They are casualties of war, these kids who infiltrate my office, throw their backpacks and books into a corner, and slouch down onto the floor in a tangled mass of limbs. It doesn’t matter how many chairs I put out for the group meeting; they prefer sprawling over the office floor at all angles and resemble a giant, 3-D jigsaw puzzle once they’re settled. Interesting how by the end of our session, many of them are bunched up into tight little balls—their gangly coat hanger limbs retracted into their bodies to form unyielding masses. Must be the topic we discuss—the divorces their families went through and the battlegrounds that formed as a result. Divorce, the great equalizer, does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, handicap or disability, religion, or socio-economic status.
Marissa shows up every week, but her only verbal contribution is an occasional “Fuck—yeah!” when another member offers a story of loss and change. She shakes her blond, chin-length cornrows back and forth until the multi-colored beads threaded throughout click against each other like knitting needles. Her mother’s current husband is number four in the line-up of men who eventually find Marissa a bit difficult to manage.
Don brings his lunch directly from the cafeteria and stuffs it down, acting as if he’s not listening, but I know he is. His pale face shines like a full moon below a black knit cap pulled down over his eyebrows, hiding whatever hair he has. I probably wouldn’t recognize him in the halls if he didn’t have it on. Whenever someone starts to show the least sign of choking up because they’re recounting the latest fight in the house, he always offers some scrap of food on his tray: “Hey, have a potato puff!”
The group is open-ended, so I never know who will show up from week to week. The kids all hold each other accountable, making sure everyone understands the golden rule, which is, “Anything talked about in Ms. Callahan’s office stays in here!” When the bell rings, they rise, form a tight flank, and trudge to class.
Running a group for children of divorce is not the most uplifting activity I can think of, but someone’s got to do it. It makes sense that I would be the person to run this since I’m divorced and raising a kid of my own. Besides, where else would they air their stuff? One of the books I read on children of divorce defined the three major issues as the three L’s: loss, loyalty, and lack of control. Loss brings grieving, and grieving for a teenager looks pretty different than it does for adults. Loyalty is a shaky substance, like Jello, wavering back and forth between parents and causing crippling anxiety. Lack of control? Over their lives? They have as much control as they would have over an impending avalanche.
Imagine just one flake of snow falling on a snow-covered hillside. The flake might hit the pile of snow, causing the whole lot to fall down, creating an avalanche. Or the snowflake might stick to the hillside without anything else happening. Or it might take two or three or ten snowflakes to get ten more moving and eventually become an avalanche. The angle that the side of the mountain forms is known as the angle of repose, repose meaning sleep or rest. If an avalanche occurs, the pile reconfigures itself into a new angle of repose.
Most of the kids who sign on for the group have already dispensed their anger and grief all over the school, their families, and myriad others who may be in their lives, including but not limited to their teachers, administrators, probation officers, shrinks, friends, and, most especially, their parents. In other words, they have some bad history that got them referred to my group. They’ve been suspended, served multiple detentions, been on probation, tried counseling, consumed medication, both legal and illegal, run away from home, and/or ricocheted from parent to parent.
In spite of all this, they show up. I listen.
Jack is the only one who comes every week and doesn’t open his mouth. He’s a hulk of a kid with startling blue eyes peering out from a baby face. His 6’4” size precludes anyone getting on his case for not talking. He looks like he could pulverize you with little effort on his part. None of the kids knows his family history, but I do. I also know he’s going to spill his guts eventually because the muscles in his face work like hell when he listens to some of the other kids. I’m waiting for him to open the door to his heart just a bit, so I can wedge my foot in there before he can close it again.
I got a call from my lawyer recently, asking me to come to his office. He tried to prepare me by telling me ahead of time.
“Joanna, there’s a summons here to court. Your ex-husband….blah, blah….custody….”
“Whoa!” I said. “I’ll be right over.” I know I said those words, but I didn’t recall being that rational, even though being rational is my strong suit at work. The question is whether that rationality extends into my personal life. The vote is still out on that one.
When I arrived at his office, my lawyer stood there with the county sheriff. “I didn’t want you to get served these papers in front of your son,” he said. The sheriff nodded, handed me a document, mumbled, “Sorry, Mrs. Callahan,” and left quickly. I know he explained that I was being sued for custody of my fourteen-year-old son, but a slow process of suffocation had begun, making it difficult to understand.
Avalanches spring on you with no warning, and before you can get out of the way, you’re buried, trying to fight for air and light. An avalanche is one of the phenomena known as a self-organizing critical state. They call it that since no one tells the snow to either cause an avalanche or to merely stick. The snow is critical because it is always just about to collapse. Similar behavior happens in many different systems. A “critical state” means that something dramatic is about to happen all the time. Also, no one is involved in doing any planning or designing of the system.
The next week in group, none of the kids noticed I was deaf and dumb. So much for the importance of my role. As long as my body is propped up in the chair, they figure they’re all set. It speaks to the fact that, in the counseling profession, sometimes it’s just your presence that is the healing power. On this occasion, I was thankful. Of course, Murphy’s Law dictates that Jack would pick this session to begin his solitary march onto the battlefield.
“My father’s an asshole,” he said.
All the kids turned toward him. Marissa, for once, refrained from her standard “fuck” affirmation. Don offered the last half of his chocolate chip cookie. I sat numbly, swiveling back and forth in my chair, hoping I’d make it to the end of the period.
Jeremy, who lives with his mother and her lesbian partner, said, “So?” He has shared the same information regarding his own father, whom he visits no more than twice a year. Even though the one word question sounded harsh as it hung in the still air, Jeremy leaned toward Jack in a way that invited him to share his secrets.
Jack looked around at all the faces now turned attentively his way. Like a jackrabbit, he leaped back into his hole, and the crack in the door disappeared as quickly as it had opened.
Teenagers, being who they are, turned their attention to Matt, a former regular who had just returned to his father’s house after living four months with his mother. He suggested that his stepfather was a man who was missing a major body part. It was much more interesting material to the group than Jack’s stone-faced withdrawal into silence.
If you are caught in an avalanche, you have several choices. You can get rid of all of your equipment—poles, skis, and backpack—and try to grab a tree or rock to stop yourself from being buried, or you can “swim” with the avalanche to try to stay on top. If buried by an avalanche, keep one hand in front of your face and try to clear and maintain an air space. You should also try to maintain space for chest expansion by taking and holding a deep breath. Avoiding panic helps to conserve energy.
It was about that time that Jack’s mother called me and asked for a meeting. I was a little surprised to hear from her since his father had temporary physical custody. I was also a little worried--well, maybe a lot worried--that I might not be able to remain objective with her. A battle was in progress, and, as I found out, she was losing.
She entered my office, a tiny, dark-haired woman with sad eyes and a cautious walk. She had raised the two kids, Jack and his sister, since the divorce years ago when they were toddlers. Now that Jack was in high school, Dad decided he wanted custody. My guess was, he no longer wanted to pay child support.
“Jack says he wants to live with me,” she said. “I don’t have the money to fight this in court any longer. Now they want me to have a psychological evaluation because they say I’m unstable.”
“I’m sorry to hear this,” I said. “Jack is very upset about it.”
“Do you have children, Ms. Callahan?” she asked.
“Yes, I have a son,” I said.
“Then you know,” she said. “My children are who I am. They are my soul. I don’t know what I would do without them, or who I would be.”
When she started to cry in my office, I wanted to take her in my arms and console her, and then I wanted her to take me in her arms and console me. I felt useless, and I knew I was in trouble. Way too close, this stuff.
Group was a morose occasion the next week. Don told us that Marissa was “gonzo,” having broken her probation yet again by running away from her abusive stepfather. She was placed in a group home. He only got that many words out in between stuffing his mouth with a bag of potato chips. Herve, a striking Latino with biceps the size of Montana, pulled his long legs up to his chin—another tight little ball forming. A stream of Spanish emerged in response to this news, and even though no one could interpret the words, everyone understood.
I asked Jack to stay after group to talk to him about the possibility of a court appearance. I was pretty sure someone would subpoena me.
“Jack, how much do you want me to share in court?”
“Whatever it takes to keep me with my Mom,” he said. His body stood in the doorway, and the light from the hallway surrounded him like a halo.
“How about Dad’s drinking?” I asked.
I stood for a moment looking into his eyes, seeking the secret to why a boy wants to live with his Mom. It’s against all the literature on divorce and how boys need their fathers at this age. Perhaps the experts underestimated how much boys need their mothers, too. And how much we need them. I didn’t find the answer in Jack’s eyes, but I desperately wanted to know why motherhood bestows a weight on a woman that can never be lost.
An avalanche occurs when the stress from gravity trying to pull the snow downhill exceeds the strength of the snow cover. They are unpredictable since snow falling on a quiet, gentle slope may cause an avalanche, where snow falling on a much steeper slope stays where it is. Each system seeks its own angle of repose. People do the same.
I went to court on behalf of Jack. I simply told them what Jack told me. His father drank—all the time. He had little to give to either Jack or his sister. Jack didn’t understand why his father wanted custody. When he lived with his mother, she worked hard at making sure they carved pumpkins and toasted the seeds, strung popcorn and cranberries for the Christmas tree, colored Easter eggs and hunted all over the neighborhood with the other kids to find them.
“She read to me every night until I told her I was too big for her to snuggle with me in my bed,” Jack had told me in one session. “After that, she sat on the end of my bed with her own book while I read mine.”
“She’s a good mother,” I said to the judge.
There was no decision that day. I went home to prepare for my own hearing, and to brace myself for any possible landslides.
A week later, I got a call from Jack’s aunt. It was the day after my own hearing. She told me that Jack’s mother had committed suicide.
“What happened?” I stammered.
“She overdosed on pills,” the woman said. “It’s all been too much for her, losing her kids and all. Being a mother was who she was, you see.”
“Thank you for calling,” I said. When I hung up the phone, I held onto a table while the room shook and churned around me.
When someone has survived a “critical state,” they may exhibit symptoms of critical incident stress: behavioral, physical, or emotional in nature. Some symptoms include guilt, mood swings, depression, nightmares, withdrawal from family, friends, and colleagues, and a heightened sense of vulnerability. When helping others who have been affected by the trauma, there are certain things to keep in mind. Encourage those affected to talk about how they are feeling, but don’t attempt to reassure anyone that everything is okay, because it isn’t. Remember that as a person who cares for the survivor of a traumatic event, you are a co-survivor. You must expect that you will also experience post-trauma consequences.
It’s been six months since I went to court, and I still find breathing a painful matter. My son moved in with his father, and Jack remained with his. I continue to do the divorce group simply because no one else will, or that’s what I persist in telling myself. Sometimes I think it’s because I have a chance to “play mother,” a role that has been buried in my effort to stay alive.
Marissa returned, back from her group home and residing once again with the abusive stepfather. Don continues to offer food to those he considers in need of some scrap of comfort.
Jack doesn’t come to group anymore. I guess he’s afraid I’ll get my foot wedged in that door if it opens a crack. Fat chance it’ll open even that much. He comes to visit me alone once in a while, his grief heavy on his face. I do not reassure him that everything will be okay. We sit in each other’s presence, taking our measured breaths.
Charlene Pollano’s short stories and essays have been published in Amoskeag, the Northern New England Review, NH.com, The Guidance Channel E-Zine, Illuminations: Expressions of the Personal Spiritual Experience Anthology, and other journals. She is the co-author of A Group of One’s Own: Nurturing the Woman Writer and the founding member of the Sea Quills, a Wilmington, NC writing group. Charlene is now using the energy she once put into being a high school counselor for twenty-five years to serve as the Wilmington/Cape Fear region representative for the North Carolina Writers Network. She lives in southeastern NC with her husband, John, and her dog, Stella.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: As a former counselor working with adolescents, my stories are about teenage boys and girls living in broken worlds who suffer a loss of innocence that changes them forever. Although all of my stories are drawn from real-life traumas, the characters, settings, and time periods are fiction. Perhaps I should invoke Kurt Vonnegut’s famous quote from his novel, Cat’s Cradle: “All of these true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” Writing them has been my only way to bring closure to a career that has given me “a window on the human soul.”
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Pat Conroy, Elizabeth Berg, Virginia Woolf, Ann Patchett, Mary Gordon, Michael Ondaatje, Charlotte Bronte. I could go on….
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: In a room of my own, which I have….
Q: When did you know you would be a writer?
A: I read Little Women when I was ten and discovered Jo March. I spent that entire summer in our 100 degree attic writing a novel. I’m not quite as dramatic now.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A fourth draft of a novel that I just haven’t been able to let go of. It was a semifinalist in a novel-in-progress contest and second runnerup in the Three Oaks Prize for fiction by Story Line Press. I believe in it. I am also working on more short stories for my collection entitled The Last Time I Wore Pigtails, all true stories that are shameless lies.