Last night the Evening Standard ran a piece on gangs in London that sent a chill down my spine. 250 gangs in London, abandoned children seeking gangs in lieu of family, stabbings, and death as a normal part of life. The alarming statistics published by UCL about the violence that young children in high risk areas are subjected to, was terrifying and tragic beyond words. But the part that really pulled at my heart-strings was the biopic about Ricky, the insider view into the life of a growing man who seemed hardened and dangerous on the outside and utterly broken within. (Click here to read some of his story.)
The article begins as one journalist manages to meet with three gang members. During their hour long discussion, Ricky, one of the more gregarious members of the group, agrees to have the reporter follow him for a day in exchange for help seeking a job. This noble bargain immediately ingratiates Ricky to the reader. We want to see him succeed; we admire his risk in speaking with the journalist in exchange for a better future. He is hope. He is going to make us believe that things can be different; he is going to end this tragic story with a Hollywood gusto.
As the day commences, the journalist is brought to a squalid room where Ricky, his younger sister and his girlfriend Ruby live. It is clear that no one has anything to do and that there is no money about. We are left to question how he manages to eat. This in itself is disturbing, but by no means as shocking as story of deep trauma that unfolds. The fact that he might be malnourished, pales in comparison to his past. We are presented with the horrors of how a man likely Ricky goes from delicate infant to toughened criminal with very little choice in how his future unfolds before him.
When Ricky is 3 years old, his father attempts to murder him by throwing him out a three story building. Saved by shrubs, Ricky survives, only to be subjected to constant violence. In a pivotal moment, the precocious 5 year old child calls the police to rescue his mother as he watches his father drag her down the street. The next day at school, Ricky’s teacher calls complaining that he has become disruptive in class. Soon after this incident Rocky is diagnosed with ADHD. He is uninterested in school, fights with classmates, and becomes generally unruly.
According to Bessel van der Kolk, a world leader in trauma, young children with PTSD are often diagnosed as ADHD as their level of stress makes them appear jumpy and disorganized. Their developing brains are on total overload and, without the support to process the memories and experience, they become disruptive, emotionally dysregulated and struggle to learn. (Further, the trauma negatively impacts the growth of brain structures necessary for healthy neurological development).
This misdiagnosis of ADHD exacerbates the problem by labelling the child, avoiding the real issue, and often medicating the child for something that he or she does not need. The child never receives proper treatment and is left believing he or she has an innate problem with concentration and absorption of information, rather than understanding that the mental fogginess and overwhelm is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances. It is my guess that this is what happened in Ricky’s case. No one caught his very obvious PTSD.
By the age of 10, when his mother is already remarried, the rows between Ricky and his stepfather are so severe he needs to leave home and fend for himself. Alone and scared, Ricky does what many disenfranchised youth do, he joins a gang for protection, to find connection, and to ward off desperation. By age 13 Ricky sees a friend murdered and before reaching his 20th birthday he is stabbed twice and sent to prison 5 times. On meeting the journalist, Ricky has been out of prison on probation for 2 months. Ricky explains he is turning his life around and that he is in love with Ruby, his girlfriend and ready to build a new future. At the end of the day the journalist takes Ricky to a construction site, where Ricky is instantly hired and asked to return in a few weeks.
We are all excited for a happy ending at this point, but reality is not always so sweet. We learn that Ricky never shows up for the job. When the journalist calls him it turns out Ruby left him and he is distraught and in bed. He promises to go to work the next morning – this never happens and we are left feeling utterly helpless, wondering what went wrong. Ricky turns off his phone and is swallowed by the world that has already chewed him to bits.
This is the part of the story that really got me. The part where he is about to open a door to a new life and never even enters the building. It is this moment I understand so well. Here we have a boy/man who beat incredible odds to survive, a man who has been left without support or family, who feels betrayed by the world. A man who survived the attempted murder of his own father, an agony most of us cannot even fathom. And just when he is about to move forward, a woman he loves leaves him. He is left alone again and slighted by someone he loved.
Having my fair share of abandonment issues I can only imagine the pain and the utter gut wrenching feeling of being left alone. Again, the feeling of being utterly unlovable and worthless. How could he possibly get out of bed when his heart was literally being ripped apart? Don’t we all know this feeling and can we imagine how magnified it was for someone with such a painful past? I can envision the cascade of memories pouring over Ricky, reminding him that he is not worth anything at all, that no one will stay and love him, that he just doesn’t deserve it, and that he is so bad… that as his father taught him, he deserves to die. It is at this moment that I wish I could have been there, because if only he had even some simple coping strategies he might have been able to get out of bed and go to work and begin a new life.
Unfortunately, when most of us are faced with our biggest demons we buckle on their pressure and become totally incapacitated. It is here that the Minded techniques are so important. If Ricky had been practicing mindfulness, when Ruby left (for whatever reason) he might have been able to do some deep breathing and calm down. Rather than losing his mind and being totally overwhelmed he might have been able to find space. When that space emerged, maybe rather than seeing this break-up with Ruby as another symbol of his worthlessness, he might have just thought, “Hmmmm, this is different than other times people have left me. Ruby and I are not compatible. Hopefully, soon, we will both find other people that will make us happier.”
This would have taken years of mindfulness and cognitive training to develop this flexibility of mind, especially in light of all his trauma. Still, I am left this I wish I could have held his hand, taught him about breath awareness, taught him about mindfulness, given him the tools to understand that he is not cursed, that this is not a pattern based on his lack of value, that he can transform and that life can get better.
I will probably never meet Ricky, but his story has inspired me to think about how we can help young people like him. It also reminded me that when I see a hardened face on the tube or on the street rather than being judgmental to send loving kindness. We really have no idea what our children have been through and we need to remember that no matter how rough and tough they seem, that really they need love and lots of it.
Image courtesy of photo stock / freedigitalphotos.net