Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Horrors of the Natural Born Whistle Blower

This morning, I woke from a dream. The fact that I had a dream at all suggests that I received enough sleep last night, which seems inaccurate given that I stayed up late and got up with the girls to either take them back to bed or tell them to go back to bed numerous time. Oh, and there was that chunk of sleep between 3 and 4 am that I missed because the girls surrounded us (surrounded our bed) in an effort to convince us that they needed to sleep in our bed. Lucky for me, my wife, Sandy, handled that hour of unpleasantness, getting up and doing the tough job, while I commented and cringed on the sidelines (from the fetal position I assumed in the bed, with my head cocked up to make sure I heard every word). At first, Sandy just insisted that the girls go back to their beds. They began crying and not leaving our bedside. I said, "I cannot be the one to handle this, I need you to be instrumental in this," so Sandy woke herself up, took the girls to the bathroom and took them back to bed. While Darah pleaded with Sandy to "have an adult" sleep with her and the two sisters cried anxiously, I comforted myself and tried to calm my own anxiety. What I feel when they are distressed in the night is, perhaps, more than empathy. I feel their little kid anxiety like it was my own. I feel it as my own.  For some reason, it takes me to a place within myself that is anxious and desires comfort. It's torture for me to abstain from comforting them when they express anxiety because I am so much aware of my childhood and adulthood anxiety - and because it is hard for me to deny them what I would not deny myself: relief, warmth and comfort. The problem, though, is that I find myself projecting my own childhood anxiety onto them.

Emotionally, and in my head, I equate their current experience of anxiety with my childhood experiences of anxiety - and the two are probably, in reality, very different. I don't want to damage the girls by increasing the girls' anxiety or creating unhealthy habits by reinforcing extraneous negative behaviors because of the emotional child in me. Asking me to let my kids cry it out is, emotionally to me, like asking me to sit back and watch them be attacked by a rabid pit bull. It's NOT rational. It's emotional. I know that. It's also my reality. There is nothing real there for them to fear - being alone together in a room without us is NOT something that is dangerous or should be fear-inducing. We are not in any kind of eminent danger (that we know of) and we are living in a world in which the odds are for us so, based on these assumptions, we are relatively safe at night. That means the problem is ME, it is created by the irrational fears about being alone that I have. I feel safer when we are all together, but that does not mean it is necessary. I slept in a room alone in high school and I did not feel unsafe. My family was in the house, on most nights. I felt safe in numbers. As a young child, however, I felt very insecure in my environment. I can't remember enough to accurately explain WHY I felt insecure. I think it has something to do with being exposed to images and ideas (mainly images!) that were beyond my childhood stage of comprehension. When children are exposed to images or experiences that they are psychologically incapable of understanding or putting into a realistic, adult context (because of the stage of their brain development), they will likely experience a great deal of anxiety and feelings of powerlessness. They might have information but they lack the tools to process that information and put it into the appropriate context psychologically.

When I was very young, I was exposed to violent and frightening images of violence and gore, mainly in movies. No one protected me from those images. No one CENSORED (!!!) the stimuli I was exposed to and, worse than that, no one explained it to me. No one talked to me about what I saw. I didn't have the tools in myself and I did not have anyone providing me with the tools. I needed someone, first of all, to turn off the television and prevent me from seeing traumatic images that should not be seen by children. And, secondly, I needed someone to talk to me about what I saw: to explain the images, to explain that they weren't real. I remember seeing parts of movies, like "Cape Fear" and "Basic Instinct" and "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" and "Rambo" and "Kindergarten Cop" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Jaws" and "Friday the 13th," that traumatized me deeply. I'm not being dramatic, here. As a kid, I was tormented by the images I saw in those movies. I did not want to see the films, and I would demand that the television be turned off in almost every instance but I was too young to know to look away. In time I learned to look away. I remember seeing a film, I don't know what it was, in which a group of people were at a camp site. One woman fell or was pushed into a fire pit and burned to death while the others ran away frantically and tried to get into a van to get away - in the process one of the women could not get into the van and, then, trying to get in it and not be left behind, she was run over by the van. Of course add in all the screaming and the music. I was horrified. Every time we went to visit my Aunt Sharon's trailer in Sherkeston Shores (Ontario), I would think of that movie while we toasted marshmallows by the fire at night. I was fine camping during the day, but between the bugs and my fear of campfires/camping at night, I was an emotional mess at night. I knew that adults were unhelpful while they were sleeping during the night and I did not trust any adult to make it better since adults were the ones who had exposed me to the images to begin with. I can remember burning up, and tossing and turning all night long in the tiny bunk bed of the trailer - just waaaaitng for morning.

After I saw "Friday the 13th," I would not take a shower without the bathroom door open. This lasted two years, at least. I was a hypervigilant four-five-six-and-seven year old. (And I'm still a hyper-aware adult: hence my ability and desire to wake up at the tiniest sound coming from my daughters' room.) I'm a light sleeper. I haven't slept deeply since the girls were born. Only in the morning, usually when the girls are either in our bed or are up with Sandy, do I sleep soundly. That's probably why I find it difficult to wake up. The worst childhood horror-image trauma that I experienced happened when I was five and was in Florida for Spring Break. Since I was two years old, I would visit Florida - usually without my parents and traveling with my great grandmother to stay at my Grandma Mel's condo for two weeks. When I was five, I traveled with my cousin, Carolyn, who was a few years older than me. I swear, for the weeks that we were there, all she and my cousin, Matthew (just a year older than me), did was watch horror films. They were expected to take care of me and we were all expected to entertain each other. They had a film fest and I had nothing to do but protest and try to distract myself (by hanging out with my great grandmother in the other room). I did a lot of protesting, and Matthew called me names and made fun of me. I ended up seeing more than I should have seen.

If I tried to protest to Grandma Mel, which I am sure I did, she would have said to me, "Stop being such a baby. Your cousins are having fun. Go and have fun with them. Don't be such a tattle-tale." During the two nights that I stayed at Matthew's parents' house, he and Carolyn watched numerous horror films. I walked into and out of the television room and stood in the doorway, with my hands on my hips, resentfully watching what I was unsuccessfully demanding they turn off. One of the images I remember was seeing this little alien creature in the air vent of a school bathroom. He climbed out of it, and killed and ate a schoolgirl who was using the bathroom. Then, later, as I was sitting on the couch by the window, my older cousins played a trick on me (remember: I was five). It was foggy outside. Matthew jumped up and said, "Oh my god, there's a man out there, Jessy. It's Jason. AHHHHH..." or something like that. I turned around and saw what I thought was a man in black in the distance. I ran away, crying. It was Carolyn with a hood or hat on. Heh. Heh. Heh.

There were no adults to tell and no adults who would have cared or understood even if they were there to tell. And I was a big "teller," telling was like a twenty-four hour job for me when I was young. My siblings and cousins can attest to this. Of course it never produced any effect, so I guess I wasn't very good at the job. After that incident, I would not sit on the couch in front of the window and I would not go in the television room with my cousins and I could not sleep at night while the images replayed over and over in my head for months to come. Over time, I learned to avoid the unpleasant stimuli. At sleepovers, I would cover myself up with my sleeping bag and plug my ears, for hours if necessary, in order to avoid seeing images, like the one I saw in "The Postman" in which an elderly woman was suffocated with a plastic bag by the Postman in her living room. I learned to stay out of rooms with scary movies playing in them. I learned to avoid rather than rant and rave to no effect. Even today, as an adult, if I walk into a room in which there is a film on that I don't want to see, I will leave or distract myself with something else. Leaving, I find, is the best solution.

It shouldn't surprise you that I am protective of the images seen by my children. Hypersensitive about it, yes. If we are watching a show and it is followed by some kind of crime show (and as the formula for such shows go: there is usually a gory crime committed at the very beginning of the show), I am quick to grab the remote or command Sandy to change the channel. I don't find it at all entertaining to watch someone fighting for their survival or to watch someone or something torment someone with fear or to watch someone be hacked at (just for the sake of being hacked at). I appreciate thought-provoking, intellectual work and I can handle some stuff: "The Twilight Zone, "Poltergeist" and maybe even "The Shining."  I do not understand the draw toward violence for the sake of violence. I would never want something horrific to happen in real life - not even as a fantasy. A couple of years ago, I watched a documentary on Dennis Rader. I learned how he tied up a whole family in chairs and then suffocated them one by one while the ones who were still alive had to watch and wait to be next. Rader, himself, described how he suffocated the mother early on but that she was still alive after everyone else had died. He went back to her, to suffocate her some more - and she (according to his account) seemed calm and told him she forgave him. Just hearing the details of that was counterproductive. I felt disgusted, depressed, terrified and horrified (for what each family member might have experienced before they were killed). I thought it was one of the worst things I had ever heard in my life, but, no, I have heard of other things that have happened in real life that are just as terrible.

I don't know how other people can learn about and not be affected deeply by such things - and it makes me angry that people entertain such ideas in fantasy, that people find movies that depict such horror entertaining. I may be somewhat of a prude or a puritan, but I just don't get it. I know we all have to move on with living, recognizing the unlikeliness of events like this occurring in (or ending) our own lives. It all sort of stays with me, to some degree. There is the woman who was in a limo accident (cause by a DRUNK driver) with her daughter, and who held her daughter's decapitated head on the side of the highway for an hour after the accident. Then there is the man who accidentally backed his car up over his toddler, killing his own precious child. (And don't get me started on Shanda Sharer's horrific murder...) I saw both of these suffering individuals tell their stories on Oprah. Oprah at least lets the victims tell their real life stories. There is enough horror in reality: THAT is what I believe. (I am, at the same time, all for freedom in art. I just don't "get" the "art" of horror films...but that's just me.)

Oh, horror, where was I. Yes, last night. Last night I felt a strong irrational urge to go and ease my girls' irrational anxiety with my presence - which would have been bad because it would have reinforced the anxiety (and the expression of the anxiety - and the repeated WAKING behaviors). It also would have contributed to their inability to feel like they can cope with their own discomforts and anxiety without my assistance. The goal that Sandy and I share, as their parents, is for them to be informed but not unnecessarily anxious. We want them to be empowered with information, comfort at appropriate times and life skills so that they feel and be competent in the world. Sometimes I am able to provide them with empowerment and sometimes I am not. Last night I was not, and so Sandy stepped in honorably to do her part and help us (the girls and me) learn to cope with some of our emotional discomforts and adjust to a new behavior. We WANT them to stay in their own bed all night on most nights, with the exception of Saturday Night Special - in which they sleep in our room and I tell them "Stories from Mouth" before they fall asleep. We do not have room in our full size bed and we want them to be able to sleep through the night without anxiety in their own bed. We share the same goal, in this regard. Sandy is a better person to take the lead and be the empowerment hero on this issue, since I obviously am NOT the best person to facilitate change here.

I am, however, very good at helping to put complex and scary ideas and images into context for them. I am good at explaining rationally, in a way that they  understand, some of the adult issues they encounter. I am good at protecting them from images they are not equipped to handle. I am good at withholding some of my gut reactions (of horror) in their presence...during the day. At night, I am not so good. I just want to run to them and wrap my arms around them and ease their anxieties with my presence, though I know rationally that I am creating dependency in them that is probably unnecessary and not beneficial. I don't want to project my fears and anxieties onto them. I don't want them to see sleeping alone as an unpleasant experience JUST because I do. I will always keep them close and do my best to protect them, but letting them sleep through the night without my physical assistance is not, in my opinion, what's best for them. I am grateful that last night Sandy was our family hero - that she took charge and handled the situation, even though  it meant that she lost hours of sleep and had to take on the role of enforcer while I winced in the background in order to do it. She is my hero this morning.

This morning. Ahhhh. As much as I love night, morning can be quite a relief. I always get my best sleep in the morning because I am the most relaxed in the morning. This morning, after Sandy saved us and I dreamed of beds of broccoli and the music of life, I thought of what a tattle tale I was and am. I remembered the time that I wrote a letter to my favorite English teacher duo in which I turned my sister in for plagiarizing. I was high and mighty, yes I was, providing them with the details of how she saw my summer reading paper on the screen on the night before the first day of school and, without asking or telling me, turned in a copy of MY paper with HER name on the top of it. I turned her in, I turned in my own sister. I was appalled at her behavior and I saw it through a moralistic lens. I turned her in. Of course no consequence resulted for her, but the act is etched in my memory (and in hers, too, though she laughs about it and doesn't blame me for ratting on her). At the time, I felt like the fact that she stole my paper was an act of utter disloyalty. I did not consider myself disloyal, that's how I saw her. And I reasoned that sisterly loyalty went out the window when she committed the act of stealing my paper and claiming it as her own. We were, for a period after this, Sisters Divided. Not because of this issue, this issue just emphasizes and explains the division.

I have always wondered about and been suspicious of loyalty. Loyalty can make people do atrocious things. It can also be the thing that keeps families together. It can be an ethical and moral act, if loyalty arises out of moral (fair) intentions. Or, loyalty can be the breeding place in which terrible ideas and acts are committed. "The Godfather," anyone? I have seen Italian families, even my own, adopt blind loyalty. Blind loyalty is never good for anyone - and is harmful to society. I have always prided myself on not being blindly loyal to ANYONE. You never know, though, I'm sure I'm blindly loyal about some things. I feel that I am clearly loyal, in the best sense, to the ones I hold nearest and dearest. Sometimes I take the moralistic vision that I posses too far and pursue it for unethical reasons - for the sake of fulfilling my own need for drama, for the sake of feeling righteous, etc. Usually, I am balanced. Thank goodness. Sometimes, though, I have to wonder: am I a Natural Born Whistle Blower?

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