In a perfect world, two people who have a child together would stay together forever living happily ever after with their children. In a next to perfect world, couples who divorced would both me mentally healthy people, who were both great parents, and they could work out a perfect schedule where the children would have access to both parents without having to uproot their lives every few days. Sadly, there are many families out there for whom these utopia type worlds don’t exist. There are many families where one, or both, parents are not mentally well – and the children are caught in a war that is fueled by a corrupt and broken justice system.
Every so often, I get an email from a parent in despair – a parent who is caught in a vicious cycle of legal abuse. Our current Family Court System is designed in such a way that abusers are able to run rampant over their victims like spoiled children throwing colossal temper tantrums. The children caught in the middle of these legal wars suffer for years, many never establishing an emotionally healthy situation. For the parent who is being stomped all over by the tantrum throwing co-parents (who most likely has a personality disorder of some sort), the trauma can become overwhelming. In the best cases, these parents become numb to the continued abuse. In the worst cases, parents are driven to the point of even taking their own life out of complete despair.
Given that so many parents seem to be stuck in this endless cycle of abuse, I thought I would take some time this week to share some of the things I tell people when they reach out to me asking for advice. I am not a lawyer, or a psychologist – I am just a mother who knows what it is like to live through legal abuse at the hands of a psychopath.
Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD): When I was in the middle of my Custody War, I felt like I was losing my mind. I felt trapped in a hell that I can’t even begin to describe in writing. I remember laughing out loud when my therapist told me that I was suffering from PTSD. “What,” I asking laughing. “I don’t think you heard me correctly. I am in a legal battle. I am not a veteran of war.” My therapist explained, however, that while I didn’t suffer from what is often reported in the media as causing PTSD, I was suffering from a form of repeated trauma. One of the first things I tell parents in this situation is that they need to identify that they are under extreme stress, and they need to get help for that. One of the worst things you can do in a situation like this is assume that you can handle this alone. Not seeking therapy for PTSD is like deciding not to put a caste on a broken leg and then wondering why you can never seem to walk right again.
Find A Good Lawyer: Now, in my book, what you look for in a Family Attorney needs to be different from any other types of attorneys. For example, your business attorney doesn’t need to understand emotions or have experience with children. While your Family Attorney is not your therapist, your attorney needs to understand how to deal with this highly emotional situation. He/she needs to be the type of person who can deal with drama without adding their own layer of drama. If your case has an element of Domestic Violence, reach out to local advocacy groups and get referrals for attorneys who have handled these types of cases before. Never ever waste your money with a lawyer who doesn’t specialize in Family Law. I made the huge mistake of dumping butt loads of money into an attorney who had no business handling Family Court cases. By the time I realized he was a fraud, I had spent thousands of dollars and had to hire new attorneys to pick up the pieces. Finally, lawyers will waste your money if you let them. You need to be in the driver seat in this relationship, and don’t be afraid to assert yourself – you are the client after all.
Find What Makes You Happy: Find activities that make you feel happy and calm. There may come a time when you have to turn your child over to the other parent, and you do not want to be sitting at home crying the entire day. If your situation is even half as scary as mine was, you are going to need to do some things to distract yourself so that you can be as calm as possible when the child comes home. During the first unsupervised visit that my son had with his eventual killer, some of my friends took me for a spa day. While I was still a bag of stress, I really appreciated that I was actively trying to relax with friends instead of sitting at home watching the clock. Use this time to do things that you can’t do with your children.
Don’t Stress About Things You Cannot Control: This was the hardest point for me to follow when I was going through the custody war. I would worry about everything from what my son would be eating to whether he would have regular diaper changes, etc. I would also spend hours worrying about what the judge would do. One of the toughest things about Family Court is that there are so many things do don’t have control over. Spending time stressing about those things, is time wasted. Instead, try to focus on things you can change – like your mental health, your own finances, etc.
Focus On The Most Important Thing – Your Child: I don’t have many regrets about what I did in my son’s life, because I know that I was the best Mom that I could be given the circumstances that I was dealt. That said, I do have one really big regret that continues to haunt me. For the majority of the 15 months my son lived, I was actively trying to save his life by making sure his father was never alone with him. The fact that I couldn’t stop unsupervised access haunts me, but more importantly, I am pained by the quality time I missed with my son while I was on the phone with lawyers or stressing about the case. While I am not sure there is anything I could have done differently, as I couldn’t have ever imagined it would end the way it did, I will never ever get back those moments. When I would come home from work, my son would routinely hide my phone in one of his trucks. He wanted me to pay attention to him, instead of spending my evening screaming on the phone trying to get someone to help us. Spend quality time with your children. Try to make the time when you have your children all about them. Don’t wake up when they are 18 and realize that you spent their entire childhood fixated on the custody war.
In closing, know that you are not alone. Millions of parents around the world are forced to parent in tremendously terrible situations. Sometimes the best thing you can do is take a deep breath, step back, and count your blessings. Even after suffering the worst case scenario with the death of my son, I often have to step back and realize that I have a lot to be thankful for. In the midst of the worst abuse of my life, I had the chance to be the mother to a beautiful little angel. I will forever be thankful for every single second I had with him. Hang in there Mamas and Papas. There is light at the end of the tunnel.