Early spring 2015.
The wind blowing off Tulls Bay still carried with it the last remains of winter’s chill and the cold grey Currituck County sky was slowly surrendering to the warmth of the spring sun.
Erica and I continued to keep a watchful eye on Elizabeth, who seemed to be slowly improving. It appeared that she was tracking along in the right direction, after attending a church youth retreat about a month prior.
For a short (and I mean very short) period of time, Elizabeth began to have a positive outlook on life. She was becoming increasingly interested in strengthening her relationship with God. Elizabeth’s emotional climate seemed to lighten; she was seeking to become more engaged and conscientious of what really mattered; her faith, her wellness, and her family.
It appeared we had reached a turning point. It was as if whatever darkness that our little girl was wrestling with had gone into remission. As Elizabeth continued to demonstrate healthy behavior, we started extending trust and privileges to Elizabeth; cell phone use, social media (albeit limited) and even a relationship with a boy that she liked.
Elizabeth told my wife and me about the boy and how they had been talking to each other for a few weeks. My wife and I wanted to encourage Elizabeth to have healthy relationships with the opposite sex, so we supportively listened and gave our feedback. Everything seemed like it was going well; so well in fact, that at one point Elizabeth wanted us to meet the boy she was interested in. Now considering Elizabeth’s past behavioral and emotional challenges, we approached the situation with caution. We didn’t want her to lose focus, or worse yet, control of her emotions throughout the experience.
One day, sometime towards the end of March, Elizabeth asked if her friend (the boy she liked) could come over the house to visit for a couple of hours. To show support and trust, my wife and I said yes…with one exception – there would be adult supervision close by.
I remember the boy’s dad dropped him off. The dad seemed like a nice guy, and his son was quiet yet polite. The young man shook my hand and exchanged all the proper courtesies, complete with “yes sir” and “no sir” following all of his responses. His dad and I talked for a few minutes, and I assured him that I’d be there to make sure that everything was above board and supervised.
Elizabeth and her boyfriend hung out downstairs in the living room, while I was upstairs only a few yards away. I gave them a straightforward ground rule: they had to stay in the living room and be where I could see and hear them at all times.
Some may call this approach old fashioned or overprotective, but I used to be a teenage boy; I know how they think. Given enough time and distance, kids will find a way to act inappropriate and irresponsible. Not only were there normal teenager hormones and immaturity to keep an eye on, but there was the added layer of Elizabeth’s emotional and spiritual challenges.
Considering what she had faced in the past, it was in her best long-term interest for us, as her parents, to have some comprehensive and reasonable controls in place.
After a couple of hours, the boy’s dad came back to the house to pick up his son. Everything seemed to have gone smoothly. In my mind, at the time, it seemed like my daughter was going to be ok after all. It looked like her behavior had normalized, and she was genuinely beginning to improve.
Looking back now, I can see how Erica and I were desperate for Elizabeth to have healthy, normal interactions with boys. In our desperation, we were slowly letting our guard down.
We didn’t see the nefarious intent of the evil, self-destructive malevolence lying in wait, like a predator hiding in the shadows, waiting for just the right moment to take down its prey.
As the days and weeks passed, the color and life of spring slowly bloomed. The days became longer and warmer. Soon it would be time to do the seasonal landscaping touch-ups and cut the lawn. With each passing day, Elizabeth seemed to be on a steady course of gradual improvement. She was trying to stay focused at school and her behavior at home.
In spite of it all, something nefarious seemed to be lingering just around the corner. Even though my wife and I were encouraged by the slow appearance of improvement, we were still cautious…in the back of our minds, we were quietly walking on eggshells and waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The last 10 days of April 2015.
My youngest daughter had turned seven years old, earlier in the month and I was about to celebrate my 37th birthday. On the surface, things seemed to track along steadily in the right direction for our family’s overall wellbeing.
Elizabeth was continuing to stay engaged with her school work and had even joined an after-school poetry club, which Erica and I were happy about. The poetry club seemed as if it would be the perfect outlet for Elizabeth to express herself and use her artistic talents.
One Friday afternoon, on the way to pick up Elizabeth from the after-school poetry club, she texted her mom and I and asked if we’d willing to give her boyfriend a ride back to his house since he was also part of an after-school program. I didn’t see a problem with that, so I said o.k.
After Erica and I picked up our youngest daughter Isabella from the elementary school, which was just down the road, we headed to the high school to pick up Elizabeth and her boyfriend.
We pulled into the high school parking lot, and I parked my truck; I walked through the front door, into the lobby and then the front office. “Hi, I’m here to pick up Elizabeth Mattera…she’s in the poetry club,” I said to the receptionist.
The receptionist paged Elizabeth over the school intercom, and I waited. After a few minutes, I saw my daughter turn the corner and walk down the hall towards me; her boyfriend a few feet behind…something about their mannerisms and climate triggered my internal senses.
I’ve always been a student of human behavior. I study body language and can pick up a lot of easily dismissed emotional nuances. I believe it’s a survival skill which I’ve slowly honed over the years, especially considering all the dysfunction I had to navigate during my childhood.
Little sub-conscious details, that often go unnoticed by other people, ping loudly in my conscious mind. I can almost ‘smell it’ when someone has an ulterior motive, if they’re being manipulative or if they’re trying to hide something.
So, as soon as I saw Elizabeth and her boyfriend turn the corner and start walking down the hallway towards me, my gut told me something was off; the energy and vibe I was picking up from their body language said that something was wrong.
It was almost as if there was a manufactured hurriedness being employed to cover guilt or shame. Elizabeth was in a disheveled rush, acting as if she had missed some urgent appointment, but at the same time there seemed to be nervous anxiety; as something happened, that shouldn’t have.
Meanwhile, her boyfriend could barely make eye contact when he saw me. I was in a hurry, so I chalked his lack of engagement to him being an introverted teenager, but something inside my core told me a there was a different reason for his timid composure.
Elizabeth, her boyfriend and I all walked back to my truck. As we drove down the road, I had this sense that something had taken place between the two, but it was being hidden in plain view.
So, rather than ask questions, I decided to lighten the mood. I dismissed what my gut instinct was telling me and figured they were just being awkward, nervous teenagers, as is the way many teen boys and girls act when parents are around.
To be friendly, I made light, small talk with Elizabeth’s boyfriend. Meanwhile, I could tell he was nervous and uncomfortable. As we pulled into his driveway, Erica and I said it was nice to see him again and Elizabeth told him she’d see him tomorrow.
The last few weeks of April drew to an end, the spring rains slowly gave way to the warm May sunshine, which gently courted the first blossoms of spring. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s emotional and spiritual climate also began to change. The progress and upward momentum we had seen during the late winter and early spring had started to stall.
Suddenly, and without warning, our daughter began a rapid descent into depression and disorder. The wicked and vile presence of self-hate and self-harm, which had been lying in wait just out of sight in the periphery, had canceled its withdrawal and returned with an unholy and grievous objective.
By the end of April 2015, the battle for my oldest daughter’s sanity and wholeness was in full stride. It was only going to be a matter of days before the enemy would mount a catastrophic offensive.
All the medication Elizabeth had been prescribed and all the counseling she had received would not be able to prevent the bombardment against her mind and soul.
To promote stability and a sense of normalcy regarding Elizabeth’s interactions with the opposite sex, we allowed supervised interaction and even encouraged positive activities, like watching a movie, playing sports, even sitting and talking. We chaperoned all encounters; although we stayed far enough away, so we wouldn’t embarrass her.
Because of the previous behavioral and emotional meltdowns which resulted in three separate hospital stays, my wife and I were very reluctant whenever Elizabeth would engage with boys. Her interactions with peers, in general, was enough of a challenge, but whenever a boy was added to the mix, it was a volatile concoction just waiting to explode.
Despite our best efforts, it was as if we were using a teaspoon to shovel sand at an impending wave of doom. Nothing we did seemed to fix our precious daughter’s mind and soul; we were fighting a battle with tools that had little effect on an opponent which couldn’t be seen, smelled or touched.
The battlefield was in a place that can’t be perceived through natural eyes or fully understood apart from a mindset of faith. The medication and counseling were only a temporary hindrance to a cunning and ever-evolving essence bent on only one course of action…kill, steal and destroy.