08 Nov We Tried Normal – 2e Family Stories: Chapter 8
Jesse is a soft-spoken young woman whose shy smile and quiet demeanor do not give any clue to the virtuoso, operatic voice that she possesses. Jesse has been singing along with opera CDs since she was a young child and is currently enrolled in an opera program at her university. Her voice coach marvels at her vocal maturity and thinks she has potential to be a major force in the world of opera. Yet without the intervention of a loving mother, she might not have survived to pursue her dream.
Jesse was a good student all the way through elementary school. In fact, if you looked at her report cards, she appeared to be a smart, well-behaved child. Jesse’s mother, Sarah, told me that many of the children in her elementary school liked her and sought her company, even thought she was fairly shy and often avoided drawing attention in public.
At home, where she was comfortable, Jesse was less inhibited. She liked to spend time in her mother’s company and they often had deep intellectual conversations. Sarah regularly had friends over for dinner and Jesse usually sat quietly listening to the adult conversation. Jesse told her mother that she enjoyed talking with adults more than her own friends, because her friends didn’t like to talk about interesting things.
Her quiet demeanor and precocious awareness sometimes exposed her to conversations about the negative aspects of human behavior. For example, after a particularly lively table debate about homelessness, Jesse asked Sarah why people with resources would not help homeless people. Sarah tried to explain as best she could, but after their conversation, Jesse told Sara she was very sad about the state of the world. Sarah reported that Jesse was often thoughtful and solemn, and at times would cry with deep sadness over others’ misfortunes. However, she was also very drawn to music, and when she was singing, she reported a feeling of pure euphoria.
Her love of music started when Jesse was three years old and watching a Sesame Street episode that featured an opera singer performing with the Sesame Street characters. Jesse was smitten; she hounded Sarah daily to get her a CD of that music. From that point on, Jesse began to amass a collection of opera CDs, playing them for hours a day on her Fisher Price CD player, singing along into the attached microphone. By the time Jesse was seven years old, she could sing the entire score of several operas.
Sarah began to take notice of the quality of her daughter’s voice. She started looking into after-school music programs for children Jesse’s age and located a music teacher who was conducting classes through their city’s recreation department. She signed Jesse up for a general music class and informed the teacher that Jesse had an good singing voice. However, Jesse’s shyness prompted her to sing quietly and her teacher did not notice anything special about her performance in class. At home, Jesse continued to learn more operas, mimicking the voice inflections and singing styles of some of the great divas.
When Jesse was eight, Sarah saw an ad for auditions to a children’s choir and asked Jesse if she would like to join. Jesse was interested and thought she might enjoy it. Sarah took her to the tryouts. This time, Jesse sang like she did at home. The choral leader recognized at once the unusual power of Jesse’s voice. She recruited her to join the choir and also recommended private voice lessons.
This was the beginning of Jesse’s ten years of professional training. Music has been her source of joy and the one spot of hope that shone through a period of serious depression, which started when she was twelve.
Not surprisingly, her depression first manifested itself when she started middle school, a difficult period for most children, but for Jesse it was excruciating. At twelve years old she was over five feet tall and slightly overweight. Standing a head taller and out-weighing most of her classmates, she had nowhere to hide.
Compounding the problem was her continuing shyness and inability to stand up for herself. Jesse was mercilessly teased and bullied by boys and girls alike, until, for her, going to school was akin to suiting up for battle. Each day she faced new humiliation and pain; she began to have psychosomatic illnesses and vivid nightmares. Sarah knew Jesse was being bullied and had talked with both the principal and teacher about the situation. The school had a zero tolerance policy for bullying, but admitted that it was a difficult problem to solve.
Sarah remembers trying to drag Jesse out of the car and into school one day. She was struggling, because Jesse was nearly as big as Sarah at this point, and one of the school security guards came over to help. “He was trying to be nice and helpful and asked, ‘Why don’t you want to go in to school?’ Jesse yelled, ‘Because I hate school!’ The security guard narrowed his eyes and barked, ‘Everybody hates school. Just go on in and do your work.’ I just stood there staring at him and I remember asking myself why I was doing this to my daughter. Why was I forcing her to go somewhere every day that made her so miserable? But in the end I complied and made her go in, because I knew that was what was expected of me.”
No one realized how emotionally cruel school had become for Jesse. She wasn’t telling Sarah everything that was happening. Her grades were good, and her teachers had nothing unusual to report, but Jesse began to withdraw from social contact both at school and at home.
She virtually stopped talking at school. After several weeks of nonresponse, Jesse’s teachers admitted that something was wrong. Sarah met with the school psychologist to get some additional support for Jesse, and she agreed to assess her. “The school psychologist assessed my child and diagnosed her with selective mutism. I thought she wasn’t spending enough time to get to know my child and it felt like she just threw that diagnosis out there. I think they make so many assumptions, and then act on those assumptions, without taking the time to find out what is really going on.”
Jesse’s resistance to school began to build. She often refused to get up and dressed for school. Jesse was now too big for Sarah to wrestle into the car, so she was not able to force her to go. Jesse spent most of her days sleeping or just lying in bed. In response, Sarah arranged for weekly family therapy sessions to augment Jesse’s individual therapy. After many therapy sessions, Jesse began to reveal that she was being verbally harassed and humiliated at school on a daily basis. Eventually, Jesse told her therapist that she had also been physically and sexually assaulted.
When the bullying started, since she was naturally shy, Jesse’s initial coping mechanism was not to react to the other children’s taunts. When verbal abuse failed to get a reaction out of her, some of the children began to physically hurt her; she was often tripped, pushed, or had items thrown at her.
Jesse had physically matured at an early age and a small group of boys began to sexually harass and assault her, a gauntlet of cruelty that continued for two years and culminated in a gang rape. Sarah was horrified to find out that the bullying had escalated to physical and sexual violence without her knowing or being able to intercede on Jesse’s behalf. The school attempted to identify the boys who raped her, but Jesse refused to participate in their investigation. She was too traumatized and shut down to talk about it with anyone but her mother. Several days after revealing what had happened, Jesse tried to kill herself.
It was not until Jesse’s first attempt at suicide that Sarah really began to understand the hell her daughter was living through. Sarah was mortified to find that living in a good school district did not ensure her child’s well being at school. “I had been telling the teachers for a while, ‘My daughter is coming home from school, getting into bed, hiding under the covers. She’s crying about how she is treated.’ This wasn’t for a day or two, this was for weeks. When I tried to discuss it with the teachers they reassured me. ‘We are supporting her, she’ll be fine. She’s doing fine in class. She’s okay,’ I was absolutely horrified because she was not okay at home. She was not okay!”
After her suicide attempt, Jesse was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Jesse was hospitalized for intense therapy and intervention. Once she left the hospital, Jesse began to work with a therapist who specialized in PTSD. After months of intervention, her therapist recommended that Jesse try to return to school part-time at a continuation high school.
Sarah felt that might be a mistake, but the therapist told her that Jesse should be reintegrated into the community or she would continue to withdraw into her own world. After many meetings with school administrators, teachers, and school psychologists, to ensure programs were in place that would protect her daughter, Sarah followed the therapist’s advice and returned Jesse to school three mornings per week.
Within a month of her return to school, Jesse began cutting the fingers off of her gloves and told Sarah that when the last finger was cut off her last glove, she was going to kill herself. She was readmitted to the hospital. The district administration provided an alternative home-based teacher to Jesse, a strategy commonly used to help children who are chronically ill, to maintain her educational standing.
Jesse did not interact with her home teacher or show any interest in schoolwork; she was completely shut down. Her hospitalization prevented her from suicide, but her psychic wounds were deep. When she was finally allowed to come home, she spent most of her waking hours in her room listening to opera CDs and watching opera DVDs.
Sarah spent every moment focusing on her daughter’s health and well-being. She called the therapist often to express her concerns and to get support for what she was trying to do at home with Jesse. Sarah felt the therapist was not as supportive as she needed her to be. “The therapist was almost insinuating that I wanted my child to be sick because she thought I was overly obsessed with my daughter. I thought she was way off base. If someone’s child is suicidal, they are going through the trauma of knowing their child could die and are desperately trying to seek help. Every parent would be a little obsessed with their child in those circumstances.”
Sarah felt that Jesse’s therapists and teachers made many assumptions about Jesse, particularly about her ‘obsession with opera,’ warning that she was just listening to music and watching operas to escape from reality. “I felt this was dismissive of her passion and talents. If you think about genius in any field, they are a little bit crazy about their work compared to the regular world, because they’re so passionate about what they do. Do we say Steve Jobs was nuts?”
When her therapist, once again, stressed that they needed to get Jesse back out into the world, Jesse begged not to be sent back to school. Sarah was determined to protect her daughter and felt distrustful of the therapist’s advice. “I don’t think her therapist ever understood Jesse or what she needed. She was always trying to fit her into a formulaic solution.”
Yet, Sarah knew there could be some truth to what the therapist was saying, withdrawal could make things worse. Sarah felt she needed to find some compromise between Jesse being at school and staying home. She searched, until she found a private school with an excellent music program that she felt might be less stressful for Jesse.
Despite her depression and anxiety, Jesse expressed some interest in the music program at the new school. Jesse thought the descriptions in the brochures sounded like a place that fostered each student’s ability in a positive, nurturing environment. Jesse cautiously agreed to attend just one class three days per week. She signed up for a chorus class.
Sarah hoped that a change of scene, support from her therapist, and her medication would help Jesse cope with integrating into her new school. During the first few classes Jesse just quietly sat and observed. When she finally worked up her courage to join in the singing, most of the other students stopped singing and turned around to stare at her. Her well-meaning teacher explained to the class that Jesse was an aspiring opera singer. Jesse was embarrassed that she was singled out and felt she might be the only serious music student in the class.
A few weeks later, some boys walked by Jesse and asked her if all opera singers were fat. Jesse called Sarah and pleaded that she needed to go home. When Sarah picked her up, Jesse looked desperate and wailed that she just didn’t want to live in the world any longer.
Sarah wept, “I took one look at her face and I just knew that she would not survive unless I helped her make drastic changes in her life.” Despite warnings from the therapist, Sarah stopped making Jesse go to school or therapy and just let her stay home and do whatever she wanted to do. “I knew I was taking a risk, but I felt this was the only way I could save my child’s life.”
Jesse stayed in her room most days; she did nothing for almost half a year. Sarah is a single parent who had to work to provide for herself and her daughter. Sarah worried constantly that she would come home from work to find Jesse dead. When Sarah was home, she spent all of her time with Jesse, working to help her to heal. Jesse and her mother had always been close and it did seem as if her support was helping Jesse. With Sarah’s intense support, Jesse was beginning to make tiny, incremental steps toward life again.
Sarah’s imminent worry that her daughter would kill herself began to ease a little. As she started to have hope that her daughter would have a future, she also began to worry that she might never graduate from high school, be able to work, or have an independent life. This fear drove her to look for some alternative educational model that might work for Jesse. Finally, she found a charter school that allowed students to work at home using an independent study model. Students would meet with their teacher, once a month, and the rest of the time they could remain at home.
The assurance that she would never have to return to any sort of high school was like receiving a pardon from prison; Jesse reported that she felt a little sliver of hope for the first time in many years.
While Sarah was worried about the structure of independent study, which would continue to leave her daughter home alone for most of the day, she was terrified to send her back to any school. “I want to shelter her and protect her, but I also want to put her out there and help her have those experiences in life. It’s always such a fine line. I feel like I have to work so much harder than other parents to foster my child’s success.”
Sarah decided to try to create something unique and specific for Jesse, something that revolved around music and would place minimal demands on her tender emergence. She promised Jesse she would go with her every time she met with her charter school teacher. While this monthly absence from work was not ideal, Sarah’s boss was tolerant and let her work through her lunch hours to make it up.
Jesse was now sixteen years old, so Sarah thought she might have success with a weekly college music class. Sarah contacted the music department of a local college to see if Jesse could audit a class. When Sarah presented her idea to Jesse, she was both relieved and apprehensive. Jesse was extremely anxious about having to interact in any type of classroom setting again; but since she would only be auditing the class, the other students were adults, and her mom promised to take her, Jesse agreed to try it out.
Sarah took Jesse to her first class and sat nervously outside the classroom until it was over. “You just can’t imagine how frightened and hopeful I was. You know, I worried for so long that people would not be gentle enough with my child. I didn’t think they realized how fragile her inner core was then, she was so tender, you know, she had a blown glass heart.”
Jesse told Sarah that she felt a little bit hopeful about taking the class. “Words can not express the joy I felt that I might have found a way to help Jesse start to reintegrate into the world. I just prayed that it would continue to be a positive experience.”
It did turn out to be a positive experience. As Jesse continued to go to class, she saw that her classmates were also serious music students who understood and shared her passion. She was not singled out, no one made fun of her dedication or earnestness; rather, they encouraged and supported her progress.
Jesse began to respond. She resumed her private voice lessons and, once again, showed dedication to her music. Surrounded by approving, like-minded people gave Jesse the confidence to eventually perform in class. As her skill and confidence grew, her professors and classmates encouraged her to try out for on-campus productions. Each success restored her self-worth and renewed her dream. Today, Jesse is excited about the possibility of earning a degree and is happily dreaming of, and working toward, an operatic career.
 A condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world.