I always hated the idea of cliques at school. These were the arbitrary groupings of individuals based on characteristics of some sort. There were the beautiful and popular crowd, the geeky crowd, the athletes, the shadow people that nobody much noticed, and those who rose above such silliness and simply associated with the people that they found to be interesting and friendly. The concept of mean girls and snobs are the stuff of movies. We laugh at the manufactured angst of the teenage years and yet there is a grain of truth in the stories of young people who feel bullied and alone because they have not achieved a desirous social status. Those who bleed into the edges of oblivion at school are often the victims of a complex web of dysfunctional parenting, mental or learning problems, abuse, and abandonment. They are the strange ones who tend to remain misunderstood and unloved by both their peers and the adults charged with their care. Because they are mostly quiet and unseen these shadow children rarely receive the attention that they so desperately need. The truth is that they are crying out in their silence and brooding but few people hear.
I have seen such young people over and over again. They tend to be lost souls who somehow realize that they don’t quite measure up to the standards that society has set for them. They are often from single parent homes where well meaning mothers work so hard that they have little energy for giving them the love and the lessons that they need to survive in the world. Sadly many of them have been abused into a kind of submission. They learn that saying little and doing nothing to anger the adults keeps them somewhat safe. Their peers either don’t notice them or openly recoil from them. They feel disconnected from the world at large. They don’t know how to relate naturally to other people. Their loneliness festers and they become angry and withdrawn. If they are really fortunate they may encounter an adult or a kind friend who will provide them with the sort of unconditional love and wisdom that they need to find their way in what seems to them to be an uncaring world. They can be saved but only if someone sees that they are in trouble and takes the initiative to help them.
All too often such individuals simply slip through the cracks. They graduate from high school and attempt to blaze a trail into adulthood but their efforts always seem to end badly. The try college but are unable to find a course of study that maintains their interest. They think of joining the military but wash out. They drift from one job to another and form few relationships outside of their family circle. They become increasingly isolated as they endure one failure after another, often of their own making. They begin to view their situations as being hopeless. Sometimes they become so depressed that they kill themselves or devolve into a world of drugs or alcohol or both. In the worst case scenarios they ultimately hold all of society responsible for their conditions and they strike out against perceived or imagined wrongs in a fit of murderous rage. In the aftermath those who have known them best express surprise at their actions. Even in their most horrific moments nobody appears to have noticed that they have been calling out for help for a very long time.
In the aftermath of the infamous Columbine shootings it was revealed that an English teacher had become so disturbed by the writings of Eric Klebold that she contacted school counselors and administrators and insisted that they force him and his parents to obtain psychological help. Her pleas were ignored. The powers that be noted that all teenagers write shocking things at one time or another and that Eric was not known for being a trouble maker. When one of Eric’s peers also approached an assistant principal with fears of what Eric might do to him, the hapless administrator decided to stay out of what he saw as a personal problem between two students that was best handled outside of official school action. There were numerous indicators all along Eric’s life that were sure signs that he was very disturbed but few were willing to put the puzzle pieces together to face the reality that he was indeed a very troubled young man. After the fact of his attack on the school it was obviously far too late and yet the feeling lingered that if only someone had connected the dots the horrific tragedy may have been averted.
We’ve just endured another school shooting and our hearts are broken that such violence seems to be so rampant in our country. There are many ideas for curtailing such events being bandied about by politicians, pundits, and the common man. While enacting laws may have a small effect on the number of such incidents the biggest questions are once again being ignored. How do we recognize the children who are traveling down a path of isolation, anger, and violence before it is too late to save them?
The current perpetrator of murder in Oregon is such a classic case of societal dysfunction. He was born in Great Britain, the son of a black mother and a white father. It doesn’t appear that his parents ever married and soon enough he was being raised by his mother with only infrequent visits from his father. His life was rather chaotic with moves from one place to another and relationships with step fathers that never lasted very long. His contact with his birth father appears to have been sporadic and even somewhat superficial. He was quiet, withdrawn, and a bit quirky according to people who knew him. He seemed to be the most comfortable with children who probably made him feel a bit like a hero. Neighbors say that he often sat alone in the dark. He had learning problems in school and his foray into the military barely lasted a few weeks before he was considered to be too risky for service. His social media accounts and his Internet history should have alerted those who knew him of his slow and methodical descent into a world of anger. In a sense he was leaving clues everywhere but nobody thought to put the pieces of his puzzle together. Once again he was left to his own resources with those closest to him being seemingly clueless that he was in dire trouble.
I think that adults all too often look the other way and have little desire to take the steps needed to help their loved ones who are so obviously on the brink of a total breakdown. I can say without reservation that finding care for a family member who does not want it is one of the hardest tasks imaginable. Still it is a fight well worth doing. We can’t simply ignore the broken souls amongst us. If we sense that someone is in crying for help it is incumbent upon us to take serious action. We have to face the reality that sometimes our loved ones are no longer capable of making their own decisions. We can’t simply allow someone to wallow in a state of misery that only grows worse. We have to rescue them and I know from experience that it can be done. When there are troubling signs we must take action.
Time and time again the family members of the perpetrators of horrific crimes mention that they sensed that the individual was somehow broken and yet they took few steps to ease the pain. They felt that the person had the right to choose to be isolated, strange, depressed, paranoid. As someone who fought for my mother’s mental health for over forty years I will tell you that not once did she seek help on her own. Getting her to the care that she needed was always a battle. It was ugly and almost impossible to endure and yet my brothers and I did it over and over again. In a sense we invaded her privacy and bullied her into visiting her doctor and taking her medication but the results were always miraculous. It was only when we grew weary and let our vigilance slide for a time that she would become ill once again. It took so much continuous effort to keep her mind healthy but then every human being deserves whatever amount of attention is needed to be whole and happy. Ours was a small price to pay to insure that our mother was free from the demons of her illness.
Any plan for ending or at least limiting the kind of tragedies that have become all too commonplace in our country must ultimately begin at the root cause of the problem which lies within the mind of a very disturbed person. Whether we wish to call such people mentally ill or evil matters little. The fact is that there is always a pattern of disturbance in their actions that someone has seen. Doing nothing will continue to result in horrific events regardless of how much legislation we enact to prohibit access to guns, or knives, or bombs. We really do need to begin earnest conversations about how to identify and address the needs of the unfortunate souls who live in the shadows before their anger festers. It won’t be an easy or even a quick fix because the human mind is so complex but it will make a difference.
Look around your world. Do you see someone who appears to be asking for help? Reach out to them or refer them to a professional. Most of all watch and listen carefully for the signs of trouble and never ignore them. The actions that you take really will change lives.