A documentary about “scary” kids scares me on behalf of the kids.

There’s a new documentary out that I don’t think I’m going to watch. It’s titled “A Dangerous Son.” It’s an HBO documentary that tells “a story about families with children who have psychiatric disorders that lead to violent behavior.” Mostly because I have already read all of those stories. Again. And again. And again.  

And I have found them incredibly disturbing each time – but on behalf of the children who are being written off and exploited. Especially because, as Mel Baggs pointed out in a comment: Across violent and abusive sets of environments, we – the kids – are the only ones seen as having a violence problem.

And those environments are so very often the context for “violent outbursts.” Like mine.

People considered sending me to a school for kids with behavioral problems, after therapy and medication didn’t work to quell my outbursts. Because they were going after the wrong thing: It must, the psychiatrist said, be Oppositional Defiant Disorder and anxiety. Not trauma. Not communication barriers. Not what was modeled as social behavior. Just that I was a rebellious, insolent, violent kid.

A throw-away diagnosis. A throw-away kid.

And I already know the kinds of things they’re going to talk about in the documentary: Desperate, at our wit’s end, we’re scared of our so, so very violent and mentally ill kid. But we’re out of treatment options. The psychiatric hospital is out of beds.

.  .  .

It’s possible to advocate for and with children who are struggling and vulnerable with, as I pointed out in 2016, some level of dignity. According to NPR, the director of the film “wanted to show how challenging this situation is both for the child and the family. Often, people assume a child’s behavior is a type of parental failure.” Further, director Liz Garbus told NPR, “Destigmatizing families like Stacy’s who are going through this and seeing how hard they’re trying is really important.”

Well, yes, in part it often is a parental failure, along with the psychiatric industry and other adults in the children’s lives. Whether it is directly perpetuating abuse and violence, enabling it, or failing to recognize the abuse and trauma, it is a failure of adults in their lives. You know what else is a parental and societal failure? Filming kids at their most vulnerable as a way to showcase how “challenging” it is.

You know what’s really important?

Not, as the NAMI spokesperson in the NPR article implies, framing it as a choice between psychiatric beds and intractable violence at home. Because it does not surprise me and my friends that one of the kids’ behavior “didn’t improve” when he got home from inpatient. Because we have witnessed the violence and hostility of inpatient institutions.

Maybe a focus on trauma-informed care and removing sources of abuse and violence in the kid’s life. Maybe that’s also important. Maybe it’s important to fight for community-based services and training providers need instead of more psych beds.

It’s possible to advocate for struggling children with dignity.

.  .  .

Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone wrote an article on their blog following Newtown and a particularly bad Gawker article written by a parent about her 13-year-old son called “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” In it, Savannah describes being one of the “scary kids,” the right to privacy, and the dangerous assumptions and dismissals people make. Every word of the piece is important, but here is a snippet:

My mother doesn’t regret keeping it private, between her and her private journal or her therapist. Today she was at  a consumer and family advisory for our behavioral health managed care organization (BHMCO). They read that gawker article, and my mother was appalled. She has scary stories about me, but the idea of sharing them in a way that associated them publicly with me was a horrifying violation of privacy and good sense to her. She was struck by the negativity of the piece, of the author. And she noticed how it relies on and perpetuates stigma, and jumps to conclusions.

Having been one of those scary kids is scary… What made it scary to have been one is what people assume based on it — and what they assume when you don’t disclose.

The author of the “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” piece is in the documentary.

.  .  .

And what if filmmakers had turned a camera on me capture my worst moments? Then what? Would anyone have seen the context? Would anyone have seen a vulnerable child? Would anyone have stopped to think about the young person whose future they’re so willing to damage? What this might do to them on every level of being?

No. They wouldn’t have, because it’s already happened, over and over again, to others. They chose to exploit. But they could have provided sensitivity and trauma-informed care to a young, struggling person instead.

However lost in life you may think we are: “None of us are lost causes.”

 

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Trauma in Fiction and Real Life: In Defense of “The Catcher in the Rye”

holden caulfield ask

[Anonymous Tumblr ask reading: “Holden Caulfield was a whiny self-centered teenager and he didn’t deserve an entire book”]

The above ask was sent to a Tumblr user, who responded with thoughts similar to my own. Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a traumatized teenager. Catcher is the story of what trauma can look like. It is the story of what it looks like when adults fail youth.

Holden was a vulnerable teenager experiencing so much trauma. He had so much grief of losing his brother, one of the only caring people in his life. He had to survive a toxic school environment where his peers killed themselves and he was implied to be enduring sexual abuse. He narrates his story from an institution in California following the breakdown.

Catcher is the story of what trauma can look like. The book wasn’t the story of “lol angst.” To dismiss that? Means letting adults and parents and educators off the hook to do good. To do right. To maybe support youth in working through trauma and edging closer to adulthood. Catcher is the story of a traumatized teenager. Some adults actively contributed to his trauma. And all of them let him fall through the cracks until the breaking point.

Stop letting traumatized teenagers just fall through the cracks. Stop assuming teenagers are just supposed to be miserable. Remember that just because trauma isn’t immediately visible doesn’t mean it is not serious. Treat pain, whether trauma-related or not, with respect – not as bothersome angst. Talking about counseling options can be helpful, but forcing them into it is not a solution. Training teachers to be better mentors and making sure guidance counselors remain in schools (and improving upon guidance counseling) are useful as well.

.  .  .

I read Catcher in high school, the same time I started dealing with fallout from trauma. I could see in Holden myself. I read and glimpsed what could have happened to me if things had been a little different. I read as the adults in his life failed him, as some in mine didn’t. I was a frightened and hurting teenager. Who didn’t know that it was trauma to even talk about. Who didn’t have any coping mechanisms. Who thus did not remotely know how to cope. Who did not know how to react, to process, to keep my pain at bay from myself and others. I had a support network of sorts. Holden Caulfield did not.

Is that how you want to view traumatized teenagers? Are you going to even recognize the possibility of trauma? Is that how you’re going to react to teenagers’ pain? Even if they aren’t strictly experiencing the effects of trauma? Is it? If you think he is just a whiny self-centered teenager and other iterations of that ilk, I know that this is what you would have thought of me in high school.

If this is how you view traumatized teenagers and teenagers in general – no, they’re probably not going to trust you. If your response to teenagers’ pain is “lol angst,” – especially if you work with teenagers – you are contributing to the problem. If you think Holden Caulfield’s pain is “lol angst,” you are contributing to the problem. The book is not just Holden’s story.

Catcher was once my story. Catcher is the story of so many people who are traumatized and trying to reach adulthood. Catcher is the story of what trauma can look like.