Saturday, September 10, 2022

Toxic Parents - Why Some Kids Escape and Others Don't


    There is a saying in my line of work that it is up to the person to break the cycle of abuse that they have experienced in their life.  Sadly, most children who grow up in an abusive family are unable and/or unwilling to break that cycle and they repeat the sins of their parents.  Any of my coworkers who work sexual abuse cases on the reservations could tell stories all day long of this sad phenomena.  Growing up in the middle of the country, we were raised to be thankful for our parents, regardless of how unworthy they may have been.  It was always said that things could have been worse, just look at those kids in shelters.  

    My first wife Theresa was born into a toxic family.  Her father, Jerry Colley, was a bitter and angry man.  Her mother, Ellen Colley, was a typical 70's Southern Illinois wife.  Little education, no work experience and no marketable skill.  Everything that she had in her life was tied up in her husband.  He went to work, he brought home the paycheck and it was his way or the highway.  Theresa's parents came into my orbit in 1987 when she became my high school girlfriend.  I was in my senior year and had started making plans to attend college for a degree in accounting.  Jerry, being the jackass that he was, never liked me.  When I first met him he said that he I reminded him of someone he didn't like and therefore he didn't like me.  To my young high school mind I could not comprehend that sentiment.  To my adult mind, having worked criminal cases involving broken people, I understand why he was that way.  His life was an absolute disaster, married to a horrible woman, working in a dead end job and living in squalor.  He also had the traits of being a child abuser.

    This all came flooding back to me this week when I was sent photographs of the "estate" that I am responsible for selling.  Ellen died in 2015 and Jerry died a few years ago.  He died intestate, leaving his estate to his heirs.  Since Theresa died in 2016, her 50% share belongs to our son.  The remaining 50% belongs to Jerry's son, Wes.  As I scrolled through the sad state of that house, I had to wonder how Theresa was able to break the cycle while her brother was not.  This was the pile of shit that was left when Wes was evicted from the property.

    They say that we should not speak ill of the dead.  That thought has its origins in an outdated belief that the dead might retain some active influence on the living, and that one might re-encounter them either in this life or a putative next life.  I hold no such belief and feel compelled to speak about the toxic world that Theresa grew up in.  When she was a junior in high school, she went missing.  Ellen called my house to see if I knew where she was.  I had not talked to her that evening and had not idea where she was.  I started to drive to some of the places we had been and I found her car on the side of the road on a backroad outside of town.  Her doors were locked and she appeared to be passed out in the car.  I banged on the door and was looking for a rock to break the window with, when she reached up and unlocked the door.  I found a bottle of brandy along with an empty bottle of sleeping pills.  I put her in my car and drove her to the nearest emergency room.  Since this was the time before cell phones, the ER was the first to contact Jerry & Ellen, while I found a phone to call my parents.  

    My mom and dad arrived as did Jerry and Ellen.  As his daughter was in the ER having her stomach pumped after a suicide attempt, he lashed out at my family.  She did this because of your son is what he kept saying.  My Irish father was about to knock him into next week when the hospital security got involved and separated everyone.  After her recovery, she entered into a counseling program and was able to express some of the physical abuse that she endured by Jerry.  The counselor suggested family counseling but Jerry's pride would have none of that.  She continued living under his roof until one summer night in 1989.  Jerry was out drinking and came home with venom on his breath.  He started screaming at her mom, pushing her to the ground and started beating on Theresa's bedroom door.  She decided to leave the house, opening her bedroom window and crawl out.  Jerry broke the door down and threw a hammer at Theresa's head, missing it and leaving a hole in the wall.  She ran to a neighbors house and they called the Bethalto police. 

    Domestic violence was treated much differently in the late 80's than it is today.  The police ended up arresting Jerry on a charge of battery/causing bodily harm and took him to jail for the night.  Ellen left the house with Theresa and Wes and went to live in a battered women's facility in Granite City, Il.  Ellen worked up the courage to file for divorce from Jerry and started the process.  However, Jerry was able to reach her and pleaded with her not to divorce him.  She was a woman with no ability to support herself or her son living at home, so she relented and went back with Jerry.  Theresa moved out of the house at that point, even though she was under the age of 18.  It was one of the last times she had interaction with Jerry and Ellen, but it certainly was not the last time she had to deal with their toxic ways.

    The last time we saw Jerry and Ellen was in the early 2000's at the wedding of Wes.  We were living in Omaha, NE at that time and Theresa wanted to be their to support her brother. We ended up sitting at the same table as Jerry, but no words were spoken.  I had an intense desire to knock his teeth down his throat, but I was a few months away from swearing in as an FBI Special Agent and did not need that to derail my goal.  As Theresa and I sat on one side of the table, across from Jerry and Ellen, it was interesting to see the vastly different lives we lived.  You had Jerry, an angry old man working in a dead end job with his wife Ellen, a broken woman with no life skills.  She was trapped in her own personal hell and it showed on her face.  You had their daughter who was working in corporate finance for the largest bank in Nebraska, having come from working for one of the largest accounting firms in the world.  Theresa was earning nearly double what her parents did and lived a vastly better life than the miserable people across the table. 

    Deep seated trauma is sometimes buried and repressed in a person and bubbles up at seemingly strange times.  The FBI sent us to Tucson, AZ for our first duty station and our son was born in 2006.  Theresa was a great Mom and provided excellent care to Ryan.  However, when Ryan turned 3 or 4 years old, her personality started to change.  She became very sad, withdrawn and ended up taking anti-depressants.  We tried to work through that period of time but it was clear that something was wrong and she ended up finding a Catholic counselor to discuss things with.  What came out of that counseling was deeply troubling and a low point in her life.  While I am going to leave out all the sad details, she had a flashback to her childhood when she was about 4 years old. A memory came flooding back one night when she was giving our son a bath.  She remembered Jerry in the bathroom abusing her and saying that he had to do this because Ellen didn't turn him on anymore.

    I had always wondered if there was some history of sexual abuse in her past but she insisted that it was purely mental and physical abuse.  Once that came out, so many things about her became clear.  It was like a road map had finally been given to us and we could see our path forward.  The husband and protector in me wanted to fly back to Illinois and put a bullet in his head.  As she continued to work with a counselor, she was able to get off of the antidepressants and move forward in her life.  The last thing that troubled her was trying to reconcile the commandment to honor your father and mother with her decision to cut them out of her life completely.  She struggled with that until our spiritual father gave her this nugget of wisdom.  He said that we are called to forgive others for what they have done to us, but we are not required to forget.  The abuse that you endured made you decide that your parents will never have contact with your son and that is absolutely the right thing to do.  That provided the final piece of healing she needed and she was able to move forward with her life.

    Sadly, that also came around the same time she was diagnosed with breast cancer and having her life cut short 10 months later.  She was tested greatly when she received a call from an aunt that Ellen had died in December 2015.  After she hung up the phone and told me the news I asked her how she felt.  Her response was a very Patrick like response...I feel sad that she suffered but I feel nothing else.  She was further tested when Jerry wrote the obituary and decided to leave Theresa and Ryan out of it.  She was hurt by that omission but she did what a good Catholic should do.  She had a Divine Liturgy prayed for the repose of her Mom's soul and our priest took us to the local cemetery to lay flowers at a statue of an angel.  I have no idea what Ellen's spiritual life was like, although I suspect there was none, but Theresa did "honor" her mother by praying for her soul.  Jerry went on to eternal life in December 2020 and left behind a broken son, Wes.  This was evidenced by the obituary he wrote choosing to leave his sister Theresa and her son out of. He was not given the grace of a Divine Liturgy as Theresa had reposed in 2016.

    It was the above photo that brought back all those memories for me.  Another hole in the wall of a house that was filled with hate and anger.  Ellen and Jerry's daughter was able to break the cycle of hate/anger/violence and lived a great life, leaving behind a strong son.   Ellen and Jerry's son has followed in the footsteps of his father, having a criminal rap sheet several pages long (according to the Madison County Clerk of the Court).  When I heard that Jerry died intestate and that Ryan was entitled to 50% of the estate I smiled that some good came out of that house of horrors.  Whatever amount of cash that house generates will be used to pay for Theresa's son to go to college and build a better life.  As for me, it was the ultimate fuck you to Jerry knowing that the heir of his hated and abused daughter is taking a portion of his estate away from the messed up child he left behind.  I'm not quite at the forgiveness level that Theresa was.

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Toxic Parents - Why Some Kids Escape and Others Don't

      There is a saying in my line of work that it is up to the person to break the cycle of abuse that they have experienced in their life....