Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wondering, Ranting and Giving My Two Cents About School Shootings

Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Like many others, I spent the the last several days reading and watching news reports about the tragedy in Connecticut.  Wiping the tears off my face, I finally had to shut off the t.v., push away the computer and spend time or rather distract myself with other things... like dragging out the Christmas decorations, trying to make joy happen in my home. I also silently watched for signs of distress...and signs of violence in my 26-year-old son. I said a quiet prayer of thanks that all seemed well in his world and yet, stupidly, I continued carrying on about the mother of the Connecticut murderer.  

Sometimes he seems so normal, so much like his old self that I'll forget schizophrenia is a minute-by-minute illness.  Yesterday morning, in the middle of another soap-box rant, I glanced over and saw the dismay on my son's face.  Stopping dead in my lecturing tracks, I asked him, "Too much?"  Forever the little boy that wants to please me, he just nodded his head.  "I am so sorry hon. I'll shut up about it around you."  The relief that flooded his face made my guilt meter shoot to new heights.  "Stupid, stupid, stupid," I told myself, "Go rant on your blog if you feel the need to be heard."  So here I am, spilling out my heart, wondering if anyone will ever read this but oh how I want to shout at the world sometimes.

Six years ago, I might have been Adam Lanza's mother.  Like her, I didn't want my child to be sick. Not the kind of sick that is forever.  I understand the refusal to believe and the wanting so much to blame adolescence as the cause of vaguely alarming behavior. As the teen years came to a close and vagueness became certainty, I continued to swim down the river of denial. I hoped, I prayed, I bargained with God but deep down I knew that something was very wrong with my baby.  Lack of insurance made our situation as scary as you can imagine.  Mental health clinics had waiting lists that were months away from an initial intake.  So I made choices while I silently watched and waited.  Adam's mother also made choices and once again our nation mourns the loss of our children. It didn't have to be that way.

My son is also a gun enthusiast who used to go to the shooting range with his friends at least a couple of times a month. Oh how he loved shooting those guns and he was so good at it.  Unfortunately, he found this hobby around the time that I was seeing symptoms that gave me pause.  Incidents of delusion and increasing isolation had begun appearing, increasing in frequency over a period of about three years.  All the while, he kept insisting that he needed his own gun and when the day came that he wanted to go buy a gun, I knew that it would be a mistake to give him unsupervised access to guns.  Manipulating the situation, I used my own bouts of depression, telling my son that those with any mental illness are not allowed to buy or possess firearms.  Not even knowing if it was true or not, I stood my ground and refused to allow a gun to brought into my home.  He looked so sad and it broke my heart to have to take that joy away from him.  My point is that even before my son's actual psychotic break and subsequent diagnosis of schizophrenia and even though much of my mind was in denial about the aberrant behavior I was witnessing, my instincts as a mother were dead on when it came to guns in the home.

As a nation, we are failing our children. We believe the inaccurate portrayals of mental illness by well meaning but uneducated Hollywood writers and producers.  We listen to rantings of right-wing conservatives who continue their relentless attacks on the most vulnerable in our society all the while refusing to see the long-term consequences of cutting funds to the poor, the disabled and the aged.  The vulnerable have become more vulnerable and those who desperately need access to help have become pawns in political games of politicians who know nothing about what it means to be vulnerable to the decisions of the Washington D.C. elite. It's sickening.  How many more tragedies before the politicians stop using us to rally people for their vote? Our children need help, not rhetoric. We need beds in psychiatric units, not speeches. We need immediate access to mental health services, not waiting lists because the government has pulled funding.  America's policies toward the mentally ill are a national disgrace. Those who keep hounding people for having to enroll in the "entitlement" programs are truly ignorant of the facts. It's really easy to attack people when they are already down and when did we become a nation that condones those kind of bullying tactics?

A year or so after my son's psychotic break and diagnosis of schizophrenia, we were still battling extreme auditory and visual hallucinations.  Contrary to what you hear on the news or watch on the latest movie-of-the-week about mental illness, patients with schizophrenia are almost always only a danger to themselves, not others.  Not only do the voices keep a constant barrage of demands to hurt himself but the severe depression that accompanies schizophrenia makes him vulnerable to suicidal thoughts.  I was never afraid for myself around him but was in constant fear that he would hurt himself permanently before we hit on the right meds to get some degree of control of his hallucinations.  During a particularly bad week, on a very hot summer night, my son's worst fear happened as the voices almost became more than he could handle. That night my son grabbed my bedroom door and shut it, crying for me to lock it and not unlock it no matter what.  For over an hour we sat on either side of a locked bedroom door while he wrestled demons in his mind who demanded violence against him...and against me.  As his symptoms subsided, he cried and I cried but I also felt extreme relief that there were no guns in my home.  Let me be clear - although it took many more months to hit on just the right combination of medications to get my son's symptoms under better control, I have never not felt safe in my home.  Still, every once in awhile, when I allow myself to think about it, I wonder if I'm in denial about that night and I let it pass as I hear my son's voice.  I'm his mother. . .I have to.
While we'll never know if the rampage in Connecticut was the psychotic break of a young man with undiagnosed schizophrenia, I will always wonder what was going on in the mind of Adam's mother as she witnessed behaviors that should have set off red flags.  I keep going back to those guns... in that house... with a young man showing signs of mental illness... and policies that allow killing-machines to get in the hands of sick young men. Go ahead and ask me what I think about gun control. What was Adam's mother thinking?  As a nation, what are we thinking?