Friday, February 8, 2013

a smattering of thoughts on health and violence.

One of my January goals was to stay away from reading the NYT and local news daily because I end up getting too overwhelmed by too many details; I find myself angry, or disappointed, or incredulous (and not in a good way). And as a glass half-empty person, the last thing I need is a flood of negativity each morning. My brain is perfectly capable of doing that without outside help, thank you very much.

But within the last few days, a few stories have caught my eye. I don't know that I currently have the head space to articulately analyze my feelings about them, but I do feel like I want to share them.

One is about Kim Lee, an American woman living in China who refused to keep secret abuse at the hands of her husband. She and her Chinese husband are successful, well-known figures in China, and when he beat her badly, she posted the photos to his Twitter account in the name of convincing him to get help. He responded with indifference, as did, apparently, many police in a country where there is no law on the books against domestic violence. Recently she was awarded a restraining order against her now ex-husband-- Beijing's first ever.
"I made a conscious decision. I used a Chinese lawyer, I used Chinese courts," she says. "To be honest, a lot of my American friends did not understand this. They were like, 'You're crazy. You're American. Go to the embassy immediately.' But I did not want to teach my daughters, 'No one can beat you because you're American.' I wanted to teach them, 'No one can beat you because you're a person, you're a woman.' "
Since the story broke in the media, frightened women have been coming forward, not to police, but to Lee herself.

I imagine the difference between their cases and hers is that she had the security of success and what I'm assuming was a reasonable amount of money behind her. She also had the luxury of being an American who could go to the embassy had the Chinese system failed her. For many others, that safety net isn't there. And if you're not financially independent, you can't, in many cases, risk making an accusation that won't result in anything, leaving you bound to a partner who is all the more furious at you for breaking the silence.

That story's about China, a country with no domestic violence laws, but what about here? Why is it that the case that many abused American women feel as hopeless or helpless to protect themselves as some of the Chinese?

Probably because it's uncomfortable to talk about. And it carries the unbearable weight of shame. I've never been subject to bodily harm, but I grew up emotionally abused and watching near-daily physical and verbal abuse against my mother escalate over two decades. I carried shame because I didn't want my friends to know I was any different. Because my family wasn't like the ones on Full House or Family Matters. I never thought I felt ashamed because I assumed any of this was my fault until the last few months, when I've had overwhelming waves of I did everything right. I tried so hard to be good. What was wrong with me, then, that I kept getting punished? What had we done to deserve this?

The short answer is nothing. We did nothing. But in cases of trauma, a very different message can be internalized, and it's entirely a subconscious thing. And that message, along with the risk of indifference or inability (legal or illegal) to act by law enforcement, is why we don't see the more Twitter pictures like Lee's. It's why more people don't feel comfortable coming forward or asking for help. It's the feeling that the world at large is unsafe and no one can help. In our case, my father was a member of law enforcement, so there was no feeling of security in reaching out to police. There is, indeed, a blue code of silence.

Which is precisely what bothers me so much about this next story-- that of the rogue officer-turned-killer in California. It's very possible that there was some form of cover-up when he spoke out about a superior officer and was subsequently fired. But how did he make the leap from a sense of injustice to the unconscionable acts he's perpetrating now? Was he born to be a killer and it was just a matter of time? Is he sick? Did something in him change? Was it a conscious choice? These are all questions I asked myself after Sandy Hook when I wondered is there a tipping point for evil? I would argue that my father was both sick and knew exactly what he was doing, because he made the decision not to seek help or change thousands of times.  What does that make him? And where is that fine line? What separates the benignly mentally ill from those who just want to watch the world burn?

And, I suppose, more importantly to me on a personal level-- at what point will I be able to stop asking these questions? When when I be able to curb the obsession with trying to understand why people do what they do? I know there is no value on going on an archeological dig through your past. I won't ever know why it happened.

But for many trauma victims, the struggle to stop those digs can feel impossible. Especially for those who can't or won't seek treatment through therapy. I've felt really lucky over the last six months or so to have found a team of doctors who have finally connected my anxiety and depression to the craziness of living with domestic abuse from my birth until my father's death. Ding ding ding! For the last ten years though, I've also been incredibly open to pursuing treatment and telling my story. And I've had, for the most part, the access to health care and to an income that allows me to continue pursuing what adds up to be very, very, very expensive treatment.

But what about those who can't, don't, or won't tell their stories or admit their struggles because we're not supposed to have them? Because it would make us different or would make people question why we aren't "strong" enough to just get over it?  There have been lots of stories lately about the effects of post traumatic stress on soldiers returning from war, which I think is so excellent and necessary (the stories, not the stress). Yesterday I heard about  a 7-year-old from a military family who happened upon the word suicide on a poster hanging in a doctor's office. He asked his mother what it meant, and eventually she explained.

And then he nailed his response: Why didn't they ask for help?

Exactly, little man. Or even better: why did they feel they couldn't they ask for help? Or why wasn't the proper help available when they did ask? We need to take the stigma away from this stuff. And so this kid found a solution in some post-its and a #2 pencil and slapped it up on the waiting room wall.

Footage from WAFF via New York Daily News

No matter how violence or mental illness touches your life, take the leap and ask for help (five exclamation points optional). There is always a chance for things to get better, even when you feel you're scraping the bottom. 

P.S. Robert DeNiro & David O. Russel get candid about mental illness while discussing Silver Linings Playbook here. I still need to see this movie.