When most people think about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), they think about war or police action or similar situations. I can say without doubt that there are many forms of post-traumatic concerns. PTSD is not really curable, but it can be treated in various ways. Some of these methods are more effective with certain individuals than others. With all the talk of late about Red Flag laws, regardless of your opinion on whether the federal government should enact them, I would like to talk about some concerns I have about these laws. I am a PTSD sufferer (undiagnosed, which situation I will explain in this piece). I am very hesitant to even put this to paper, for I know it could be used against me in many ways, but I need to share my concerns.
At two separate times in my life, I have contemplated suicide. Once when I was 17 and again at 41. The first time was not PTSD, but merely a teenage boy frustrated at being a senior in high school and having never gone on a date, kissed a girl, or even thought I had a chance. Many teens, more than you might think, have thoughts like this. I am glad a good friend called me while I was sitting in my closet with a .357 in my hand. His call was a blessing I would remember forever, including by naming one of my sons in his honor 20 years later.
It is the second time that I wish to write about. This story started 13 years ago when I decided to leave my home state of Maryland and start all over in Vermont. I left family, friends, and everything behind to be with someone I had grown to care about. I would drive the 510 miles every weekend to come up here to make sure the move was right. A few months later I would discover that my girlfriend (and future wife) was pregnant. I was shocked. I had been with my first wife for nearly 11 years and never even had a close call, so to be a few months in Vermont and learn I was about to become a dad was a welcome surprise.
It was a few months later that I would discover that not only was I to be a dad, but a dad of twins! I would also come to realize that our twin boys had issues: TTTS. (Twin-to-Twin Syndrome, for more information: www.tttsfoundation.org) After a few months of heartache, travel, and medical procedure after medical procedure, the twins were on the way. 25 weeks in, they were coming whether anyone was ready or not. Ultimately, they were not ready themselves, passing 8 and 43 hours after their birth.
To explain the pain, the torment, would take more space and time than I have. Needless to say, it is an event that neither I nor any parent could get over. Work gave me 3 days, yes 3 days, to ‘get over it’ and come back. So back to work I went, traveling 5-10 hours a day to come home to a girlfriend who was not right, understandably. I tried my best to be there for her, and believe I did as good a job as I could. I had no one, for when I had a breakdown it was often in the middle of nowhere when no one was around. It was not fun.
The few months after that were pure hell. A song could set me off, or a TV show. Hearing the name of one of the twins out in public would stop me cold. Really anything and anytime could cause me go full catatonic. Sorry for a bit of TMI, but one way my girlfriend and I found comfort was to be intimate with one another. A handful of months of grieving and news came that we were pregnant once more. This set off a whole other level of trauma, memories, feelings, and lack of feelings.
Soon we would find out our third son was progressing well in the womb. This was a relief, but a flood of concerns came in. Was it too soon? Would this one make it? Are we in a position to do this? Thankfully he did, and was close to celebrating his 4th birthday. So, everything looked good. Right?!
Even as he grew, learned to walk, and started talking, things were never right between she and I after we lost the twins. We both healed our pain by caring for the newest life we had created. She hid her pain more, and I would still pull off the road and cry for a good 5 or 10 minutes for no real reason. (There was of course a reason, but nothing obvious would set me off). About year 2 - 3, I started to figure out things were not right but I did not have the tools to deal with it correctly.
Shortly before year 5 of my third son’s life began is when the shit hit the fan. I found out my now wife had been cheating on me with a coworker. She chose a coworker because my first wife had done the same. She had purposely, even if conveniently, done this to hurt me more. To this day I have no answer as to why. All I knew was that I had been purposely hurt again for some reason. I was living in my mother-in-law’s house to help take care of her and the property. And now, at the age of 41, I was about to lose where I lived and my son. Now, I wasn’t really losing my son, but I was rehashing everything I had gone through as a kid and not having a dad. I had made a promise to myself when I was 16 that when I become a dad, I would be there 24/7 as much as I could.
So now all these thoughts were overtaking every aspect of my brain. I had let down not only myself but my new son, and even somehow my twins. At about 1:30 in the morning, I sat on the newly created beach by the river that was caused by Hurricane Irene just the year before. Revolver in hand, two shots loaded, barrel to my temple. I cried for about an hour, and almost pulling the trigger three times.
I stopped. Not for me, but for my son. I had a promise to fulfill, but the fact that I was seconds away from ending it all cannot be forgotten. After that day, I got rid of every gun I owned. Not just ‘throwing the gun in the river’ jokes that make the rounds on Twitter. I honestly got rid of every gun.
I sought help for my other issues, but never told my therapist about these incidents. Why? I was scared. The underlying issue was about my father and words spoken to me and my older sister when we were little. Admittedly another reason was the possible upcoming divorce proceedings, but I knew at some point, I would be well again and did not want to be forbidden to own a gun for home defense. Once those other issues were addressed, my self esteem was higher than ever.
Fast forward to today. Talk of Red Flag laws has stirred up. With one side hellbent to get rid of almost every gun (if not every gun) in civilian hands in America, and the other side suddenly willing to hear the arguments.
Would I be flagged? Probably, even though through treatment for my other issues has helped resolve most of my issues, it is something that people would, and do, consider a reason for denial. And as God is my witness, the two previous times I would have considered other options. The second time, I honestly think it was the gun that prevented me from doing it. If I had drugs to do it, I probably would have gone that route. But sitting on the beach with the cold hardware in my hand, it was hard to do.
With the proposals currently floating around, how many people are like me? Those who at one time were struggling and have gotten better but would be hesitant to seek any further treatment for fear of what could come of it, even if for non-suicidal thoughts? I fear that number will be higher than we would care to admit.
With the Red Flag laws being thrown around almost like that little rubbery octopus you would throw against the wall to see if it sticks, it makes one wonder what will be thrown against the wall? Will someone who lost their child be flagged? I mean we are, in the words of Mr. Spock, “emotionally compromised!” What about someone who has seen combat, seen death? They are never the same.
Perhaps someone writes a completely fabricated story about killing and death. Would they be flagged?
See, the problem with Red Flag laws, especially with individuals with PTSD, is that while we are emotionally compromised, many of us are not a threat to anyone. We may not be whole, but we are not a threat to others. In times of need, intelligent people may hesitate to seek help when they need it due to potential future repercussions from these laws. Being on a registry of ‘compromised mentally’ is not something we desire.
There are few things in life that truly rankle me. But this one. This one just took me out.
Let me back up for a second.
Hi, I’m Elaine. Generally described as calm, optimistic, and cheerful by my family, friends, and colleagues, I like to think of myself as largely unflappable and living with a twinkle in my eye. I am, however, sometimes mortifyingly earnest.
I belong to a community of about 35,000 where we still hold doors open for each other, say ‘hi’ unselfconsciously on the street, talk over the fence, know our neighbors, help people we don’t know, pick up trash on the street when we see it, and go to amateur baseball games on lazy summer evenings. You can’t go to the store without seeing at least five people you know.
Old-fashioned America. We like each other and are amazingly diverse and supportive of each other - just people trying to do the best they can to love their neighbor as they would want their neighbor to love them.
I’ve lived here all my life, which was not my intent. I wanted to be one of those sophisticated urbanites with posh apartments, regular tables at expensive establishments, and glitzy careers. Instead I am a wife, a mom, an aunt, a sister, and a daughter. I couldn’t be more grateful for that. I was saved from my college-induced romanticization of urban life by my best friend who became my husband and who said “You know, this is a great place to live.”
In my now over-30-year career I’ve worked as a landscape designer, a creative director for an ad agency, a freelance graphic designer, a preschool aide, a college instructor, a business owner, a medical office manager, a website user-interface testing manager, the director of marketing and recruitment for a parochial school, and a fundraiser. All at small businesses and nonprofits. The specialty that has emerged: Strategic Communications and Brand Development. And my most important job: Wife and mother.
I’ve had an average life in an average town with an average family and an average career.
When people discover that I am slightly obsessed with Twitter, with all of its virtual fisticuffs, epithets, sermonizing, and virtue-signaling, it often seems like a major disconnect to my friends and neighbors because that’s not how I live my life or interact with people in the real world. In fact, it’s the kind of thing I literally would cross the street to avoid.
But Twitter is a slow-motion wreck that leaves raw humanity exposed for what it really is - self absorbed, violent, reactionary, herd driven, exclusionary, unable to concentrate, and inconsistent. Which then, in the midst of all this ugliness, leaves us all feeling a little smug about our self perception that we are truly good and superior to the rest of humanity. “Thank God I’m not like those sinners over there.”
Oddly enough, that’s the very reason I’m on Twitter. To people watch. I’ve learned so much (‘not every thought is an important thought’ and ‘delete’ being two such skills), managed to stay relatively non combative, and gotten suckered along with the rest of you. I enjoy both the banter and the intellectual deep dives. I even like watching the brawls. A kind of football for the intellectually exhausted. It’s a paradise for both extroverts and introverts. There aren’t many places like it. Which is probably a good thing.
So how did a nice girl like me who is clearly dispositionally superior to all you idiot reactionaries get rankled today?
It started with this HuffPost article about a mom who is considering cutting her right-wing, Trump-loving in-laws out of her kids’ lives so they don’t become bigots. And this is where you came in.
There are few things in life truly rankle me. But this one. This one finally broke me. Plug your eyes, I’m gonna have to yell:
YOU CANNOT CHANGE THE WORLD BY RUNNING FROM IT.
(I’d put those little clappy hands in there between each word, but they are moral abominations and I am a conservative.)
Phew. My rankle angst is gone - but I should probably explain myself.
In my recent position in education, my colleagues and I have watched with ever-increasing alarm as parents attempt to ‘childproof the world.’ Following in the fearful footsteps of their pre-child selves, they run from cabinet to cabinet locking doors, putting up gates, protecting the corners, removing allergens until there is nothing left for a child to explore but empty space and pre-approved, safety enhanced, medically protected educational toys that would suck the soul out of a turtle.
As these children grow, parents increasingly intervene, attempting to control the world around their child - expecting all disruption, minor emotional challenge, and life intrusion to be removed and every whimper, stomach growl, and moment of insecurity to be addressed and rectified instantly.
For many of us, childhood was exploring the unexplored. Sharp-edged tin cans and pointy sticks. Skinned knees and drinking water from the hose. Dust and chores. Getting lost and finding your way back home, hoping your parents wouldn’t notice you’d worn out your last pair of high-water jeans they were hoping to make last until school started next year.
If you got in trouble at school, you expected to get in more trouble at home. If someone hurt your feelings, you learned to muddle through and figure it out. You learned to make a PB&J sandwich with a real knife and dirty hands if you were hungry and how to pick berries off the vines next to the road.
Sometimes you didn’t get invited to stuff. You might not be the most popular or the smartest kid. You became strong and tough and independent. This was not that long ago. Most of us know this world.
Today, childhood is becoming defined as a time when your parents cater to your every whim. Wait, not YOUR every whim. THEIR every whim. You dance, you look cute, you go to all the appropriate parties, you have all the right friends. Every minute of life is planned and protected. You are enrolled in activities, go to expensive indoor playgrounds, live a bubble-wrapped, discomfort-free existence where all the children are, with apologies to Garrison Keillor, above average.
Before the Twitter mob has convulsions, I want to make clear this is not the experience of everyone. Many families struggle. Some have absentee parents who do not invest in the emotional care and feeding of their children. Children and parents also suffer in violent households and with horrible neglect.
There are so many others who are, despite the current, doing the right thing. I am talking about prevailing aspirational culture. Aspirational culture is that which we desire to have, not what we actually do have.
That is exactly what was happening with this mother. So, in the most genteel and calm way I could, I noted that it was a good example of trying to childproof the world instead of trying to worldproof the child. But the whole article is such a flagrant demonstration of this destructive idea that it almost physically hurts.
A fellow Twitter user responded with a very reasonable question: “I think it’s probably fine that she doesn’t want her kids to be bigots or think that tolerating bigotry is ok. There are a lot of other ways in the world to branch out, right?”
It was then that I realized that my undoubtedly irritating and earnest response was far too complex for Twitter and tangled up in a larger issue that he probably didn’t care that much about.
But the answer is actually a resounding ‘No, there isn’t.’
There is no safer or more effective way to teach your children to not be bigots or to tolerate bigotry than within a safe family relationship. That is how we learn. When we walk away, when we avoid and control, we simply massage our own bigotry. Bigotry generally occurs when we make assumptions about a group of people based on negative experience with people who have commonalities.
By blocking crucial relationships, you are sending unintentional messages that do profound harm to your children, to our society, and to yourself. There are so many reasons why this is a horrible idea that I almost don’t know where to start.
First of all, you are teaching them that ideas are static and bad ideas are irredeemable. What that does is completely ignore the fact that fear, experience, and perspective can all impact us in ways that tend to cause us to develop bad ideas. But those ideas can change and grow and become more complex as we learn from others.
Second, you are teaching them conditional love. Conditional love is perhaps the most selfish and destructive force in our world. Unconditional love changes and heals. Conditional love calcifies and destroys. What kind of person teaches their children, through behavior, that ‘if you say or believe something different than I do, you are unworthy of this family?’
Third, you are teaching your children that someday they can cut you out of their lives because they don’t like your politics and there is nothing you can do to change that. From a purely selfish point of view that seems short sighted. And by the way: Your children WILL disagree with you on politics. If they don’t, they’re probably lying to you. Know why? Because their experience is different.
Finally, children need to learn to push back on ideas in diplomatic and steady ways that will not damage relationships. When I was about 12 years old, I accompanied my very kind and inclusive grandmother to the store. In the course of that trip, she said something that I interpreted as at best bigoted and at worst racist.
I was completely taken aback. Later, in the car, I asked her why she’d said that. We talked about it a long time, discussing it and asking questions of each other. I finally said: “Grammie, I think what you said is really racist and it made me uncomfortable,” and then proceeded to tell her why.
She was silent for the rest of the way home. When we got out of the car she gave me a big hug, told me that she loved that we could talk like that. We then went in and made dinner.
When I was 28, she was taking care of my newborn son and she said she wanted to tell me something. “You know when you called me out for what I said?” she asked. To be honest I barely remembered. “I just want you to know that I’ve thought about that many times over the years and I’m really proud of you. I have been much more careful to examine things I learned as a child. Now that you’re a mother, you understand.”
That is why we want to worldproof our children. We want them to have the strength to respectfully question when they need to, respectfully comply when it’s right, and to critically evaluate information and behavior based on the values they have been taught. My parents deserve incredible kudos for that moment. They worldproofed me. It takes work and they did not shirk it.
Worldproofing your child is using moments and situations where something is wrong or incorrect to teach them to understand consequences, build empathy, create dialogue, and maintain important and loving relationships. We change the world from within these relationships, not by breaking them. You can’t do this with a schedule or a seminar or a box you can check off on a college application. You MUST invest the time. The energy. The focus.
You must sit down with your children in conversation after conversation after conversation and worldproof them. “When grandma said this, how did you feel about it?” “What do you think grandpa meant by this?” “How can we learn to do things differently in our family?” “Why do you think grandpa and grandma think this way?” “What is a kind way we could say something that would help grandma and grandpa see it from another perspective?” “What is important for you?” “What can we learn from all of this?”
I watch a lot of The Andy Griffith Show and am struck by how much of this approach we have lost in today’s aspirational culture. Did some things need to change? Yes, in many, many ways. But we have oddly exchanged a set of brittle and inflexible ideas for another set of even more oppressive brittle and inconsistent ideas. We can do better.
Teach your children to do right by practicing it, not by avoiding it. Encourage the struggle. Give them a front row seat to the messy, complicated, tough world we live in. And teach them to be strong and resilient, gentle and compassionate, unselfish, committed to learning. The kind of person the world needs in order to become healthier.
Then you will have truly set them free.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.