This week, the lead headline in my LinkedIn Today news blast was Why Weirdos Outperform Normals. The banner across the top boasted ‘Top Content, Tailored for You’. Thanks for that, LinkedIn. Good to know you scanned my profile and this is the story you came up with.
So I read it – with a title like that I practically had too – and I was both intrigued and repulsed all at the same time. The author named four extremely successful business people and factors that differentiated them as “weird”. You know. Things like “wants his daughters to be lesbians and drug addicts.” Wait. What? That got me pretty fired up – what kind of freaking idiot parent would EVER wish addiction on his daughters – and I followed the associated link over to a blog entry by James Altucher called I Want My Kids to be Drug Addicts. In it, he tells the story of his kid’s babysitter, Lynn McKay, who overcame an addiction to Ecstasy, wrote a book, wound up on Oprah, traveled the world encouraging other recovering addicts, and then started a gluten-free bakery to the Stars. As you can imagine, it was tweeted over 100 times and at last count, there were 53 comments.
One commenter wrote, “Very interesting and inspiring. We need darkness to see light.”
Lynn McKay, responding to another commenter, said:
Every day is a choice, will I take responsibility for my life, my happiness, my choices, etc. or will I lay blame to my past, my limitations, and clutch my misery like a comfy old blanket? Sometimes when you dig deep you realize that you like the misery, the known, the old ways of acting, doing, and being. It is the light that truly scares the shit out of us.
There is a lot of darkness in life. There is darkness around us and there is darkness inside us. I understand what Lynn is saying – sometimes there is so much darkness, we get comfortable with it. It feels like a friend. The light tries to break through and we close the curtains and put on our sun glasses. As if its the light that’s going to hurt us.
Jerri reminded me of this just yesterday when she brought up a particularly dark moment from our past.
When we were teenagers, she brought home a stray dog, a German Shepherd mix, and named her Chelsea. Jerri has always had a soft spot for animals and was forever bringing home the lost, the injured, and the unwanted. Chelsea was a beautiful, warm-hearted dog and not too long after she came to live with us, our family moved from a house on a dirt road in a very rural area to a house in another town on a busy highway. Dad put up a fence around the backyard but Chelsea was a jumper. She liked to hang out in the neighbor’s yard, terrorizing her cats, and after several calls and said neighbor’s husband threatening to get out his shotgun, Mom began confining Chelsea to the garage. We had other dogs at the time, all of them house dogs but seems like Chelsea didn’t play well with others.
At the time Chelsea was sentenced to life in garage, Jerri was 15. She hadn’t adjusted very well to the move, she’d finally reached her limit with Mom’s constant criticism and had begun talking back, and she’d started dabbling in drugs. Chelsea was Jerri’s responsibility and in the midst of her own emotional chaos, she’d forget to feed the dog. One day, after she’d forgotten yet again, Mom took Chelsea to the vet and had her euthanized. Just like that. She could have taken Chelsea to the pound. She could have put an ad in the paper and tried to find her another home. But no. Mom had a healthy dog, in the prime of her life, killed. And after it was done, she told us.
I can still hear Mom trying to justify her actions. “She was locked up in the garage all the time anyway. It was no life for a dog.” Yeah, but it was, at least, LIFE. I can still feel the horror of that moment. I can still see Jerri’s face as she processed what Mom had done. Her outrage and utter despair.
Years later, Mom admitted, in so many words, that she regretted killing Chelsea. That she was so angry with Jerri for all the trouble she was causing, for making her life hell by refusing to be a perfect daughter and positive reflection on her stellar parenting skills, that she used Chelsea to lash out. That is one scary, vengeful streak. What I suspect is, in that moment, when the darkness was rising, when Mom could have fought it, instead she succumbed and carried out a terrible act that could never be undone.
Ok, so we’ve all felt this, haven’t we? The moments when the darkness creeps in, lurks in the recesses and waits for the perfect moment to rear its ugly head. It starts as a whisper, encouraging you to do that thing that you can never take back, that thing that will destroy you or someone around you, or both. It gets louder, building within you, driving you to the edge of the cliff. I’ll admit it. I’ve experienced it, most often at work when I suspect some of the decisions are being made, at worst, by flying monkeys, or at best, by the senior leadership team passing around a Magic Eight Ball. Thank God, I’ve never succumbed to pressing send on those emails to the CEO.
Most of the time, I recognize when the dark tide’s rising before I drown in it. I ask myself, if you do this, what will be the consequences today? Next week? Long term? I think of my life as a story. If I do this thing, how will it change my story? Will it make me the villain? Because I want to be the heroine. The light shines through the darkness. I come to my senses. I recognize the destructiveness of the contemplated action. I take a deep breath and make a course correction. The world is safe (at least from me) for another day.
You do have to experience darkness to fully appreciate light. I’ve experienced enough of it to know that I can’t overcome darkness on my own. It is too much for me. Darkness is relentless. It is too clever and too strong. But here’s something from John’s gospel I hold onto:
The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Remember ABC’s video series “Our week in 3 words”? Years ago, my friend Susan shared one that included a dog with a sign around his neck and his week in 3 words was “I was rescued.” If I had to sum up my life in 3 words, I would just lift that sign from around that dog’s neck and put it around my own. Jesus rescues me from the darkness every day of my life – the darkness within and the darkness without.
Darkness has existed from the beginning. It is always with us. But the good news, on Easter Sunday, is it cannot overcome the Light.
I’ve been trying to get out more into the blogosphere and I’m amazed and totally psyched by all the great writing. There are so many awesome people sharing their life stories in ways that are both profound and poetic.
This week I was touched by Courtney’s posts at The “Me” Project. Earlier in the year, Courtney waded through some of her old journals and posted some entries about addiction. These are extremely poignant. One is broken into two parts and as I read Part 1, I thought about my sister. I could see her there among the words, particularly these:
At some point, you realize you are using now JUST to stay two steps ahead of your own terrible reality sinking in. When you are already so weakened, so compromised, so ghostly, it is terrifying to entertain the thought of actually turning around & seeing the path of destruction you left in your wake. It’s just too, too much.
Wow. Doesn’t this make your heart ache? Jerri has her own wake of destruction that even today she can’t bear to face. She’s left a canyon in her kids’ lives and wounded them in ways they will never get over. Jerri knows this. She didn’t set out to do it. She told herself as she handed them over one-by-one to our parents to raise that it was the best thing for them. Our parents could give them a life she never could. She tricked herself into believing each time that it was temporary. That she would get herself back together and then they’d be a family again.
But underlying the using was the untreated brain disorder and she couldn’t do it alone. And now, three of her kids are grown and she’s still failing the fourth because she doesn’t have money for the bus trip to even visit him. She’s still not at a place where she could bring her youngest son to live with her. She needs a job and a different housing situation. Even if she had these things, she’s emotionally unprepared to fight a custody battle with our parents and he’s been with them for 7 years. It would be traumatic to uproot him and what if he didn’t want to come? She can’t handle the guilt and the pain of it all so she refuses to think or talk about it. But she has to in order to heal.
When you wake up in the morning, you are excited about what the day will bring, and when this occurs to you, you press your face into your pillow and you cry. You cry because you forgot what it was like to feel excited about your life, to be glad to be alive, to have hope. You forgot what it was like to be free, except that all along you had tricked yourself into thinking you were doing what you wanted, partying it up. Funny, not one memory from the past eleven years could match, could even come close, to this eager, happy, hopeful, brand-new feeling you had now. And all you did today so far was open your eyes.
There is so much joy in this paragraph. I want this for Jerri. I really do.
Here are the links to Courtney’s full posts. I hope they speak to you as much as they did to me.
Part 1: Memory Lane in a BAD Neighborhood.
Part 2: As Promised Part 2
Here’s an excerpt from SpiritualRiver.com entitled How Can I Help an Alcoholic or Drug Addict? I found it timely given that Jerri is starting to acknowledge she still has substance abuse issues. But I also think this is applicable to all of us who love someone with a brain disorder. It’s about practicing detachment.
One of the key principles that will help you in dealing with a struggling alcoholic or drug addict is detachment. The idea behind it is to separate yourself emotionally from the damaging effects of your relationship with the addict or alcoholic. It is not the same as complete disassociation or abandoning the relationship. The idea is to care for them while detaching emotionally. You can care for them but not feel like you are responsible for them. In other words, you are specifically trying to not get all wrapped up emotionally by an addict’s destructive behaviors.
This is difficult.
Practicing detachment should make it easier over time. Here are some things that you can do in order to practice detachment with the struggling addict in your life:
Don’t do things that they should be doing themselves. Don’t bend over backwards to rescue them or save them from natural consequences. Don’t cover up for their mistakes or embarrassing situations. Don’t rescue them from crisis or financial situations. Don’t try to fix them. Let go of any guilt you may have about them.
Detachment is not about denying your emotions. If someone close to you dies, for example, you will probably feel sad. You can’t choose this feeling. It simply is. But we do have the power to affect the intensity of this feeling, by focusing on the positive aspects of the situation. We can also change our thinking in an attempt to eradicate irrational beliefs that might be contributing to our emotional turmoil.
The goal is not to go without emotions, the goal is to achieve some level of emotional stability. We are detaching from the negative, irrational thoughts that stir up our emotions, like the guilt we might have if we think someone’s addiction is our fault.
For me, I have to work hard at not doing things for Jerri that she can do herself. One technique I’m learning to apply is what I call “delayed response.” Jerri’s first instinct when she needs help is to call me with directions on what I can do to fix her problem. As if. I’m learning that if I don’t respond immediately, she can usually come up with some creative solution that doesn’t involve me. Yay! Take this week for example. Her refrigerator died the day after we’d made a grocery run. She called me and left a frantic voice message around 12:30 pm.
“I need you to bring a cooler over and some ice. I’m going to lose all my groceries. Help! I can’t afford to do that–I don’t have any money left to buy more!!”
It was Sunday and I’d turned my ringer off. I’d told Jerri on Saturday when we were at Walmart that I intended to stay in and do nothing the next day. I intended to take the whole day of rest thing literally. When I checked my phone at 7 pm, I saw four messages from Jerri all within a half hour of each other. Uh oh. The last one was at 2:30 pm – I listened to it first.
“OK. I don’t need you to do anything now. Bronwyn let me put some stuff in her refrigerator and Mike took the rest of it. He doesn’t have hardly any food in his. I just hope they replace my refrigerator quickly. I don’t know if I can trust them not to eat my food.”
I immediately called and congratulated her on her quick-thinking and problem-solving skills. This, BTW, is call “positive reinforcement” and I learned it at Puppy Kindergarten 🙂 (Hey, you gotta pick up life skills wherever you can find them!) I also told her how sorry I was that this had happened which is sometimes what we want more than actual help when we’re in a jam–someone to commiserate.
Anyone else out there practicing detachment?
Tuesday morning, my iPhone woke me at 5 am. Not the alarm clock app, but an actual caller, Catherina, Jerri’s case worker. She was calling from North Carolina and didn’t realize, of course, that I was in San Francisco on business. “I’m about to go into a meeting with Housing for New Hope,” she said. “Looks like they want to evict Jerri.”
“Based on what, Catherina?”
“Well, I won’t have all the details until after the meeting but she’s leaving the external door to the building propped open with the mat, not cleaning her apartment, and apparently Brian found her sleeping on the floor of her apartment one day, practically unconscious, and he had a terrible time getting her up and into bed.”
I’ve already had a conversation with Brian about the door mat and he knows all the residents are doing it. And since when can you get evicted from sleeping on your apartment floor? And if Jerri was sleeping so soundly that Brian couldn’t get her up, how did he get in the apartment? Master key? It’s like one big perpetual game of Bullshit.
Here’s what no one is saying. Housing for New Hope suspects recreational drugs. That’s against their covenants and reason for eviction. The mat in the door is to allow a dealer to enter. The unkempt apartment and heavy sleeping is because she’s wasted.
And they could be right. It’s true Jerri looks terrible and continues to lose weight. When using, addicts often don’t eat or take care of themselves. But the same can be said for people experiencing a psychotic break or even a debilitating illness like cancer. And that’s Jerri’s claim. Something is terribly wrong with her and she feels really sick all the time.
At 11 am, same day, Jerri called fuming mad as if I was in on some conspiracy. Why would I possibly want her to be homeless? What could possibly be in that for me? You know, some days I don’t need anyone to drive me crazy because, thank you very much, I can walk there from here.
Jerri says she can’t keep her apartment clean because she feels bad. She doesn’t know what’s wrong but thinks its probably her liver. But she won’t go to the hospital because she has a doctor’s appointment next week. Catherina thinks she won’t go to the hospital because they’ll find drugs in her system. Honestly, I don’t know what to think. I spent two hours on the phone trying to get Jerri to see other people’s perspective and how based on appearances, it’s easy to jump to the “drug use” conclusion. If she’s really that sick (and she’s been saying this for about a month now), why not try to move the doctor’s appointment up? Or go to the ER? Jerri refuses to do either.
Today, Jerri called around 3 pm. She’d just gotten up and has no food in the house. We’d planned to do a grocery run but she just didn’t feel like it. Could I drive over a chicken sandwich and a large Sprite? She didn’t feel like walking to the shelter to eat. I didn’t particularly want to get out either. I’ve still got jet lag and the weather is nasty. And this is the third time this month, she’s asked me to deliver food. (Once I said yes and the other time, no, for those of you keeping score.)
Stan asked why I was even considering it. That’s the crux of the matter. Why am I? Trophy daughters are known enablers; I don’t want to be one. I want Jerri to make better choices like always having some food in the house and I realize when she doesn’t experience consequences of bad choices, she has no incentive to make better ones. But then I think about my close friends. If one of them called with the same request I’d do it in a heartbeat. Why? Because I love them. Because they wouldn’t ask unless they really needed help. Maybe I should just have “sucker” tattooed on my forehead. All I know is, if I was really, really sick, I’d want someone to bring me a meal. Curse you, Empathy!
So I’d like some external perspective here. In a situation like this, how do you decide when to give and when to set boundaries?
As a sidebar, I saw the movie Blue Like Jazz this week and at one point the main character, Don, says (and I paraphrase), “In the past, I’d always used the what-would-Jesus-do method to figure things out. Just what would Jesus do if his mother had an affair with his Youth Pastor? I couldn’t even imagine . . .” If you happen to know WWJD in my situation, I’m all ears. Because frankly, I can’t even imagine.
This is the first time I’ve re-posted another author’s work and I’m not sure of proper etiquette. The original post can be found here. I thought about summarizing but the post is so informative, I didn’t want to leave anything out. Of particular interest to me is the part on which came first, the addiction or the mental illness. As I’ve shared before, my mom strongly believes Jerri’s mental illness was triggered by her drug use in her teens. When I look back at our childhood, however, there were a number of signs that indicated something wasn’t quite right long before Jerri hit puberty. I’d heard of the Self Medication Hypothesis, which posits that the addict’s drug of choice is actually selected because of the drug’s effect on the “primary feeling states” of the user. In other words, the user understands, perhaps subconsciously, that something is off and upon trying various drugs, becomes addicted to the one that makes her feel less “off”. Interestingly enough, mood disorders including bipolar and ADHD are more common in cocaine abusers (Jerri’s drug of choice) than opiate abusers (20% vs 1%).
I did not include all the links in the original article so worth visiting it if you find this as fascinating as I do. Hope you find informative and please share your thoughts!
Addiction Causes: Understanding Self Medication And How I Lost My Sister To Substance Abuse
(by Victoria Costello, Posted: 02/25/2012 11:33 am, Huffington Post)
In light of the continuing controversy surrounding Whitney Houston’s death, including questions of blame and responsibility for what the coroner may determine was an overdose involving drugs and alcohol, here is a look at the science behind the central and often misunderstood concept of self-medication in mental illness, addiction and recovery. My interest in this is both professional and personal. My sister Rita died of a multiple drug cocktail at age 38 — after a downward slide that began over 20 years earlier and finally caught up with her. She was, like Whitney Houston, a victim of her own demons and a culture that favors self-medication over getting mental health treatment. As both of their premature deaths demonstrate, self-medication and aging don’t mix well.
Mystery of the Missing Spoons
When spoons began to disappear from my mother’s silverware drawer in the late 1960s, neither my mother nor I suspected my younger sister Rita’s dope use. It didn’t dawn on us that heroin had be mixed with water and cooked over a flame before it was injected. At that time, my friends and I smoked pot regularly, and we had also tried psychedelics, mushrooms and acid — tried being the operative word. Rita went further and did it much faster and more overtly. She flew through pot and discovered barbiturates, speed and cocaine.
Heroin was too pricey without help from an older dealer-boyfriend. Nonetheless, by the time she was 16, Rita had made it her drug of choice. Between boyfriends, she stole to finance her new habit. Mom’s wedding band was one of the first casualties. Soon, cash could no longer be left in a drawer or purse. This was before drug rehab as a concept had entered the American cultural lexicon, certainly that of the suburban northeast, leaving my mother baffled and ashamed at the behavior of the prettier and once the easier of her two daughters. My mother was an unknowing soldier in what had become all-out guerrilla combat.
When President Richard Nixon declared his war on drugs in 1971 — hopelessly lost in the
four decades since — it did one constructive thing by creating a new and favorable climate for
research into the causes of addiction. This research gave birth to the field of drug rehabilitation, and out of this wave of new treatments came the theory of self-medication — the idea that addiction comes about because people are attempting to alleviate the distress of preexisting mental disorders. The concept had come originally from Freud, in 1884, after he noted the antidepressant properties of cocaine.
By the 1970s, the theory of self-medication formally arrived, and immediately caused a storm
of controversy because it challenged views then held by the medical community and law
enforcement that attributed drug abuse to peer pressures, family breakdown, affluence, escapism and lax policing. For the first time, the nation’s newly minted white, middle-class drug addicts (typified by my sister) were joining their less affluent urban counterparts, who were already populating U.S. jails and hospitals. Junkies — hippies, rich and poor, black and white, addicts and alcoholics — constituted an equal-opportunity mental health crisis for public health doctors on the front lines of treatment in big-city hospital emergency rooms.
The father of the self-medication hypothesis is Edward J. Khantzian, a founding member of the Psychiatry Department at Harvard’s Cambridge Hospital. Writing in 1985, Khantzian stated his belief that addicts weren’t victims of random selection. Instead, he explained, they had a drug of choice: a specific drug affinity dictated by “psychopharmacologic action of the drug and the dominant painful feelings with which they struggle.” Like Freud, he pointed to the
energizing effect of cocaine and other stimulants in response to the depletion and fatigue of
addicts dealing with preexisting depression. In his patients who abused opiates, including heroin, Khantzian noted their calming effect on the addicts’ typically problematic impulsivity. This point particularly hit home for me as I recalled my sister Rita’s tendency to get into fist fights with her arresting officers, crash her car and land in the E.R. after passing out in public places.
The idea that human psychological vulnerabilities had anything to do with addiction was a
new piece of the puzzle, and it reflected Khantzian’s psychoanalytic background as much as
his clinical work at the Cambridge Clinic. Decades later, self-medication is accepted medicine
within the mental health field. However, broader cultural understanding of its implications
for individuals with undiagnosed mental disorders who may be self-medicating has lagged far
behind; not unlike continuing popular resistance to addiction as a disease over which the addict has little or no control, and widespread refusal to accept the robustly established precept that treatment for addiction is effective.
One of the major stumbling blocks to greater understanding of the principle of self-medication appears to be the culture’s continuing confusion about which comes first: the mental illness or the addiction.
One sign of this missing understanding has to be the recent vitriolic “debate” over New Jersey’s decision to fly its flag at half-staff in honor of Whitney Houston, one of the century’s greatest musical artists; a celebrity whose cause of death will no doubt reflect her two-decade struggle with the disease of addiction but is not likely to include any recognition of an underlying mental disorder.
Chicken or Egg?
The fundamental question of which comes first when someone has what is now called a “dual
diagnosis” remained unanswered up until the 1990s. In 1992, with a first-of-its-kind national
survey of the state of the nation’s mental health called the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS),
scientific understanding of comorbid addiction and mental illness went mainstream. The NCS
evaluated 8,098 average Americans, ages 15 to 54, interviewed in face-to-face home settings by trained laypersons — making them far less able to lessen or deny symptoms and patterns.
Among the striking results of the NCS survey: 45 percent of those people with an alcohol-use
disorder and 72 percent with a drug-use disorder also had at least one other mental disorder.
Perhaps more important at a time when the self-medication theory was still under attack, the
NCS survey provided a concrete and comprehensive answer to the chicken-and-egg question
about addiction and mental illness.
So Which Is It?
The NCS showed that when an alcohol disorder accompanied another mental disorder, the alcohol abuse began after the individual was suffering from symptoms of the other mental disorder, usually a year or more after. Not including other forms of substance abuse, the most common preexisting mental disorders reported among those interviewed were anxiety, depression, and, for men, conduct disorders.
When an updated NCS survey was done with a new group of ten thousand people in 2002
(called the NCS-R, for “replicated”), its findings were strikingly similar to the first. Faring
worst by age group in the 2002 numbers were 36- to 44-year-olds, among whom 37 percent
had anxiety disorders and 24 percent had mood disorders in addition to their alcohol abuse
issues. Depressed women in their 30s and 40s have a 2.6 greater risk for heavy drinking,
compared to those without major depression. It occurred to me as I read these numbers that
age 30 to 44, when comorbid disorders are highest, are also women’s prime childbearing years.
A 2012 report by SAMHSA (U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) offers an eerie corollary in its finding that 10 percent of American kids today live with an alcoholic parent — certainly a conservative estimate.
Too Late For So Many
My sister Rita died at 38; a year after an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol put her into a
three-week coma and, upon waking, left her unable to walk or talk. It was the end of a torturous 25 years for her and for those of us forced to helplessly stand by and watch. While packing for a move not long ago, I found a letter I’d received from Rita, written during her first stint in Rockland County Jail for robbery a decade earlier, dated March 1982:
I should have known I was heading for trouble again. I was having black outs from small amounts of liquor (small amounts for me). But I went on another drinking binge and now I’m back here again. I guess I’ve hit the pits this time. I just finished speaking to a woman from the jail ministry. She’s quite sure that God brought me back here to save my life or try again. She may be right. I just feel really bad now that I won’t be home for Easter when you come. So much for all that. Meanwhile pray for me, forgive me for letting you all down, try to talk to Mom for me and take care of my beautiful nephew. Love, Rita.
I didn’t have any inkling of the unequal effect of alcohol and drugs on different people back in
the 60s when my friends and I started experimenting with whatever we could get our hands on. Back then, I suppose I went no farther than thinking that Rita and others like her were weaker than I was in some fundamental way. Science now illuminates the finer points of the unequal inheritance of predispositions to addiction even in the same family, as well as the debilitating effects on those who carry the heaviest genetic load, especially when they grow up as my sister and I did in a family and culture where, due to the continuing widespread stigma towards those with a mental disorder, self-medication is the preferred option to seeking mental health treatment.
In this broader and hopefully more enlightened context, simplifications like personal weakness
simply don’t cut it anymore. It’s time for the culture to catch up with the science and practice of treatment and recovery.
Victoria Costello is an Emmy Award winning science writer with articles in Scientific American MIND and Brain World. In addition to HuffPost, she blogs for PsychCentral.com and her own MentalHealthMomBlog. As an advocate for a prevention approach to mental health, she serves on the board of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco and leads workshops for parents and providers around the U.S. Her latest book, A Lethal Inheritance, A Mother Uncovers the Science Behind Three Generations of Mental Illness is available from Prometheus Books.
When I was in ninth grade, Angela told me Jerri was using drugs. We were in the fellowship hall of King First Baptist Church either before or after youth group and completely out of the blue, as I remember it, she said,”your sister is doing drugs, you know.” She said it, not as a friend out of concern for another friend, but as an adversary who knows something that will hurt you and has picked the exact moment when you are most unsuspecting to slap you with it.
I can still physically feel the pain of that moment. The queasy sensation of my stomach bottoming out, the dull ache in my chest of hot wax being poured in and hardening, dizziness, my brain turning to cotton. My body went cold all over and then my face burned with, what? Shame? Anger? Fear? Something inside me knew Angela was not just being cruel. She knew something I didn’t.
“She is not!” I shouted. “My sister would NEVER do something like that.”
Angela smirked. “She is, too. I saw her. But you can believe what you want. I just thought you’d want to know.”
I didn’t want to know. I wasn’t ready to leave the imaginary land of happy, healthy family. I think there’s a voice inside all of us that whispers, “if you don’t acknowledge it, it’s not really real.” You know the one I’m talking about. It’s called Denial.
I tried to push the accusation aside and ignore it. I told myself all the things you usually do when people say things that hurt you. Angela is just jealous. Angela was just taking her bad day out on me. But in the end, I couldn’t let it go and I confronted Jerri.
“Are you doing drugs, Jerri? Because Angela said she saw you.”
“No! You know me better than that. I wouldn’t do that!” It was the smoothest lie that had ever been told. She looked me directly in the eye, her expression genuine, her tone of voice the perfect balance of sincerity and righteous indignation. Not a flex of a facial muscle to give her away.
Cut to the present.
Jerri’s birthday was Thursday. I gave her a low-end microwave from Walmart. She eats a lot of frozen dinners and uses her neighbor’s microwave frequently. This creates some tension in their relationship so we both thought a microwave was a good idea. I bought the microwave several weeks ago knowing my workload was about to get hectic.
A few days before her birthday, Jerri called. “You know I’ve changed my mind about my present. I’d rather have a PS2. It costs about the same as a microwave and it will give me something to do.”
“I think you need a microwave more than a PS2, Jerri. Besides, I already bought it.”
So Thursday night, I delivered the microwave to her apartment, unpacked it, plugged it in and then took her to dinner at her favorite restaurant. As we left her apartment, she locked the door from the inside then pulled it shut. She then pushed on it to verify it was locked. It pushed open. She slammed it and locked it with her key and checked it again. This time the door stayed locked. As we left the apartment building, I noted that someone had propped the outer door open with the mat.
“That’s really dangerous for everyone, Jerri, why don’t you pull the mat out so the door locks?”
“I wasn’t the one who put it there.”
“Yeah, but it’s your building too. It’s your security.” She shrugged and left the door propped open.
At dinner, she tried to convince me to drive her to her doctor’s office the next morning but just the thought of trying to juggle that was giving me high blood pressure so I said, “sorry, you’ll have to take the bus.” She grumbled about this saying it takes 3 hours round trip on the bus whereas if I’d take her, it would be more like an hour.
On Friday at 11:30 am, Jerri called me at work. “I just got back from the doctor and my microwave is gone.”
“What?!! How could that happen? Wasn’t your door locked?”
“Well, I thought so but I must not have checked it.”
“Was the door to the building propped open when you left?”
“Yes. Should I call the police and report it? They aren’t going to do anything about it anyway. It’s not like they are going to get it back for me.”
“I don’t know. Did you talk to Brian [property manager]?”
“No, he’s not here.”
“Was anything else taken? Your TV or your computer?”
“No, the TV is too heavy and the computer would be a hassle to take.”
“Well, the microwave was heavy too.” I’d been lugging the thing around, from the store to my car, my car to the garage, the garage to my car, the car to Jerri’s apartment. Given Jerri’s neighborhood, whoever took it was probably on foot and that’s all he could handle. It might even have been taken by a neighbor and still be in her building somewhere. Would the police be willing to search door to door? Probably not. Would Brian? What to do. What to do.
My brain raced around in circles and then came to a screeching halt. Everything Jerri said added up. Her door not catching and locking – I’d witnessed this myself numerous times. The building door propped open. Unsavory characters routinely cutting across the property. Jerri not home for several hours because of the bus and her doctor’s appointment. But something was bothering me. It seemed too predictable. Hadn’t another client told Telecare she saw Jerri talking to her dealer all the time? Was I being played here? And wait just a minute. Jerri wanted a PS2. Couldn’t she have brokered a trade?
“Jerri, I hate asking you this, but I have to. Did you sell the microwave to someone?”
“No! You know me better than that. I wouldn’t do that!”
Huh. Now let’s see. Where have I heard that before?
This particular ghost won’t stop haunting me. Am I crazy to keep applying something that happened over 30 years ago to present day situations? Is that part of your being which we refer to as character already intact by the time you reach your teens, and if so, is it fixed or can it change? Is it possible to ever trust someone again after they’ve lied to you so smoothly and so soundly about something that devastated the world as you knew it?
I called Brian to report the theft and confessed “there could be other explanations for the missing microwave but Jerri said it was stolen. Her story aligns with several key facts I’ve witnessed myself. So, at least for now, I’m choosing to believe her.”
“I think you have to,” Brian said, “until you have evidence to suggest otherwise.” And then he went on to describe the steps Housing for New Hope is taking to improve security by replacing all locks on apartments with good quality locks and installing video cameras. He also explained that the bigger problem was the community there doesn’t take care of each other. Every man is out for himself. Neighbors may appear to be friendly but it’s not real and they will stab you the minute your back is turned. He has worked in other housing communities where they were able to turn this around. He hopes to transform this community but knows it won’t happen over night.
“Propping the door mat open is a real problem and I’m aware of it. But here’s the thing. No one is going to pull the mat out if they didn’t position it in the first place. Given the current climate in the community, that would just set them up as a target. They are afraid of retribution.”
Hmmm. The fear Jerri deals with is on a whole other level from my own. So thinking about my particular ghost, I ask myself, “So what if Jerri is lying? What are you afraid of?” I realize my biggest fear is of looking stupid. Of standing up for Jerri while everyone else shakes their head and says “how pathetic.” My dad used to say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” And that’s it in a nutshell. Jerri fooled me once. I’m finding it takes a lot of strength to put myself at risk to her doing it again.
If you ask half a dozen people the origin of the term “scapegoat”, one of them will likely know it’s from the Bible. What they probably won’t know is there are two goats in the story. God tells Moses to sacrifice two goats to atone for the sins of the people of Israel. As with any sacrifice, the goats had to be perfect, that is, without flaw or blemish. The Talmud stipulated the goats be as alike as possible in size, color and value.
Each goat played an important role. Aaron, the priest, cast lots between the two. As a result one goat was chosen for God and the other goat became the scapegoat.
The goat chosen for God was sacrificed as a sin offering. His throat was slit and his blood was carried into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place inside the tabernacle, and applied to the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, the altar, and to the tabernacle itself. This goat’s blood cleansed the house of God.
But the other goat, the scapegoat, was presented live to God. Aaron put his hands on its head, confessed all the wrongdoings of the people of Israel over it, and then a man was selected to lead the goat out into the wilderness and release it. The scapegoat carried away the sins of the people.
Note, the scapegoat was the goat that got out alive.
I’m the other goat, the one whose blood was used to clean the house. In the standard list of family roles, the child who fullfills the role of “other goat” is known as The Hero although I like Trophy Daughter better. In public, the trophy child is the one parents hold up with pride as a shining example of their good parenting but in private, the trophy child sits on the family shelf, ignored and collecting dust.
Jerri, my sister, is the goat who escaped but not before being blamed for everything wrong in our family.
As kids, the two of us were so alike we were frequently mistaken as twins. Jerri was 18 months older but by the time I was two, I’d caught up in size. Add in our parents infinite wisdom in blessing us with rhyming names, and you get the picture: two goats, as similar as possible.
I don’t know how the decision was made between the two of us, who to blame and who to clean house with. Those who study family systems say the decision is subconscious and can be based on any number of things. They also say the decision is made by the whole family and is not the choice of any single individual. But when I rewind my internal DVR, it seems Mom was the one always pointing the finger at Jerri. They are a lot alike and that would have worked in Jerri’s favor if Mom had a healthy self-image. You see where I’m going with this.
As kids, Jerri could do nothing right. I, on the other hand, could do nothing wrong. She was constantly compared to me. According to Mom, I behaved better, slept better, ate better, made better grades, had more friends, more talent, more coordination, more maturity, and was more responsible. In other words, I was just more. Jerri was less. Jerri, quite naturally, hated me.
Years ago, I ran across an old sketch book from high school and showed it to Dad who’s always had a bit of an artistic bent. Dad flipped through the drawings and said, “Your sister was the one who took all the art classes, but you were the one with the talent.” Waves of pride and then shame washed over me. That’s what its like to be the Trophy Daughter. You’ll do anything for your parent’s approval, even if it means your own sister has to be thrown under the bus.
It didn’t surprise me to learn the scapegoat is usually the strongest one in the family. She has to be. Carrying the guilt for the entire family is a lot of hard work. The scapegoat is usually the one who first identifies the actual source of the negative family dynamics and pushes back. Because of her courage, she is first ostracized by the problem-causer and eventually, the entire family. Jerri pushed back with drugs, alcohol, sex, smoking, and suicide attempts. She was banished from our family at the age of 16. Eventually the scapegoating drove Jerri, quite literally, out of her mind.
And what was the Trophy Daughter doing all this time? Why, cleansing the family name, of course. She was bringing home A’s and making the honor roll and the dean’s list. She was yearbook editor, homecoming candidate, stat girl for the basketball and soccer teams, and treasurer of the youth group. She was in the Pep club, the Chess club, and the marching band. She was graduating 11th in her high school class of 330 and earning a Presidential Scholarship to the college of her choice. And she was pretending that she was the goat who got to live.
About five years ago, Jerri and I reconnected and instead of the addict I’d always been told she was, I found a woman struggling with mental illness and poverty and with little hope of maintaining stability long enough to get her life back.
Now in our late forties, my sister and I are both trying to leave our old roles behind.
What strikes me now, more than anything, is how our parent’s words defined us. Words are powerful. What we say to each other matters:
A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! –The Message, James 3:3-5
Jerri was told she would never succeed at anything. When she decided to take some classes at the community college nearby she was told, “Why are you going back to school? You’ll never finish. You never finish anything you start.” She has been unemployed the majority of her adult life and is barely scraping by on disability. I was told I could be anything I set my mind to. I went on to college, graduate school, and a career at a major pharmaceutical company. We started out the same, two goats equal in size, color, and value. We were not different; we were only told that we were.