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.



Christmas Break

It’s the night before New Year’s Eve. I’ve just spent the last hour and a half (okay two hours–I’m slow) making General Tso’s Tofu. (Yum!) Sam and I are having a tv-watching marathon with whatever series DVDs we could find at the library. We just finished the first two seasons of Drop Dead Diva, randomly enough. I’m pretty charmed by it, actually. You go, Jane!

I am taking a mental vacation. I am so happy to be a teacher right now, because I really need this break. I can’t really believe it’s still December, because I was triple-timing it at the beginning of the month, training for and starting a new job while getting through finals at the community college where I teach. I pushed myself with all I had, and was not NOT enjoying myself despite going crazy, until I got sick with some throat and chest thing that actually forced me to cancel everything I had on my calendar and stay in bed for three days. Then I got better enough to go Christmas shopping really fast and then fly to California for the actual holiday with his side of the family. It was a very fun trip. But it was not relaxing.

Incidentally, I may have written last year about my idea that Christmas, if it’s going to be focused on for three to four months, should really only occur every, say, three years. It’s kind of like a presidential election, or like the Olympics, when you think about it, in terms of prep time and attention demanded. Though I don’t think people could hold out for FOUR years between Christmases; or maybe three just feels like the right amount of recovery time. Well, this year I have amended that plan to allow for one long Christmas season followed by two short ones, when we only focus on the holiday for a couple of weeks. Since last year was a LONG Christmas, in my mind I declared this year a SHORT one and tried to disengage from feelings of obligation or external pressure to maintain holiday spirit for multiple months. I don’t know if anyone else is buying this plan, though …

But anyway, that was a tangent. And even with my long-short-short plan, I do still agree with my friend Amy’s recent Facebook post reminding us that according to the Catholic Church, which pretty much started Christmas, officially ends the Christmas season on January 13, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Which is longer than most people think. It’s really the PRE Christmas excess that needs to be curtailed in my opinion — the pre-Advent part that’s all about guilt and purchases. The POST Christmas season can go on for even longer as far as I’m concerned. This is the time when we can enjoy the beauty of, say, the lights we put up without thinking about how behind we are, or what we still need to buy. We can take it a little easier, rest and breathe and integrate and receive all the loving energy we generated with our Holiday Hoopla (as some lovely Denver gals call the festivities they hostess).

So, now I am taking a time out before jumping back in to syllabus writing and event planning (both things I do enjoy!) and job training and studying math so I can get a good enough score on the ACT (I have to retake this for the new job, which involves test prep tutoring, even though I have, yes, both gotten into and completed college a long time ago–although without much math, damn!) with hopefully some time in there for guitar practice. I know when my body is intervening to tell me I’m doing too much and I need to slow down. I don’t want the only time I rest to be when I’m sick. I’m lucky to have the space to be able to make that choice right now, and it will have to tide me over through a lot of upcoming insanity!

And when I take a mental vacation I notice certain nice things like … my creativity coming back. And I start getting ideas for things I would like to write, or organize, or learn … And I feel a little bit of resignation, knowing I’m very soon to go back to ultra busy life and that most of these ideas will never be followed up on. But a few of them will. And again I’ll resolve to keep some time for myself, to rest and integrate and work on projects … and I will probably do a bad job of it … but maybe I will get a little better every time until I stop needing to get sick or wreck my car (twice) or have some other crisis in order to give myself permission to take a break. Well, maybe someone will call me on that.

So, ta ta for now. It’s back to relaxing. Which leads to blog posting! Coincidence?

I think not. 🙂