This story, published May 4, 2008, looks at legacy health problems from Manhattan Project work at Los Alamos National Laboratory
By Sue Vorenberg | The New Mexican
On its unclassified surface, the quiet mountain town of Los Alamos seemed an idyllic place to raise children in the 1940s and 1950s.
Young boys would run down the canyons, chasing paper sailboats as they splashed through trickling streams. They'd fish, or try to catch a glimpse of wild deer as they built tents to camp in the wilderness behind their homes in the sealed community.
Little girls would splash in puddles on the sidewalk in the late spring rains, and hug their daddies when they came home from their jobs — covered in the toxic and sometimes radioactive materials they secretly worked with during the day.
"We thought we were in a good place because it was a closed city and our parents didn't have to worry about us getting kidnapped," said Lynne Loss, 65, who lived in Los Alamos from 1949 to 1957. "We had no idea what was going on."
But while nobody warned them to stay out of the radioactive water or to not eat the contaminated fish, there were strange signs that, in retrospect, indicated something was amiss, she said.
Lowell Ryman, who lived in Los Alamos from 1950 to 1953, told his daughter, Rene Ryman, about oddly colored streams where he used to play with paper sailboats.
"When he would stand in the water, he said it looked really chemical," Rene Ryman said. "It looked like water from a washing machine. But he was a kid. He didn't care. He just wanted to play."
Lowell Ryman died of multiple myeloma, a cancer associated with plutonium, at age 63, in April 2005.
Rene Ryman's lawyer, Michael Howell, filed a lawsuit on her behalf in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque earlier this month against the University of California and other managers of the lab in the '40s and '50s, charging negligence and wrongful death. It could turn into a class action suit, Howell said.
"If enough people come forward, there's a chance we could do a medical-monitoring class action," Howell said.
That sort of suit, if successful, would pay for the testing of all people who grew up in the area at that time, he added.
Looking through a list of her classmates at Los Alamos High School, voice cracking, Loss said she thinks there are a lot more out there who suffered from the contamination.
As if reading from some grim grocery list, she ticks off the large numbers of old friends that have already died of cancer. "Breast cancer, brain cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, lymphoma, brain cancer ..." she said, adding she keeps an obituary scrapbook in hopes the government might one day pay attention to her group's plight.
"Nobody has done anything for us," Loss said. "I've written letters asking them to please, please do something for the children of the Manhattan Project."
Loss, who now lives in Arizona, added she might join the Ryman lawsuit, but hasn't decided yet.
Loss' father died of beryllium disease in 1994 from his work with contaminated materials at the lab, and her mother died of a brain aneurysm in 1990, but also had strange tumors on her neck since her days at Los Alamos, Loss said.
And Loss has her own list of suspicious memories from growing up in the area. Like her brother — who played with Lowell Ryman as a boy — coming back from camping expeditions with strange wildlife tales, she said. "They'd tell my mother when they came back that the deer had big tumors on them," Loss said. "We also used to catch trout up in those streams and bring them back so my mother could cook them."
Her father used to work with liquid waste at the lab, and she remembers three times when he came back "hot." "He'd come home with that stuff on his clothes, and we'd run up and hug him, and we'd get that stuff on us, too," Loss said. "They'd sometimes call him in the evening and tell him he was hot. Then they'd take him to the hospital and scrub him down and throw away his clothes after he'd been around us."
Lowell Ryman, who worked as a cameraman for WGN in Chicago for 40 years, didn't have many signs of damage from the contamination until he suddenly collapsed about six months before he died. The cancer had damaged his bone marrow and eaten his bones from the inside out, his daughter said.
"It was a horrible ordeal," Rene Ryman said. "Our whole lives came down to managing his cancer, and then he said he didn't want to do it anymore."
Before he collapsed, he had some back pain, but doctors were mystified about the cause of his problem until they talked to her about his past, Rene Ryman said.
"I told the doctor he grew up in Los Alamos, and he looked at me, put down his pen and said, 'Your dad has radiation exposure,' " Rene Ryman said. "Suddenly it all clicked in my head."
Before he died, her father asked her to investigate whether other children from the area at that time had suffered similar problems, she said.
She moved to New Mexico for a few months to do research in the basement archives of Zimmerman Library at The University of New Mexico, where she said she found evidence of negligence in protecting the public from the contamination. "In one of those documents, they had talked about fencing off the canyons, but they never actually did it," Rene Ryman said.
And with that and other evidence, she decided to file a lawsuit in hopes of using some of the money to help more people like her father, she said.
"He said, 'I need you to dig into this matter because I know other people are suffering,' " Rene Ryman said. "He never really showed anger so much as concern."
The University of California, which is part of the consortium that manages the lab for the U.S. Department of Energy, is aware of the lawsuit but doesn't comment on pending litigation, spokesman Chris Harrington said when asked for comment about the suit.
But Loss certainly fits the description of one of the people the elder Ryman would have liked to help.
Her hip was completely eaten away from the inside by cancer, and she had to have a total hip replacement, Loss said.
After that, doctors removed 8 inches of her intestine, which also contained cancer.
She still has a hard time walking and feels sick to her stomach most days, she said. "My body hurts," Loss said. "I don't feel well. I have to use a breathing thing at night. It's awful."
Her son, Mark, has massive, violent headaches, which she thinks is related to her exposure, she said.
And while Loss and her brother were given $75,000 to split as part of a settlement for her father's death because he was a lab employee, there has been no settlement for people who just lived in the area.
She's spent so much on her cancer that she has nothing left, Loss added. "We have just spent so much on medical bills, and I can't even get insurance anymore," Loss said.
When she thinks about it all — what happened to her family, what happened to her friends, what happened to her — it sometimes becomes too much, and it makes her angry, she said.
"I think about my poor dad," Loss said. "He did his job. He did what they asked him to do. They all tried to do something to help the war effort. We didn't know this would happen."
This story, published Sept. 4, 2007, investigates how medical marijuana is used by one Albuquerque patient.
Patient finds temporary relief with medical marijuana
By Sue Vorenberg
There's no lie in her face, no subtlety in her responses - only a resigned acceptance and willingness to fight against her circumstances.
At age 62, she has AIDS.
She weighs 78 pounds.
The side effects of her medications aren't as sickening as they used to be, but she's still constantly nauseous and in pain.
What gets her through it all, she says, is marijuana.
The woman identified here as "Lisa" is one of about 30 patients statewide who have a doctor's approval and state certification under a new law to eat or inhale the drug.
She agreed to be interviewed for this story, but after hearing about a police raid last week on the home of Leonard French, a certified medical marijuana user in Malaga, she asked that her real name not be used.
Used medically, marijuana relieves pain and settles her stomach, Lisa said.
For her, at this point, it's the only option - no other drug works as well, she said.
"It's a quality-of-life issue," Lisa said. "If I couldn't use it, I'd let go. I would go off all the meds and probably in a month I'd be dead."
Once a nurse, Lisa has a calm understanding of what's happening to her. Asked how she contracted AIDS and her reaction was blunt.
"From sex," she said, without a pause.
Asked if she smoked pot recreationally in the past and she was equally honest.
"Yes," she said. "But it's amazing how different it becomes when it's a necessary medication. Half the fun is gone. You're using it because you have to."
She understands that New Mexico's new law allowing medical marijuana use provides limited legal cover if federal authorities choose to arrest her.
"I won't go quietly if they come to get me," she said. "But I really don't want the police showing up at my home."
She also didn't want to use her name because she is afraid criminals will break into her house and steal the small amount of marijuana - less than an ounce - she generally keeps on hand.
Typically, she smokes about once an hour - just a few hits off a pipe or inhalations from a vaporizer - which is enough to ease her suffering, she said.
She tried synthetic THC - tetrahydrocannibinol, the most active ingredient in pot - "and I found myself that night calmly and carefully planning how to kill myself," Lisa said. "That's not me. Synthetic THC is not the same as marijuana."
The part that helps her symptoms isn't THC, but the cannaboids, which she said temper the pain and nausea.
Preparing to meet with her dentist on a Wednesday morning - a rare side effect of her AIDS medication has destroyed much of her jaw - her pain became apparent. Her speech slowed and her eyes grew progressively cloudy over the hour.
She held off politely, waiting for visitors to tell her they didn't mind her smoking, then lit up a small, clear pipe.
After taking three hits, the pain diminished, her eyes brightened and she talked calmly and clearly once more.
Now that medical marijuana is legal in New Mexico, Lisa said her biggest headache is figuring out how to get a supply.
She had a friend in Washington who supplied her with medical-grade marijuana, but he died a few months ago.
The thought of it made her pause and tears welled in her eyes.
"It's scarier to get it underground," she said. "You're not sure what you're getting or who you're dealing with."
In the meantime, she's trying to grow pot herself, she said.
"If I can at least, please God, grow a couple of my own plants, then I can make it through the winter," she said.
The cost of buying it on the street is prohibitive. She needs high-quality marijuana, not "Mexican swag," she said. It costs about $380 a month - a lot for a woman dying of AIDS to pay.
But growing her own has challenges, too.
The thought made her sister, who asked not to be named, burst out laughing.
"Gardening has never been your strong point," her sister said, pointing out two dead plants in the kitchen and a brown and crusty potted aloe vera in the living room.
A grin crossed Lisa's face.
"True," she chuckled.
Although she's gaunt, weak and can't eat solid food, things aren't as bad as during her first round on AIDS drugs, she said.
When she began taking them in the early 1990s, the drugs left her unable to reach deep sleep, caused stabbing pains when she moved her arms and left both of her thumbs unusable.
"The first batch - I will not call it a cocktail, that's for a pleasant evening - there was nothing pleasant about it," Lisa said. "I eventually said no more meds, even though my (blood count) numbers were good."
Her health declined when she went off the drugs, but she slept better. Then in 1999, she contracted meningitis and dropped from 108 pounds to about 80.
"I was put on hospice care, not expected to live," she said. "But I didn't give up. About a month later the nurse came and said, `We're kicking you out.'"
Side effects from the new drugs are far from ideal. Her muscles don't work very well, she can't eat solid food and she doesn't have the brain power she once had.
"My mathematical skills now are those of a second-grader - and I used to be able to calculate medical doses in my head," she said.
But the side effects are livable thanks to the marijuana, which takes away the ubiquitous nausea and pain, she said.
"People are so very concerned about the death penalty - that it's cruel and unusual punishment," she said. "But denying us medical marijuana and the relief it gives us - that's cruel and unusual punishment."
This story, published Sept. 7, 2008, is a follow-up I did about the same medical marijuana patient for the Santa Fe New Mexican.
By Sue Vorenberg
The Santa Fe New Mexican
Relaxing in her backyard, surrounded by friends, the 63-year-old woman who, by all accounts, shouldn't still be alive, lit up her pipe of marijuana, inhaled and then smiled at everyone.
Last fall, the woman, an AIDS sufferer called "Lisa" in this story because she fears problems with the federal government, had dropped to 75 pounds and was nearing kidney failure. And nobody, including her, thought she'd make it through the winter, she said.
"When I don't have marijuana, the nausea becomes completely unbearable, " Lisa said. "I can't take a chance on that. If I vomit, because of my condition, it leads to very serious health problems."
Her health last fall had gone downhill because she couldn't get a decent supply of the drug the state has legally permitted her to take to reduce pain, keep food down and help her sleep, she said.
Complications and medications Lisa has to take for AIDS have eaten away about half of her jaw, leave her in constant pain and make her nauseous. And the only thing that helps is marijuana -- specifically the canniboids in marijuana and not tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, she said.
But now, with the help of a local medical marijuana supplier who is providing her with the drug illegally, Lisa is back to 95 pounds, feels better than she has in the past year and is ready to fight for other New Mexicans who need help, she said. "The government has no right to stop medical marijuana, " Lisa said. "There are cancer patients that need this desperately, all sorts of people suffering, and they can't have it right now."
Lisa, who before her illness was a nurse, is one of 182 patients, including 42 in Santa Fe, with state certification to inhale or eat the drug as part of New Mexico's medical cannabis program, which started July 1, 2007.
But while the number of enrolled patients has grown significantly in the past year, the state still has not approved any growers or distributors for medical cannabis, which has left patients basically on their own to find a supply.
And that's what almost killed her, Lisa said.
When Lisa's friend from Washington, who used to provide her with medical-grade marijuana, died last summer, she was left with the unpleasant options of trying to grow her own with her notorious brown thumb or going underground to try to find marijuana of unknown quality from a drug dealer.
And without a reliable source for her medication, Lisa's health and her weight started to rapidly go downhill. "It's been hell, " Lisa said.
Just when things were at their worst, though, Lisa found "Ted, " a New Mexico grower who also doesn't want his real name used because he fears problems with the state and federal government.
And with Ted's help, Lisa has a new source of medical marijuana that is high quality and reliable. "If it weren't for (Ted) and his work, I would not be alive, " Lisa said. "If he had obeyed the laws, I would be dead."
Ted has been working to get approval from the state to be an official producer of medical marijuana. But every time he works through one set of obstacles, more regulations appear causing more setbacks, he said.
"They're dragging their feet, " Ted said. "The state wants to have no federal ramifications from setting up a system, but they just can't do that right now."
So far, the state hasn't approved any producers, said Deborah Busemeyer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health. "There is no distribution system, " she said.
The department, which is mandated by state law to set up a system, is in a difficult position because any method will violate federal drug laws.
But efforts are moving forward, and officials are taking public comment on possible solutions anyway, she said.
The next meeting to discuss some of those options is Monday, when the department will take comments and review rules on how patients register for identification cards and how growers will be licensed, Busemeyer said.
"We've been working really hard to make sure we have strong rules that are viable for our patients, " she said.
But as that effort continues, patients who have state approval to use the drug are suffering without a supply. So Ted works with them, underground. He's helping eight of them around the state so far, he said. "It's going to be a long time to get this up and running, and these people need help, " Ted said.
Under the temporary provisions that the medical cannabis program operates by, patients can grow four mature plants and 12 seedlings at any given time. And they can have up to 6 ounces of marijuana in their possession, Busemeyer said.
But new proposed rules would force patients to apply for a separate license to grow marijuana, even after they're medically approved.
Distributors, as well, would face a long series of hurdles to be approved. They must set up a nonprofit that can grow no more than 95 plants and seedlings. They must create a series of educational products to tell patients how to use their product safely. They must provide proof of security and a distribution method as well as create a board that includes a doctor or nurse and medical marijuana patients. And that's only part of the criteria, Busemeyer said.
"The law required us to set this up, but it doesn't really tell us how to do that, " Busemeyer said. "I think these ideas speak to some of the concerns about who's growing and who's allowed to grow."
Attorney General Gary King said some of the new licensing ideas might be more strict, but they also get the state generally off the hook with the feds by putting the legal burden on the users and sellers.
"We actually opposed this legislation, but the Legislature passed it, " King said of the medical cannabis program. "Our opposition was (based on concern) that it could run afoul of federal law."
The original plan would have made the state the grower and producer, but the Health Department's newer plan to license patients and growers seems to get around that, said King's Chief Deputy Al Lama.
"From my understanding of the way they've structured this in terms of how much is produced and how it's licensed -- there's always a risk, but I think there are, in the draft regulations, some safeguards that I believe would reduce some of the problems we've seen in other states."
And no matter if a person has a license here, it does not make them immune to federal law, King emphasized.
"I think that anybody who participates in the program should be aware of the risk, " King said. "The feds are going to be more aggressive about prosecuting things like this. They've told me that."
But for Lisa, the risk of prosecution is of little concern when compared to her quality of life, she said.
In her case, the drug doesn't get her high, although she admits in her youth she used to use it recreationally.
"It doesn't do much to me that way, other than helping with pain and helping me with nausea, " Lisa said with a laugh. "Any patients like me, you're talking about somebody on umpteen other pain relievers and drugs. They're already on so many things, any of those recreational effects are lost in the noise."
But for her part, Lisa also tried a type of synthetic THC legally produced by drug companies to ease her symptoms. It did almost nothing except make her contemplate suicide, she said.
Something about the interaction of the chemicals within the marijuana makes it helpful, and it works better than any other medication she's tried, she said.
And Ted, who has an encyclopedic and scientific knowledge of the plant and the drug, said it doesn't surprise him that synthetic chemicals aren't very effective. "It's an interlacing of chemicals, " Ted said. "It's not just one thing."
Looking at his selection of plants, grown in an undisclosed location, Ted works with 15 marijuana strains, trying to improve them for patients like Lisa through agricultural science. Each one of his strains has different properties, he said. And he grows them in organic conditions with a parental-like love.
"The plants are different colors, " Ted said, noting that lighter-colored marijuana seems to be better for mental healing, glaucoma and daytime use, and darker-colored types are better as sleep aids. "They all have different flavors, effects and nuances."
This story, published Feb. 6, 2006, investigates the practice of self-injury.
An ugly slice of life
By Sue Vorenberg
Adrian’s body was a canvas.
He painted it by cutting his legs and thighs with a razor, knife or screwdriver bit.
In the mornings, he’d wake up with his pajamas stuck to the clotted wounds. It felt good pulling them off and letting the blood flow again, he said.
“It was a tangible expression of what’s going on inside — like poetry,” the Albuquerque man said. “It made it concrete.”
Adrian’s parents, with whom he still lives, don’t want his last name used because they fear he’ll be stigmatized for being a “cutter.” He started at 21, and he’s now almost 23; he stopped cutting himself six months ago.
Adrian’s problem is not uncommon. Psychologists and counselors around Albuquerque say they’ve noticed an increasing number of patients reporting self-injury.
Although the Department of Health, University of New Mexico and other groups don’t track statistics about the phenomenon in New Mexico, anecdotal evidence supports the idea that cutting is on the rise, said Laura Owen, a resource counselor with Albuquerque Public Schools.
It’s easier in today’s culture to admit to cutting than it was in the past, Owen said. “I think more students are feeling comfortable (talking about it).”
And talking about it can spread the problem among impressionable teens, said Nancy Heath, an associate psychology professor at McGill University in Canada and expert on self-injury.
“It’s extremely contagious,” Heath said. In her recent study of 728 college students in Canada, which has been submitted to the journal “Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice,” Heath found about 12 percent had tried self-injury at least once, usually in high school.
“It’s out there in huge numbers,” she said. “The schools out there don’t know what to do.”
In Heath’s study of undergraduate students, 85 said they intentionally cut themselves at some point in their lives. Of those, 15 were men (9.4 percent of the men in the group of 728) and 70 were women (12.3 percent of the women in the group).
When Heath started studying the issue about five years ago, she found no literature. Now, she’s seeing more interest from the academic and scientific communities.
“There’s no question it’s happening more than it was when (my generation was) younger,” said Heath, who is 44. The idea that more people are reporting cutting now than in the past does not surprise Jane Mc-Grath, a school health officer for the New Mexico Department of Health in Santa Fe, who worked in a hospital about five years ago.
“When I taught (medical) residents, I used to say you can tell (right- or left-) handedness by the arm they cut on,” McGrath said. “It’s kind of a grim joke, but I was seeing it a lot.”
A coping strategy
The problem goes by a number of names: self-injury, self-harm, self-inflicted violence, self-mutilation. Most people who do it refer to themselves as cutters.
People injure themselves various reasons. At its heart is some sort of emotional torment, said Rachelle Dobey, director of Age to Age Counseling, which sponsors a support group for teenage cutters in Albuquerque.
“It’s a coping strategy, but they can’t regulate their emotions,” Dobey said. “It seems to go, ‘I get stressed; I cut myself to feel better. I get angry; I cut myself to feel better. I get depressed; I cut myself to feel better.’ ”
The most common methods of self-mutilation are cutting and burning, but sometimes the selfinjury goes further.
“They could break bones. They could amputate digits, chew on body parts, pulling out fingernails, hitting themselves, injection of toxin,” she said.
Dobey has run the support group over the past year. Each nine-week session averages six to nine participants, she said.
Cutting might also release endorphins, which some doctors think turns into a chemical addiction.
“I think typically they start cutting for the reason that they’re under emotional pain, but the chemicals that are released become a high, and then they cut because they get addicted to that euphoric feeling,” Owen said.
Long-term cutting is more closely associated with some sort of traumatic childhood abuse or neglect, Heath said. Short-term cutters don’t tend to have that, although they still have problems controlling emotions.
“What’s dramatically increasing is using self-injury in the same way as experimental drug use, other risky behavior,” she said. “They do it for a brief period of time.”
‘It made me feel better’
For Adrian, cutting was an outgrowth of his depressive and anxiety disorders, which were diagnosed after getting help through a psychiatrist and counselor.
“I can’t get over how much I enjoyed it,” Adrian said. “In one sense, it did make me feel better. I loved waking up in the morning and seeing that I had done something to myself.”
Cutting is typically more frequent among girls and women, but it’s not limited to one gender, Dobey said.
A 15-year-old Santa Fe girl, whose parents requested she not be named, said she started cutting herself in eighth grade with safety pins and scissors after a friend in school told her it helped with emotional pain.
The teen ended up cutting with a group of three other friends; they’d cut in private and then show each other the wounds later, she said.
“I tried it, and it helped, but it became kind of a habit,” the girl said in a phone interview.
Adrian’s first memory of trying to injure himself was at UNM, where he is a student, about two years ago with a girl he liked but knew he should stay away from.
“I just remember I was rubbing my wrist on something” that scraped off his skin, Adrian said. “It was almost like I was telling myself to stop.”
It was a small start, but it accelerated quickly.
“I actually carved the word ‘whore’ into my leg,” Adrian said. “I think it described my hatred for me.”
Sometimes, he’d trace over that word. Sometimes, he’d make cuts around it and on both legs. On July 6, 2005, cutting landed him in the hospital.
“That whole day was horrible,” Adrian said. “I went home — it was the most I ever cut myself.”
He doesn’t recall what set him off other than that it was a bad day.
When he realized the severity of the injury, he held the deep horizontal cuts across his legs together with his hands and limped to his parents’ room down the hall to ask for help.
“I cut myself so deep I required staples,” Adrian said. He remembers talking to a social worker in the emergency room shortly after coming in. “I told her basically that night I did not care what I did to myself,” Adrian said.
Cutters usually try to hide the injuries; that’s why Adrian cut on his upper legs, where people couldn’t see them.
It can be a very personal practice for some people. At the same time, it can be a cry for help, said McGrath of the Health Department.
“I think these kids feel very isolated, alone, shut in and like there’s not a lot of help for the emotional conflicts they’re dealing with,” McGrath said.
The Santa Fe girl, who used to cut on her arms and hide them under a sweat shirt, saw her frequent arguments with her parents and her lack of close friends as proof of her isolation, she said.
“I didn’t feel I could talk to anybody,” she said.
The biggest myth about cutters is they are trying to kill themselves, Dobey says. While the act can sometimes lead to suicide, most of the time cutting is what she calls a “survival strategy.”
“Probably the top one (excuse) I hear is that this person is attempting suicide,” Dobey said. “Very often, it’s the complete opposite.”
They cut because they feel they would do something more drastic if they couldn’t express their pain, she said.
Kristen Cunningham, a UNM graduate now in her early 30s and no longer living in Albuquerque, said she used to tear out her hair and slice her arms when she was young. She said she was not suicidal when she hurt herself.
“For me, it was like letting something out — my demon,” said Cunningham, who didn’t want to provide any information besides her name. “It was negative emotions. Not numb — I was overwhelmed with my own emotions.”
Considering cutters to be suicidal can actually do more harm than good because the treatment can make them more stressed, Heath said.
“Do you want to stop them? It’s a maladaptive coping strategy,” Heath said. “It’s not a good choice, but some people call it ‘the antisuicide’ because they’re using it to cope until they learn a better coping strategy.”
Counselors can teach better strategies — such as learning how to express emotion verbally and calming down — without the need for therapy, Heath said.
Schools or counselors should educate the short-term cutters and spend the bulk of their resources on long-term cutters who need more prolonged help, Heath said.
Some studies indicate cutters stop in their late teens or early 20s, after the brain is less prone to impulsive behavior. If untreated, the practice could continue for a lifetime, Dobey said.
“Usually when adults do it, they’ve been doing it for a lot of years, and they on average started when they were teenagers, and they’re still doing it,” Dobey said.
“It doesn’t really stop, most of the time,” she said.
Stopping the pain
Cutting goes with a host of mental illnesses, including drug and alcohol addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s a key marker for borderline personality disorder, a disease where the patient has a hard time regulating emotions, said Evelyn Sandeen, a psychologist and head of the in-patient psychiatry unit at the VA Hospital in Albuquerque.
“With borderline personality, there are feelings of emptiness or unreality,” Sandeen said. “The cutting makes them feel present and real, and the physical pain is preferable to the psychological pain they’re feeling.”
Treatment for cutters typically involves some form of talk-therapy, teaching them better ways to express emotions and sometimes antidepressants or other drugs.
For the Santa Fe girl, who stopped several months ago, relief came when she found a therapist she could trust. She urges others not to try it.
“It becomes like a drug. ... After living through it (the problem), it’s really not as bad as it seemed at the time,” she said.
Adrian’s path toward health started when he was at the hospital being treated for his severe cuts. A friend made him realize his cutting also hurt other people.
“He wept. I’d never seen that from him,” Adrian said. “Seeing that from my friends and family — that was the first time I wanted to stop.”
Adrian had to learn how to talk to himself without self-hatred, without calling himself a “whore” or a “jerk.” It has been a struggle for the past six months, when he stopped cutting, but he’s making progress, he says.
“To me, what it (my internal voice) was saying was right,” Adrian said. “Making myself let go and not do that was so hard.” The marks of his struggle with self-hatred might never go away, he said, looking at his legs and wincing slightly.
“I have to give all these excuses why I don’t own any shorts,” Adrian said. “I say things like ‘I have chicken legs’ or ‘I don’t like warm weather, and I’m going to move somewhere cold.’ ”
Now that he has been through it, Adrian wants to help others who suffer from the same problem.
“I feel like I’ve really made changes in how I view myself,” Adrian said. “I feel like the most serious part of it has calmed down.”
This package, which ran on Nov. 20-21, 2003, looks at the issues surrounding bullying in schools.
LESSON IN TORMENT
By Sue Vorenberg
STANDING UP TO BULLIES
First of two parts
J.R. knows what it's like to be grabbed, hit and pushed on the schoolyard. He's not alone: At least one child in 10 is bullied every day, and the effects can be devastating for victim and victimizer.
The sick feeling of fear filled the 8-year-old boy's stomach as soon as his foot hit the playground at Arroyo del Oso Elementary School. His eyes flicked from side to side. Hell was coming. Again.
J.R. Trujillo knew it, expected it, waited for it. Those boys bigger than him, stronger than him, were out there, somewhere, waiting for their own form of recess recreation. He tried to hide, but it didn't matter. Inevitably, they saw him, grabbed him, hit him and pushed him against a nearby wall. "Fatso," they jeered. "Chubby."
Back in his Albuquerque Public Schools classroom, he couldn't concentrate. Fear consumed his mind as his grades dropped ever lower.
Maybe he should try hiding inside a trash can next time, he wondered. Maybe he could climb a tree. But maybe, he thought, maybe there was nothing anybody could do to help him.
"The hardest part of being bullied is they really torture you," J.R. said, nervously looking at the floor. "You really don't want to go back to school. You really don't want to go back to places where you remember bad things."
Every day in America, at least one child in 10 is teased, pushed, hit or otherwise tormented at school, according to recent studies by the University of New Mexico and Boston College.
Such behavior, once an accepted part of growing up, is slowly being recognized as dangerous to everyone involved. According to those recent studies, it can ruin the learning environment in a school and cause lifelong psychological and physical damage to victims, bullies and bystanders.
In extreme cases, it has led to murder and suicide.
Fortunately for J.R., his school and a friend found a way to stop the torment before it went too far by defending him and dealing with the situation.
About two years ago, when his problems were at their worst, counselor Lucinda McConnell introduced the school's first bully-proofing program, designed by the University of Colorado. This year, she has stepped it up, adding a second program designed by the University of Oregon.
The programs teach children how to resolve their own problems and treat one other with respect.
McConnell combined the programs with other tactics, such as meetings with the bullies and J.R., to teach them about the harm bullying can do.
Now a 10-year-old in the fifth grade, J.R. says he feels like the pressure has lifted.
"If you didn't help me, they'd still be bugging me," he said to McConnell as they sat in her office. "I wouldn't have any friends. I'd have to hide all the time. I'll never forget it. It was really hard.
"I'm really glad it stopped."
Alone - and targeted
School shootings, suicides and incidents where students have been beaten to death plague schools around the nation.
About two-thirds of school shooters said they felt bullied or persecuted for long periods before resorting to drastic actions.
That prolonged exposure is one of the biggest threats facing schools, said Ginny Gillmer, head of violence and bullying prevention programs at Albuquerque Public Schools.
"Early exposure to violence and terror can do a lot of damage to a child," Gillmer said. "Research now suggests it can permanently change the structure of a child's brain. The lack of safety they feel - that's a real barrier to learning and the consequences can last a lifetime."
Bullying comes in many forms, but in general it is a situation where negative actions - name-calling, social isolation, violence - are used to give the bully power over the victim.
Bullies chose J.R., McConnell says, because he didn't have many friends and was often alone at recess. The names they called him were secondary, chosen to hurt him only after they decided he was a good target.
"So much of bullying is about isolation," McConnell said. "It's a huge key. If a child is alone, isolated in some way, or has poor social skills, they often become a target."
McConnell knows what it takes to be a target. She used to be one. "My hair was lit on fire in French class up in Santa Fe one time," she said. "I remember being terrified, not believing my nose. I put my hand up and felt my hair, and it was burned. I didn't say anything for the rest of class."
Bullying behaviors are most severe in early elementary school and junior high school, although they happen in every grade and even in the workplace.
J.R. spent almost a year as a grade school victim. During that time, he pretended he was sick as much as possible to avoid going to school. At one point, he tried to run away from home.
"He came home from school so frustrated that he decided to pack his bags and leave," said his mother, Lorraine Trujillo. "I was terrified. I found him in the park about 20 minutes later, but it was the scariest 20 minutes of my life.
"Afterward, I just hugged him. I don't think I ever held him as tight as I did that day. He must have been in so much pain, so angry, hurt and frustrated."
Then help arrived.
Josh Weaver, a fellow Cub Scout whom J.R. didn't know well, started to stick up for him, telling the bullies to cut it out.
That, along with the McConnell's efforts in the classroom and in private meetings, persuaded the bullies to stop, J.R. said.
"I really hated school for a while. It was hard to recover from the teasing," he said. "When Josh helped me, it really made a difference. He helped me to get some self-confidence and stand up to the bullies myself. I was trying to do that all along, but I just couldn't get it out of my mouth."
J.R. says he's much happier now. He has been on the school's honor roll ever since the bullying stopped.
"He seems to have come out of it a totally different child," Trujillo said. "His grades have been much better. He's got more confidence. He's protective of his friends and his brothers and sisters.
"He doesn't want anyone else to get hurt. He's been through that."
Fewer bullies, better grades
To end bullying, schools, teachers, parents and students must become involved in anti-bullying programs, McConnell and Gillmer said.
Several universities have created such programs, although the commitment to them and funding varies, Gillmer said.
"It's a complex issue, and you have to address it on several levels," she said. "Violence is growing more and more tolerated by society. There's less supervision at home, especially with the rise of single mothers and two-income families. Class sizes are growing bigger. It's a hard thing to fight."
APS gets $646,000 a year for all of its safety and drug-free school activities about $7 a student for everything from drug prevention to gun safety to anti-bullying. Trujillo says she feels blessed Arroyo del Oso had a program in place. Most schools don't.
"Lucinda met with the kids and the classes, the teachers got involved and even the principal got involved, and everyone did a great job," she said. "It was like knowing we were part of a team. We were all fighting it, and that was comforting."
State and federal governments are starting to take notice, and new funding has been proposed for the coming year, Gillmer said.
That isn't because of the psychological damage of bullying, McConnell said, but because experts have noticed a correlation between bully-prevention programs and higher grades.
"Bully-proofing is a fairly new development in New Mexico, and it hasn't been applied at every school," she said. "But people are starting to talk about it.
"My thinking is the district is going to make this the next big thing. With more resources, we could really make a difference."
About 30 percent of U.S. children have been bullied or are bullies. At least one child in 10 is teased, pushed, hit or otherwise tormented at school every day.
20 percent of students say they feel scared throughout the day because of bullies.
About 160,000 students miss school every day to avoid being bullied.
Roughly two-thirds of school shooters said they had been persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured at school.
Bullies identified by age 8 are six times more likely to be convicted of a crime by age 24 and five times more likely to end up with serious criminal records by age 30. 71 percent of teachers or other adults in classrooms ignore bullying incidents.
Sources: Journal of School Health, National Resource Center for Safe Schools, Education Week and the Maine Project Against Bullying
THE RED FLAGS
Among the warning signs a child is being bullied: falling grades; avoiding favorite activities; avoiding social situations; having unexplained illnesses or injuries; asking for extra money; losing possessions.
Cry for help goes out to parents, teachers, all
By Sue Vorenberg
STANDING UP TO BULLIES
The worst way to stop a bully is to ignore the situation.
So says Judith Vessey, a nursing professor at Boston College who has been working with the University of New Mexico's College of Nursing on the effects of teasing and bullying among children.
Children who become victims of bullies, she says, need help from teachers, parents and other students. The problem is too hard and too dangerous for a child to face alone.
"Schools should basically demand behaviors and policies that don't tolerate nasty behavior, and teachers have to be included in that," she said. "Everyone has to be trained. Sometimes, teachers themselves can be the bullies. Those policies should also include all of the children, bus drivers, other school staff and parents. It has to be a community fight."
Alone, a bullied child can grow progressively frustrated, start to hate school, lose interest in hobbies, Vessey said. He or she can fall into depression, become suicidal or resort to violence, she said.
"Children need role models," she said. "They watch how adults around them behave. If a parent is bullying his way through life, they may mimic that behavior. If a parent does nothing, that also sends a message to the child."
Parents should talk to their children about problems with bullies and try to help them understand the situation. They should get counseling for a child who becomes depressed, said Karen Carlson, associate dean at the University of New Mexico College of Nursing.
"Parents need to be upfront with school personnel," she said. "They should collaborate with school nurses, guidance counselors, teachers. The group needs to decide what is happening and come up with potential solutions."
What parents shouldn't do is call the parents of the bully themselves. That should be the school's role, Vessey said. Otherwise, the problem could worsen, with the parents getting involved in their own fight.
"Bystanders also have a big role to play in this," she said. "If a child sees another getting bullied, they should go for help. They should tell the bully to cut it out. At-risk kids should always have a friend walk with them to and from school."
Children tend to keep quiet about bullying, but it doesn't take much to get them talking, Vessey said.
"Kids do want to talk about this, even though a lot of times they have a code of silence," she said. "They need to know when certain behavior is not OK, and they need to know when and where they can get help."
By Sue Vorenberg
STANDING UP TO BULLIES
Second of two parts
In a groundbreaking effort, one Albuquerque school fosters bully-proofing. A key component: unending kindness.
A chaos of children slowly melts and moves into a quiet sitting circle in Angie Scarberry's third-grade classroom at Arroyo del Oso Elementary School.
Beyond reading and writing, it's time to learn about social skills and how to stop bullying.
Why? Because, research shows, if you cut down on the bullying, you'll improve the reading and writing.
At least one in 10 children suffers the brutalities of school bullies every day, according to recent studies. The taunts, isolation and physical blows can lead to lower grades, dropouts, suicides and deadly school shootings.
To combat that, Arroyo del Oso has adopted groundbreaking programs to bully-proof the Northeast Heights school.
On this day, counselor Lucinda McConnell places two coffee cans in the middle of Scarberry's classroom.
One has "I Appreciate" written on it; the other, "Concerns." Both are filled with neatly folded pieces of paper.
"Let's treat each other with kindness with our words today as we solve our problems," she says.
During the next half-hour, each student in Scarberry's class must pick one classmate to appreciate. Then pieces of paper detailing the children's good deeds are pulled from the "I Appreciate" can.
"I appreciate Sarah for when we got into an argument and she wrote me a sorry note," one child says. "I appreciate Jordan because when I have no one to play with he plays with me," another says.
The "Concerns" can comes next. It is full of problems incidents of name-calling, arguments about rules and cases of downright meanness. They will be read and solved as a group by the class.
At one time, McConnell didn't think schools had any business teaching kids how to resolve conflicts and talk about their feelings. But after seeing the problems of bullying and social isolation, she changed her mind.
"I think we assume kids know how to behave, but we really need to teach that, model it and enforce it," she said. "Families right now are just very stressed. There are so many single parents, so many people are busy just trying to survive. I feel the schools need to take more responsibility. Somebody's got to handle the situation."
If the Arroyo del Oso programs continues to improve grades and help the children, Albuquerque Public Schools will consider adding it to all the schools in the district, Superintendent Beth Everitt said.
"We'd like to look at what kind of success it's having," Everitt said. "Any program that's going to help students work better together and prevent bullying in schools is important to us. Having safe schools is important. Kids can't learn if they don't feel safe."
Killing them with kindness
Bullying and teasing can change a school climate, severely damage a child's ability to learn and lead to lifelong psychological problems for the victim, the bully and even the bystanders, McConnell said.
Two years ago, she added a social skills program, developed by the University of Colorado, to Arroyo del Oso's classrooms.
The two cans are part of that program. Another part is encouraging students to find a quiet time to deliver "I feel" messages to another child about behaviors like teasing or bullying.
The goal is to give students self-confidence and skills to handle problems on their own.
This year, McConnell added a new program, Positive Schoolwide Behavior, developed by the University of Oregon. It emphasizes four behavior characteristics: responsibility, respect, caring and safety. The words blare from signs all over the school.
It also rewards students for being nice to each other. When children demonstrate those characteristics, they get a blue card from their teacher. With five cards, they earn a small toy.
"For something like this to sink in, a child needs to hear four positive messages for every one negative thing they hear about themselves," McConnell said. "We're killing them with kindness, and it's working."
The program also includes a computer system where incidents of bullying are tracked by type, time and situation.
Counselors use that information to figure out which students need help and what sort of problems are developing.
"Not only is it working, but I've had positive feedback from parents, the cafeteria staff and others," McConnell said. "They've said the kids are much more polite. You can feel the atmosphere here is different. Everybody is much nicer to one another."
Learning to be friends
Arroyo del Oso is the first APS school to try out the program, but it probably won't be the last, McConnell said.
"The (Positive Schoolwide Behavior) program has helped reduce the anxiety level at the school, and it's improving grades here," said Judy Vinyard, a fourth-grade teacher. "It really is taking off."
In the classroom, the results have been startling, Scarberry said.
"For a long time, we saw the bullying here get worse and worse and worse," Scarberry said. "A lot of it was subtle but very hurtful. The training has really helped the kids and the adults be aware of it. I've noticed a huge difference in the way everyone behaves."
Back in class, McConnell hands out papers in the "Concerns" can.
"OK, everybody silently read your concern," she says. "If you've solved it on your own, get rid of it. If you think it's still a problem, put it in front of you, and the class will try to help."
A few students smile as they put their papers into the trash. Others push their papers forward.
The first to read is a dark-haired boy, who gestures at a blond boy across the room.
"He said I look like a girl. I asked him to please stop, and he did it again."
"I said the back of his head looks like a girl," the blond boy responds.
"OK, how did that make you feel?" McConnell asks the dark-haired boy.
"Sad," he says, looking at the floor.
"Have any of you learned that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all?" McConnell asks.
"Sometimes the words get out, but you need to screen them first in your head. We have to practice, even as an adult, so we know when to screen our words."
Both boys nod.
McConnell sorts through each problem, suggesting solutions and demonstrating an appropriate way to act. At the end, Scarberry announces her own problem.
"I have a concern about students being alone on the playground," she says.
McConnell asks for a show of hands to see who has nobody to play with: four students.
She asks them what they like to do at recess and then asks for volunteers to play with each child.
Almost every hand goes up.
FROM THE VICTIMS
Children who have suffered from bullying suggested these ways to stop the problem in schools:
*Adopt school uniforms.
*Let students take recess indoors. *Allow some students to do board games instead of gym class and make the use of locker rooms and showers optional. *Impose more structure onto recess activities. *Let adults, not children, choose teams in sports. *Place "tip" boxes in schools so students can alert adults to bullies. *Match older children with younger ones as mentors. *Banish the game of dodge ball.
*Set up sensitivity classes for teachers and parents.
*Forbid athletes and cheerleaders from their activities if they're caught bullying anyone.
*Create support groups for victims. Source: Broken Toy Project, bullying.org, email@example.com list serv