This Ain’t My Mama’s Broken Heart

By: Gari Lister

Four years ago today — May 17, 2009 – my 17 year old daughter broke my heart and changed my life forever.  She packed a bag, told her little sister not to tell us, and ran away from home with a boy she’d met a handful of times – a boy who murdered two people within a few months (literally).  I didn’t realize what a pivotal moment it was right away; I thought it was just another episode in a series of Katya crises.

Girl CryingWe responded as we always do to crises – efficiently and intensively.  Within 24 hours, we rallied the troops: her friends, contacts in DC and in law enforcement, not only locally but also nationally.  And in addition to the official channels, we got the local press to run an article, wrote an ad for the papers we thought she might see, and made a flyer.  I’m a litigator and strategist and my husband is a press hack who loves networking; when faced with a family crisis, we do not mess around.  When the police told us they had tracked the boy’s phone to North Carolina, we put the “littles” (our two younger kids) in the car and drove there with hundreds of flyers.  We charmed the local police into giving us local addresses, and we papered the town – each flyer with a hand-written note asking Katya to come home.  She came back three days later.

We learned lots of devastating things that week, but one of the hardest for us to understand given our action mentality was the fact that she had told the boy’s family that we wouldn’t look for her or come after her.  She thought we had gone through too much for her, and that we would be glad to have her gone.

But we moved on from our inability to understand, and we pretty much went through the next several months in crisis mode: we sent Katya to Outward Bound, which helped for a short time.  She fell for another messed up boy, started skipping school, and after three truancy cases dropped out of school and moved out.

And about that time, crisis over, I collapsed, physically devastated from the stress and heartbreak.  I spent all winter in bed, too tired to do much of anything.  I couldn’t carry luggage for two years, and I couldn’t go for long walks, let alone run.  It’s taken me three years and lots of yoga to recover.

So why write this?  Because I have recovered, and I am stronger than I ever was.  And I have learned two lessons.  First, our traumatized kids need us to be strong – not only emotionally, but also physically.  We can’t help them if they can kill us.  And Katya almost killed me.  If she had, where would my other kids have been?  So sometimes, the best thing you can do for your traumatized child is go to yoga.  Or go run.  Or go riding.  Anything to keep your body strong enough to handle the stress.  Don’t make the mistake I made in all my action – don’t overlook your own oxygen when you’re focused on landing the plane.

And the second lesson is that Katya ultimately ran away – and is still running away – not because of me, not because of the boy, but because she does not believe she is “worth it.”  That’s not new – any expert will tell you that – but I think it is a concept that gets lost in all the therapy.  My kids know they’re messed up – and if they didn’t, how many times do we remind them (with the best of intentions)?  Katya taught me that we have to not only help them heal; we have to also help them believe.  And to believe, they need to be fabulous at something — anything.  So now my top priorities aren’t only therapeutic — they’re also volleyball and ice skating because those seem to be my girls’ “things.”

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