Waking Up from the Nightmare

Friday, November 30, 2007

Question

My ex-husband was a verbally abusive control freak who made me miserable. The last straw was when he violently threw our son out of the house because he found out that he was gay. That was six months ago, and I am finalizing a divorce soon. Living on my own and getting myself back is difficult after a decade and a half with someone who dehumanized me. But it's also an amazing journey. I thank God for my freedom and believe that He will get me through any crisis. After my marriage, I know I can survive anything.

I have cried every night since my poor son left our home with nothing but a backpack and the money I managed to shove into his jacket pocket. I maintained some contact with him for a little while, paying for a hotel room, but my husband found out and became violent with me. I will never understand how a father could turn his back on his own flesh-and-blood. We are all God's children, the way He made us. I want my son back. But it's been so long since we saw each other. He might believe I, too, abandoned him. Life on the street must be very dangerous. I fear for his safety and even his life. Is there any hope for us to be reconciled? I doubt he will ever be able to forgive me for letting this happen, for not protecting him. I failed him by not being strong enough to stand up to the bully who ran our lives. I have a spare room in my apartment that I've set up with as many of his things as I could save. Someday maybe I will be able to tuck him into bed at night, and somehow convince him that I love him and accept him. What can I do?

Answer

There are two separate problems here: relocating your son and re-establishing a relationship with him. Let's deal with the practical problem first.

If you haven't done so already, file a missing persons report with police. Take a good photo of him with you. If you have something that might contain your son's DNA, like a toothbrush or a hairbrush, keep it in a zipped baggie. Put a personal ad in the newspaper. If your town has gay newspapers, these would be especially good places to advertise. You can often find copies of these for free in gay bars. Include a photo of your son with the ad, if possible. You can easily track down the location of gay bars in your area by doing a search on the Internet. Also look for any social service agencies that work locally with gay people and queer youth. Contact them and tell your story. A therapist or social worker could not tell you directly that he or she was working with your son, but they could pass on your contact information and attempt a reunion. Call homeless shelters. Most cities have shelters that are only for young people. Make a bunch of posters and put them up in Laundromats, on telephone poles, in community centers, wherever you have the time or energy to post them.

Think about your son's social life. Did he have friends in school who might still be in contact with him? Did he have an e-mail address that might still be working? Look for his blog on Facebook, MySpace, Tribe.net, Friendster (although that's a bit passé now), Blogspot, etc. Also, place ads on the local Craigslist, asking for information about his whereabouts. Was he close to a grandparent, a cousin, or any other family member? See if they know where he is or can pass on a message. Create your own Web page and blog, and get your story out that way.

Did your son ever talk about wanting to visit a particular city or go to college somewhere? If you live in a rural area or a small town or city, he might have migrated to a more urban center with a larger gay community. Duplicating your efforts in such places will be hard and expensive, but might pay off.

As a last resort, you might want to call hospitals or morgues to see if they have any unidentified bodies. This is a grim process, so I wouldn't go there unless you are feeling that every other avenue has been explored.

There is an American organization called Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays that may be able to offer you some support or local referrals. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children might also help. Social work agencies like the Red Cross or the Salvation Army could also be helpful. You need not tell them your son is gay; simply explain your husband threw him out, and you want to find him and help him. A private investigator is also a last-resort possibility, but they are very expensive, and can be homophobic. I don't know that they will understand the structure of the gay community any better than you will after you do some research and go out and meet some people.

On a personal level, I think you ought to find a counselor who can help you to heal from your abusive marriage and the trauma of losing your son. You have to take good care of yourself. What happened is not your fault. Your husband is the one who is guilty here. I think that your son will be able to understand and empathize with the fact that you were also being battered and abused. He'll be relieved and happy that you are divorced and safe. If he has survived this experience, however, he won't be the same kid that he was when you last saw him. He will have taken on responsibilities that many adults couldn't handle and survived some extremely dangerous situations. He will have been exposed to sex, drugs, alcohol, and prostitution. He won't necessarily have developed a problem with any of these things, but it's common for runaway and throwaway kids to cope with their pain via substance abuse. And sex work is one way to get money for food, drugs, and shelter. He'll probably need tests for STDs, including HIV and hepatitis. He may not want to come home to live with you or go back to school. Getting a third party to help the two of you talk this out could be a lifesaver.

Unfortunately, there are some unethical people in this world who might attempt to take advantage of your vulnerability. Don't publish your home address. Get a cell phone to take messages from the posters and ads. Use an e-mail address and a rented post office box for contact information. Don't agree to meet a stranger in an isolated location. Make sure any first meeting is in a public place like a coffeehouse, and take a friend with you. Don't give people large sums of money in exchange for information. If someone attempts to scare you about your son's safety, don't bite. Tell them they need to call the police or 911. Only if someone has proof that they have met your son—like a cell phone photo—should you rely on their claims. Even then, don't let yourself be blackmailed. A counselor can help you to sort out what your boundaries should be and make sure you devote adequate time to your own necessities and health.

I hope you won't think it's corny or offensive if I tell you that I'll remember you in my prayers. Feel free to write any time.