PTSD Nation

I just read with interest this excellent blog post by the Coalition Against Legal Abuse in New York on how the family court system not only creates but exacerbates PTSD–Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Oddly, I’d just drafted a blog post on PTSD stemming from just this legal abuse. I also devote a portion of my book to exploring the causes and effects of PTSD.

However, this on-target post made me rethink how society frames divorce and custody battles. They’re like wars–some casualties, some injuries, some reformation of families, and certainly plenty of money lost. But we have a tendency to view them as over, when they’re, er, over. And they’re not. They’re never “over.” The bitter, often violent battles that take place in increasingly gamesmanship-oriented courtrooms  often, if not usually, haunt the civilian soldiers forever.

See, we civilians are not trained for combat. Increasingly, I’m beginning to see that the battle isn’t even between the two opposing sides of the divorce. The battle is between the divorcing parties and the system itself. We’re in unfamiliar territory, far from familiar turf, where we don’t know the customs, we don’t know the rules. We barely speak the language–lawyers sometimes aren’t very good interpreters. Sometimes they deliberately keep us in the dark, negotiating peace policies that are way over our heads. Some negotiations end up in our favor; others don’t. It seems lately that often as not, we’re going to lose. This may be because people who contact me tend to be in the worst legal predicaments–but their numbers are staggering.

(Sometimes we get supremely lucky, and both sides win in a fair trial or mediation. I never want to lose the light of hope I have for this because my case did end up fairly. To be sure, it was fraught with more than enough nasty gamesmanship to make a book that shocks some people. In my book, I try to show readers how much of this gamesmanship operates, so they can avoid it better than I did, or at least better clear the land mines. Victory is possible.)

We’re in unfamiliar territory, far from familiar turf, where we don’t know the customs, we don’t know the rules. We barely speak the language–lawyers sometimes aren’t very good interpreters.

But back to PTSD, one of the “spoils” of war. Recently, a woman who’d been abused by the system, whom I didn’t know personally,  seemed to take it beyond personally that I chose not to be a part of her upstart organization. She had good ideas, but I’m a seasoned lone-wolf reporter type. I love working with people,  but I don’t enjoy being forced into a bureaucratic order and told what to do. (That’s why some newsrooms seem like paid prison to staff writers. Maybe that’s why I usually got shipped off to help head a bureau.) Anyway, this group seemed to be heading this way, so I asked several times to be removed from their mailing list.

Well, these people wouldn’t let me. Finally, I was forced to put the hammer down. A cohort of the woman began electronically attacking me as if I’d done something particularly vicious and cruel. Think back on battle vets who can immediately be tripped off into where they were when the PTSD set in. I spent a few days feeling angry and icky from this tete-a-tete, which I do not like to have–they make everyone feel bad. Looking back, I realize she did want me to feel bad. As miserable as possible. But after my indignant reaction went away I realized she didn’t want me to feel bad; she doesn’t even know me. She was, once again, lashing out at a major person in her life who wouldn’t cooperate, who wouldn’t listen to reason, who refused to join.

In the battle of the court system, losses are everything–just like in a war. Many people who lose custody in court–and especially those who lose their children forever–have lost everything. They’d probably rather die on the front cradling their children than stay alive and watch them disappear into brutal arms, POW’s of the opposing army. I’m serious. No melodrama.

So to liken broke parents to soldiers? It’s no stretch. It’s just the same. They’ve seen carnage; they’ve seen death (in the form of relationships); they’ve seen messes created by the people who sent them into battle, who used them as pawns for economic or political gain. Then they’re sent home in their damaged state, where they may be treated like dirt by people who used to be considered friends, all because they fought in the war and especially if they came out on the losing end. Some feel like pariahs forever, isolated because comparably few know they have company, people who’ve been through the same experience. I know this feeling. We are bewildered by it all, and have trouble finding camaraderie. We’re relieved when we find a little understanding, a little empathy. A wonderful thing about people shining light on this subject is, people are beginning to find each other and take heart that it wasn’t just them–and their outcome often was not because of them or something they did or didn’t do.

Fighting a custody battle is a lonely business. Friends fade away;  returning veterans are crazy with anxiety and fear, just fighting for the survival of their children, and for the mere opportunities to be parents. They usually don’t care much for themselves at this point.

So they stagger home, sometimes as cripples with limbs amputated and in agony from phantom pains.

No one rallies for them at their homecoming parade. Few give them credit for having gone into battle and fighting a good fight. No one calls them heroes, despite valiant fights with everything they had. No one goes to the parade. It’s nothing special.

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