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6527212 September 16, 2009

Daddy Dangerous: An Aberration Story

What he did and didn't do in his role for me as my father was HIS SHAME....not mine.

Have you ever wondered what draws you to a particular person? Sometimes we find out and sometimes we don't. Well, my guest today is someone I gravitated toward at 18 or 19 years old. If you've read my Teen Aberration Stories Series (see sidebar for links), you know that this was an emotionally volatile time in my past.

Today's guest, Renese, was five or so years older; however, due to a detour into the Navy, she was one of my college classmates. We were friends for several years but then eventually parted ways when we both finished college. For some reason, Renese made me feel understood. She made me feel okay. Although we were close and had great fun together; we never got deep. I was not about getting deep with anyone at that time in my life. I didn't know how to jump outside myself. I didn't know what to share and what to hold back. Perhaps she felt that way, too.

I recently reconnected with Renese on Facebook!

I had a vague memory that her childhood had been difficult, but didn't know the whole story. Back then, at times when folks tossed me an emotional bone, I ran, afraid that if I came to know or understand them, I'd have to explain myself in return. So now, almost 25 years later, Renese finally shared her story with me. I cried when I read her words; all those years ago, in my selfishness and fear, I missed an opportunity to connect with her on a deeper level. But I know now why I was drawn to her. She was special because in her, I saw myself--even when I didn't know who I was. She served as a sort of role model for where I might be in five years. Just like all friends, we had our ups and downs. But she was there when I was a college senior, single and pregnant. She didn't judge. She only smiled and knew what having the baby meant to me. She "got it" when few others did.

Due to the individual emotional growth patterns we each have, we can't always fully connect with those who pass through our lives at the precise moment when they enter the stage. It's easy to imagine that our connections are superficial even when there may be something deeper at play. Can we all strive to cherish those around us just a tad more? Because even when we don't understand each other, we are there together ... and that counts for a lot.

You grew up in an abusive environment. Can you explain the specifics and what it was like for you?

My father was extremely abusive, both physically and emotionally. Although he rarely beat me, he did so on a regular basis with my mother and sister who was 14 months younger than me. Growing up, I was fairly intelligent, above average in school and above average in looks. My sister had dyslexia (didn't know it at the time) and struggled in school. She also struggled with her weight, and had to wear braces and glasses. Although she outgrew all of these challenges and is now quite successful in sales, my entire childhood was a comparison between my sister and myself. My father once beat me so badly that he actually stopped at one point and pondered out loud as to the pros and cons of 1) continuing until he killed me and collected on the $1,500 life insurance policy he had on me or 2) stopping and possibly having to pay a large medical bill.

What was the dynamic between your mother and father, and how did your mother cope?

My father ruled with an iron fist. I basically saw my mother as a doormat. My father did and said anything he wished to her or to us, and she was either much too obedient or much to fearful to say or do anything in retaliation. As far as I could tell and/or remember, she made every effort to create as normal as normal a life as possible for my sister and I. I remember that she had to hide anything that she bought us for Christmas because he would be so mad about the money she spent to do so. She was usually beaten some time shortly after the opening of the presents, and we all knew it was coming.

How did you cope with the abuse as a child and teenager?

My parents split when I was 15 and my sister was 14, so most of what I coped with was as a child. I lived in fear almost constantly. There was never any rhyme or reason to what it might be that would "set my father off". It was impossible to know what I could do to please him so that I could do more of that, any more than it was possible to know what it was that would upset him in order to avoid doing that.

I later learned the term "rage-aholic" and came to understand that this described him quite well. I guess I coped by being around him as little as possible. I was lucky to have good friends with loving parental homes in my neighborhood where I could escape and spend as much time as possible.

You joined the Navy as a teenager. Was this decision influenced by what was going on at home, and was it a good decision?

I was working for a chiropractor at the time and he told me about how he joined the Navy and they helped him to pay for college. I literally left his office and went to a recruiting station and signed up. I never really saw it as the "big, important, grown-up" decision that everyone else did. I just saw it as the only option available to get what I wanted. I hated boot camp, but the remainder of the time I spent serving my country were some of the best years of my life.

After being in the Navy, you went on to get a great education. As a young adult, were you still feeling the impact of your abusive home life? If so, how did this impact your decisions and actions as a young adult?

I've been asked this a lot over the years. I've thought about it a lot as I've grown through the various stages of my life. To answer best, allow me to digress to one particular experience that occurred just before my parents separated.

I was a virgin when I was raped by a close personal friend of my father's. I was 15 at the time. I told absolutely NO ONE at the time that it happened; not even my mother. My father's every day rage was such that I had very little doubt that he would have murdered the man who raped me, and that he would have returned to the caged life he had experienced in his early 20's.

There was nothing altruistic about that decision. I just didn't want to live with the guilt of taking any part in that. I treated the rape as I did the rest of my abusive childhood: it was OVER! It was the PAST. The man who raped me most likely gave it very little thought after wards. If I had allowed that one physical act of violence to get into my head and continue to have an effect on my psycho-social-sexual life afterward, I would have given him more power than he deserved. I felt the same about my father and what he had done throughout my childhood. What he did and didn't do in his role for me as my father was HIS SHAME....not mine. I couldn't and wouldn't go through the rest of my life letting the past affect me negatively. Whether bad or good, my life experiences were going to have a positive effect on my life--or no effect at all.

Recognizing that some negative things we experience as children never quite leave us, how were you able to embrace these "aberrations" and learn from them?

Yes, bad things happen, but they are only mistakes or aberrations if we don't learn from them and take something we can use from that experience in order to move forward and live positively from that point onward. Things for which we have no control happen. Sometimes they result in bad experiences. We even make mistakes that cause bad things to happen. We can either accept that these things have happened, and figure out a way to move forward, or we can resist, struggle, and cause ourselves to be stuck in more pain and confusion.

In many ways, we all look back and wish things had been perfect; however, sometimes when I meet a person who claims to have had a perfect or normal childhood, it seems they are missing a dimension that I have. Sometimes I don't want that dimension, but other times, I cherish it. Do you identify with this, and can you share your thoughts about it?

I think that perfect and normal are both, like most subjective insights, in the eye of the beholder. I think some people delude themselves into believing their childhoods were perfect or normal because they refuse to face something too painful or uncomfortable with which to deal. I wasn't locked in a closet and denied food while my prostitute mother pimped herself out in the next room, and then pimped me out when I became old enough. I also didn't live in the Brady Bunch house. It's all relative and I believe it's what you do with it and how you deal with it as you become and adult that makes you who you are. You decide how you're going to take charge of and live your own life.

Sure, there are those extremes in psychopathology where things were so bad that the child had to form alternate personalities in order to escape the abuse. There are also lesser cases where the abuse results in other forms of social or psychological behavioral difficulties. I still believe that, for the most part, we need to look back on the bad things that happen only to the degree with which we want to use that information and experience to grow and better ourselves.

I've always believed in the garbage in...garbage out axiom. We need to spend as much time as possible focusing our minds and bodies on things that feed us positive emotions, spiritually and physically.

No one is a perfect parent, but we try. How has your past impacted your parenting skills? Has being a parent given you a new perspective on some of the things that went on in your childhood?

My father was an ass; I've tried very hard not to be one. I basically grew up with my mother because we were only 17 years apart in age. We partied together a LOT when my sister and were teenagers after my mom and dad split up. It was GREAT while it was going on, but I feel like I missed out on that kinder, gentler mother-daughter bond.

I was almost 30 when I had my one and only child, a daughter that just turned 18. We had a wonderful bond, very loving and close (even though I left her father when she was 4 months old and was a single mom until she was 9). Unfortunately, she hit puberty at the age of 7. Doctors have said that it was the assault of all those hormones on such a young person not quite ready for them, that caused some problems. Although she always says, "I love you, too" when I tell her I love her, she tells me that the last time she can remember feeling any love for me was when she was about 5 or 6 years old.

I remarried a wonderful man when she was 9 and he's been the only father she's ever known. He has been the best step-dad in the world (many biological fathers could take lessons from him). She accepts our love and the things we do for her as things she has her right and privilege and walks around us as if we were furniture. I honestly cannot remember the last time that she hugged my husband or told him she loved him. The perspective that I have on my childhood compared to my parenting is that I learned from my childhood what I didn't want for my child and made supreme efforts that she never saw or heard any kind of abuse EVER from anyone in her home. She recently told me in counseling that this is where I made my mistake; I had a bad childhood and because of that I overcompensated by showing her TOO MUCH love. I'm still not really sure how I'm supposed to take that. I do feel as if, when she finally has a child of her own and truly learns what that kind of unconditional love feels like, she'll at last understand how I've felt about her all these years. I also feel as if, because of some of the things that she's said and done to me, she'll feel very guilty about it all at that time and it will all come rushing at her in a flood of emotion. It is my sincere wish that she comes to that realization well before then so as to somewhat mitigate any of that guilt.

What are the top three things we can do for a child or teen who may be in an abusive situation?

Listen. Just talking about a bad situation at home can sometimes be cathartic and helpful to the person suffering the abuse. I'm also a big believer in prayer and prayerful meditation. Helping that person to learn coping techniques that quiet the mind can be healing and helpful. When there's absolutely no doubt that the situation is true and harmful, report it to the appropriate authorities and get that child out of the situation.

Do you have a motto for life, and if so, what is it?

Yes, I do have a motto for life and it took me a long time to learn it. It's Let go and let God. I'd heard it for a long time and never really understood just how powerful it could be.

I'd spent a great deal of my life pushing and struggling to get things done my way. It kind of goes along with the old if it don't fit, don't force it axiom. I still get really type A sometimes and try to force something to happen that I'm just certain will be perfect for me; but I've learned over the years. Even though I still need to put in some effort for the basics--the best things in life are those that just happen when I'm not even looking for them!

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6527212 July 28, 2009

All My Children: An Aberration Story

I didn't feel loved or important and I know I don't want that for my children.

All hail the large family! I grew up watching The Brady Bunch. And like many who evolved from small families, I've always been fascinated by our larger counterparts. At times when my brother had no interest in playing with me, I thought, If there were just one more of us! But who knows, maybe that one wouldn't have wanted to play with me either. There are no guarantees in life or in family.

My husband is the youngest of five, all only six years apart (total). When I married into his family, they seemed like a cool club to which I didn't yet belong. I wondered why my family never seemed like a club. We were more like four people from four different clubs trying to figure out what to do next, what to think, what to say, and how to feel. Although we all loved each other in unique ways, there lacked a connective thread I saw in other families. Now, I realize it has nothing to do with size; size definitely doesn't matter in this situation.

Heather, the latest member of the Aberration Nation works each day to provide that all-embracing connection within her young family of eight. So why is this an aberration? Because it's not always easy, that's why! As a family grows, love can grow, but so can the complexity of relationships, group dynamics, calendars, homework, meals, taking this one there and picking up another over here. I can't imagine the energy required when a family of six children are all young, and the continuous insight and careful word-choice necessary when they're teens. I know from experience that the energy required to raise small children changes into a new, sometimes more difficult energy as they mature and explode into young adults filled with new intellectual thought processes, critical choices, and deep emotion. Watching my daughter experience pain as a teenager was a new experience, a new wound that I'd never felt. It's a pain that forces you to bite your lip and pray, sometimes knowing there's no other alternative.

Heather and her husband, like all of us who are parents, are on a roller coaster. Sometimes you just want to slow it down, stop it, or jump the hell off. But the thrill of the downhill is so victorious, so absolutely exhilarating that we hang on tight. We don't let go. We believe in the ride, knowing it doesn't last forever. One day the little children we loved so dearly morph into something that is altogether different yet similar. In a strange way, they're gone. Whether across the country or across the street, they depart.

I admire the g
oals Heather has established for her family. Knowing what I know, things may not turn out like a perfect pie-in-the-sky dream, but she's doing her absolute best to ensure her children feel the type of beautiful connection that serves as a powerful brace throughout life ... come what may.

You have six children. What compelled you and your husband to have such a large family in a culture of shrinking families?

My husband and I both come from large families. He has six siblings and I have five. When we were dating we discussed
children and both wanted to have a large family. Then reality hit after we had our first two children (boys) 16 months apart and we began to question how many children we really wanted. The two boys were more than a handful and kept us very busy.

Our children come in pairs (the first one planned and the second one a nice surprise). As I mentioned our first pair (boys) are 16 months apart. We then had a two year break and had our second pair (girls) 18 months apart (the younger girl, Morgan, in this set has Down syndrome). I knew I wanted more children after Morgan but also wanted to give her as much time and attention that she would need before making that decision. It was an unknown journey and I didn't have any idea the impact a child with special needs would have on our family. But I also knew I would have more children at some point. I felt like I was allowing fear and defeat enter into my family if I stopped after Morgan and also sending a message to others that it really was a negative impact on our family even though I didn't feel that way. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it was what I felt at
the time.

We waited until Morgan was walking (29 month old) and got pregnant again. It took a lot of faith and hope to decide to get pregnant again, more so for my husband. It wasn't like our other pregnancies that were filled with joy and excitement, this pregnancy was filled with fear and uncertainty of everything that could go wrong. We knew too much. I lost that baby (a girl) at 18 weeks. It was extremely hard on my children and my husband (he had a difficult time having to watch me go through the pain of labor and not end up with a baby). The doctors told us the odds--60-80% of 2nd term fetal demises are caused by chromosomal anomalies. It made us nervous to try again. Maybe I was too old (34 years old) and my body just wasn't meant to have more children. We decided to have DNA testing to help us determine if we would try to get pregnant again. Everything came back perfect ( a word I hate)--nothing wrong genetically and nothing wrong structurally. We still don't know why we lost that baby.

We got pregnant three
months later and decided to have prenatal screening done for Down syndrome at 14 weeks even though we knew the outcome wouldn't make any difference in our decision to have the baby. I just needed to know. The tests came back showing the risk extremely low. It was a difficult and stressful pregnancy. I had an abnormal ultrasound at 16 weeks that showed something wrong with one kidney. The perinatologists weren't sure exactly what was wrong since it is difficult to make prenatal kidney diagnoses via ultrasounds. They weren't sure if it was MDKD or hydronephrosis. The latter one is common in Down syndrome which raised my risk of carrying a baby with Down syndrome. I refused the amniocentesis. I had just lost a baby at 18 weeks and wasn't about to put this baby at risk. It wasn't until after he was born that we got the diagnosis--MDKD (multicystic dysplastic kidney disease) which basically means he has only one kidney. The other one never developed. It shouldn't affect him and he has no restrictions. It was an emotional pregnancy and my husband knew that we were done. We were very busy with five children and our new baby was a difficult baby with extreme colic for six months. My husband wanted to do something permanent but I wasn't so sure we were done. I just didn't feel like my family was complete. Maybe it was the baby I had lost. I knew it wasn't fair for me to push him into having more because realistically maybe I would never feel done.

Then when my baby number five was nine months old I started to feel sick and dizzy. It took me awhile to realize I was having pregnancy symptoms. I took a test and it was positive. I was terrified to call my husband. He had made it absolutely clear that he did not want any more children. We both felt maxed out with five. I called him and he didn't want to believe me. I think I took 3 pregnancy tests before he was willing to accept it. We waited to tell our families until I was 20 weeks along. We were a little embarrassed to tell people. It was obvious to everyone around us that we were already way over our heads with the five children we already had. Why were we choosing to add more to the chaos? Fortunately everyone was very excited for us. We both got more and more excited as the due date grew closer. We welcomed baby number six last year into our family--a baby girl. After she was born I just knew our family was complete. She is the perfect ending to our family.

What are the most rewarding and most challenging facets of being part of a large family?

I absolutely LOVE having a big family! I look at families with only a few children and wonder how the parents were able to stop. Being a mother is the most amazing thing I have experienced. There is nothing that compares to the overwhelming feeling of love that I have for my children and husband!

The most rewarding facet is that my children have each other. They are never without a friend. They also learn valuable life lessons of sharing, cooperation, communication and hard work.

Even though I wouldn't change having a large family, there are definitely challenges that come with it. The biggest challenge for me is that I don't feel like I can take the kids and go do fun field trips and activities by myself. We spend a lot more time at home than I would if I had fewer kids. It is hard to know if this is because of having so many children or because of the challenge that Morgan presents with being a 'runner' and her special needs.

Another challenge is it's difficult to give them all the time and attention that they each need. My daughter, 18 months older than Morgan, is kind of my 'invisible child'. It's ironic but sometimes feel like she is alone in a home full of children. She is independent and tends to do her own thing. I wish I had more time for one-on-one dates with the children. I don't want any of my children to feel like they got lost in the shuffle. I hope each one knows how much they are loved and valued in this family. I didn't feel that when I was growing up in my family. I didn't feel loved or important and I know I don't want that for my children.

I have two daughters who are eleven years apart so I can’t even imagine having two or three kids close in age, much less six. How do you make it through each day and get everything done?

I don't home school!! I live for routine and structure. I have to, otherwise it would be complete chaos. Each child has certain jobs that they are expected to do before they can play with friends (practice piano, clean bedroom and make bed, clean an assigned bathroom and living area). We have also followed a nap and bedtime schedule. I have my home completely child proof so I can relax in my own home. It also helps that I don't know anything different--this is my life! I am used to the busyness, chaos, constant cleaning, noise, and juggling that encompasses each day.

One of your daughters has Down syndrome. How has this changed the family dynamic? What challenges and rewards has her condition given to the family?

It's really hard for me to answer how it has changed our family dynamics because Morgan joined our family when it was still so young. My oldest had just turned five when she was born (I had four children under five years old) and we were still figuring everything out. I often think about how our family would be though if she were a typical six year old. It's hard to not think about how things would be if she wouldn't have been born with Down syndrome but I think it is easy to get caught up in those thoughts and lose sight of the gift that each child brings to their family.

I think Morgan has been more influenced by being in a large family than her presence has influenced my children. She has behavioral issues with pushing and getting along with other children and I think the chaos in the home has added to her behavioral problems. She doesn't fit the 'happy and sweet' stereotype that is so commonly used with Down syndrome. She spends a lot of time upset and ornery.

My children have a great respect for others with special needs especially Down syndrome. They love it when they see someone else with Down syndrome out in public and always have something positive to say about that individual. They see Morgan as a blessing. They have overheard me talking on the phone to new moms in the 'Down syndrome club' and wonder why the mom is sad or upset that her new baby has Down syndrome. I showed them a picture of a family with two children whom have Down syndrome and they said, "Wouldn't that be so cool? They are so lucky!" They have learned that all of us being different is what makes the world such a beautiful place.

I think the biggest challenge for my children is being patient with Morgan's needs. They treat Morgan like everyone else--which is great, but she does require some things to be done differently. For example, she acts out when she wants their attention and they get mad at her for hitting or pushing instead of just including her and understanding that she acts out when she can't communicate her needs.

Do your other children understand the full extent of Morgan's challenges? How do they cope, and how do you and your husband help them to cope?

I don't think they do understand the full extent of her challenges. I don't even think my husband or I understand the full extent of her challenges. We try to just take one day at a time and focus on what her current needs are and not let ourselves become overwhelmed with the future and what ifs.

We chose to not tell our children anything about Morgan's diagnosis when she was born. They were five, three, and one years old and we didn't think they needed to know that something was different with their sister. We wanted them to love Morgan for exactly who she was, not a diagnosis. They knew she had something wrong with her heart and needed surgery and we also told them that it might take Morgan a little longer to learn how to do things and that was why she was having therapists come into the home to help her learn how to crawl, walk and talk. I really think it has only been in the last few years that they have realized what it means to have Down syndrome because the delays are more obvious as she gets older.

As a child, my brother had a learning disability. Due to this, my parents gave him much more one-on-one attention than they gave me. Although I understood and learned to be highly independent, I also suffered for it. How do you manage to give each child the individual attention they need, particularly with a challenged child in the mix?

Morgan does take more of my time than the others. I have spent A LOT of time this past year trying to get her potty trained and reading. I try to include the younger kids in whatever I am doing with Morgan. If we are in the bathroom working on potty training and reading books together than I usually have my baby on my lap and my 2 year old toddler in the bathroom with me all reading the books together. I feel like Morgan takes up as much time as a toddler does. She is independent in many areas but also requires constant supervision when her little brother and sister are around. I think the bigger problem with one-on-one time is due to having such a large family and not so much the special needs factor.

No parent is perfect. We try to do the best we can for our children. What are your primary parenting goals?

I want to raise happy, respectful and responsible adults that have a love for their Savior, Jesus Christ. We are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("Mormons") and the gospel is a part of our everyday lives. There is a lot of pressure in our church to raise your children to be active members in the church with their own families. I know a lot of people in the church feel like they have failed as a parent if their child is no longer active and not living their life in accordance to the things they were taught. I don't agree. Although it would be difficult if one of my children chose to not be active in the gospel, I hope it wouldn't make me feel like I had failed in some way.

We spend Monday nights discussing different gospel principles with the children (Family Home Evening). My children LOVE this tradition. They are the ones that remind us about it each Monday. They love having all of the family together and being part of the planning whether it is being in charge of the prayer, song, lesson, activity or treat. We go to church every Sunday for 3 hours. We honor the Sabbath Day and do not shop, boat, swim, ski, do yard work, etc. on Sunday. We spend Sundays together as a family.

How do you and your husband manage to make time for each other?

A happy marriage is our biggest priority and this may be surprising but we actually spend a lot of time together. We both love to travel and go on several vacations a year, just the two of us. We have a couple of babysitters that are absolutely wonderful and we completely trust with our children. It is expensive to pay for someone to come into our home (it's usually the biggest expense of the trip) but the reconnection and individual time it gives us (not to mention the much needed break from my busy life at home) are more than worth it!

I also mentioned that we have scheduled bedtime for the kids. Bedtime is 8:00-8:30 pm during the school year which means we have our own time together almost every evening and usually end up watching tivoed shows or renting a video. We also try to have a date night once a week.

For those of us who are parents, that role is likely the top life-changing experience we encountered on our way to becoming responsible adults. What are the top three life lessons you've encountered and embraced as your family has grown?


1. True happiness is found through sacrifice and love.
2. Being a mother to a daughter with special needs has opened my eyes to the world of disabilities and the potential each individual has to make a difference in this world. Every child is of worth and deserves acceptance and love.
3. Nothing is more rewarding or harder than being a parent! And I need a lot more patience!

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6527212 July 06, 2009

Final Thoughts on Teens

It's seventeen days later, and we're all grown up.

Thanks for visiting Aberration Nation during the teen event! I'd also like to send out a special THANK YOU to all the brave folks who participated, including Melissa Walker, Lisa Morguess, the four teens who shared their writing with us, and Josh, who opened up about losing his leg.

I hope all who visited not only enjoyed reading the content, but also found it thought provoking and helpful. I was hesitant to share the thoughts I had and poetry I wrote as a young person, but doing so has been a positive experience for me. Like my friend Lisa, I don't want to loose sight of all the things that happened in my life. Good or bad, they molded me into who I am ... and continue to do so. I'm still evolving. If my life had ended on that dark, hopeless Louisiana night in 1985, I would never have experienced (to name a few):

- telling my Dad how much I love him
- giving life to two beautiful daughters
- knowing the kind of love that heals wounds--the gift my husband gives me every day
- eating a bagel or drinking a martini
- seeing and playing in deep snow
- visiting Europe, Utah, Southern California, New York City, Puerto Rico, and Singapore to name a few
- camping in a trailer
- lying on the hood of a speed boat, racing through Lake George in New York, the wind in my hair
- winning a 5K run
- painting a mural on a Philadelphia building
- writing four books
- being a Director at one of the largest and most respected companies in the world, Johnson & Johnson
- being boss to many people, and having the opportunity to help them not only develop their careers but also simply enjoy coming to work
- promoting someone deserving to Associate Director and seeing her face light up
- seeing a Kansas sunset
- seeing Wicked and Phantom of the Opera on Broadway
- reading the millions of books I've found since then
- knowing my wonderful in-laws, who have touched my life
- being an Aunt to seven awesome kids
- reading a history my grandfather wrote about his life
- earning a BS degree, and then an MS degree in my 30s
- watching my daughters learn to walk, ride bikes, run, read, write, etc.
- meeting a million interesting people who have taught me that life is an absolutely beautiful jumbled mess
- learning to love myself

With all that said, here's some advice from Lisa and me (the runaway girls) on how you might possibly help a struggling teen.

With regard to the teen who looks fine and dandy, but is suffering (Penelope):

1) Listen for hints and openings offered to strike up a conversation about what's bothering him or her. (I often hinted to adults but they missed it every time.)

2) Don't assume the kid who appears to be the strongest, brightest, or most cheerful is immune to depression. Remember the signs of depression. Understand that there can be a difference between diagnosed mental illness and depression based on growing up in a depressing environment. I was taught to experience life a particular way; once I understood that I didn't have to look at life through the lens of my teacher, I began to break free of that sad lesson and find my own view.

3) Take the emotional pain a teen expresses seriously. Don't talk down to them, or treat their suffering as if it's trivial. Although they're young, they are complex individuals with deep emotion. (This happened to me numerous times, even with health care professionals.) Don't offer easy fixes to teens as if their pain is a passing phase. This makes them feel even more isolated and strange.

5) When you know a teenager is surrounded by dysfunction, don't assume they're fine just because they're smiling with a sparkle in their eye.

6) Find, create, and/or offer a safe environment where the teen can unload. Even at a young age, years of trying to keep it all together is difficult to break through. If they talk a lot about pain related to their social interactions, ask them about their family. If they smile and say they have a nice family, blah, blah, blah, dig deeper.

I was a tough nut to crack (and still am sometimes), but nobody even really tried ... I eventually had to bust my own nut.

For the obviously stressed teen who is acting out (Lisa):

There were so many obvious, glaring signs that I was troubled, and they were all overlooked. To this day, I find it just really disturbing that nobody reached out to me.

I was clearly withdrawn and depressed by the time I was in high school. My grades started to slip. I often went to school disheveled from abuse I had suffered just that morning at the hands of my mother. I even often got drunk on school grounds at lunch period and then went to classes after wards, and nobody ever picked up on it or called me on it. So, I don't know . . . I guess what I would say to adults is "Don't overlook the obvious!" I mean, it's a fine line, I'm sure. A certain amount of teenage angst and even acting out is to be expected, and I don't think adults should be right in every teenager's face offering/threatening counseling over every little thing, but I do think that adults need to just try really hard to be tuned in, to be able to recognize the difference between normal growing pains and signs of something more serious.

Thanks all!


Up next week on Aberration Nation, On Being Societally Disabled: An Aberration Story. If you think you have challenges, wait until you meet courageous Kev. He lives in a home for the disabled. Look around now and count your blessings. Kev does ...

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6527212 June 21, 2009

Why I Care About Teens

Who blew out the candle?

There are multiple ways to run away. When I was nineteen, my attempt to run bought a three-day stay in intensive care. On the third day, one of my high school teachers happened to walk past the large, rectangular window of my room. I hid my face under the sheet. I hid my real face under all kinds of sheets for a long time. Lisa, who is highlighted in the Aberration Nation Teen Event (that starts today), ran away, too. We both survived. While the lives we enjoy today are certainly not perfect, they are much more than we ever imagined remotely possible once upon a teenage time.

A lot of the people in my young, lonely life wondered what in the Sam Hill I had to be so upset about. "She's a smart, tall blond. Her mom is such a strong Christian. Her dad is a high school guidance counselor. Her smile lights up a room; she's always has a date. She made straight A's last semester. Blah, blah, blah, blah." Some of those same people may now ask themselves, "Why in the Sam Hill would she share something like that on the Internet?"

You know who you are. Go ahead!

I've shared my secret because it's the most provocative and honest way I can explain the deep soft spot I have for teenagers.

Many teenagers have wonderful, functional families that help them successfully navigate their way through the ups and downs of those years. Others, despite great environments, struggle. Then there are those who don't seem to stand a chance in hell, and yet, they sail through. Some don't make it. Many do but then think about the desperate actions they took for many years, trying to understand what happened and why. Others separate out the early parts of their lives as if they're merely photographs of someone they used to be. The album snaps shut and that is that. As teens and as adults, we're all different.

During my mid-to-late twenties, I wrote a novel called Boundaries based the culminating struggle I went through to finally emerge on the other side of all the painful, lonely experiences I had as a child and teenager. It was a painstaking project that took many years. When I finally finished, I wasn't sure if I'd said all I could, or if I'd properly explained the complex situation, and how I felt about it. At thirty years old, I still wasn't sure if I fully understood it all, or if I ever would. Part of me wished I could be the type of person who closes the album, stuffs it in a box, and skips away.

I began trying to express myself through writing at a very young age. In recent years, I spent hours reading my old journals and stacks of poetry. What struck me is the phenomenal growth, and expanded contemplation and insight that evolved over the years between 12 and 21.

Here's a journal entry I wrote at 14, the age of most of my guest bloggers for this special teen event:

Some people live to make others die inside. They laugh at you and your feelings. Never think this is because they're older than you. It's not. It's because they're cruel, and anyone can be that way. (1980, 14 years old)

And here's a poem from the same year:


Who blew out the candle?
Burning, burning,
Did you?
I didn't.
I still want to see beauty,
When the flame is gone,
It's lonely in the dark,
I can't see,
Light a candle,
Running out ...

(1980, 14 years old)

At 14, my voice was young although my emotions ran deep. Life was confusing and I attempted to make sense of it with a beginner's toolkit. In reading the teen stories submitted for this event, I realized again why writers are so often drawn to their youth. Even the brightest or most talented teens can't always understand, describe, and fully express their experiences and emotions. The ability to do so can significantly increase as each year passes on that reckless highway between childhood and adulthood--and then continue ... The aberrations stories shared with you in the coming days were written by teens just completing the 8th grade. They're on the sharp edge of high school, where, in many ways, it all begins.

As you read their stories, I ask that you not only consider the words provided, but also imagine the words that may be missing. The voices you'll hear were our voices years ago. I wonder what these young people will say about their aberrations next year, or at 19, 30, or 43? They'll have seen adventure, accomplishment, and perhaps tragedy they can't imagine today. Yet at the core, at least in part, they will still be the selective mute, the amputee, the Muslim, and the stubborn boy who visited Aberration Nation in 2009.

Interspersed in their stories, you'll hear from Lisa, an adult who was once a teen runaway. Consider how she might have described her life at 14. What would she have shared and how would she have said it? Would she have understood her situation, emotions, and actions so well? What type of lens did she peer through all those years ago?

So what's the point of all this?

Well, I'm not a teacher, psychologist, physician, Oprah, or Dr. Phil, but I have a feeling we can all do a better job of listening to the teens in our lives. We could try just a little harder to remember what it was like once upon a teenage time. It's so easy to look into a bright, young smile, shrug off any doubts, and say, "She's fine. She's a beautiful, smart cheerleader," or drive the kid who wants purple hair and five piercings crazy although he's actually got a great head on his shoulders.

Through out this event, I'll also post brief excerpts from my journals, as well as some of the poetry I wrote between the ages of 14 and 21. Don't expect award winning writing, but you will find honesty. My aim is to use my early content to further support the idea that our understanding, and the ability to express ourselves matures dramatically during those years. I believe this is important because the depth of my emotions never changed. They were as strong and real at 14 as they are today.

The recognition of this disconnect seems important. I hope you'll agree.

Come back Tuesday for our first teen aberration story: Selective Mutism.

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6527212 January 26, 2009

Special Ed: An Aberration Story

"The main thing you can do as a parent that no one else can do as effectively, is believe in them."

Remember the song, He Ain't Heavy. He's My Brother? Well, my older brother wasn't heavy, but he had a learning disability. Just sixteen months apart, and looking like twins for much of our childhood, I soared through grade school with my hands tied behind my back while John struggled. Funny thing is--John's IQ is higher than mine. And I ain't no dummy. He was smart and I knew it. I could never win an argument with him, and he outsmarted me daily in all practical matters. His frustration was a palpable element of my childhood, and I wished I could make it go away.

I remember reading to him at six and seven years old, and Mom helping him with his homework for hours. I also remember bullies taunting me with the word retarded, and me yelling back, "My brother is smarter than you!" Over the years, he came to symbolize for me what being your own man truly means. He knew he was smart. He never gave up believing that he could somehow overcome the circuitry in his head that seemed to hold him down.

And he did! He was the first person who showed me that obstacles can be overcome, life goes on, and determination is key. By the time he graduated from high school, he was the most well read teenager I knew. His tiny room was filled with the books he'd read, and the stories he'd written.

John has joined the Aberration Nation and hopes his insight can help others better understand what it's like to be a kid in the special education system. He's a living testament to the fact that with help and determination, no kid has to be left behind.

You had a learning disability as a child during the 1970's. You attended special education classes, and then went on to attend a special, private school for several years. Back then, there didn't seem to be as many specific terms for learning disabilities. Can you tell us about the nature of your learning disability?

My problem was primarily one of short attention span and lack of interest. However, there was another component to it that is not so easily explained. I am a compulsive explorer of ideas and I free associate constantly. When you put all of these factors together you end up with scenarios like this. My teacher would give me an assignment to complete within the next half hour. I would start on it, find it boring, and then notice a fly in the room, which would remind me of a bumble bee I saw earlier in the day. I would then jump to helicopters because they use a similar form of flight, wonder if UFOs use the same type of propulsion, contemplate where UFOs come from and if they exist, and the existence of UFOs would challenge me and it wasn't boring. This would go on until suddenly the teacher would be there asking for my paper. In many cases, I would be shocked to realize that my time was up and my work wasn't done. As I got older, I developed the ability to snap myself out of these flights of fancy, but it was next to impossible when I was a child. The result of all this was that I fell farther and farther behind my class mates in school.

Do you recall how your learning disability came to light? Do you remember having trouble learning to read?

I don’t remember much about how it was decided that I had a learning disability, but I do remember having trouble learning to read. It was very frustrating. I was very smart as a child and I remember that the things that interested me were way above my reading level and the things at my reading level were so silly that they insulted my intelligence. It was horribly embarrassing to try to read something like that and fail. I didn’t want anything to do with, “See spot run.”

What did your parents do to support you, and was there anything else they could have done?

As far as I could tell, my father didn't have as much day-to-day involvement with my educational problems, but I never thought much about it because my mother was very involved. She drove me to school often, and tried to help in various ways. She got me into special schools. I don’t know if there was anything else they could have done to help me, and to be honest, I’ve never thought about it that way. I’m thankful for the help I did get. I think they did everything they could think of and could afford to do. As I grew older, my father had a great influence on my continued reading. He and my sister were avid readers, which created a positive environment for me, in terms of reading.

How did having a learning disability impact you socially? How did you deal with it as a young child?

When I was very young, I was oblivious to any social issues surrounding my learning problems. As I got older, I became very hard nosed about it. I decided that I didn’t care what others thought about anything. I became rather isolated and detached. As a result, I had a few very close friends and everyone else I ignored. Oddly enough this had the beneficial effect of insulating me from almost all the pier pressure that most children have to deal with. I made up my own mind about just about everything and if others didn’t like it, that was just tough for them. Of course, this also included my parents and sometimes that caused problems as you might imagine.

There are many examples in history of highly intelligent people who had learning disabilities. By the time you reached high school, you were able to go back into regular public school, and then you went on to obtain a college degree. Were you able to easily keep up at that point?

It’s true that I went back into public school, but it was far from easy. I still did very poorly at anything that didn’t fire my interest and imagination. If it was boring--and there were a great many boring things in high school--I still had concentration and attention span issues. It is important to understand that being bored by something didn’t mean that I didn’t understand that it was important. It just meant that no matter how hard I tried to get interested in it, I couldn’t. If the interest wasn’t there, then the ability to concentrate on it went out the window. To this day I don’t know why I’m like that, but to be honest, I don’t think it would make a difference even if I did. There were a few things that I did rather well at but they were few and far between. I developed a personal motto that I reminded myself of over and over again through the years. The motto goes like this, I may not finish first, but I never give up--no matter what.

Once you learned to read, you became an avid reader. You also have a high IQ. Did your early struggle to learn, and your success in overcoming hurdles that others easily scaled, help to build your character? If so, how?

This is true. Once I learned to read, I discovered a love of science fiction and fantasy that kept me reading constantly. My high IQ has been both a blessing and a curse in many ways. I often see more deeply into issues than those around me, but I'm seldom smart enough to find a truly profound solution to the problems I see. My struggles have driven me to do a great deal of soul searching over the years, and I'm sure that played a role in shaping my character, but I would have happily jumped at the chance to correct the problems I had if the opportunity had presented itself.

As a great example of a child with a learning disability who grew to be an avid reader and successful adult, what advice can you give parents who fear their children will continue to lag behind?

There is no way to know for sure if your children will overcome the problems that they face in life no matter what those problems are. The main thing you can do as a parent that no one else can do as effectively, is believe in them. When everyone else in the entire world has given up on them, written them off, or told them that they can’t succeed, you can be the one who says, “You can do it if you refuse to give up”. (By the way, you can’t go wrong if you follow that advice with your spouse as well.) Teach them how to face failure with honor and grace, and remember what Batman’s butler said, “The reason we fall down, is so that we can learn to pick ourselves up again.” When you fall down all the time, you need to live by those words.

If you could tell the world anything about children who struggle academically, particularly with learning to read, what would that be?

Often these children are treated by others as if they don’t care that they are not doing as well as the other children. Many of them even pretend that they don’t care because it's too painful and embarrassing to admit that they care. Trust me when I say that no matter how they act, they care, and it hurts, and in most cases they would like nothing more than to be normal. They just don’t know how to be anything other than what they are.

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6527212 October 28, 2008

Raising Mommy: An Aberration Story

"Growing up with a very volatile person has given me great patience when dealing with others."

This painting, Brute Strength, represents the struggle of growing up in the shadow of a mental illness. As the adolescent or young adult grows, reaching for the road that leads away from the pain of childhood, an almost organic entanglement with the mentally ill parent constantly pulls them back toward an unhealthy world. This unique conflict mixed with the more common adolescent struggles with right and wrong, and what falls in between, can create a situation that follows the child far into adulthood, impacting their behaviors, choices, and perceptions.

I've lived it and so has Ali, the newest member of the Aberration Nation. I had the pleasure of meeting Ali at a narcolepsy support meeting in Toronto earlier this year. She's a courageous young woman who refuses to let her own aberrations inhibit her strong positive focus while also helping others to do the same. She's a role model for me, and I'm delighted to share her story with you.

What it was like growing up with a mentally ill parent?

I'm lucky to have a few memories of my mother when she still behaved like a typical mom. She was very creative and involved with my sister and me. She liked making crafts and taking us on mystery tours to playgrounds we'd never seen. However, around the time of my ninth birthday, things changed drastically. My mom became confused, and couldn't express herself properly. She couldn't use the phone, had very poor balance, and couldn't cook. Although I wasn't aware of any specifics, I knew something was very wrong. The following year, Mom moved in and out of the psychiatric ward for several weeks at a time. That's when I became the mother figure.

Twice, I came home from school and found the house full of smoke. My mom had been trying to cook. I had to call the fire department. Another day, she climbed on a chair in the kitchen and fell. I picked her up and put her to bed, then called my dad and asked him to come home from work because I was scared. My younger sister was quite sheltered from most of this. I didn't realise how much I protected her until we discussed it as adults. We're very close because of what we've been through together, and my sister is grateful that she was able to have a childhood while I took on responsibilities beyond my years.

As a child, what were your top priorities?

When my dad left for work each morning, he always reminded me not to let Mom touch the stove, not to let her go downstairs, and so on. It never seemed unusual to me that I had to do so much for my mother. After school I would babysit her instead of going to a babysitter myself. My dad worked in the city, and rode the bus two hours each way, so we were very much on our own. My top priorities became making sure my mom and sister had what they needed until my dad got home. My kid time was in the evenings when Dad took me to Guides or a church youth group. In school, I didn't relate well to the other kids. I was an easy target for bullies, but I thrived in Guides where maturity and responsibility were prized.

How did you come to understand that your family was different in this way, and how did you cope?

Around age twelve, my parents took me to see a social worker due to depression and my dislike of school. Not knowing that my mother had been diagnosed as mentally ill, I was only able to describe her behaviour and how it made me feel. The social worker tried to have me role play communication with my mom; she pretended to be my mom. I became very frustrated when the social worker wouldn't believe that my mother wouldn't listen if I told her I wanted to talk about something, and would instead either ignore me or become very angry and rude. This was the first of a string of social workers and psychologists who made me feel like an alien because my family was like no other they were aware of.

My coping mechanism became to stay away from home when possible. I immersed myself in volunteer work with Rangers, the local youth centre, and anything else I could get into. When things became too intense at home, I would walk to a local park and sit under a tree reading a book for a while. Sometimes I would walk around town all day, window shopping, talking to strangers, and just trying to forget what I had escaped from at home.

How did having a parent suffering with mental illness impact your ability to relate to others as you matured? Did it somehow expand and/or squelch this ability?

Having been a caregiver at such a young age, I have always assumed leadership roles. In Guides, I was a Patrol Leader, and as a teenager, I was an assistant Brownie Leader. I joined a committee to create a youth centre in my town, and often initiated new projects with that group. I made a lot of friends through that committee, and they came to rely on me as the person to go to for advice, or just a sounding board when they needed to talk. Even now at age thirty, friends come to me when they want straightforward, honest advice.

The flip side of my honesty and strength is that I can be blunt and sometimes bossy, but I'm able to acknowledge this. I try to keep myself from getting too pushy. My friends know that they can be equally honest with me, and I appreciate that. My drive for volunteerism has remained strong as well. I run two singles' social clubs, a support group for sleep disorders, am a member of Scouting, and an all-purpose volunteer fund raiser and cage cleaner for the Humane Society. People ask me for help, and I step right up to the job. At times this has been overwhelming, but in recent years I've learned how to say no sometimes as not to overburden myself. I always need to have some kind of project to focus my energy on, someone or something to take care of, and I think this comes from my early years of always having to keep watch and look after everyone else at home.

As an adult, what are the most difficult aspects of your relationship with your mother? Are they completely different from those your struggled with as a child or is it a continuation of the same?

To a large extent, the struggles with my mother are the same as when I was a child. We still have a power struggle where my mother tries to show her capabilities by refusing to take any of my suggestions. Last year, my father passed away, and she became violent. I had to leave town and for the first time in forty years, she was alone. I had to learn how to step back and allow her to make her own mistakes, although I'm always afraid she'll do something to physically harm herself or someone else. I've done everything I can to let doctors and others know what to watch out for. However, the law prevents anyone from intervening until she actually causes harm to herself or someone else.

I try to humour her and show her love from a distance in an attempt to keep myself from being drawn back into the whirlwind of confusion, control, and rage my mother lives in. We talk on the phone a couple of times a week, and I visit her once a month. I worry, but have accepted that I can't protect her. I think that's something every parent struggles with.

How do you cope as an adult?

Now that I've moved to a different city, I'm focusing on the self-care I ignored for so long. I got a gym membership and go several times each week. I do yoga and take belly dance lessons. I joined a choir and several social groups here. I live with my sister now, and we get along very well. I don't know where I would be without her love and support.
I have fantastic friends and plenty of volunteer projects. I have two cats that I love dearly. I also see a psychiatrist for post-traumatic stress disorder, and have taken cognitive behavioural therapy to deal with the trauma of the past. People who live close to my mother have my phone number and have promised to check up on her regularly. My mom and I are now developing into two separate entities, instead of one constant struggle.

How has living in the shadow of mental illness made you stronger? Can you share the positives that have emerged for you as a unique individual? Has it shaped your views on motherhood and parenting?

Growing up with a very volatile person has given me great patience when dealing with others. I've always had to figure out the underlying meaning of things--why my mother said and did the things she did--so I'm very attuned to the things people don't say out loud. I'm a caregiver and am very mentally and emotionally strong, and I lend this strength to others who come to me for help.

Although I like children, I've decided not to have any. I've been a parent for more than twenty years, and my mother is still very young and has many more years to go. Now is the time for me to live my own life. I appreciate the difficulty of being a mother, and that while it's very rewarding in many ways, it's the biggest commitment you can ever make. Other kids got their parenting lessons from carrying an egg or a bag of sugar or a robotic infant. I got my parenting experience from being a parent to my own mother, and it was a very steep learning curve.

What are the top three things we can do for children who may be in this lonely quagmire?

Teachers, neighbours, relatives, and anyone who may become aware that something is wrong should report the situation to Children's Aid. Often the other parent is too wrapped up in dealing with the mentally ill parent to give the child the necessary care and attention required. If a social services agency checks in on the family regularly and monitored the children's mental health from inside the home, a lot of trauma can be prevented. I would like to see support groups made available for children of mentally ill parents. Individual counselling is helpful only if the child feels understood, and in my experience, children are not given credit for what they really know. Even now as an adult, I would like to see a support group for adult children of mentally ill parents. This would help us deal with the lingering effects of our childhood.

If you could say anything to the world about being the child of a mentally ill parent, what would it be?

About being a child in the situation: Please make it your business to reach out and find out what's really happening at home. A child in such a situation is very isolated and feels that nobody could ever understand. What is most needed is a healthy adult role model and a place to just be a kid without adult pressures.

About being an adult child: Please don't ask why we bother having relationships with our parents. Just like a parent unconditionally loves and supports a mentally ill child, a child will often unconditionally love and support a mentally ill parent.

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