Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year-old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.
“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.
“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”
“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”
“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”
I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.
A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7- and 9-year-old siblings knew the safety plan — they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.
That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room.
The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.
We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood-altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.
At the start of seventh grade, Michael was accepted into an accelerated program for highly gifted math and science students. His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.
Several weeks into his new junior high school, Michael began exhibiting increasingly odd and threatening behaviors at school. We decided to transfer him to the district’s most restrictive behavioral program, a contained school environment where children who can’t function in normal classrooms can access their right to free public babysitting from 7:30–1:50 Monday through Friday until they turn 18.
The morning of the pants incident, Michael continued to argue with me on the drive. He would occasionally apologize and seem remorseful. Right before we turned into his school parking lot, he said, “Look, Mom, I’m really sorry. Can I have video games back today?”
“No way,” I told him. “You cannot act the way you acted this morning and think you can get your electronic privileges back that quickly.”
His face turned cold, and his eyes were full of calculated rage. “Then I’m going to kill myself,” he said. “I’m going to jump out of this car right now and kill myself.”
That was it. After the knife incident, I told him that if he ever said those words again, I would take him straight to the mental hospital, no ifs, ands, or buts. I did not respond, except to pull the car into the opposite lane, turning left instead of right.
“Where are you taking me?” he said, suddenly worried. “Where are we going?”
“You know where we are going,” I replied.
“No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!”
I pulled up in front of the hospital, frantically waiving for one of the clinicians who happened to be standing outside. “Call the police,” I said. “Hurry.”
Michael was in a full-blown fit by then, screaming and hitting. I hugged him close so he couldn’t escape from the car. He bit me several times and repeatedly jabbed his elbows into my rib cage. I’m still stronger than he is, but I won’t be for much longer.
The police came quickly and carried my son screaming and kicking into the bowels of the hospital. I started to shake, and tears filled my eyes as I filled out the paperwork — “Were there any difficulties with… At what age did your child… Were there any problems with… Has your child ever experienced… Does your child have…”
At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You’ll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing.
For days, my son insisted that I was lying — that I made the whole thing up so that I could get rid of him. The first day, when I called to check up on him, he said, “I hate you. And I’m going to get my revenge as soon as I get out of here.”
By day three, he was my calm, sweet boy again, all apologies and promises to get better. I’ve heard those promises for years. I don’t believe them anymore.
On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”
And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.
I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am Jason Holmes’ mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys — and their mothers — need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.
According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.
When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”
I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the U.S. is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise — in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56%) than in the non-incarcerated population.
With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill — Rikers Island, the L.A. County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.
No one wants to send a 13-year-old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken health-care system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast-food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”
I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nationwide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.
God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.
Liza Long is an author, musician, and erstwhile classicist. She is also a single mother of four bright, loved children, one of whom has special needs.
Republished with permission of The Blue Review, a nonprofit startup based at Boise State University, publishing scholarship and journalism on politics, cities and the environment from the Mountain West. The original post can be found here.
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I feel for your son because I’m mentally ill myself. I never threatened to kill anyone else, but I was hospitalized 5 times for suicide attempts (my first at age 9) and also was put into gifted classes in school, was on a plethora of medication, and had so much therapy. My parents felt a lot like you do - overwhelmed and overworked. Thankfully, as a teen the doctors FINALLY found the right medication combination and as an adult I now only see my doctor once every couple months. I’m still not 100 percent, but I operate as a normal person would. I TRULY hope your son can find the same peace at hopefully a much younger age.
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The response from some well meaning people is understandable , what most fail to realize if they do not have a child like this, is that these parents deal with abnormal behavior from the minute that child rises in the morningin until bedtime. It doesn’t take much to set them off, a small thing like brushing their teeth can turn into an explosive argument that can go on and on and on. Until you have walked in the shoes of a parent who has a child with a mental disorder, do not play psychiatrist and judge them. Try living their life for a week and you may very well change you thinking. If you are the parents of 6 normal children you still don’t have it as difficult as a parent with one of these children and can not have an understanding of the struggle, the frustration, the pain, the feeling of failure and often times the fear for yourself and your other children.
- lonnies2 thinks I Am Adam Lanza's Mother is Win
Also, this story is truly frightening - restraining your son to dump him in a mental hospital, sending him to, as he describes, hell, just because your own attempts at discipline failed. There’s something deeply sick about that. You say you don’t know what sets him off, but yet it’s pretty obvious what you were doing.
She was supposed to know that commenting about his pants would set him off? How exactly? It’s a common, and ignorant, response to blame the parents for a child’s mental illness. The reality is that it has been known for decades that mental illness isn’t because of a lack of discipline by the parents, and not necessarily something that the parent’s have any control over. Stop spreading lies, American’s understanding of mental health issues is already bad enough.
If someone you love or care about tells you they are going to kill themselves, you take them to the hospital. It is not normal for someone to think like that. It may seem like she was sending him away but getting help is way better than trying to do it on your own and failing.
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CallMe Sceptical you sound like you luckily have had no mental illness within your family. Your comment comes from a lack of understanding and ignorance. Threatening to go to an institute is sometimes the only option, when the person you so love in this world is threatening to harm you, themselves or their siblings. It’s easy to look from the outside in and have all the answers, but when you’re in the thick of it, it can truly feel like a hopeless situation with few options.
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Thank you for bringing such a misunderstood topic to light. This country has a terrible system set up for mental health patients. Most people don’t realize this until it affects someone they love. As a daughter of a man who has suffered from depression his entire life, I know the struggle that this mother goes through. I applaud her for bringing her son to the hospital. When you are in that situation, it’s the most difficult decision to make but it’s the best option. All the people on here, saying how terrible of a mother she is for bringing her child there, have no idea. It’s clearly more serious than a behavioral issue. If ever a day comes, when they have to help take all the guns/knives out of the house and bring a loved one to the hospital because they are threatening suicide, they will finally understand the issue at hand in the article. The health care system needs to be reformed to better assist people suffering from mental illnesses.
46% of Americans have a mental illness at some time in their lives. I’m sure that wingnuts are bringing up the need for better mental health care so they can distract from the issue of guns (instead of their usual abhorrence of any government influence in health care). But if you are going to take guns away from anyone with a mental illness then that will exclude nearly half the populace from owning a gun. Probably not what they were hoping for…
I feel that the gun control conversation is actually distracting from our nation talking about our lack of mental health care. It’s not just the dangerous ones with mental illness, it’s also our soldiers that come home with PTSD (at best they receive a phone call from a doctor every few weeks, which is why they have such a high suicide rate), our homeless that have no psyche facility to go to besides jail, etc. It’s a much larger problem that most Americans like to pretend doesn’t exist. A lot of this could be prevented by a decent public mental health care system (like what most 1st world nations have). Besides we both know that you can make guns illegal, but it doesn’t make them magically go away.
Yes yes yes! We need to raise awareness of mental illness in this country! We need to get them the help, meds and counseling that they need! We also need to educate the general population on each illness! I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who think schizophrenia is having multiple personalities.
A labotomoy sounds in order to me. When are we going to stop being a passive society which basically sits back and coddles these dangerous human beings? Allowing innocent and law abiding citizens to be massacred around the country? He needs to be locked up, rehab’ed (if that’s even possible) and then put back in society on an EXTREME controlled basis. He needs to be highly medicated as well. Don’t care what any of you think of my response because I am sick and tired of our children being murdered by these sick, and often times impossibly mentally ill people. Enough coddling!!!
You really think that a system where seriously mentally ill people are often sent to jail and then back into the general population without ever receiving the health care they need is coddling? Strange definition. The reality is that mentally ill people, and their families, are stigmatized by society, ignored by lawmakers, under-served by the healthcare system, and poorly covered by insurance companies (at least until ACA kicks in). Most mentally ill people are not violent and mentally ill people only commit roughly 3-5% of crimes in America. Furthermore the rate of violence among the mentally ill goes way down when they receive proper treatment (meds and counseling usually, not a lobotomy or whatever you are thinking). But if you want to keep firearms out of the reach of people with current or past mental illness I’m all for that. That’s about 46% the population right there.
The people judging the writer of this essay should be ashamed. This is not a discussion about parenting, and even if it were, I’m sure none of you are in a position of having a psychotic son that you simultaneously love and find terrifying to afford you the ability to comment subjectively. I can’t imagine being in this woman’s position, and I applaud her for sharing her story in such a public form. For the record, I am a Canadian who cannot fathom the justification of current American gun laws. I despise guns. But the arguments in this feed of this being a right wing ruse, and quotes of “Let’s face it, a mentally ill person with a knife or a rock could not have executed this crime” are mind boggling. I consider myself to be a moderate socialist - the exact opposite of a you would consider a right wing mindset, but I can tell you with all certainty that this is not simply a discussion of gun control. Would restrictive gun laws make this type of crime end? Not completely, but yes - this type of tragedy would become a rarity rather than the norm. And I strongly believe that US gun laws need to be changed immediately. But that being said, would the situation be any less tragic if the young man written about in this essay wakes up in the middle of the night and strangles his family to death? No. And he wouldn’t need an assault riffle to do it. So to label this as a discussion simply about gun control is irresponsible. And to those of you suggesting that she simply needs to adjust her parenting methods: You can be sure that behaviour of this type is not bread from poor parenting. This is a much more serious issue rooted in a fundamental mental deficiency that clearly has even the experts of this field perplexed. A “whooping,” as a previous commenter suggested, is not the solution to this problem.