The Shooter I Could Have Been

The Shooter I Could Have Been

Here’s the thing that disturbs me about the whole conversation about whether students being “nicer” to outcasts would help prevent them from turning into shooters: The people taking that position are mostly ignoring the relevance of actual gun regulation, and the people calling it “victim blaming” are ignoring the traumatic impact of toxic school environments. This meme encapsulates it perfectly:


Fucked up, emotionally abusive social environments in schools (often compounding fucked up, emotionally abusive conditions at home) DO drive people to self harm and/or externalized violence, every day.

I can tell you that as a high school student, I experienced daily abuse that made me contemplate suicide frequently, because I didn’t know how I could bear going back to a school setting where I was constantly tormented, and I wasn’t aware of any other way out.

I was also full of rage, rage that came from feeling utterly powerless to stop the emotional abuse. Teachers and parents told me there was no problem happening and there was no help available, while other kids would be throwing stuff at me, loudly laughing about how ugly I was, and holding me up as a public example of someone no one would ever like.

So yeah, I acted out in pointless and ineffective ways. I once got in trouble with a teacher I respected greatly for whipping the middle finger at a random car going by. Yeah – it was dumb and seemingly unjustified, and I got thoroughly chewed out. But in retrospect, it’s so easy for me to see that I had literally no way (that I was aware of) to PRODUCTIVELY express my fury at being constantly targeted for verbal abuse, so I was trying to repress it all – which led to profound depression with suicidal thoughts, behavior problems and lashing out at uninvolved strangers, and eventually alcoholism, a self-destruction technique from which I eventually did almost succeed in dying.

It was only a few years ago that I realized that what I had experienced in school was definitionally trauma, and that it chemically impacted the development of my brain and my personality, not to mention my physical body, in ways that I am only now beginning to fully understand. Trauma SHUTS DOWN some of our rational abilities and puts us in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze – which is what I did throughout those years, pinballing between the three, feeling increasingly like a failure who didn’t deserve to live, yet also knowing deep down that what I was experiencing was not right. Long story short: the social climate in which I existed, and the constant presence of bullying, really did create in me an extremely toxic and dangerous mix of unacknowledged rage and powerful self hate.

I can so easily see myself in the profile of these kids who shoot up their schools and themselves. It’s not at all hard for me to imagine an alternative past in which I became one of them. What prevented me from becoming a shooter myself? My family didn’t have guns. My family had mental illness and addiction, so I did that instead. (Also, I was a girl. And girls are more often trained to keep shit inside and act nice, while boys are given more leeway to take their anger out on others. So more girls turn to self harm, while more boys become shooters.)

I think the evidence is clear that gun regulation would indeed prevent many people from dying in shootings, in much the same way that sensible regulation of motor vehicles prevents many unnecessary deaths in car accidents. And I also think that smart gun regulation is more than a Band-Aid – but less than a cure.

I didn’t get help until long after high school – after COLLEGE, even, when I finally moved away from the economically devastated rural area where I grew up, and finally had access to decent mental health services, where the providers didn’t tell me to just grow up and get over it, there’s nothing wrong with my life (like the therapist I sought out in my hometown when intensifying feelings of unworthiness to exist threatened to drive me over the real edge). (And some people wonder why I don’t come back.)

So when I see commentators scoffing at the idea that students in a school have some responsibility for “creating” a shooter by ostracizing and bullying them until they snap – well, I call BS on that. We really ARE all part of one ecosystem, and our actions do have impacts on those around us. Sorry (not sorry) to tell you, but when kids emotionally abuse a target outcast day after day and year after year, and when teachers turn a blind eye, it DOES have an impact on that kid’s psychology and mental state, and if they experience it as trauma – which is not a choice they can make – it will cause their brain to actually turn off the long-term reasoning faculties and focus on survival in the moment. Which, I can say from personal experience, can easily start to feel like a no-win situation in which escape is not possible, but revenge just might be.

And I can also see how one of those kids could hope that the excruciating pain of being could possibly be alleviated, just for a moment, by inflicting harm on someone else. Even if the someone who ends up getting harmed is a random bystander (like the driver of the car at whom I flipped the bird – he had nothing to do with anything, but he was there in a moment when I snapped and couldn’t hold back my rage and distress, emotions for which I had no safe outlet).

But –

When someone patronizingly tells kids who are organizing walkouts to stay put, and to just be NICER to each other, and shootings won’t happen? God, so infuriating.

One, just because the social environment is a factor, doesn’t make it the only factor. Who seriously believes that there is one single, straightforward solution to the national crisis of children massacring other children in schools? Regulation is proven to help – and is needed (not least as a declaration of national values, that we really do prioritize our children’s lives over money, which is sadly not very clear right now).

Two, with what skills??? Bullies are often THEMSELVES victims of trauma and emotional abuse who ALSO don’t have the coping skills they need to stop themselves from causing harm, or to even be aware that they’re doing it. Leaving overt bullying aside, the harmful impact of the ostracism that happens as a supposedly “natural” byproduct of teen jockeying for social status is pretty much invisible to the people who are creating it by simply going about the “business as usual” of the game of popularity. Kids are not conscious that they are causing harm, that they are traumatizing each other in ways that can have lifelong consequences, or even result in tragedy.

And if some of them suddenly “got woke,” as it were, to the toxicity of this game, and tried to befriend someone who had been targeted for years – would they have any tools or understanding of how to actually build trust where it had been destroyed? Would they have the commitment to keep working on building trust, even if it took months? Even if the person they were trying to befriend acted out angrily and antisocially due to the pain they were carrying inside? Even if the person didn’t seem “fun” or didn’t have any of the same interests or came from a restrictive home environment and wasn’t allowed to hang out?

(These are all characteristics of ME as a teen, by the way. And I could list other barriers to friending the young me – like my being queer, and not remotely fashionable, and cripplingly shy, and if you hung out with me, people would pick on you too.)

In my view, so many of our national problems stem from a refusal to accept the interdependence of human existence. Mental health happens in a context. In addition to regulating the tools of destruction, it’s imperative that we address the environment in which the desire to murder one’s peers takes root. That’s a lot more damn complicated than just telling kids to be NICE to the outcast. A real change here would need intensive support from adults, consciousness raising for kids, and a recognition that different people need different things in order to feel safe.

Do we, as a society, really care about the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing of all? Do we prioritize it?

Of course not. Our economy is built, to a very large degree, on perpetuating violence and sickness and self loathing.

And we wonder why children are slaughtering each other.

Smh.

acs_0028

Sad in Spring?

Sad in Spring?

This is a message for anyone who feels out of sync with the season, whose inner world seems to be clashing with what’s happening outside. Because grief and sadness can arise in springtime, same as in winter. And when the heart full of sorrow meets a shimmering mountainside covered in late snow, the effect may be to dispel the clouds within – or to drive a sharp stone point into the tender center of being. And when our eyes are still welling with tears even when we’re looking at a field of vibrant new wildflower blossoms –

It can be so easy to think we must be doing something wrong. 

How could we still cling to this pain when every insect and dewdrop and neighbor around us is singing “Happy Happy Joy Joy” in 16 part harmony? We must surely be a stubborn fool, says the critical mind (or at least mine does). We must be in love with our sadness, to hold so fast while all creation conspires and strives to wrest it from our grasp. 

Well, this is simply to say that ours is a universe of cycles within cycles. And while the seasons are powerful teachers, we have our own inner seasons, as well – the timing of which is not obligated to line up with the solar calendar that regulates changes in the weather at our particular spot on the globe. 

So if you’re experiencing a deep emotional process that seems to be at odds with what nature is doing all around you; if turning your attention to the flourishing of springtime doesn’t instantly erase your grief, your distress, your heartache; if the phenomena that are currently making all your friends giddy are actually sharpening your pain and leaving you feeling lost, confused, or alienated –

Please, please, please, above all, PLEASE do not beat yourself up any further. We don’t all go through our periods of profound inner challenge at the culturally appropriate time. It’s ok to be sad in springtime. You are NOT doing it wrong. 

Try to stay open, as much as you can, even when the temptation is strong to implode. 

Remember that “beauty” is not synonymous  with “elation.” While the onslaught of color and light can feel overwhelming during a period of depression, if we can stay present,  we may find ourselves stunned and indescribably moved by the perfect symmetry of a richly purple rose unfolding beside our door. A wild thunderstorm can jolt us for a moment out of our small-s self and bring us into direct communion with the Divine. 

And, if spring is bringing a difficult emotional landscape into stark relief, remember the most important lesson of the seasons: All things pass. 

All things pass. 

ALL things pass. 

You can feel free to be fully present with what is in your inner world, knowing, with the part of you that simply knows, that the pain you feel now will, like the clouds, inevitably shift, change, transform, and finally, pass. 

Day 25: Walking Belly 

A garage wall in Lafayette, CO

Long walks have always been one of my greatest pleasures in life. Growing up, I used to roam around town for hours, for miles — always alone, and normally without a dime, not that there was much of anywhere to spend money. I loved walking every street, making up stories about alternative lives I could be living in that house, or near those fields. 

There really wasn’t any place in Derry where I didn’t like to walk, but some favorites were: the lake; the cemetery; the railroad tracks; the path under the bridge that connected my street with “downtown” (in Colorado we’d call it “old town,” which would be much more accurate, but we called it Downtown Derry when I lived there); any alley; a blind curve near my house called Ash Street (I think) that led to some cool sheep farms. 

I also did not hesitate to “off road” it. I was deeply in love with a semi-cleared swath of land that followed the power lines up a hill. Large belly notwithstanding, I had no qualms about climbing chain link fences if they stood between me and where I wanted to go. Once, thinking I could surely get to the tracks by cutting through a fenced-off tract that seemed to contain only some overgrown frog ponds, I ended up climbing straight down into a steep ravine, through a bunch of thorn bushes, and up the other side — very scraped up but extremely self-satisfied. 

When there was nothing else to do, I walked. And most of the time there was nothing else to do. 

I don’t mean that my town or my life were boring. I almost never felt truly bored. I’m someone who is easily entertained by a book or a notepad or a leaf floating down a stream. I mean that I didn’t know what to do with, how to handle, my inner life. 

In those days I wore out many a mix tape in my Walkman. At one point, when I was in college, I realized that I often couldn’t stand to be alone with my own thoughts. I mean I could think — but without some buffer, I was in danger of plummeting down a very dark hole. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly what thoughts I had that were so intolerable in the years before I got real help for depression. All I can recall are the feelings of hopelessness and despair, the conviction that I had already (as a teenager/twentysomething) failed at life, the belief that I didn’t really deserve to live or to be happy or to be loved. I did not honestly think I had what it takes to create a satisfying life. These fears rose up all around me, submerged my spirit, and led me to take reckless chances with my existence. 

Luckily, and thanks to the protection of some hard core guardian angels, I survived that period of life. And although it took a while for me to trust that I really could spend time in silence with myself, as I got older and my life became more and more filled with activity, I’ve come to crave those chances to mull things over, to integrate my experiences, and to cleanse my cells with fresh air. 

Back on the streets of Derry, I feared my shadow — not because I thought it was someone or something else’s, but because I was terrified of being so wide. I hated seeing my broad body with what looked to me like a disproportionately tiny head silhouetted on the ground (especially if there were other, skinnier shadows nearby). Like everyone at that age, I wanted to look cool. But whatever “cool” meant in my mind (basically some blend of urban and hippie style), I knew I could never be that with this body. The conflict between what I wanted to look like (on some level, the image I had of what my “true self” should look like) and what I believed I DID look like (a warped perspective, as should be clear, from depression and a bunch of damn lies provided by my environment) made it hard for me to be okay with existing. The disconnect was too vast to process. Mentally, my self image could do nothing but collapse into panic. It was truly unbearable. 

Well, and how am I now? All cured? I’ve gradually given up more and more of my arsenal of self-destructive habits as I have started to feel more and more like I deserve to live and thrive. Now I’m down to the nitty-gritty: the deeply ingrained beliefs about my body as failure. But recovery has momentum, and the more I heal, the more committed I am to healing. I’ve become downright fierce in my drive to uproot the habits of self-hate. Insecurity, sure, we all feel that from time to time, and it’s ok: like weather, all moods pass. What I’m talking about is the inner campaign of self-sabotage. 

So, ok, that was a long story, but the gist is this: pictures like these are hard for me to look at, and I NEED to look at them. Adolescent me wanted to lean against cool paintings found on garage walls — but didn’t want to have this body, and in the gap between “want” and “is”, nearly broke down. 

Adult me is learning to accept that what is, is all it needs to be. I mean I am MAKING myself learn this, like a class I don’t want to take because I secretly think it’s too hard and I’ll never pass — but I need it to graduate. 

I guess I’m about tired of holding myself down. 

I guess I’m ready to take the freaking class already and get it over with. 

I’m ready for a larger life. 

I’m ready to be and own and embrace what I am: large in body. 

Large in heart. 

Large in vision. 

Spacious. Full. Abundant. Powerful. Big. 

And — in my own way, according to my own values — finally, cool as shit.