Time to head upstream
By Carrie Seidman, Columnist
Sarasota Herald-Tribune | Updated Feb 17, 2018 at 6:25 PM
A village is gathered by the river for a picnic. As the townspeople share food and frivolity, someone notices a baby floating downstream, struggling to stay alive.
They rush to pull the child out. But soon, another flailing baby drifts by. And then another. Before long, the villagers are frantically rescuing child after drowning child, trying to deal with a disaster they didn’t foresee.
Suddenly, one villager runs away, in the opposite direction.
“Where are you going?” the others scream, incensed. “We need your help!”
“I’m going upstream,” he says. “To stop whoever is throwing the babies in!”
I was reminded of this tale after the Parkland school shootings, which took place just a day after the hopeful conference on local mental health reforms I wrote about last week. The most uniform reaction to the tragedy has been an outcry for gun reforms and, as far as that goes, I’m right there with the chorus. But since almost everyone — well, everyone but our legislators — seems to be taking on that debate, I’ll turn to something a little less obvious.
Like who’s throwing the babies into the river in the first place. And the disturbing answer to that is: we are.
When someone who is emotionally disturbed turns violent, having legal access to a gun certainly makes things easier. But what led to Nikolas Cruz’s rampage began long before he ever bought an assault rifle.
It began with a culture that inadequately addresses — or entirely ignores — the long-term ramifications of early trauma and fails to provide children with the support, skills and self-esteem they need to deal with the divisive, demanding, difficult world they’ve inherited from us.
We don’t know all the details of Cruz’s 19 years, but we know enough: Separation from his from biological parents as an infant; an adoptive father lost to a fatal heart attack in his formative years; the death of his adoptive mother — reportedly the only person he was close to — last November.
“That’s a lot of loss,” said a friend and adoptive mother of five whose children have histories of fetal alcohol syndrome, sexual abuse and abusive biological parents, and who knows the consequences. “Hurt people hurt people.”
That’s more than just a glib saying. There is a growing mountain of research showing childhood trauma can affect biological, neurological and physiological functioning of the brain and have a profound impact on emotional, behavioral, cognitive, social and physical behaviors in later life.
Just the day after the shootings, I got an email from a single father who eight years ago adopted a boy of 9, knowing little of his history. He came to learn that, in addition to being taken from his biological family and placed in a foster home for three years, his son had watched the killing of the family dog, witnessed the deaths of two siblings and experienced sexual abuse by another sibling.
The father knew he was already late to the game in trying to reverse the damage. Still, in trying to obtain the care he knew would be essential to his child’s future, he was thwarted at every turn — by schools, health care agencies, treatment facilities, doctors and insurers. In less than a month, his son will turn 18, legally an adult and lethally impulsive, aggressive and unpredictable.
“When I learned of the shooter’s background, I couldn’t help but make the connection,” the father wrote. “If someone were to call me and ask, ‘Did you see any red flags that would have led you to believe …’ Well, I pray every day there is never an event that prompts a call to me like that.”
It doesn’t take parental experience to make the connection. Which is why I was so shocked to read this comment about Cruz from the attorney representing the family who opened their home to the teen after his mother’s death:
“He seemed to be getting his life back together, getting over his depression, the loss of his mother,” James Lewis told the Associated Press. “Something went seriously wrong with this kid and nobody saw it coming and nobody knows why. This totally came out of left field.”
Left field? Cruz’s troubled history — rife with abandonment, death, rejection and isolation — had more waving red flags than a Mao Zedong rally. The mental health help he allegedly received was clearly too little, too sporadic and too late.
So even if we do enact sensible gun reforms — and I most sincerely hope we do — we should also be looking to the bigger, longer-term picture. But what, you may ask, can I possibly do?
Yesterday I stumbled on a story about a teacher who, after the Columbine school shooting in 1999, instituted a weekly practice in her fifth-grade classroom. Every Friday she asks her students to write down the names of four classmates they’d like to sit with the next week, and one who has been an “exceptional citizen.”
She doesn’t necessarily act on their requests. Instead, she privately studies the results, looking for any children who are falling through the cracks. Then she tries to save them.
Maybe you’d consider doing the same.
Yes, we need gun reforms. And yes, we need better mental health funding, coverage and treatment. And for sure we could be more proactive — screening early and often; instituting practices like mindfulness, meditation and yoga; teaching resiliency and coping skills.
But what we need just as much is for every person to be a lifesaver. To lend support when the current threatens to take someone under. To head upstream.