When she was seven, before I had met her father and later adopted her and her brothers, my (not-yet) daughter went to school with a large burn on the underside of her elbow. It perfectly matched the shape of two oven burner coils.
Her teacher sent her to the nurse, who reported to the authorities what the little girl had told her: the burns got there when her mother held her arm to the hot coils as punishment for stealing cookies to feed herself and her brothers because “mom” was passed out on the couch.
She was immediately placed in foster care, her father was brought back by the Red Cross from a military deployment, and his wife was arrested for child abuse. The court barred the mother’s contact with the daughter and her brothers until the mother was determined by a court-ordered therapist to be clean and sober for six months. The children were all given mandatory mental health counseling. (It took two years for the biological mother to make it to that first therapist-supervised appointment. She never came back for the next one. (Did I deal with children’s acting out behaviors as a result of this little experiment? Rhetorical. No words. It was a nightmare for months.))
In response to the many questions I have received about my recent estrangement series, that’s how my kids happened to be in therapy when they were so young. It was not quite a year after the biomom was removed that I met them.
The night I met their father at a New Year’s Eve party in 1998/1999, he sheepishly mentioned during our first conversation that he had full custody of his three young kids. I laughed at the look on his face. My immediate reaction was, “Wow! Well, either your wife did something really awful or you’re the father of the year, because this state does not give full custody to fathers!” A few years before, I had dated a man who was engaged in a horrific custody battle with a wife who was more interested in partying and dating than her kids. He was spending a fortune on lawyers and losing.
At my exclamation about potentially being father of the year, the guy I was talking to immediately relaxed and his smile broadened. I said I guess he had a lot of trouble connecting with many women who weren’t a little put off by the prospect of instant momhood with that big a potential family. He shrugged and nodded with a sort of “well, yeah” smiling grimace. I laughed again.
Before the new year was up, I was in therapy sessions with them. The psychiatrist the court had appointed was basically throwing prescriptions at the kids for ADD/ADHD and telling their dad to have a nice day. Because of my newspaper writing work about domestic violence, I knew of a practice that specialized in child abuse and suggested their dad see if he could take the kids there. The youngest had his own specialist because he had a few more challenges and was in preschool; his brother and sister saw a different one together across the hall.
That’s how this journey began.
I think the first thing that surprised me was that the therapists wanted me to join the sessions. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if I was an invested caregiver, they said, to help me help them, and to be able to work as a team with their dad. He gave me written permission. The rest is history.
The next thing that surprised me was the language they used: their biomom was “drunk.” She was “high.” She used alcohol. She used drugs. Substance abuse. Addiction. She had abused them. It seemed so stark, especially around such young children.
Clarity, the therapists told me. It’s the “stump analogy.” When amputees lose a limb, medical and rehabilitation specialists refer to the remains of the limb as the “stump,” not the leg, not the arm. The stump. It is designed to bring a sense of the new reality to the patient and discourage denial and enhance recovery and healing. I had worked in hospitals for years and knew from working around bereavement specialists that some grief recovery also entails saying “died and dead,” not “crossed over/passed on/transitioned.”
When children live in households with substance and/or other abuse issues, the tendency of some adults to “protect” the kids is to minimize what’s really going on. Dad “isn’t feeling well.” Uncle Smitty is “being silly.” Mom is “sleepy tonight.” Grandma has a “bad temper.” The kids aren’t stupid, they know exactly what’s going on, but being told that what they see isn’t really what they see and experience sets them up for not trusting their own eyes, ears, feelings and gut as they get older. Facing the reality with the correct terminology is like putting Klieg lights into a dark room.
My interest in the field of domestic violence began in the 1980s, when I was on active duty and stationed at the Naval hospital in Bethesda. I was assigned to a Pentagon group working at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) to compile documented domestic violence incidents across all branches of the military into one database to be shared with the Department of Justice. They ranged from mom swatting Johnny on the bottom with a hair brush to shaken baby deaths and everything in between. Adult couple beatings. Death threats between siblings. Sexual abuse. Incest. It was horrifying and fascinating, what human beings can perpetrate on each other, especially within their own families.
The reports were one page long, both sides, sometimes with one additional page attached. There were years’ worth, and tens of thousands of them. Some of them were multiples within the same family. The group overseeing the project consisted of military and civilian social workers, psychologists and a psychiatrist. I picked their brains every chance I got. They answered all my questions and referred me to books. I was so curious and felt so compelled to pursue it, I began a mental health associate course of study at a local community college. It also removed any stigma I had about what it meant to see a professional for help in recovering from emotional injuries and mental illness.
Studying for my undergraduate degree as a communications major as a 36-year-old adult student, youth violence was my primary focus in mass media research. As a college reporter and then a staff writer on two regional newspapers, I covered domestic violence for awareness months every October and April. I knew the heads of every shelter in the area, had met with and talked to dozens of victims, medical and mental health providers, attorneys, a family court judge.
Now here I was, beginning to apply a decade and a half of book and research knowledge to three little beings I was caring for directly, with their therapists and their dad.
I naively thought I had a clue what I was getting into.
What I have learned through experience since the beginning of January 1999 could — and someday might — fill a book of my own. As I mentioned in the series, when confronted with problems, or questions, or anything I didn’t know how to handle, I’d plunge into research up to my hairline.
Part of the irony in my “Irony & the Rules of Estrangement” series is that my daughter was so committed to ending the cycle of abuse in her own family and helping kids in similar situations, she pursued psychology and social work in college. The sad thing is how it appears she has turned those Klieg lights off, or pointed them away from her own situation to blind the eyes of people looking in.
She was afraid of a lot, was terrified of her first public speaking gig, but was determined to pull it off when she was in middle school and presented child abuse as her topic. I got a call from the principal one day when she had pushed a boy into a trash can for being insensitive about the subject. To her credit, bless her heart, she warned him that she was getting annoyed. He kept it up. Into the trash he went. The principal was sympathetic, he said, but had to make the call. Because of the circumstances my daughter wasn’t in trouble, but could I please have a talk with her. Of course. I did. Tsk, tsk, and “Brava, girlfriend.” Fist bump. Don’t do that again. (She didn’t.)
I turned Klieg lights onto my situation with my daughter recently for a lot of obvious reasons. I’m an advocate. I’m a public writer. I educate people.
I lived with her. And her brothers. And her dad.
I dealt with an extended family not only committed to denial, but fiercely protective of the lock on the family closet.
I worked with these kids’ therapists — I worked hard with these kids and their therapists — for a very long time, calling out wrongs, fighting against people who harmed them physically and emotionally, working to encourage them to recognize reality just like I was taught to do, so they could hopefully someday do their own healing work and thrive as much more emotionally healthy individuals and love their own someday kids unconditionally and in all the right ways.
“I’m not like you, I can’t do this” was something my daughter would tell me sometimes when I’d push back for her insisting her heart was a black hole and she could never recover. When she wanted to thrive on being a victim. My attitude was “oh, no you don’t.” I forced her so many times to prove to herself that she could do whatever she set her mind to and that she could win the battle against her demons.
When she wanted to get her first job but was afraid, I sat with her to memorize menus, then took her over to the local burger joint she thought looked like a cool place to work. She became their top employee, as she did in subsequent jobs. She’d fight with me about how much she hated it when I was teaching her to drive. “It’s independence, my girl; you totally got this.” She did. Of course she did. When she sat tearfully filling out college applications saying she wasn’t ready, I hugged her and told her to get back to work, driving her down to another state to visit campuses and checking out dorm room products at Target. Then I shoved her out of the nest. The whole family and her BFF helped her move into her room. She had some issues, but girlfriend totally owned it.
Tough love? Just love.
My girl is a fighter, just like her mom. Sometimes she just needs a reminder of the truth she knows and that fear and anger are things she can fight just as hard as she used to.
Whether or not she decides she will is up to her, of course, but my goals and my focus have never changed. Truth can’t hide in the dark, and sometimes the words to describe them can make the most die-hard seekers quake in their boots or want to run away. They’re not comfortable terms. But just like me, when I was first exposed to them as a part of the family I was joining, they were uncomfortable for a while but it was the only way to see them for what they were and throw a net over them. Acceptance can also be pretty painful, but wearing it is a lot more comfortable after a while than all the work it takes to perpetuate a version of reality that isn’t real.
(As some of my readers know, the Estrangement series was prompted by a furious note I got from my daughter — incidentally, the first communication I’ve had from her in what is now more than six years. I mentioned in the series that we had been experiencing a hellish college winter break during which my daughter appeared to have been inhabited by someone I had never seen before. Trying — and trying, and trying, and trying — to get her to talk instead of raging had been futile. What came out in her note — which, of course, went all the way back to that infamous college — and our relationship, it would turn out — break were thing she had never told me at the time. Because she wasn’t speaking. She was screaming. Which was something else she had never done.)
I had wanted to write more about estrangement. The note was the perfect catalyst.
There was a lot of anger in the world of my kids prior to my entry into their lives. There was a lot of anger I had no way of knowing, upon my entering it, that came from their dad, the person I was supposed to be working with to help the kids recover from abuse by their biomom. Yeesh.
The truth about their father was that he had some really great characteristics. If he hadn’t, there would have been no way I could have stuck around for very long. He was funny. To this day, he is one of the funniest men I have ever known. He liked to have fun. He handled a lot of crises like a pro (some not so much, others like a rock star). He loved to learn. He was an excellent teacher. His work ethic was phenomenal. He was charming and engaging. He was committed to fitness and encouraged his kids to be athletic. He was an outstanding coach. He was an excellent cook and loved being experimental in the kitchen. When the minister asked why I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this man, I answered immediately that he made me laugh and accepted me exactly the way I am.
But he was angry. Another potentially positive thing about him was that in the beginning, when it was pointed out to him that he should receive individual counseling for his anger, in addition to anger management and parenting classes, he genuinely wanted to get a handle on it. Unfortunately, although he was required to meet the expectations of the classes, that personal seeking only lasted a session or two. The problem wasn’t his. The problem was everyone else’s. I never got more tired in my life as I would in the time knowing him of the words “blame,” “fault,” and “guilt.” If he could have conquered his anger, he would have been an amazing human being. He refused to do it.
That anger caused him to do many things I had to fight to prevent happening again and help the kids heal from. But the worst among them, as far as I’m concerned, was doing whatever he could to take away from them the only stable mother they had ever known. When the youngest was eight, he asked me about when I gave birth. To him. There was no “things didn’t work out between us, but we both love you.” It was “she was the ‘reason’ I left and this is why you should hate her.” That is a vicious thing to do to a child, regardless of his or her age. He made it clear they had no choice but to follow suit or lose him, too. They never felt safe to try to love us both or to remember that what they always knew about me and their safety with me had always been true.
Anger — which is fear in another costume — is a nasty creature to fight. I learned that in the 1980s. I wrote about it throughout the 1990s. I battled it on a daily basis from 1999 until my divorce was final in 2014. My ex handed it off to my kids.
I’m doing now what I have done for the last 30 years: Calling it what is is. I’m doing what I have done for the last 20 years: Writing about it publicly to bring awareness to people who can benefit from having the information. And what I’ve been doing since shortly after New Year’s Eve of 1999: viewing my own story with the Kliegs pointed right straight at it.
Because monsters tend to shrink in the light.
I hope my daughter can remember that one day.