would you give to jokes involving racist stereotypes? How many stars does domestic violence rate? How about spousal rape? Spousal murder?

Yuck it up, clown. You really owned that 76-year-old volunteer.

 

 

Why Asking “Are You Off Your Meds?” Isn’t Funny

If somebody were to quit using their insulin, or stop taking their heart medication, would a company use that situation as a humorous way to try and sell soft drinks, power tools, or airline tickets?

In recent months, I’ve repeatedly heard a radio commercial involving a married couple discussing a particular service, which is supposed to be so great, at such an unbelievable price, that on hearing about it, the wife asks the husband, “Are you off your meds?”

Sadly, “off your (his/her/my/their) meds” is one of those expressions that is used so casually and so often that it is treated as a perfectly acceptable phrase to describe someone who is viewed as irrational, or who is behaving in any way that is deemed unacceptable by the person using the expression.  If the saying weren’t so accepted, it wouldn’t be used as a joke in a radio ad, in a way that the advertisers assume will cause no offense to anyone, and will actually draw people to the company that paid for the ad.

At base, when people use the phrase “off your meds” to take a dig at someone, they are indicating that they believe the target of that phrase is delusional, or foolish in some way that is indicative of mental illness.  Stripping that phrase down to its core, using “off your meds” as a joke is essentially saying that mental illness is something to be laughed at, and people who use medications to manage mental illness are appropriate targets of ridicule.  In such a context, the symptoms of mental illness that might lead to a diagnosis or to a prescription for psychiatric medications are symptoms that make a person entertaining, or perhaps annoying, in such a way that it is perfectly acceptable to mock them.

Hey, you know what would be really funny?  Debilitating psychiatric symptoms!!

Hey, you know what would be really funny? Debilitating psychiatric symptoms!!

For people working in the mental health field, and for a number of connected disciplines, such as medical practice or law enforcement, it is common to end up in situations where questions about a person’s psychiatric medications must be asked: “Are you prescribed any medications?,”  “Have you been taking your medications?,”  “Is your prescriber aware?,” and so on.  Such questions are not jokes to be taken lightly, but queries to get a read on potentially serious problems.

Mental illness that is being treated with medication is much like any physical condition being treated with medication, in that it is ideally guided by a skilled practitioner with a well-informed client, and with the client’s best interests in mind.  If medication is not being used properly, as directed by the prescriber, it becomes nearly impossible to know if medication is effective for a client, or if adjustments need to be made, or if new strategies altogether need to be employed.

So, what exactly does it mean to be “off one’s meds”?  The answer to that question depends on the nature of a particular mental illness, the severity of the illness, and a huge variety of factors in the life of the person taking the medications, much the same as it is for any physical illness being treated with medications.  Some mental illnesses may require use of medications over extended periods—years, or even decades—just to ensure a client’s ability to engage in daily functions.  Other mental illnesses may be subject to cycles where medications can be used over much shorter periods, when symptoms intensify, rather than as a long-term, critical part of everyday routines.

For some, being “off their meds” is the difference between stabilization and falling into debilitating psychiatric symptoms which are likely to lead to an inability to manage even simple tasks.  Intentional, or unintentional self-harm leading to hospitalization may be consequences of people being “off their meds.”  For people falling into this most severe category, maintaining a medication regimen without both professional and personal supports can be extremely difficult.

People with chronic, severe mental illness are also most likely to repeatedly go off their medications without warning, and without informing their friends, families, or professional supports of their decisions.  They are likely to do this with the thought that they are capable of handling their symptoms regardless of signs to the contrary.  Many who fall into the category of chronically mentally ill are also at risk of pursuing self-medication via alcohol, street drugs, or by tampering with the dosages of prescribed medications.

For people who need medications to manage psychotic symptoms, going “off their meds” can make a return to those medications extremely difficult.  Imagine, for example, trying to convince a client suffering from paranoid delusions that they need to take medications when that client views everyone urging the use of such medications as conspirators in a plot to poison and/or control that client.  In such cases, the unfortunate outcome may be that mental health conditions need to deteriorate to the point where the clients can be involuntarily hospitalized before they can get the help they need.

At the same time, for a number of people struggling with mental illness, being “off their meds” is a perfectly reasonable goal, one which they may achieve after a brief period of using medications, or one which they may find they need to pursue multiple times throughout their lives.  Such people may reach a point where they feel they have learned enough coping skills and health strategies to ease off their medications, as they try to maintain a healthy balance of the various elements in their lives, with the support of family, friends, and professionals.  Such attempts to live medication-free can lead to careful, deliberate lifestyle choices that allow for long-term, medication-free, satisfying relationships and careers.  But such attempts can also lead to disappointments, for example, when stressors become overwhelming, and people find that they need the support of medications to achieve periods of stabilization when things are at their worst.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I will say that I feel that the use of psychiatric medications without the support of counseling is almost always a mistake.  Medications without other professional mental health supports can keep clients from “checking in,” both with themselves, and with professionals who can help clients establish and/or strengthen coping skills.  Since it is becoming less and less common for prescribers to have the time for more than brief check-ins with clients, having mental health supports beyond just medication is crucial.

Let me also say that I know that people who call attention to such language issues are frequently accused of lacking a sense of humor, or of being overly sensitive.  Those who make such accusations are also quite fond of demeaning people for taking offense at something that is “just a joke.”  And, no doubt, there are also those people who fall into the potentially-offended group (people on psychiatric medications) who will say that phrases like “off your meds” do not offend them, because they have a sense of humor.

To such people, I say, go ahead and say what you want to say.  I can’t stop you, and I agree it is your right to do so.  But just know that you have a choice to say, or to not say, things that are potentially offensive.  If you feel that it is more important to make jokes about people being “off their meds” than it is to maybe find a different way of expressing yourself, then just don’t demand that others not get offended by your words.  You don’t have any more a right to expect a particular reaction to your words (especially after the potential offense has been pointed out) than anybody has a right to tell you that you can’t say something.

In the United States, we have a convoluted relationship with psychiatric medications, counseling, and mental illness in general.  We rail against people wanting to take pills to solve their problems, then turn around and rail against people who don’t take medications they need.  We say people need counseling to work out their issues, but then condemn counseling as something for people who are too weak to manage their own problems.  And we simultaneously blame untreated mental illness for heinous events, while laughing at people with untreated mental illness.

So how about if we agree that psychiatric medications, when used appropriately, can have a great many benefits, rather than shaming people who use them?  How about if we agree that counseling, entered into in good faith between practitioners and clients, is something that can be of great help?  And how about if we agree that you don’t get to blame untreated mental illness for gun violence (which is a ridiculous argument) and then turn around and laugh about how funny untreated mental illness is (which is an asinine thing to do)?

 

 

 

 

People Up: Toward ‘Gender Neutral’ Suicide Prevention

Phone-based crisis intervention and suicide prevention frequently involves guiding a caller toward an (often tenuous) agreement that there’s a reason to get through the next day, or maybe just the next hour.

Toward the end of a recent call, the man I’d been talking to for over 40 minutes summed up the call by saying, “Yeah, I get it…man up.”  He went on to mildly berate me, suggesting that he could have had the same stupid conversation with his dad if his dad hadn’t died.  But I’ll take that as a victory.  He agreed he would stay alive to see his kids on the weekend.

He would not agree to turn his gun over to a friend or family member, which would have helped lessen the likelihood of impulsive, violent suicide.  But, for the time being, he had put it away.  And at least he was calling.

Still, the “man up” comment stuck with me.  I suppose on a greatly reductive level, “man up,” was a component of what I had been saying—especially from the perspective of someone who, based on his interpretation of the world around him, had been getting that message for quite some time–that he needed to just take care of his problems and quit complaining.  But it is not the kind of phrase I would ever use with someone, or the kind of message I would try to convey.

My conversation with him had woven in and out of a number of concerns, with the crux of the conversation coming down to the caller’s children, and his responsibility (like that of all parents) to do whatever possible to ensure their well-being.  It is a conversation I’ve had hundreds of times.

The majority of such calls, involving people who have children but are contemplating suicide, involve the caller expressing that his/her children will be better off without them.  There are a small number of variations on the ‘logic’ behind such a thought—usually involving the children not having to suffer through the heartache of the bad parenting they will certainly continue to experience, the hassles the kids will face by bouncing back and forth between divorced parents, and the notion that the children will “get over it” in time.  If the children are young, callers express that it won’t make that big of an impression.  If the children are older, the parents think the children ‘don’t need me anymore’ or are mature enough to process what happened and move on with their lives.

Never mind the mental twists and turns it takes to imagine that children will have coping skills enough to deal with the suicide of a parent, when that parent doesn’t have the coping skills to deal with loss much less permanent than death—loss of a job, loss of a home, loss of a marriage—or any of numerous variations and combinations of things and people that have gotten away.  Statistical studies show that children of people who commit suicide are at greatly increased risk for attempting/committing suicide themselves.  In an overly-simplistic explanation, the increased risk can relate to genetic factors involved in mental health issues, but it also involves behavior modeling.  Our parents are usually the most significant modelers of behavior in our lives.  And we are all doomed to become our parents.

At any rate, I found myself having the same basic conversation with a woman less than two hours later.  “What messages are you sending your kids if you kill yourself?”  I challenged the cognitive distortions in her justifications for suicide, and explained the threat of her children committing suicide and otherwise potentially being saddled with mental health issues from the suicide of a parent.  Ultimately, we got to a similar end result—the caller agreeing she would put up her pills, and live another day.

But in the conversation with the woman, there was no idea of needing to “woman up”–no need to do what was stereotypically feminine in order to go on living, even though the idea of someone ‘sacrificing’ (in this case, the twist being that sacrificing meant staying alive) for one’s children is something that stereotypically falls more heavily on women.

With the ‘man up’ comment replaying itself in my thoughts repeatedly over the next few days, I realized I was (internally) protesting too much.  The notion that I had a nearly identical conversation with a woman that same night seemed like a defensive position more than a straightforward assessment.

I ran through other ideas, examining the way I deal with men versus the way I deal with women.  For example, any form of counseling involves meeting the client where the client is.  Such meeting includes the client’s perceptions of self in relation to gender.

Still, the client’s perceptions are not the same as my way of interacting with the client.  The client’s perceptions dictate a number of things about how I will approach the client, what thoughts might be challenged and how, for example.  But at base, how I deal with people of different genders is on me.  And I need to be aware of whether those dealings are clinically appropriate or not, whether they are tinged with personal biases about what constitutes being appropriately manly or womanly, or fitting into any other gender identity.

I have no problem acknowledging that I speak to people of different genders differently, and that things such as age, economic status, religious beliefs, education, ethnicity, and a whole host of other concerns can color the interactions I have with them.  An awareness of how clients differ in background falls under a heading of “cultural competence.”  Conducting all sessions or interventions in the exact same fashion would be negligent.

Cultural competence includes the need to avoid approaching clients from any viewpoint of prejudice.  In U.S. culture, with its heavy bias toward the idea of women being nurturing and emotional, and men being stoic and strong, it is easy to fall into a trap of diminishing men who seek support, while being much more accepting of women seeking support.  The underlying concepts of weakness and strength, as relates to seeking support, diminish everyone.  Accepting girls and women who seek support while being less accepting of men and boys who do the same indicates an underlying belief in the weakness of women–the need of women to have support, while believing men don’t–or shouldn’t.

In a context where men are expected to “man up” and take care of their problems, rather than to seek help in processing what is going on with them, it makes sense that many men reaching out for help are, if not hostile, at least pensive and anxious—feeling there is something inherently wrong with seeking help, so taking a position challenging those who might help them.

As a culture, we in the U.S. encourage defensiveness and entrenchment in men—refusal to change—with the exception of encouraging men to become ever harder, ever more willing to engage in aggressive fortifying of their position, with that position often being one of isolation.  The processing men do frequently gets externalized to the point where it is not processing at all.  They, for example, focus on fixing the world, usually by berating the weak, or advocating the destruction of people seen as enemies, rather than addressing the personal in their lives and what such isolation and fortification does to them.

I posit that the gender-stereotyped notion that men need to take action is in large part what leads men to commit suicide most often in a rather violent and impulsive fashion.  When the problem is your whole life, and you’ve been taught that the appropriate response to problems is action, frequently violent action, then ending one’s life can seem like an appropriate reaction when that life has gone off the rails.  Mix in alcohol, drugs and weapons, and suicide can seem a reasonable course of action, and be carried out quickly—a decisive form of action, a manly form of action.

This is not to say that I think men in the U.S. are “victims” of the mental health system or of some pro-suicide/anti-male conspiracy.  Men, whether willingly or unwittingly, participate in, and perpetuate, the stereotypes that trap them…the stereotypes that say seeking help is synonymous with weakness.  And so, long as angry men rail against the “wussification” of the nation, they are advocating for a culture of death before mental health, and ensuring that men will not seek help for mental health issues, or if they do, that it will come with a heaping helping of defensiveness and hostility, potentially putting clinicians in a position of enduring abuse, or having to break down numerous walls, before being able to engage productively with male clients.

So, instead of urging anyone to “man up,” perhaps perhaps there could be a kind of unstated encouragement to “people up”–and not in the reductive way that “man up” is used, but in a way that is expansive.  To “people up” could mean to recognize our responsibilities to one another as human beings, whether that be as parents, clinicians, friends, family members, or citizens.  We need to recognize the harm in gender stereotypes, particularly if seeking help and support is connected to stereotypes of weakness.

The Coat: A Haute Couture Horror Story

I wasn’t exactly a fashion-forward fourth grader.  Or perhaps my complete lack of fashion sense just meant I was incapable of comprehending what a style juggernaut I was.

At any rate, one would think that a nearly-knee-length, brown, corduroy coat, with enormous brown buttons and a matted-dog-fur-esque collar/lapel would have perfectly complimented my favorite pair of pants—off-white polyester with a thin woven black and orange-ish-yellow plaid.  But I wasn’t havin’ any of it.

I was used to my wardrobe being largely comprised of hand-me-downs.  And, for the most part, those came from my older brothers, so I’d had a preview of what I’d be wearing in upcoming years.  In most cases, I was looking forward to the day when those items would become mine–that funky navy/robin’s egg/and white macrame´ vest with the tassels, those polyester pants in sea-foam green with a padded micro-waffle texture…

But that coat.  That goddamned coat.  Childhood memories are, of course, often comprised of impressions and sensations, with a few points of actual fact.  As for the jacket, I think it came from a cousin.  I can’t be sure.  But I had been looking forward to taking possession of the multi-panel, blue, red, and white, ‘normal’ ski jacket my older brother had, at the same time I would pass my own multi-panel beige, white, and blue ski jacket onto my younger brother.

But by some cruel twist of fate, that brown, corduroy monstrosity had insinuated itself into the orderly transition of jackets.  It was an interloper.  It did not belong.  I lost my ski jacket to my younger brother, but took possession of that…thing.

Nobody wore a coat like that.  I mean, for fuck’s sake, people had metallic silver NASA jackets, and puffy, stuffed ski jackets in traffic-cone orange.  But a brown, corduroy jacket?  What the hell?  That thing wasn’t even waterproof.  And damned if I wanted to deal with something so stupid and girly as an umbrella to keep me dry (although I did have a really cool, clear, plastic, dome-style umbrella—oh, the sound of rain pounding down on that while pretending to be in a futuristic car or plane with a bubble dome over my own, personal pilot’s compartment.  ‘Fuck you, rain.  I’m from the future’).

Okay, I didn’t actually say “fuck you” to the rain or anybody/anything else when I was in the fourth grade.  But I did have my own arbitrary standards of what I would allow anybody to witness.  I walked to school every morning with my younger brother and older sister.  And, as with the umbrella, I would put the coat away on approaching the school, and, at the end of the school day, would avoid putting it on until a safe distance from the school grounds and any classmates that might see me.

To avoid the suspicion of my sister (or so I thought), as we approached the school, I would mention a few times how hot I was feeling in that bulky coat.  Now, by “put away” I meant I took the coat off and draped it over my arm, or rolled it into a tight bunch, hopefully making it inconspicuous enough that nobody would ask what it was or why I wasn’t wearing it until I could make it to the jacket hooks in my classroom.  There, I would abandon the damned thing, hanging it behind other coats already present, and pray nothing would happen that would lead anyone to look at it too closely.  My mom had, of course, written my name on the collar tag.  All anybody would have to do to see it was mine was flip it open a bit, right where it hung.

To minimize the possibility of anybody accidentally seeing it was my coat, I devised ways of folding the collar down between the hook and the tag, to keep the tag blocked from all but those who would actually go to the trouble of making the effort to move the collar and read the tag…as if that were a thing somebody would do.

I would leave the coat there, hanging.  Walking away from it, I would feel a small tinge of guilt at rejecting something that just wanted a chance to keep me warm—and not just rejecting it, but trying to hide its connection to me.

Mornings, before first bell, I would hang out in the classroom, often hovering by, or leaning against, the heater that ran along the length of the far wall.  I would pretend to study the calendar or the bulletin board that surrounded it, or look at the bulletin boards near the back wall where student classwork was posted, or even pull a book from the bookshelf and lean against the heater, reading, as if this was the kind of thing people did, warming myself from the chill that would set in during the few blocks I walked sans jacket.

If my best friend at the time, Doug, showed up early enough, we would inevitably draw—I don’t think I was in my souped-up van phase yet.  I was probably drawing monsters, while Doug worked at planes and other vehicles with an architect’s precision.  At any rate, I would make sure we moved the drawing activities as close to the heaters as possible.

Recesses were a bit trickier.  I spent them all in the library—first recess—about 15 minutes around 10:15 a.m.; lunch recess—whatever time was left after our noon lunch, which I took to eating rather slowly; and afternoon recess—15 minutes at 2:15 p.m.  There was some sort of ban on spending all of one’s recesses indoors—at least one recess had to be spent outside, to make sure we were getting fresh air and exercise.  Although, if you ask me, fresh air and exercise when it is 40 or fewer degrees outside is just about the last thing anybody needs—especially a skinny fourth-grader who refuses to wear his only coat.

So, in one of my earlier acts of rebellion and coercion, I convinced Doug to blow off the oppressive guidelines that said we had to go outside, and hang out in the library with me where we strategically re-positioned ourselves from recess to recess, playing chess, drawing, listening to old “Jack Benny Show” cassettes on bulky headphones, or, of course, reading.

This went on for several weeks before we were confronted about any of it.

But in the meantime, something else happened.  One morning, on the way to school, I realized I had left a homework assignment at home.  Now, the forgotten homework assignment did not occur to me until after I had gone through my ritual of claiming I was too hot to wear my coat, and had taken it off.  When the thought of the homework struck me, I thrust my coat at my sister, asking her to hold it, while I dug through my bag to confirm what I was already certain of…that I had left my homework papers on my desk at home.

I contemplated taking off with my book bag—after all, if I didn’t have it, what was I going to do with my homework once I retrieved it?  But it could only slow me down.  I checked my brown, Timex watch and calculated whether I could make it home and back in time for first bell, and weighed which was worse—arriving at school without my homework, or maybe arriving late.  I decided I should go for it.  Leaving my bag and coat with my sister, I took off, in a dead sprint all the way home through the suburban streets.

Despite my sense of self that says I was never athletic, I was fast—at least at short-distance running.  Soon, I arrived home, burst in through the front door, charged upstairs and flew across my bedroom to grab my homework.  Of course, this wasn’t the kind of thing that would have escaped my mother.  On my way back down and out, mom stopped me to ask if everything was okay.  I breathlessly told her I forgot my homework, but everything was fine—I could make it to school in time.  Not being one to not notice such things, my mother asked what happened with my coat.

I have no recollection of what I actually said, but in my built-up remembrance of the story, I said that I had made it to my classroom, took off my coat, realized I didn’t have my homework, and so ran home, not thinking about the coat, or anything other than that I needed to get my homework turned in.  I am convinced that I was a big enough nerd/worrier that my mother would have totally accepted this answer.

Perhaps at this point I would do well to lay out exactly what my real problem with the coat was.  Brown corduroy, fuzzy lapels, and giant buttons were only a part of the problem.  Certainly, they were a problem in the face of metallic silver and traffic-cone-orange fabrics.  Brown corduroy could not compete with that.  In fact, a brown corduroy coat was probably just as weird as metallic silver or puffy traffic-cone-orange pants would have been, while brown corduroy pants wouldn’t have drawn any attention at all.  But what was really problematic for me was that the coat reached nearly to my knees.  I thought it looked like an ugly dress.  I was afraid that I would be insulted for being girly.  By this time in my life, between my curly hair, penchant for school work and art, pronounced interest in stuffed animals, and general lack of interest in sports, I had been accused of being girly enough that I realized it was a ‘bad’ thing.  In fact, I had even mostly given up on engaging in one of my sister’s favorite pasttimes for me—putting on her emerald green costume dress and wandering through the living room when we had company.

So, I did my damnedest to try and plough through to the other side of winter without having to wear that damned coat anywhere that any of my classmates might see me, so they wouldn’t add it to the heap of things that suggested I was less-than-masculine.

On that particular occasion, I made it back to the school grounds, which were deserted…at least on the outside.  As I entered the far end of the field, I heard the “final” morning bell ring.  My heart sunk.  I was going to have to go through the humiliation of checking in at the main office.  And, I had left my book bag and coat with my sister.  I had the stupidest coat ever, and was probably going to have to go to my sister’s classroom to pick it up, where I would not only be forced to apologize profusely for interrupting class, but where I would probably be forced to put on the coat so my sister and her classmates could laugh at me before I returned to my own class, where my classmates could laugh at me, and decide right then and there that I was entirely too girly for anybody to ever be friends with me again.

Instead, I had the brilliant idea to go straight to my classroom and play dumb.  What?  I’m late?  Oh, well, here’s the homework assignment.  Gee, it’s cold in here.  Can I go sit on the heater while we copy our spelling words for the week?

My teacher, Ms. W, welcomed me to the classroom, and said nothing about me being late.  Being a teacher’s pet had its advantages.  She brought my book bag over to me, which my sister had thoughtfully dropped off at my classroom.  When I realized the implications of the presence of my book bag, I whipped my head around to check the coat rack.  There, out in front at one of the first spots, was my coat.  I was sure I could read my name on the tag from across the room, and was certain that my classmates had all seen it as well, and had probably already come up with some involved plan for recess wherein I would end up locked in the girls’ bathroom, or wandering the playground in that coat, as people fled from me like I was infected with the plague.

But, due to some sort of weird technicality, I was being set free.  My sister had dropped off my things and explained that I had gone back home to retrieve my homework.  That was good enough for Ms. W.  God, I loved/hated my sister.

Speaking of my sister, there was somewhere in all of this drama where she tried to convince me that the coat was totally acceptable—cool even.  How did she do that?  Peanuts, of course…  She tried to convince me that Snoopy was wearing the same basic coat by showing me a coloring book image with this version of Snoopy in a furry, brown coat.

Check it out...Snoopy's coat is almost as stupid as your's.

Check it out…Snoopy’s coat is almost as stupid as your’s.

I wanted to embrace this.  But it just wasn’t the same coat.  Snoopy was plainly wearing a fur coat that was part of an outfit showcasing his love of football.  And, for once, I didn’t give a fuck what Snoopy was doing.  Even if he had been wearing the exact same coat, it was stupid, and I hated it.  Snoopy should just go back to being naked, and I should get a normal jacket.

The real undoing in the whole coat drama involved my library scheme falling apart.  I can picture alternate versions of this scene…one with one of the librarians confronting me (and Doug), one with the other librarian doing the same, a third with both librarians doing the same, and a fourth with my teacher confronting me—although in that version, my imagination always inserts my sixth grade teacher, which makes no sense.

At any rate, the end result was that I had to go outside for at least one recess a day…which I was supposed to have been doing all along.

If I’m remembering correctly, I chose the lunchtime recess, because I could waste time in the cafeteria until the last person was done eating.  I even tried to sign up for lunch duty in the hopes of getting stuck wiping down tables instead of going outside.  But the cafeteria duty was assigned in a rotating pattern.  I couldn’t take over for anybody, no matter how much they would have been happy to have such a thing happen.  But even without cafeteria duty, after leaving the lunch room, I could waste time in the classroom, pretending to get ready to go out.

But eventually…I would have to go outside.  And I wasn’t going to put that coat on.

Doug and I had invented some sort of (now forgotten) game, based around the monkey bars, which we called “Planet of the Apes.”  So, of course, we called them the ape bars.  I tried to get back into that game, but I was freezing my face off.  I decided I couldn’t survive on the Planet of the Apes, and so ducked into an alcove in an outside wall where a drinking fountain had once been.  It wasn’t exactly comfortable or pleasant, and some of the piping that used to connect to the drinking fountain was still poking out of the back wall.  But it kept me out of the wind.  Doug initially tried to make a game of me being wedged into that alcove, standing in front of me, telling any passers by that there was nothing to see and to move along.  Of course, this attracted attention, at least briefly.  But like most of the things Doug and I did together, most people just ignored us.  It didn’t take Doug long to get bored of hanging out with somebody who was tucked into a hole in the wall.

In my mind, these recesses went on for weeks, in the same way that one’s mind can exaggerate any terrible experience.  Each time I was out on the playground, our playground aide, Ms. Volstack, would ask me about my jacket, doing her due dilligence, but would leave it alone when I said I had a coat but was doing just fine without it.  In reality, the coatless recesses probably lasted about three days…probably a total of 24 minutes outside.  Then Ms. Volstack was out for the day and our Principal, Mr. Scribner, filled in on recess duty.

It was also the day that one of the developmentally delayed kids decided to investigate my presence in the drinking fountain alcove.  My mind keeps inserting one of two particular people into the role of that kid, somebody who I didn’t know until the eighth grade, or a friend of mine from the year before, who had moved away, who was not DD.  Anyway, this kid was flitting about the playground, arms pulled up into his sleeves, flapping them around and making bird noises.

He had passed by the alcove a few times when he decided a bird attack was in order.  He had bird-attacked multiple other people that recess—which consisted of squawking loudly and swatting at the victim with his sleeves).  He augmented his usual bird attack by turning his back to me, and slamming into me.  With the piping coming out of the wall behind me, this became very unpleasant very fast–well, even more unpleasant than somebody slamming me into a concrete wall that didn’t have pipes sticking out of it.  And then Mr. Scribner came into view, checking to see why this kid had become interested in attacking the defunct drinking fountain alcove.

Mr. Scribner shooed the kid away and then began grilling me about just what I was doing wedged into the wall like I was, without a jacket.  I insisted, as I had with Ms. Volstack, that I had a coat, I just didn’t need it.  Mr. Scribner, though, was not as easily persuaded that all was fine.

See, my mom was a widow, or as one might call her these days, a single mother.  And not only a single mother, but one with five sons and one daughter.  Women, it was insisted at the time, could not raise sons adequately.  And given my exceptional oddness, I’m sure I did nothing to help disabuse people of such a notion.

Fortunately, the bird attack had not taken place until the last few minutes of lunch recess.  When the bell rang, despite Mr. Scribner standing there in front of me, I ducked to the side and bolted.  Like I said, I was fast.

I wasn’t party to whatever happened next.  I assume there was a phone call home.  I don’t remember my mother asking me anything about the coat…or I should say, I don’t recall ever being truthful about the coat when speaking to my mother.  I am sure I complained about it to her early on, in the way I most often complain, where there is no resolution except for the target of the complaining to go away forever.

My best guess is that my sister explained to my mother what I hated about that coat.  And I’m guessing my sister casually extracted that information from me while we were playing 45s in her bedroom.  Despite her history of getting me in trouble more than any other person on earth possibly could have, I was open with my sister unlike anybody else.  I can imagine that, while switching records between “Help Me Rhonda” and the “Theme from Rockford Files,” I said that the coat was so long it looked like a dress.  Bam.  Mystery solved.  Problem solved…sort of.

The next morning, when I got up, the coat was laid out at one end of the dining room table…along with a strip of about eight inches of fabric my mother had trimmed off the bottom of the coat.  She had sewn the bottom of the coat up, so it looked just like a shorter version of the same coat.

As with any of the times that I was confronted with the knowledge that somebody had learned of one of my bizarre schemes, I felt some deep-seated terror that I was in real troubl–that my mom had fixed the problem with the coat, and now I was gonna get it (not that I ever really “got it”—my mom is one of the most level-headed people I’ve ever met).  I stiffened up, and took my seat at the table to eat my breakfast…oatmeal and buttered toast.

At some point, my mother entered the dining room and said something along the lines of “I trimmed some of the extra fabric off your coat, so maybe it will fit better.”

I thanked her.  I wore the coat to school.  I took the big leap of wearing it all the way to class…and on recess, anticipating some fallout from wearing a jacket so ridiculously different from everybody else’s.

There was no fallout.

I suppose there’s some lesson to be learned about asking for help, voicing what you want so you can get the help you need…or at least explaining the specifics of what’s bothering you.  But still, even in its altered (and to my mind, less girly) state…I hated that fucking coat.