Wide Awake: What You Don’t See
Finding out a child you knew needed help

In most elementary schools, families become a community. Even if parents don’t become close friends, you know who they are, who their kids are and a little about what their family is like. Even before Facebook, families in the same school somehow connected. It just happened.

That happened in my daughters’ school, and different families made different impressions on me. There were a lot of type-A families, quite a few athletic families and some who were a little quirky. And it’s funny, usually every family member fit the category.

But there was one family – mom, dad, son, daughter – who I could never figure out. They seemed numb, like none of them had a personality. I remember wondering why they never looked happy. And as much as I am so very embarrassed to say this: I remember not really liking them. I was never unkind to them. In fact, I often tried to be friendly, thinking it would bring them out of their shell. But it never did.

Then this summer, I found out something that has shaken me to my core.

That daughter, who is now a woman in her early 20s, has a blog and has been featured in a few national magazines. She writes about how she was sexually abused as a child and how her parents beat her. She says she was often given $20 to keep “really awful secrets.” And she talks about finding alcohol bottles hidden throughout the house and how her father would punch through walls when he was angry. She describes one time when her father drove her home from an activity when he was drunk – and the argument that erupted when her mother defended him.

She attempted suicide a few years ago and has been in treatment for bulimia since high school.

Another parent told me about the blog while we were sitting on the beach down the Shore. She then described a time when she had been outside a bathroom at school when this mom and daughter went inside. My friend thought for a minute that it sounded like the mom was hitting her daughter, but she ignored it, thinking that couldn’t be possible.


My friend and I sat dumbfounded. We couldn’t help but question if we should have picked up on something or asked a few more questions or maybe gone to their house and stayed awhile. I don’t know. Something.

At first, I criticized myself for not paying close enough attention, not picking up on any sign. But then I realized – I did. Of all the families at school, this one stood out to me. Not because the kids were soccer stars or because the parents were super strict or the youngest was always getting into trouble, but because there was nothing there. It was like there was just this void, and instead of paying closer attention, I dismissed it because I didn’t understand it. Even worse, I didn’t like it. I can’t stop thinking about that.

I read every one of this young woman’s blogs and wondered how much of this was happening when she was passing through my life. I understand now that what I saw as emptiness was pain, maybe some shame and definitely deep sadness. It was right there walking next to my kids, standing in the auditorium, waiting in the pick-up line.

In one blog, where she describes much of what happened to her as a child, she wrote this about all the other people in her life who she says viewed her family as put-together and normal:

They didn’t see the pain. They didn’t see that you were just trying to survive.

I know there is no way she was thinking of me when she wrote that, but she is talking about me. The sad thing is, I did see it. I just didn’t know what I was seeing.

September 2017
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