Tuesday, February 7, 2012

This Ambiguous Life: Violent Kids

I threw up this morning after I read this news report about the murder of 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten by then 15-year old Alyssa Bustamante. I tend to throw up when I don't know what to do with my emotions. When this ambiguous life throws me a sucker punch.

First, I cry. Then I throw up. Then I write about it.

It's a pattern I developed as a troubled teenager searching for something to help ease my pain. It's worked for me far better than any medication or cognative therapy ever has. I don't like to throw up, or cry, or write about the bottomless pit of despair. But I find, in the end, calmness comes more easily than it would if I had just gone about my business ignoring my emotions. Plus, I often rationalize, what kind of person would I be if such a horrible story didn't affect me so? Numb, that's what.

Cry.

Throw up.

Write.

See, I already feel better. Even off my meds. I gave them up a couple months ago after reading in Dr. Andrew Weil's book Spontaneous Happiness that studies have shown placebo might work just as effectively as SSRIs do in treating depression.

Once I gave up my multivitamin with iron after reading Dr. Weil's advice that most Americans don't need added iron in their diet. Forgetting that I'm not most Americans--for example, I don't eat red meat--I soon developed severe anemia an had to start supplementing with iron once again. We'll see if the same is true with the psychotropic drugs from which I've weaned myself.


I doubt I'll ever make the bestsellers' list with my three-step self-help program. But for those of you willing to undergo some pretty intense emotions, let me share with you this example.

Last night the headline to this MSNBC report caught my attention, "Mo. teen describes killing as amazing, enjoyable." It suckered me into clicking on it.

I almost stopped reading after the first line, "A Missouri teenager who admitted stabbing, strangling and slitting the throat of a young neighbor girl wrote in her journal on the night of the killing that it was an 'ahmazing' and 'pretty enjoyable' experience — then headed off to church with a laugh."

Even someone like me who routinely wallows in depressing news can barely stand to think of such a thing. But I continued reading the story, hoping to find a reason, a why. The answer given in this article was the usual suspect: evil.

"'So much has been lost at the hands of this evil monster,' Preiss [the murder victim's mother] tearfully said, with Bustamante sitting several feet away."

I can only imagine how this mother feels. Nothing could be worse. But I knew there had more to the story.

So I went digging for it this morning after a nightmarish sleep, no doubt made worse by my accidentally stumbling upon an image on my Facebook wall just before logging off for the night of a dog whose face had been blown off by kids who purposefully stuck a lit firecracker in its mouth and duct taped it closed. It's such a horrible image I immediately "hid" it from my wall. It's the first time I've ever chosen this option on Facebook. Even I could not stare into the blasted face of an innocent dog tortured to death by drunken thugs.

Or are they? Who's to say those kids who inflicted such pain on this innoncent dog weren't seeking retribution for their own painful lives? I'm not saying they're excused from such atrocious behavior, but perhaps there is a reason behind such seemingly meaningless cruety. I hope so. Because if we can figure it out, we can figure out a way to stop it.

I shut off the computer, ran upstairs, and loved on my two dogs til I finally fell asleep.

So how can I stand to face the same type of cruelty when a human is the victim? My rational mind knows my sweet, cuddly fury kids can be viscious killers themselves. They instinctually chase after baby squirrels and rabbits, shaking them til their necks break. They run into the middle of the street to tear to shreads in ecstatic bliss random roadkill we encounter on our walks. They're dogs. That's what dogs do. They get a pass because they have not learned to overcome their biological drives. But humans have, haven't we?

Please. Say we have. My stomach is empty. There's nothing left to throw up.

Searching for answers this morning, I found the article that made me throw up, but ultimately made me feel better too. Bustamante's not evil. She's a troubled teenager suffering from neglect and mental illness. She carved the word "hate" into her own arm, wrote her innermost, darkest thoughts in her diary, and made stupid, horrible decisions. That was me when I was fifteen.

Once, when I was her age, my dad and I had a huge fight and I ended up locking myself in the bathroom, holding a phone in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other. I called my mom at work. Desperate, as usual.

"Come home now or I might kill dad," I sobbed into the phone.

I don't even know what happened after that. I just remember sitting in our stuffy bathroom, sweaty and crying, begging my mom to come rescue me from myself. Did she come home? Did she call my bluff and stay at work, forcing me to eventually sneak out into the hallway and slip into my bedroom, falling asleep in the wet spot on my pillow as I cried myself to sleep? I don't remember. But my dad's alive, and so am I, and we haven't fought since we lived together. Things improved once I got kicked out of the house at age eighteen and started living my own life, and as we've both mellowed with age.

After reading Alyssa Bustamante's story in the Chicago Sun-Times article about the mom who abandoned her, her imprisioned father, her suicide attempts and her treatment with Prozac, a medication that carries a warning on it about using caution when prescribing it to teenagers, I think, what would have happened if I had acted on my own feelings of rage? Could I have murdered my dad? Or killed myself? What sets some people off and not others? How was I able to deal with my homicidal feelings without acting upon them?

Cry.

Throw up.

Write.

It's the only explaination I can come up with. It's not as easy as dividing human emotion into good and evil. Maybe Nietzsche was right. Or maybe he was a callous philosopher who died insane.

If writing hasn't saved my life, if there really is just good and evil in the world and it's as simple as that, I find myself wondering why bother fighting to make life better?

I think I'll write a letter to this girl, Alyssa Bustamante. It seems odd. I should write a letter to the murder victim's mother. She's the one most hurt by this horrendous event, right?

Maybe. Or maybe it's not that simple. Maybe everyone involved deserves our sympathy and at least an attempt at understanding. If not, my nauseous fights to make things right are futile because life really is meaningless.

As a mother, I feel the pain of this victim's mother's loss. But as a once-troubled teen, I also feel the pain of this murderous girl.

If I do write to her, here's what I'll say:

"Look to my life as an inspiration for what you can overcome. I was once you. Keep writing."

***

Epilogue

I found two videos on Youtube related to this case. The first one shows Alyssa and her brothers being stupid kids:



The second one is a tribue to Elizabeth. Rest in peace, little girl.



I found this report that goes into much more detail about Bustamante's sentencing hearing, allowing us to see both the defense and prosecutor's sides of the case.

Today Alyssa Bustamante was sentenced to life with the possibility for parole.

Her apology gives me hope she really is not a monster: "I know words," she said, pausing to take a deep breath and struggling to compose herself, "can never be enough and they can never adequately describe how horribly I feel for all of this. If I could give my life to get her back I would. I'm sorry."

Amen.