A few days ago there was a horrific accident on my serene, tree-lined suburban street. A young man traveling with his wife and toddler son, suddenly stepped on the gas and ran the car into a tree with such force that it split the car in half. His son died immediately, his wife a few hours later. He survived, amazing given that he was ejected from the car at the moment of impact.
Americans see and hear stories like this almost every day; fathers killing their families and then themselves, or sometimes mothers doing the same. These gory, dramatic incidents get people’s attention a lot quicker than the equally disturbing but more subtle tragedy of just living in a dysfunctional American family.
“In 2011, approximately 680,000 children were confirmed victims of maltreatment and approximately 1570 died of such treatment,” said Virginia A. Moyer, MD, MPH, from Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, and colleagues from the US Preventive Services Task Force. “Approximately 78% experienced neglect, 18% physical abuse, and 9% sexual abuse; many experienced several forms of maltreatment.” Possible long-term psychiatric complications of child maltreatment include psychosis, personality disorders, and substance abuse, and potential medical harms may include chronic pain, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders.
Children in dysfunctional families are imprisoned in a world of meaningless and tangled behavior that they will carry around with them for the rest of their lives. More often than not, their parents end up incarcerated and the children follow in their path. Those that escape this fate wander through life with no compass. They bounce from job to job, place to place. How can they be normal when nothing ever resembled normal when they were growing up?
One of my brother’s friends, an alcoholic with a wife and two kids, drove his truck off a cliff hoping to kill himself. But because he was not wearing a seat belt, he was ejected from the truck as soon as it hit the ground. He was in the hospital for almost a year and will be on pain medication the rest of his life. He is still the same sarcastic, angry, violent man he was before, but now his wife and children will be taking care of him, on a much more intensive level, for the rest of their lives.
Many years ago I went on a road trip that took me through Nebraska. While buying gas and food at a desolate truck stop I noticed a man stocking up on booze. He was a rough-looking type, about thirty-five years old. At the check out I saw two bottles of whisky, a bottle of tequila and two cases of beer. For some reason, it really bothered me.
As I walked out I saw him packing the booze into an old SUV. There was a woman in the passenger seat and three young kids playing in the back. I had an overpowering urge to tell the woman and kids to get the hell out of the car. But I couldn’t. I just stood there and watched five people hurtling into a nightmare that I had no power to stop.
I don’t know why the man in my neighborhood ran the car into the tree, but I feel sad for the two lives that were cut short because of his action. If he survives, he may turn into my brother’s friend – angry, guilty and full of pain. Another human being piled on the scrapheap of despair.