Here’s another excerpt from A Lethal Inheritance, about my youngest son’s struggles with anxiety and depression. It’s one of the most popular articles on the teen-run site, “Anxiety in Teens.” (Check out the website if your teen has “issues.”)
“Ummm . . . Mom, I’m joining the Marines.”
No. I didn’t just hear that, I thought, while my mind flooded with images of legless, lifeless boys being carried out of Iraq in body bags. The date of this conversation matters; it was May 2007; “the surge” just barely under way, with fighting at its bloodiest. I simply couldn’t, wouldn’t stand for it.
“Mom?” Sammy pressed, now making uncomfortable eye contact.
“How could you possibly do this to me?” I asked.
I’m not proud of this response; it was a low and manipulative mother ploy, but I’d panicked. “It would kill me if anything happened to you,” I said, going still lower. Then it occurred to me that my protests might be too late.
“What have you done about it?” I asked him.
“I just talked to this guy at the mall.”
“Oh, my God. You didn’t sign anything, did you?”
“No, not yet.”
By now I saw that Sammy understood what I was up to; that I wasn’t going to let up on the guilt trip, and he got pissed off.
“Mom, this really isn’t fair,” he said, giving me a disgusted, disappointed look.
“I don’t care,” I said, meaning it. “You just can’t do this to me.”
If I kept up this line of attack for too long, I risked pushing him away from me and into the arms of the Marines.
“Just tell me why you would do this?” I pleaded
And then he leveled. “I’m just sick of feeling so rotten about myself.”
“Oh, so you think fighting in an unjustified war will make you feel better about yourself?”
“I don’t know,” he said, struggling. “I just can’t keep going on like I am.”
“I understand,” I answered, trying to bring the conversation to a more positive place. “But let’s try and figure out something besides war to help you get out of it.”
“No, please . . . just let me do this,” he said, backing away, clearly not wanting to talk any longer. “I gotta go.”
“No, not yet . . . I know we can think of something.”
“Like what? I’m sick of therapy.”
“How about the Peace Corps?”
He did a double take, clearly considering the notion, then shook his head. “They wouldn’t take me. I’m a college drop-out.”
“Then something like it, for kids who haven’t graduated from college.”
He looked at me skeptically.
“Just give the whole thing a couple of weeks, and we’ll see if we can find something better.”
He sighed and agreed that he would not talk to the recruiter again; at least not until after we looked into other options. Then we hugged good-bye, and I hurried back to my condo, shaking.
After that, I scrambled, using my frantic search for something to steer Sammy away from the Marines to avoid feeling any more fear about it than I had to.
It took a few weeks (with the recruiter calling Sammy daily), but I did find something that appealed to Sammy: a group out of the United Kingdom that arranges “gap-year” volunteer projects for eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds. Sammy signed up to help build a school and to teach war orphans in an NGO-sponsored humanitarian project in Uganda. He spent four months there in the summer and fall of 2007, and it proved life-changing in all the best ways. As Sammy explained it, helping other people who were materially so much worse off than he was got him completely “out of his head.” His tangible contributions—raising the new school building and working with the kids—had been the best possible medicine for him. Being part of a team of twelve men and women his own age also gave him something he’d been craving: that camaraderie that’s so hard for young people to find when they’re out of school and newly making their way in the world.