For the past month we have heard so much about family relationships, but in a way I don’t think anyone expected.
The slaughter of 20 children and 6 adults in an elementary school, has become a club for various groups to use to bludgeon others into accepting their own point of view. The NRA this last week used dysfunctional family relationships, and psychiatric problems to insist that everyone should be armed to the teeth, but did not address the issue that the shootings took place with weapons that were legally bought and kept in a home that was already under duress, where a psychologically disturbed young man was taught to shoot by his divorced mother, with the blessing of the Second Amendment.
So what has happened to good old fashioned family relationships and the responsibility of parents? Why have we become a society that seeks to ignore family problems rather than deal with them. Arming everyone in the country does nothing except make more guns available to problem children (or adults) within families, as so many gun death shootings has shown.
As a twice-divorced father of four daughters, I have seen the effects fragmented families have on children. And the blame that is bandied around amongst children and parents in an attempt to make sense of a secure family suddenly ripped asunder can often be the most damaging, and can creep into the psyche and behavior of all concerned over many years in an insidious way. Sure there may seem to be real reasons that divorce becomes the only way to move forward, but it behooves each and every one of us to consider the ramifications of such a move on their children, and to act to mitigate those effects as best we can in a very considered and conscious way.
For myself, after two tours in Northern Ireland I left the Army having lost my entire large bowel and with no idea that I also had PTSD. It was not even discussed back in the 1970s. The irrational anger I felt, constant fear, and secretive behaviour were just some of the signs. After eight years in the Army I was not the person I was when I was first married. I knew that I had to do something, to take some action and at that time all that I felt I could do was to take myself, and my anger, out of the home.
Many years have passed since I was in the Army, there’s more understanding of the effect of PTSD and support for veterans coming home having to deal with returning to a “normal life”. Those years have also provided me more time for introspection and reading and discussing these issues as well.
A question I have asked myself, is do children also suffer from PTSD as a result of a family break-up? It is an immensely traumatic time and it seems little has been done to analyze the real effects of divorce on young children. If studies have been completed why do we not see more emphasis on counseling the children of divorced parents, even before the final break-up?
As I am apt to do, I use my writing to better understand the world. And so, to try and understand some of the feelings of guilt, blame and utter betrayal and sense of abandonment, I wrote my fictional novel DRY TORTUGAS and dedicated it to my daughters. The novel is not about my particular family experience, (I care about and respect my ex-wives a great deal), but it does highlight the kind of emotional impact and turmoil that’s typical of many family breakups. I was not seeking forgiveness in writing the book, just trying to reach a personal understanding so that I can better relate to my daughters, and to their mothers. Whether I have succeeded or not is for them to decide.
Through writing this novel I became aware of the extreme damage that can done to children, which can express itself in many different ways. Most often violence is at the core – the need to lash out either emotionally through verbal abuse, or physically through violent behaviour and acts. Girls seem to act out through verbal attacks and boys physically. And then there’s the secrecy about the past which the father in DRY TORTUGAS, Jake, lives to regret. He thinks he’s doing his daughter a favor by not revealing what actually happened when he suddenly left the family home when she was 3 years old. Instead he learns that all he has done is create a huge missing link in her heart and mind, and taken himself out of being in her life in any significant way for over 20 years. When they do finally meet, it might all be too late.
I am not a psychiatrist, nor a psychologist, just a father who has seen the real psychological effects of his actions by leaving home. Parents have an awesome responsibility, at times a crushing responsibility, and as a society I think it is more important than ever that we find a way to support our families and create a positive social context within which families can make the decisions they need to make. This becomes more urgent with more young fathers, like myself those many years back, returning from combat with severe physical injuries and PTSD. More important as both parents have to work and spend less time with their children. More important as technological advances replace conversation and the traditional “sitting around the table eating a meal together and talking about the day and life in general”.
As the modern fragmented family becomes even more of a way of life, what’s important is how we deal with that. Divorce will happen, relationships that are not healthy will break down, and it might be best they do – BUT – that does not mean giving up responsibility, it does mean that as a parent you have to work much harder to ensure the bruising emotional time does not do more damage.
If we continue to live in a society where PTSD is ignored, where mental health problems are swept under the table as shameful, where mental health services are only accessible by those who have paid for health care, or where guns are freely available, we will continue to see incidents such as Sandy Hook and the even greater fragmentation of families with devastating consequences.
DRY TORTUGAS was my attempt to understand the damage I personally may have caused through my own selfish actions and utter ignorance, and was written to show that that damage can, for the most part, be avoided. I am grateful that my daughters have not forsaken me, and for the most part, I hope, forgiven me for leaving them at a time when they most needed a father.