Sunday, December 16, 2012

Does Mental Illness Exist? Yes!

I was trying to write something very different, something much more cerebral and complicated, about Newtown and alienation and Occupy and The Book of Mormon, which I saw the other night.  Maybe I still will.  But I just couldn't get it done because I kept being drawn to people's Facebook chatter.  A lot of it centers around this piece by Liza Long:
I Am Adam Lanza's Mother.
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. Read more

Someone posted it.  I sat in the cafe where I am writing and tears ran down my face.  I resonated with it, because I grew up in a family with mental health issues.  I knew that out-of-control feeling, of knowing that someone you loved was going through something you could not get at.  Just loving them, just wanting to help wasn't doing it.  I was a kid but I saw the helplessness in my parents' eyes because they couldn't heal this deep pain and couldn't get the help they needed.

I have a friend whose sister is troubled.  We don't know exactly why or what's going on with her, but she's a sweet kid who can erupt in violent behavior.  Her mother is scared.  My friend hides in her room when her sister has outbursts, which is mostly what I did.

I was struck by some of the comments to Long's piece.  Some were preachy and blaming, others filled with vitriol for herself or her son.  Some tried to be compassionate at the same time as they were saying Long wouldn't have this problem if she were not such a bad mother, or had not gone to bad doctors.  After I posted it to my wall, friends posted other responses, like this one:
You Are Not Adam Lanza’s MotherAfter this blog post was republished on Huffington Post, I thought it necessary to summarise the main reasons why it’s a terrible springboard for further conversation on the subject.

1) The suggestion that this woman’s son is of the same type of person who would or will commit a “rage murder”, without any real evidence to back up this suggestion.

2) ...By reducing ‘mental illness’ to ‘outward behaviour’ the article dehumanises the mentally ill and completely glosses over the inner mental life and experiences of those with mental illness.

3) The article complains about mental illness stigma while reinforcing it by explicitly tying it to violence, and in particular, mass killings. The reality is that there is no such observed link: “after analysing a number of killers, Mullen concludes, ‘they had personality problems and were, to put it mildly, deeply troubled people.’ But he goes on to add: ‘Most perpetrators of autogenic massacres do not, however, appear to have active psychotic symptoms at the time and very few even have histories of prior contact with mental health services.’” And most people with mental illness are not violent, although they are far more likely to be victims of crime (see here, for instance). more
The author of that post makes good points, but its emphatic conclusion is:
You are NOT Adam Lanza’s mother. The sort of quasi-solidarity expressed in “We are [oppressed people]” or “I am [dead person]” appropriates the experiences of people who are unheard, in this case the victim of a mass homicide, and uses that to bolster a narrative that doesn’t even attempt to discover or represent the experiences of those they claim to speak for. Don't do that.
Author, did you miss something?  Liza did not claim to "be" the victim of the mass homicide, unless you are saying that Adam Lanza is the victim, in which case, who is the perpetrator?

Liza is saying she never wants to be the mother of a mass murderer.  I have friends who have said that, who held their breaths during their sons' violence-riddled teenage years.  Nancy Lanza is dead, but we should still have some empathy for her.  She didn't raise Adam to do what he did, but he did it.  It could happen to any of us who dare to raise kids in a deeply troubled society.

I have friends who deny that mental illness exists at all.  People are merely misunderstood, not challenged in school, not valued for who they are, not given the freedom to run around, too smart, too creative, too special for this one-size-fits-all society.  It's true that our first twenty efforts to solve behavior problems in kids and adults should center around trying to figure out what they need that they're not getting, give them more attention, more love, more opportunity.  It's true that the loss of empathy required to commit mass murder is fostered by capitalism and militarism.

But mental illness exists too.  I know it from painful experience and so do many of you.  For years, I felt I was teetering on the edge of it.  I was always able to pull myself back, but others in my life have not been so lucky.  A number of friends of mine have recently had to deal with suicides - more than one, by people who obviously could not get whatever they needed.  Depression is anger turned inwards.  If it turns back outward, it can be dangerous.  I don't know what to do about it, and Goddess knows, I don't want it to involve any more guns or prisons or laws (which it inevitably will).  But denying its existence will not make it go away and neither will heaping blame on the parents who are every day worrying and trying to figure out how to help their kids.

I've written about the problem of trying to isolate causes and effects before.  Saying that mental illness can cause violence is not the same as saying that all or most mentally ill people are violent.  They are not.  Not all unemployed people are poor, either - look at Mitt Romney.  But we all know unemployment can cause poverty.  Cancer can kill you, but not everyone who dies has cancer.  We need to get a lot better about this cause and effect thing.  And we need to treat the causes in a hurry.

1 comment:

  1. Among my first thoughts on hearing about the shootings in Newton were: How will my sister react to this? Will she feel that it reflects on her in some way, though in reality she does not admit to having a mental illness, despite being schizophrenic for over 40 years now? Or is it about me, do I feel that somehow it reflects on her or on me?

    I immediately experienced my compartmentalization of feelings about my sister: the sadness and loss for the person who was my sister until I was about 16 and she 18 before she became ill, the sister who was my amazing best friend/mentor/teacher/ helper/poet/writer; and then the need to separate/protect/and defend myself from who she has been all the rest of these years. I have not been spit at by her in several years but in last year’s surprise visit I was screamed at. That happens quite often, though usually on the phone. I have learned much about how to react better, how to handle situations. I have learned how to separate my own feelings of sadness and disappointment from the situation at hand, though I can’t always do it. I learned so much from my Mom, who sought and got help and support from NAMI (National Alliance Mental Illness). I went to a sibling support group years ago and read cover-to-cover the Sibling Newsletter that existed for a while and would have so many stories like mine. It helped to not feel so alone with it all.