Rank #1: Lasagna & Kleenex: Reaching Out Online in the Face of Death
UPDATE: Steve Julian died on April 24, 2016. KPCC published a lovely tribute here. His wife, Felicia Friesema, wrote on the blog she’s been maintaining during his last months, “He left this world surrounded by love, in the comfort of the home we made together, in his own bed.” Our hearts go out to Felicia in this time of grief. We trust this story provided some measure of comfort for her when it first went up on April 1, 2016. We hope that others who encounter this story now, after Steve’s death, share our profound love and compassion for those who suffer from devastating diseases, as well as those who care for them, all the way through to the end.
“My experience on social media is that it has always been a connecting fiber. I think that, like anything, you get out of it what you put into it.” — Felicia Friesema
Felicia had seen the signs of brain cancer before. Her husband Steve Julian wasn’t just forgetting his keys on the kitchen counter or having another of the myriad brain farts we often associate with middle age. He’d stop in the middle of a sentence, like he’d just hit a brick wall, and that was that.
“It wasn’t that kind of gradual onset that Alzheimer’s is. It didn’t sound or feel like dementia. This was so sudden — and it was very eerily similar to what happened to my aunt, my tia Gloria,” Felicia says.
This time, it was her husband.
Over the years, they’ve built a cozy life together in a sweet, spacious home overlooking the 110 freeway in Highland Park. She’s head of marketing for Foothill Transit. Steve Julian is one of a handful of trusted voices helping Angelenos navigate the freeways every day, as morning anchor for KPCC-FM. In his off hours, he writes plays.
Now, he was having trouble navigating his way through a sentence.
“Technically, all tumors are operable,” Felicia explains. “The question that comes into play is: What are you willing to sacrifice in order to get it out? The position and location of his tumor is such that you would have to completely destroy a lot of healthy brain tissue in order to remove it. You would be creating a situation of paralysis, major cognitive dysfunction, irreversible brain damage, and ultimately for possibly very little reward. There’s no way of skirting around it: I was looking at his death.”Steve Julian and Felicia Friesema in happier times. (Courtesy of Felicia Friesema)
Around Thanksgiving last year, Steve was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at the age of 57. They decided not to try to stretch his last months with chemo and radiation therapy. Steve has less time than he might have, but he can eat what he wants, sleep with their dogs, and squeeze the last juice out of the days that remain with Felicia.
She’s taking time off from work, thanks to a compassionate boss. In the 20 or more hours a day that Steve now sleeps, Felicia takes care of everything else: the meals, the housekeeping, the medicine, insurance and the emotional management.
Of course, friends and family are helping. Larry Mantle, Steve’s dearest pal, comes over for company and a wee dram of whiskey. Friends have delivered dozens of lasagnas to the doorstep and whipped out their credit cards to cover what insurance doesn’t. But at the end of the day, Felicia is alone. And every morning, there’s a little bit less of Steve.
Don’t miss an episode of ‘Love in the Digital Age’
Reaching Out Online
We recognized a kindred spirit: someone else in the special club of those who have lost or who are losing a close loved one. We had to fly down to Los Angeles and meet this woman who wrote so deeply, thoughtfully, and with such compassion, about a journey no one chooses.
I know that this is treacherous ground we walk on and that time is of the essence. We wake up to the juxtaposition of joy in another day together and terror at what may come.
There is no detailed prognosis yet. But we do know that there is no outcome we like. And I have never been so scared. But I have also never been so completely full of love for him.
That was Dec. 2, 2015. At that point, Steve could still help Felicia craft a communique to friends.
I miss being at work and in the studio. I miss being with all the people I love at KPCC. I’m still good at traffic. We chose UCLA for the surgery and treatment and navigating to the westside can be tricky. The tumor can take away what I had for dinner, but not my memory of the traffic jams I’ve sat in.
I am sad. I feel the unfairness of all of this. But I also feel the love for my wife, which grows every day as she balances the technical work of our affairs with the emotional work of our daily life. Like making sure I eat three solid meals. And I mean really solid. Four, sometimes. She tells me I’m loved about a hundred times a day — I remember a few of them. Larry [Mantle, host of Air Talk], my brother in all but blood, is a rock for both of us and has been by our side from diagnosis until now.
Many people facing down the gun barrel of something this awful retreat into family. But Felicia reached out from the beginning to friends online.
“We kind of had to,” she explains. “We’ve kind of got a unique and peculiar situation. I mean, Steve’s a very popular radio host in a very large market. He’s also incredibly involved in the theater community here. He also used to be a cop. So, you have these seemingly disparate communities that he’s connected to. That’s thousands of people: his most intimate friends all the way down to the casual listener.”
From the peace and quiet of their home on the hill, when Steve is sleeping, Felicia can write about all the medical details it would be exhausting to repeat to people in one individual conversation after another.
Felicia is also using the blog to process what’s happening in her world, “to take this jumbled puzzle piece of post-it notes and ideas and thoughts and put them together into something that is like ‘Oh! Okay.’ Usually, I don’t know when I’m going to conclude until I start writing, and by the end of it, I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s my “aha” moment. Okay. Alright.'”
On Facebook, for a smaller, closer audience, Felicia shares bite-sized missives from her daily journey: proof the bees in the backyard are making “So. Much. Honey.”; the desperate wish MRI machines played Brian Eno instead of frightening clicks and buzzing; rage against the insurance company; pride in yet another crazy beautiful meal made for Steve.Felicia’s not your regular home cook. She studied at the Ecole de Cuisine in Pasadena. A friend did a story on Munchies about the food she makes for Steve. (Courtesy of Felicia Friesema)
And then there are the jokes. If anything, staring down death has heightened their sense of humor.
Fun with brain cancer:
Me: Yeah babe (knowing full well he was calling for me)
Steve: Oh I’m sorry. I just called you Jen.
Me: Yeah I know babe. It’s ok. What’s up?
Steve: (tells me some stuff he needs)
Me: No problem. By the way, (smiling) I’d like to know who the hell Jen is.
Steve: (chuckles) So would I!
The love has come pouring in from a wide variety of corners. By Jan. 4, Felicia reported that more than 100 people had made deliveries, run errands or have completed tasks around the house.
Steve’s had a sandwich named after him at Wax Paper, a local sandwich shop with a thing for public radio. Friends have blogged about Steve. Local Morning Edition hosts across the country recorded their well wishes on YouTube.
People, Felicia says, “are grateful for being included, or grateful just to know that Steve’s okay for now. Or they’re grateful for an opportunity to help. I’d been crying so hard just a few days ago. I just couldn’t stop. I was so sad and so dejected. And at the end of the day, my status update on Facebook was, ‘There just aren’t enough tissues in the box.’ So, the next day, what arrives on my doorstep, but a case of Kleenex? And the message was, ‘We know that this isn’t enough, but hopefully it helps.'”Steve Julian of KPCC in Los Angeles gets a studio named after him, and a great, big hug from President and CEO Bill Davis. (Courtesy of Felicia Friesema)
“One of the things we’ve been focusing on,” Felicia says, “is making sure that every day is about some kind of pleasure; some kind of happy moment, some laugh, something in there that actually makes the day not a routine of care-giving.”
Felicia sighs. “You know, something that reminds us that there are all these wonderful pieces to life and that living it doesn’t stop with a cancer diagnosis.”
What remains online from this journey is a whole lot more than the testament to the love people have for Steve and Felicia. It’s a social network, in the best sense, that will be there for Felicia, waiting to engage and respond any time she wants.“I’m very, very happy with the way that life has turned out. Where it would have gone, who knows?” says Steve. “I don’t care what we would have done together …” “As long as we were together,” says Felicia, finishing his sentence. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)
This podcast features music by Glenn Gould (Toccata in D Major), Windy & Carl (Balance (Trembling)), Labradford (Wien), Aix Em Klemm (3×2 (Exit)) and Yo La Tengo (Green Arrow). Special thanks to the California Report’s LA Bureau Chief Steven Cuevas for his production support.
Apr 01 2016
Rank #2: Dating in a Post-Privacy World
We live in an age of oversharing. Depending on your level of tolerance, perhaps you’ve just come to accept that too many people know too much about you, and sigh with resignation every time a family member or friend posts a photo of you with a double chin, or the dreaded red eye, or hoisting a pint at the bar when you told your boss you were home sick that day.
Privacy? Boundaries? Those went out with the advent of social media.
But some things require privacy to thrive. I’m not talking about illegal behavior, per se. There’s something about sex, love, even marriage, that prefers the candlelit corner, and not just because low lighting is so forgiving. Posting about everything — the first date, the last fight — can wound or kill a romantic relationship.
Don’t miss an episode of ‘Love in the Digital Age’
Love in the Digital Age sat down with Rico Gagliano recently. He’s co-host of the radio show and podcast “Dinner Party Download,” and while he wouldn’t claim to be the World’s Foremost Expert on Love — who would? — he’s had some experience having his personal life dragged out into the limelight for review and discussion.
“We all on some level understand, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, know the way that people behave in their public lives may not necessarily jive with the way that they behave in their private lives,” Gagliano says. “Those are two different universes.”
In a perfect world, your private life would be yours to enjoy, observed only by those you choose to share it with. Right. Some of us are old enough to remember when that was possible. The choice today is not whether to document our private lives online, but how.“People think of the social media world as just an expansion of their normal social lives in some way, but it isn’t, to me,” says Rico Gagliano. (Katherine Streeter for KQED)
“There are plenty of people who look at my Facebook page who are not my close friends,” Gagliano says. I don’t want to tell them about my relationships, or have them know exactly what I’m doing with my significant other. And yet, I feel like there’s the expectation that you do that.”
He’s not just speaking about the madding crowd he’s friended over the years. He’s speaking about girlfriends, who expect to post — or have posted — a steady stream of sunny photos about meals in restaurants, weekend trips, and “usies” at various spots around town. If you refuse to post, or to allow others to post, “then what is that saying about your relationship?”‘Are you trying to keep that relationship on the down low? You don’t want anyone to know that we’re dating? You want me to be your dirty little secret?’
You can, of course, set specific limits on who sees what on Facebook, or evade older generations by seeking out younger social media networks like SnapChat. But unless you go off the grid entirely, your privacy strategy will never be better than partial.
Some people say Millennials, having grown up with the expectation there is no privacy, do better at proactively self-censoring than older generations, but there’s a limit to how much of yourself you can hold back in the search for love.
An Early Lesson in Love Online
Back in the early 2000s, Gagliano was enthusiastically involved with a platform called Live Journal. That is to say, he hung out with a group of people who blogged on it, read what others wrote on it and dated each other.
“I was on Live Journal,” say Gagliano. “My girlfriend was on Live Journal. We dated, and then we broke up. That was fine. We were still friends. Many months later, I started dating somebody else who was also on Live Journal and was friends with all of us, including my ex.”
Gagliano went to a movie with his ex. “We were still friends.” At the time, he thought there would be no need to tell the new woman, because he had just started seeing her, especially if he had no interest in rekindling a romantic relationship with his ex. “All it’s going to do is cause problems,” he thought.
He didn’t anticipate that his ex would post about the evening on her Live Journal. It didn’t help that she mentioned what a good time they had and how much she wished they were still together. “This girl that I’ve just started dating sees that I’ve gone out with my ex. And she’s like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ ” You don’t need to follow Gagliano’s Facebook feed to guess how things progressed from there.This photo “cunningly doesn’t show my who face,” says Rico Gagliano, “the better to protect my public anonymity. It shows the top of my head with a portrait of William Howard Taft, with whom I insist I have never had a relationship.” (Courtesy Rico Gagliano)
That episode may not have been the most painful thing he’s experienced, but it did make Gagliano keenly aware some people are always watching him. Even though we’re talking about his friends, family and yes, exes, it doesn’t make that oversight feel less intrusive. There is always a camera somewhere, documenting your search for love in the digital age.
“To what extent do you have any control anymore?” Gagliano asks.
This podcast features music by K. Flay (“It’s Strange”) and the Candyland Remix of the same.
Feb 10 2016
Rank #3: Love in the Digital Age: Gomathi & Prashanth
In India, middle-class couples used to find each other and marry through family connections, a marriage broker or by way of a newspaper ad. Today, they — and their counterparts around the world — are just as likely to use any one of an explosion of matrimonial websites, some with apps for your smartphone. Two of the largest sites are Shaadi.com and Bharatmatrimony.com.Screen shot from the iPhone app. (Courtesy of BharatMatrimony)
A growing number of the profiles on these sites are written by the hopeful wedding seekers themselves, but those with a more traditional mindset will allow their parents to write them. That was the case for Gomathi Ramakrishnan and her husband, Prashanth Vishnumangalam Narayanan:
Gomathi: She’s intelligent…pursing her Master’s in Canada…she’s homely and traditional…plays Badminton…she’s cute.
Prashanth: He’s an Iyer Brahmin…he doesn’t eat meat…he doesn’t drink. He’s a good boy. He’s done his bachelor’s, he’s done his master’s, and he’s based out of California.
About three years ago, Gomathi was 22 years old and working to complete a master’s degree in neuroscience at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. One day her father called from her hometown of Chennai in southern India. “We’re going to put up a profile for you on Bharatmatrimony.com,” he said matter-of-factly.
Don’t miss an episode of ‘Love in the Digital Age’
Gomathi delights in sharing what happened next. “He started entering his profile information. He typed his name, he typed his age, and he typed all stuff about him.” In retrospect, she figures he probably thought he was registering, as opposed to creating a profile. But the error became apparent when the first bite of interest came from an older woman.
“My dad was like, ‘Why is someone who is 50 years old giving information for my daughter?’ ” Gomathi giggles.
A tech-savvy cousin soon came to the rescue — and now Gomathi was on the hot seat. “Within two weeks, he [her father] came back with a list of 15 guys. I was really overwhelmed!”
She demurred, but her dad insisted, and then begged her to at least call his favorite: Prashanth.
Prashanth Vishnumangalam Narayanan was 27, a Fremont resident and established consultant on supply chain management for PricewaterhouseCoopers in San Jose, when he started getting curious calls from his mother in Chennai.Gomathi and Prashanth
She told him women were expressing interest in getting to know him better, which made no sense, until she admitted she’d posted a profile of him online. Soon after, she sent him a list of 25 matches. And she hardly let the matter rest there.
“I had my mom’s sister call me and say, ‘This is the right time to talk.’ Then I had my grandma call me and say, ‘This is the right time to talk.’ Then my dad, then everybody, decided to take turns calling me, and say, ‘This is the right time to talk,’ ” says Prashanth. It was obvious he had to talk to somebody, soon. He had to name at least one candidate.
Prashanth chose Gomathi.
Even though their parents wrote the profiles, picked the candidates and met each other before giving the go-ahead to Gomathi and Prashanth, they call the process that led to their wedding semi-arranged. That’s because they did get to pick who to talk to, and they got to talk for nine months before settling on each other.
Prashanth explains, “I got introduced to the person I was getting married to through family relations and connections, and they established the connection through a digital website. But then we talked, and we really understood each other, and we got married. I had my freedom, and she had her freedom.”
That said, even with the freedom to choose over time, they still felt pressure to come to a decision eventually.
Had Gomathi and Prashanth not liked each other, they would have worked through match No. 2, No. 3 — and so on — until they agreed to somebody their parents found suitable.
Gomathi says the two sets of parents got along really well. “Based on their hard work, they were able to come up in life,” she says. “That was something, that both of them have mutual respect for each other. That was something that I also wanted in the person that I was going to marry.”
Then came the first phone call. “I remember Gomathi being the one who asked a lot more questions than me asking her,” says Prashanth, laughing. “She was like, ‘Who’s your favorite actress? Who’s your favorite actor? What movies do you like?’ I found her to be very full of energy.”
The couple began phoning, texting and talking on FaceTime regularly.
After a few months, Prashanth and Gomathi decided to meet in Canada. The gravity of it all hit Prashanth as he went through the airport in Edmonton. When the visa officer asked him the purpose of his visit, he said he was going to see “a friend.” A friend he had never met, perhaps his future wife. Prashanth had seen Gomathi only virtually, and he scanned the airport for her. “She seemed small. And I was like, “I’ve seen her before.’ Then I realized: That’s Gomathi!”Gomathi and Prashanth at home in Fremont, California (Polly Stryker/KQED )
Gomathi remembers, “It felt really odd, because you have spoken to this person over the phone, but you haven’t met the other person.”
They spent a long weekend getting to know each other: going out to eat, taking walks, watching the movie “Brave.” When Gomathi cried during the film, Prashanth felt touched by her empathy with the characters. But by the time he left Canada, Gomathi had not made a decision.
“I felt kind of sad,” Prashanth says. “I thought, initially, I wasn’t emotionally invested, but I learned that I’d been heavily emotionally invested.”
“You need to understand the person really well before getting married,” Gomathi says, “because it’s a one-time thing, and you just don’t want to screw it up. You just don’t want to make a decision until you know, ‘Yes, this is it!’ ”
Prashanth’s mother urged him to talk to other matches from Bharat Matrimony. He told her he wasn’t interested.
The couple talked for several more months. Gomathi says her love for Prashanth “deepened more when I realized who Prashanth was and what sort of a guy he was. When I was able to trust him, I really fell for him. I know in my heart that he has high moral standards. That was the point that I came to when I decided, ‘Yes, I should get engaged to Prashanth.’ ”
It didn’t hurt that Prashanth plays a mean game of badminton, Gomathi’s favorite sport. The wedding was on. Their families organized a lavish three-day event that took place in Chennai on June 28, 2013.
Fremont, Capital of Indian California
Today, Gomathi and Prashanth live in Fremont, home to a large and growing population of immigrants from India, filled with bustling Indian restaurants and stores. Karthick Ramakrishnan (no relation to Gomathi), professor of Public Policy at UC Riverside, says that Indian immigration more than doubled in Silicon Valley between 2000-2014.Indian population size and growth in Alameda and Santa Clara counties from 2000-2014, according to the U.S. Census, as distinct from the “Other Asian” category. (Courtesy of Professor Karthick Ramakrishnan)
That shift is reflected in the number of Californians on Indian matrimonial websites. Shaadi’s chief marketing officer, Aditya Save, says approximately 200,000 accounts are registered to people living in the state. He adds that the platform is used mostly by South Asians — and not just first-generation immigrants.
“A lot of our platform is used by people of Indian origin, born in the U.S., the UK and Australia. A larger percentage of that 200,000 (in California) would be people who are American citizens, born in America, but of Indian descent,” he says. For those spouse seekers, Save says it’s more likely they’ll set up their own profiles, as opposed to letting their parents do it.
Today, Gomathi Ramakrishnan co-manages a neuroscience lab at UC San Francisco. Prashanth still works at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Their lives as newlyweds are filled with pleasures they enjoy together: playing badminton, watching TV shows like “Game of Thrones” and eating ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery. Gomathi isn’t shy when she explains how she and Prashanth found compatibility first, allowing love to follow after.
“Love doesn’t happen one sudden day,” she says. “It takes a really long time. I feel like we are still falling in love.”
This podcast features music by Karthick Iyer (“Brovabarama” and “Manavyalakim”).
Sep 25 2015
Rank #4: Love in the Digital Age: Liam & Porn
This is not a story about whether porn is good or bad. This is not a story about whether porn addiction should be a clinical diagnosis. This is a story about Liam (and we’re not using his real name because of the sensitive nature of the topic).
For Liam, porn became a compulsive, damaging habit around the time that high-speed Internet came around — which is to say, his entire adult life, starting when he was 20. He’s 38 now, and it’s been a little over a year since he decided to quit. We asked him to go back in time for us and describe what his habit was like.
Don’t miss an episode of ‘Love in the Digital Age’
“It’s like a bubble,” he recalls. “It’s like an exciting, adrenaline-filled state of mind where you’re not thinking about, ‘OK, I have these bills due,’ or ‘I have to go meet my boss tomorrow and I’m nervous,’ or ‘She wants to talk about the relationship and I don’t want to!’ ”
At times, Liam would stay in the bubble for five, 10 hours at a time.
The variety of porn today is mind-boggling and unprecedented. Liam spent his hours scanning hundreds of images linking to videos, scrolling until he found just the right one for that moment. “OK, there’s the girl I want to look at.” Then he’d scroll some more.
Or perhaps he’d meet or pass a woman during the day that sparked his curiosity. “OK, I want to see what it would look like if that person was having sex.” He’d go home and search for a video featuring somebody who looked like that woman.
Liam’s level of engagement with porn may have been more compulsive than average but it’s hard to know, because many men are uncomfortable going public with their porn use.
“There’s an extra-special element of shame to this problem,” says Liam, adding that people will “deny it up and down the street, like I used to.”
Pornography inspires powerful emotional responses, from those who see it as immoral, to those who feel it is demonized by parents and the media, to those who would simply love a scientific explanation for what they’re experiencing. Sex, after all, is universal in a way few things are, other than food and sleep.
In this TED Talk, one of Liam’s favorite public discussions about porn, retired science teacher Gary Wilson notes many researchers say they can’t find a control group of men who have not been exposed to some pornography at some point in their lives.
Liam, who works in construction and lives in Los Angeles, is no awkward loner using porn as a stand-in for human contact. He’s the son of a therapist, raised in a “liberal” home in Santa Cruz. He’s articulate and charming, and a veteran of several relationships, one of which almost led to marriage. But from early on, those girlfriends were competing with porn for primacy in Liam’s mind.
“Excitement and shame mixed together makes [porn] this erotic thing, whereas just being with someone’s kinda boring,” Liam says.
That’s not to say Liam wasn’t bothered by what he called his emotional numbness. “It’s almost like when I’m looking at pornography, I’m burning off the little receptors that are my feelings and enable me to care for somebody. You know, they get fried.”‘Of course, I had these fantasies of … oh, I want to do X, Y and Z once I saw that in a pornographic movie. But once I would find someone who was willing to do whatever I wanted, I’d be bored, like, right away.’
Over the years, friends suggested to Liam he consider getting help, but he brushed them off. Ironically, he was open — even proud — of his involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s been in AA for 16 years now, thriving on the structured approach to recovery and the supportive community.
Then, about a year and a half ago, Liam paid for sex. “The first time I did, I thought ‘This is a great solution.’ You know what I mean? ‘Cause I can pay someone to be nice to me, and have sex with me, and it worked great.” But subsequent dates were less enjoyable. “I can’t describe other than, like, wow: This is the loneliest I’ve ever felt.” By the fourth time, he says, “I couldn’t even have sex.”
After that, Liam went to a men’s-only AA meeting and dropped an anonymous note into a basket asking if anybody else had trouble with porn and prostitution. Despite a lot of laughter and hooting when the question was read aloud, one man rose and invited whomever had written the note to reach out after the meeting. That man became Liam’s sponsor in Sex Addicts Anonymous.Hear from one of the foremost thinkers on the subject of porn addiction: Alexandra Katehakis, founder and clinical director of the Center for Healthy Sex in Los Angeles:
[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/221349566″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
Every night now, Liam reports by phone. Has he exercised that day? Has he done something fun like go to a movie? Or something shameful? Is he resentful about anything? What is he grateful for? One thing is for sure: Liam is grateful for his SAA sponsor.
“I have one person who’s willing to spend a lot of time talking to me on the phone,” he says. “I’ve been doing that for over a year and he never, ever makes it seem like it’s a burden.”
In recent years, there have been a number of movies made about online porn addiction. For Liam, the best Hollywood treatment of the subject that doesn’t glamorize it (like “Californication“) is “Thanks for Sharing,” starring Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow. “I’ve never seen anything that more accurately described how it is to be a sex addict,” Liam says.
The movie drops into the life of the main character, Adam, when he is in recovery and considers whether he’s ready to be in a relationship.
“For me,” says Liam, “the only problem is when he goes dark. He swings out of it really fast in the movie. Guys that I see do that in real life, it takes them a long time to recover from those relapses. And they lose their job. And she’s gone forever. All these really terrible consequences. Whereas [in the movie], he just, like, brushes his shoulder off. ‘I’m back!’”
Liam says he doesn’t have stories as terrible as the ones he’s heard in SAA meetings. He also doesn’t have a core reason or experience he can point to that might explain why pornography became a compulsive habit for him. He’s happy to be dating now without the background presence and pressure that pornography put on his dating life.
“It’s a lot more pleasant, and friendly,” he says.
This podcast features music by Van-G (“Enter Sandman” remix) and Dave Porter (“Negra Arroyo Lane” from “Breaking Bad”).
Sep 12 2015
Rank #5: Love in the Digital Age: Donna & Cindy
Few things are more painful than watching people we love harm themselves. Most parents go through some iteration of this experience when their children become teenagers, but some families suffer more than others. One mom in Berkeley, Donna, found herself caught in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with her daughter, Cindy, starting in middle school. (To protect the family, we’ve changed the names.)
When did the trouble start? The stories differ, depending on how you define trouble.
Don’t miss an episode of ‘Love in the Digital Age’
Donna recalls the moment she spotted the first sext on her daughter’s phone, while driving with her two girls in the car. Cindy was 13 at the time, and her younger sister was in the back seat, so Donna didn’t say anything out loud, at first.
“I looked over. My daughter was in the front seat. She was holding her phone. You know, she kind of scrolled through. But well, my first thought was: Why is there a male torso on my child’s phone? And then I thought to myself: Oh gosh, it’s, you know, this is happening.”‘My first thought was: Why is there a male torso on my child’s phone? And then I thought to myself: Oh gosh, it’s, you know, this is happening.’
That’s just the sexting. “I would see sometimes text conversations,” Donna says, “between her and someone I didn’t know, and I assume, actually, that she didn’t know. If I could ever really see the whole gist of a conversation, I would gather that the person on the other side was a boy or man, who eventually would lead the discussion to something sexual, and then it seemed like she would kind of stop.”
What Donna Ultimately Realized Was Happening
“I really wanted attention,” Cindy says. At that time, she adds, “I didn’t really care how people thought of me. Like, I’m going to text this guy a million times until he stops replying, and then I’ll find the next one.”
Cindy was an anxious kid, and a year into middle school, she found herself socially excluded by a group she calls the Abercrombie Girls, in reference to their focus on fashion. Cindy describes it as a “Mean Girls” situation. “I was always at the edge.”
So Cindy sought out boys, and men, consciously aware they were interested in sex, regardless of what she told her mom.
“It’s so easy, you know?” Cindy says. “Snap the picture and send it. It takes nothing.”
Cindy is hardly an anomaly. Sexting is a common practice among teenagers, and grownups everywhere are struggling to catch up. Some law enforcement agencies treat sexting an under-age girl as a criminal offense, but if the sexter is a teenage boy, that can come off as heavy-handed.
Donna warned her daughters about the fact that photos are forever on the Internet, but Cindy was favoring the bad information she got from girlfriends, who told her guys were unlikely to forward her photos if she had sexual photos of them: a kind of mutually assured destruction pact.
That turned out to be a naive assumption. But even after Cindy knew better, even after she had been publicly embarrassed, she kept sexting. Even after one of the older guys she was chatting with threatened to come find her, she kept looking for new, strange friends.
Donna never really stalked her daughter. She openly checked Cindy’s phone once a week in middle school. But Cindy was much more careful about what she shared with her mom, regularly deleting incriminating evidence that could get her grounded or, at the very least, forced to endure a lecture.
Cindy wasn’t a big fan of social media, but Donna checked the feeds of her daughter’s Facebook friends nonetheless, looking for clues about her daughter’s life that Cindy wasn’t choosing to share with her. Donna also installed K9 Web Protection, filtering software that blocks sites and then emits a loud dog bark.
The cutting was the first clue that Cindy’s anxiety and depression were overwhelming her. Cindy fell in with a couple of girls at school who were also suffering from depression. They were also cutting themselves, and cutting themselves competitively with each other.
Cindy described her first scars as evidence of an encounter with a cat. That excuse worked only once, and her tolerance grew over time, so she needed to cut more often “to get the same relief.”
“They look like what they are: razor cuts,” says Donna. “So they’re very thin, and precise — but they can get a little deep. I know, it’s horrible.”
Soon after the cutting began, Donna lined up a therapist, but Cindy didn’t take to the woman. She was formal, the kind of therapist who likes to review her notes at the end of a session — with a 13-year-old.
“It wasn’t more damaging,” Cindy says now, “but it just wasn’t helpful — and that was a critical time.”
All this was before high school.
Listen to more of Cindy’s reflections on middle school:
Berkeley High School
“Unfortunately, high school didn’t go as well as we had hoped for her,” Donna says. “She started out strong her freshman year, but by her sophomore year, she had gotten again with a group that was kind of fringe — not exactly motivated in school, and they were smoking a lot of pot.”
“It’s so easy to find,” Cindy says. “Everyone had this unlimited supply. I almost always got it for free in the beginning.”
By sophomore year, Cindy was smoking, by her own estimate, eight or nine “blunts” a day — and then drinking on top of that. There was also a one-month flirtation with cocaine, but that wasn’t her main drug.
Despite all this, Cindy was still getting A’s and B’s in school. She was taking care of business. “I was the only kid who went to class of the friends that I was with, ’cause I knew that If I started getting bad grades, my parents would notice.”
“There are kids who are very combative with their parents,” Donna says. “They’re ‘I hate you, Mom,’ and they’re fighting. We were never like that. She would tug at my heartstrings, versus push me away. We tried to rein her in. ‘You can’t go to this party, and you can’t hang out with so-and-so.'”
But Donna found it hard to lay down the law for any length of time. “You become a jailer, which is not fun,” she says.
Why didn’t Donna simply take away Cindy’s phone or Internet access? Cindy answers it best. “She really thought that if she punished me, I’d hurt myself.” Also, the phone was a valuable surveillance device for Donna, a way to keep tabs — however limited — on her daughter.
For example, Donna recalls following Cindy via GPS down Telegraph Avenue one Halloween night after dropping her off at a party.
“She was probably trying to score something,” Donna recalls. “I kept texting, ‘Where are you?’ and she kept telling me, ‘Oh, at this other party,’ and I could see the little dot moving around. I said, ‘You know, I’m just coming to get you.’ ”
“Things started to go downhill,” Donna continues. “It just went downhill really fast. I realized, again from looking at her phone, that she was financing her pot use by selling it.”
At this point, Donna had tried talk therapy, anti-depressants, dialectical behavior therapy — “a common form of therapy used for kids who cut” — which involved a year of classes for Cindy and Donna in Oakland at Clearwater Clinic.
Ultimately, nothing they could do in Berkeley seemed to be working. “I feel like, at a certain point, I didn’t know who she was,” Donna says. “Someone who’s using drugs and abusing alcohol, there’s a lot they have to hide and a lot of manipulation.”
Cindy agreed to go to North Carolina for 2½ months to attend what’s called a wilderness therapy program. There, Cindy was separated from everything: her friends, her drugs, her makeup and, of course, her iPhone. Such a dramatic intervention doesn’t always work. Some kids are literally dragged to wilderness school, and the therapy doesn’t take. But Cindy says she loved her experience at Trails in North Carolina, and would even do it again.
As part of her therapy, Cindy had to write letters home cataloging everything she’d done in the previous years. The letters were shocking to Donna. “I probably shouldn’t have trusted her as much as I did.”
Donna was genuinely surprised at the level of Cindy’s drinking, despite a couple instances in which she vomited in public, and one time when she blacked out in a public park. A friend carried her to his home and called Donna from there.
Cindy’s stint at Trails was followed by a therapeutic boarding school, Spring Ridge Academy, in Arizona, before she finished high school in the East Bay. She’s now a freshman at an East Coast university.
Mother and daughter are on good terms these days. “I will never not regret the pain that I caused my mother,” Cindy says. “I always knew that she loved me. She cared enough to repeatedly go through these things with me and not give up.”A chocolate cake with a chocolate ganache glaze and vanilla whipped cream center. Cindy now channels her energy into pursuits like baking that get a positive reaction from her mom and other family members. (Courtesy of Donna)
This podcast features music by Yoga Meditation Music (“Healing Singing Bowl”) and Dave Porter (“The Morning After” from “Breaking Bad”).
Sep 11 2015