Monday, March 23, 2015

In An Instant

Has anyone watched this new American documentary television series, In An Instant, that airs on the ABC channel? I watched this program over the weekend and was riveted. It premiered on March 6th, but I hadn't seen any previews for the new series and had missed any prior episodes. Ordinary people recall dramatic life-changing moments. "It can happen to anyone, anywhere, and at any time—in an instant, a person’s life can be forever altered and that moment will eventually define who you are."

The specific show I watched was about a woman who married and soon her fairy tale evaporated to clearly reveal the monster that was her husband. It gave the story directly from her, and also contained dramatizations reenacting the whole thing. The woman gained courage to leave her husband after her children were born. She made the choice for them, and he warned her she would regret it, sooner or later. She tried to fight him through the courts, but he still gained joint custody of their daughters. He continued to be abusive, even after they were divorced and she was remarried. Acrimonious and sometimes violent scenes would play out in front of their girls when they exchanged custody of them for their father's visitation periods. Some years later, she made the mistake of letting her guard down, and it cost her dearly. She entered his house when picking up her kids. He struck her, bound her hands, covered her head with duct tape, beat her in the head nearly to death with a baseball bat, stuffed her half naked in a trash can, filled the can with snow, and then left her in a storage locker, dead .... or so he thought.

My husband watched this show with me and he said, "Nobody expected her to be alive. Can you imagine going through something like that?"
Sadly, and disturbingly, yes - I can and I have. It lurks in the back of my mind still, even after being remarried for eight years. I slept on my living room sofa, which I pushed up against my front door that was locked, chained, and secured by two dead bolts. I did that for over a year. My sons were seven and two at that time. Their father would show up at the house at two or three in the morning, and bang on all the outside walls of the house and rattle the windows. He would destroy property, and scream obscenities at the top of his lungs, and he would hit the front door over and over like a battering ram. He was arrested for doing this twice. He even went as far the last time as ripping the phone wires from the outside of the house so I couldn't call for help - forcing me to buy one of those disposable cell phones for the first time in case of emergencies. 

I went to court terrified and alone. My family lives in different states, all moved away before my second son was born. The judge that day got on quite well with my now ex-husband. He was cleaned up and sober, and made pleas for me to reconcile, for the sake of the children. He just wanted to keep his family together, he told the court. He also insinuated I only wanted him out of the house in favor of another man, and really it was just jealousy that made him do these things and he regretted his actions. He and the judge discussed his profession. He was a glass blower, producing quartz semi-conductors and very large tubes for different types of computers and machines. The judge went so far as to joke with him about how much beer one of these giant tubes could hold. Haha. He's an alcoholic, I thought. Great joke.

I wanted a restraining order, a permanent one. I had only been granted a temporary. I thought it would be a simple matter given the police-reports. I was wrong. The judge turned his eyes upon me like I was the villain in the situation. I was so overwhelmed, I couldn't even speak. I could only shake my head when he opened his mouth and told me, "You need to stop the nonsense. File for a divorce if that's what you want." Then he dropped the restraining order. I continued to shake my head. "What is it? DO you have something to say?" he finally asked.

"You have no idea, you just have no clue what you are doing," I answered. I suppose I was lucky not to have landed myself in trouble.

It wasn't long before he was arrested again. He threatened to kill me with a screw driver in front of my boys. This time, he was also charged with endangering the welfare of the children. He called and begged me to drop the charges. I told him the truth, I couldn't. Even his attorney contacted me and said that it was alcohol abuse that made him threaten me and that he was going to get help; it would be best if he was not locked up because he couldn't support the children from a jail cell. He wanted me to "put in a good word" so to speak. I didn't.

Well, guess what - he didn't support his children. He didn't spend much time in jail that stint. He paid fines, entered some programs and promised to be good. However, his behavior deteriorated as time passed, the quality of his work did as well and he lost his job. He was arrested again for driving while intoxicated, resisted arrest, fought with officers and also told them he was going to kill his wife because he knew that she reported he was driving drunk (I didn't have any idea) and it was all her fault that he was in jail again. The officers brought a copy of this report to me and I added it to the pile. I ended up having to leave the only home my children had known and start over. The police told me that as long as he had never lived at the address, he had less rights than he did where a 'marital home' was concerned. I was sad, a little relieved, but still scared enough that I always kept doors and windows locked and couldn't go to bed at night until I checked them all twice.

When I went in to court for the divorce-which was signed by the same judge who dropped the restraining order: I bet he felt like a schmuck-I used these reports and he ended up with no visitation at all, and had limited supervised visitation for a period of time later when he had fulfilled another series of alcohol and attitude rehabilitation programs. That didn't last either. He ended up abandoning any interest in his children, remarrying another woman and starting a new family. He moved to a different state, but I was still terrified of him. Once he started a new job, and after several years of not paying any child support, the child support enforcement agency tracked him down. They wanted him to provide health insurance for my children if it was available to him since I was self-employed and couldn't provide them with it. They also wanted to investigate his ability to pay child support.

This is when the nightmare started again. I received phone calls all hours of the day and night telling me to drop the child support case. He was making sixty-five thousand dollars a year and I was making twenty-five thousand dollars a year, supporting the two kids myself. My children deserved to have financial support from him if nothing else. I blocked his phone numbers and reported the calls to the police. It turned out that he revealed his true self to wife #2 and she also divorced him. He lost another job and fell off the map.

I only glossed over my situation. I won't go into the physical, emotional an verbal attacks I endured over the years. I still keep doors and windows locked. I am always looking over my shoulder, and I am always vigilant. It doesn't go away. When watching that show I thought, why? why? why? would you go inside that man's house alone when you were so afraid of him? Why would you expose yourself to that kind of danger? Please, if you are in a similar situation - arrange for a neutral drop off and pick up point at a public place, maybe even ask for a friend or relative to do the exchange for you. If you are suffering abuse, don't wait to report it thinking it will get better, or that it's not that bad. It can escalate gradually -or in an instant.

In An Instant: I liked it, and I am now planning to watch online those episodes I missed. First, a grizzly bear attack when a father and daughter are hiking through a national park. I saw the bear roaring with his giant teeth showing. Thrills of anticipation. It is going to be terrifying, I bet.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Nature versus Nurture: Can Good Parents Have Bad Kids?

I am fascinated by this subject. 'There is no such thing as bad children - only bad parents' had long been the mantra of child experts. I'm sure we're all familiar with studies showing how children raised in a violent and abusive home can turn out to be less than stellar citizens. Poor, neglectful, or lazy parenting has been blamed for children behaving badly, from toddler temper tantrums to bullying when they are older. When you see a child acting out in the mall, or grocery store, what is your automatic response? Do you look to the parent, judge them, their appearance and the way they react to the child's behavior? Do you question what they must have done to produce a child that acts that way?

Do you believe children are a product of their environment and not pre-decided by nature? In an article in The New York Times, respected psychiatrist Dr. Richard Friedman admitted that his profession is beginning to accept that some children are just born toxic. When children are born into loving homes with parents who are responsible and provide for their needs, but still go off course, it could be that they are just bad seeds. Psychologists recognize there are temperamental differences in babies from birth, and just as not every baby will grow to be a genius, neither will they all form 'nice' personalities. Even though professionals were trained to see all children as intrinsically good until influenced by outside sources that theory is being challenged.

The notion that some children might be the bad seeds of more or less decent parents — is hard to take. Seemingly a negative approach, it violates a prevailing social belief that people have a nearly limitless potential for change and self-improvement. A child's bad behavior does not necessarily stem from poor parenting or an impoverished environment, it is simply a hard-wired genetic trait and character component that cannot be shaped by the best of circumstances. This doesn't necessarily mean the children will grow up to be psychopaths or hard criminals or that they suffer from any brand of mental illness. There are children who are born with less empathy and understanding of people and who care much less about the consequences of their actions and the effects on other people.

I struggle with the idea, I mean, I've always wanted to believe that if you raise a child with love and boundaries that child has to grow up well-adjusted, right? With nurturing any child has limitless possibilities. We'd be amazed when a child raised in an abusive or neglectful home with limited resources becomes successful as an individual, has a loving relationship with a spouse and produces healthy, happy children of their own. So, was it something in that child's genetic make up that prevented them from being influenced negatively? What about parents who have multiple children, and some are 'normal' and others are not? I have four siblings, three brothers and a sister. My sister and I are definitely more alike than we are similar to our brothers. Don't get me wrong, my brothers are not bad people. However, they have always been much less likely to care about the consequences of their actions than my sister and me. All raised in the same home, and yet while growing up my brothers were always in trouble, giving the parents grief. I say growing up, even though they are forty-one, thirty-nine, and thirty-eight and still get off the tracks now and then.

Being involved with the foster care system, and many troubled teenagers, my husband and I tried to see them all as unique individuals, but give them the same love and security, a home. Sometimes the children responded well, and sometimes they didn't. We had a boy live with us from the time he was eleven, until he was almost thirteen and had to be removed because once he was 'bigger' than me he became threatening and aggressive when he didn't get his way. We struggled with this decision, and continued as long as we could, but my personal safety had to come before trying to help the child. We had four children of our own, and two other siblings in care at that time. We'd made him a member of our family, our school, our community. He joined the football team, we encouraged him and went to watch his games. We celebrated his birthday and holidays, and we just plain loved him. I mean, that's what tends to happen when you take a child into your home. Yet, it wasn't enough. Even with therapists, teachers, counselors, social workers and the most support we could receive also trying to help him see that we were providing him with a home and a family, and it was in his best interest to 'alter' his bad behaviors, he did not. It was a form of rejection. He came from a neglectful home, possibly abusive, with six siblings scattered between relatives and some also in the foster care system. Was this the reason he rejected us? Or was it hard-wired into his genetic code? Guilt and regret filled us, and this wasn't our biological child. I can't imagine how we'd feel if one of our own children treated us the way he did. I have been reading stories about families that have a child who feels no connection to them, abuses and threatens family members with no guilt or remorse. The parents claim they are at their wits end and don't understand it. I don't want to excuse bad parents, but maybe there is a grain of truth in the idea that not all people are born good?