As a young child, I was what people might call precocious: I loved talking to strangers about how my hair was “naturally curly,” I would run around my parents’ parties and dance to the “Macarena” for everybody, and I was just generally outgoing. But I was also frustrating: It was difficult to get me to calm down when excited, nearly impossible to change my diaper and even harder to get me to sleep — a problem I still have today. And I absolutely hated being told what to do, which made everything incredibly hard for my parents. In fact, it was hard for well over a decade.
Sometime around age 4 or 5, my brother and I were being babysat by a woman in her 40s who was an occasional substitute teacher at my school. As the daughter of a librarian who values books higher than just about anybody I know, I learned to read pretty early on and absolutely loved doing so. I would try to read anything I could get my hands on, even attempting Jane Eyre in the third grade (I gave up after three pages during which I referenced the dictionary for every sentence).
On this particular day, I attempted to read some small yellow book that my mom had left out. My babysitter told me that it was higher than my reading level and put it in a drawer I couldn’t reach. I didn’t know the word “patronizing” back then, but I already understood that I hated it when people did not seem to take me seriously. So, as a result, I tricked her into going outside (I insisted to her that our cat had escaped), yelled something unkind, shut the door and locked it. Three hours later (this was before the age of cell phones), my parents returned home and saw what I had done. Naturally, they were displeased, but I explained that I was simply angry about not getting what I wanted, which I assumed justified the act completely.
So, fast forward to my teenage years: after an unfortunate experience in middle school, I became angry. Really angry. And I didn’t want anybody to come between myself and that anger. Normally, I hate discussing these years because I find them both embarrassing and incredibly regrettable, but with all the talk of what Adam Lanza’s mother could have done and how terrifying it is to be close with an angry teenager (or any other age, for that matter), I have decided that it’s important for me to discuss the topic and share my own perspective.
Around age 13, my feelings began to bubble. It started slowly: I would get stressed out when my mom would say something that upset me. I would sulk until she apologized and took it back. Then, I became frustrated. If my brother wanted to listen to classical music and I preferred Letters To Cleo, I would grunt and complain and insist that we change it. Soon after, the frustration morphed into anger. If my father told me to do something that I didn’t deem necessary or desirable, I would yell at him, trying to reason but also hoping to scare him off the subject. A little while later, the anger became rage. Uncontrollable rage.
Suddenly, when I was upset, I was livid. I would regularly get into screaming matches with my parents and threaten to hurt myself unless they gave into my demands. If they refused, I would proceed to inflict violence on my own body — something I plan on elaborating on at a later date, but for now, I will simply say that I tried to break my own nose at one point and still have a large amount of scarring up and down the left side of my body.
While I didn’t hit my parents, I was abusive in that I used the violence against myself to control their actions. It often failed — after a while, I think they grew tired of the never ending, steeply uphill battle to prevent me from cutting — so I upped my behavior and would threaten to kill myself. I would leave razors on the counter to make sure they knew what I was doing. I didn’t necessarily take joy in knowing how horribly sad I am not certain I made them, but I didn’t stop myself from hurting their feelings, either. I knew right from wrong; I just didn’t care enough to stop myself from committing the latter. There was always a justification to break their hearts, just as there had been one for locking the babysitter out of the house.
Some might say that my situation was different because I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which often leads to depression, anger and violent and suicidal behavior. In actuality, however, I was already angry well before anything violent happened to me. Was it my parents’ fighting or my dad’s temper or being bullied that made me this way? Maybe, but I think it was also simply engrained in my brain to be unhappy, stubborn and easily upset. Learning to control that aspect of my personality would likely have been necessary regardless. Plus, when I was sexually assaulted again mid-college by a supposed friend, I had by then learned to deal with my issues differently (albeit not “perfectly” by any means).
In the tenth grade, my parents forced me to switch schools because, since the second grade, I had developed an increasing terror of attending school and thus refused to leave the house on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. When I transferred to a smaller independent school with teachers who actually gave a shit about their students (whereas my previous ones barely knew our names), I found myself much happier. Though I was still very depressed on a regular basis, I was at least enjoying the time I had in school (for the record, I had good grades and actually did all of my work!).
Unfortunately, after another unpleasant incident, my rage returned — I think it was the only response I knew how to have to protect myself from becoming more depressed — as did my PTSD. This time, however, my parents better knew how to deal with it and were more supportive in my healing process.
The fight against my behavioral and mental disorders included numerous routes: multiple failed medication regiments, well over ten doctors and counselors, EMDR, punishment, alternative medicine…most of which were completely futile and far more trouble than they were worth, but they had to be tried. There were plenty of times when I convinced everybody — even myself — that I was “all better.” I even used to get the nurses at a program I was in for my bulimia and self-injury to tell me about their problems, as well as let me do their makeup. Most 16-year-olds are pretty excellent at lying about how they feel; I chose to lie about things that would allow me to maintain my freedom.
People are uncomfortable around mental illness, and often do not realize that just locking away a kid in an institution until they’re 18 is typically not the best (let alone only) solution. For parents of a child who is mentally ill, it is extremely difficult to handle them, but it is potentially even harder to acknowledge the need for assistance.
In Jen’s article, she referenced a comment made on Gawker by a particularly fed up person:
If you have a child that you know is capable of committing mass murder you have a responsibility to contain them by whatever means are necessary. Your child assaults you? Press charges. Medicate them. Even if it turns them into a zombie. Have them committed to a mental institution. Even if it’s a shitty one. Can’t get them into one? Lock them in their bedroom. Surrender them to the state. They threaten to kill themselves? Let them. Because one day they will kill you. And your other children. And perfect strangers. Just because all the choices are shitty it doesn’t mean that you don’t have choices. Pick one. Do something because they are your responsibility.
While I fully understand the “protect everyone else at all costs” perspective, I also think that this is clearly a person who does not know how difficult it is to send away your own child (or other family member). Yes, they may be angry and horrible and cruel, but that does not make it any easier to lock them up. It may be necessary at some point in order to protect yourself, the rest of your family or even the outside world, but it will never be an easy decision and cannot be regarded so flippantly as though it’s some quick and simple choice.
People often blame the parents (though, to be fair, abuse in households can certainly contribute to violent tendencies), but the difficulty of having a child whose not well is often forgotten or pushed aside. Nobody wants to believe that just about anybody’s kid can be like this. My parents fed and clothed and loved my brothers and I; it wasn’t their fault that I was sick.
I have since apologized to my parents, especially my mom. She used to drive me around the neighborhoods near my high school when I would refuse to get out of the car and we’d end up having great talks that calmed me down, often allowing me to stop freaking out long enough to finally go to class. She dealt with my crying and screaming and violent behavior, and never stopped telling me she loved me no matter what horrible words I said or what I threatened to do to myself. If she had abandoned hope and refused to support me — as many parents likely would have, and justifiably so — I can only imagine what kind of person I might have ended up being, or what condition my life would be in now.
We now have an overall fantastic relationship and, though we hit our potholes every now and again, I was even quite sad to finally move out of my parents’ house this week after staying with them since graduating in June. We always link arms when walking anywhere and I do as many errands and favors for her as possible, perhaps as a way of desperately trying to make up for the time when I made things so hard.
So, several years and multiple moves later, I finally started acting more “normally.” In the past couple of years — in particular, the last eight months — I have been able to analyze my life choices and have finally started making better ones. A great deal of that is because I wind up writing about myself on a regular basis, both here and in my private journal, as well as the means by which I deal with my stress. Rather than drinking my problems away, I almost always choose some other route. I acknowledge that sometimes I need medication (though I only take it when about to panic). I take a hell of a lot alone time to process my feelings, thoughts and stress when necessary instead of just pushing myself into attending parties or dates regardless of how I’m feeling.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still crazy, neurotic and weird. I have some bizarre tendencies which can be annoying and/or inconvenient to others. Anybody who meets me can tell you that I am incredibly anxious about offending people (I’m one of those people who apologizes profusely and perpetually, then apologizes again when you tell them not to apologize anymore). When I drink, I occasionally freak out — a quality I am not proud of and have finally been changing. I have had numerous tumultuous relationships. When I’m depressed, I hold an incredible animosity toward myself. Because of all these things, I know I am not perfect, nor would I ever claim — or even hope — to be.
But I have a job, friends, responsibilities, a new home…basically, I’m a functional adult. I pay all my own bills, I’m increasingly organized and I have a pretty stellar job. Most of my scars have been tattooed over; in fact, I even have a (professionally done) scarfication piece on my ribs that I got as a sort of “congratulations” to myself on ceasing the self-harm. I am presently single and intend on keeping it that way for a long time, until I am positive that I can have healthy, strong relationships. Sometimes I mess up, and I may not be completely all right, but I don’t hurt myself or feel the need to constantly scream anymore.
So, as an ex-nightmare child, I can not only tell you not to write off all kids who are incredibly difficult as potential serial killers or lost causes, but also give those parents who are currently dealing with angry teenagers an optimistic perspective to show that their children will likely grow out of this (with a lot of support). Obviously, sometimes that support takes more than two people — sometimes it even takes professional and medical assistance. But it’s possible, so have hope.
Photo: Girl, Interrupted, VickyLoves, We Need To Talk About Kevin.