Guest Column: A mother's desperate plea from the wilderness of her son's mental illness

2012-12-20T00:00:00Z Guest Column: A mother's desperate plea from the wilderness of her son's mental illness Arizona Daily Star
December 20, 2012 12:00 am

Editor's note: The mother who penned the following column has a son who lives with severe mental illness. They lived in Tucson for many years. She is not identified in order to protect the privacy of her son.

I'm writing this not because I want to but because I must. I sit here on my couch watching newscasters and experts on TV talking about the horrific mass killing at the school in Newtown, Conn.

They're grabbing at straws trying to "understand" what could make someone do this. Somehow they want it to make sense. I want to shake these bright, articulate people who surf high-speed through each day dialed in to Facebook, Twitter and the best blogs so they can "know what's going on."

I want them to listen to me, a mother whose life has been derailed by watching mental illness engulf a cherished, golden-boy son, a mother who, only through relentless persistence and a willingness to abandon her "normal" life, has been able to get help for her son.

I believe my journey allows a degree of insight into "how this can happen."

So often "decision-makers" don't seem to have a clue about mental illness and how hard it can be to get help for someone in its grasp.

The actions of the mentally ill don't "make sense." Killing a grandfather because you think he's stealing your energy doesn't make sense. Shooting yourself because God showed you a shooting star doesn't make sense. Beating someone senseless because they gave you seven M&Ms instead of eight doesn't make sense.

Forgive me, but this is why they call it "crazy." The parents and family members of the mentally ill "get this."

Believe me, I used to be one of the oblivious. I didn't want to have anything to do with mental illness - nothing. No, thank you!

That's all changed for me. I've spent the last five years on a horrendous roller coaster of calling police to corral my son, of visiting him in mental hospitals in two states, of not knowing where he is.

Who can explain what it's like to watch a bright, idealistic mind imprisoned by paranoia and the "false, fixed beliefs" that are trademarks of the seriously mentally ill. It's hard to explain to people.

If you want to understand a young man who walks into a classroom, a theater, a grocery store parking lot or an elementary school and simply begins killing people, then, by God, you need to understand mental illness.

Psychosis is a strange territory where the normal laws of cause and effect don't apply, where everything your mother taught you has evaporated like a drop of water on a hot iron, where you're operating solo by a bizarre set of rules totally your own.

One must stand witness at close range to know the strangeness of psychosis.

And then there's the severe depression that leaves so many young men feeling alone, unable to connect with a confusing, hostile society.

This isolation leaves them feeling angry, impotent and desperate - desperate enough to take up arms in a perverted attempt to take a stand against a world where they can't find the welcome mat.

So often, it's these terribly ill young men, in these altered states, who are doing the killing.

People ask, "Why don't these sick young men get help?"

Well, let me be clear. These sick young men don't want help. They are too sick to know they need help. And what about the parents? "Why don't they get help for these young men?"

And this is where I want to scream the loudest. I want to shout, "Do you know how hard this can be?"

I can't tell you how many times I called the police, the doctors, the nurses and I was told, "I'm sorry ma'am, but if he hasn't threatened harm to himself or to others, then there's nothing we can do" or "Ma'am, I'm afraid that in our society we all have the right to make bad decisions as long as we're not harming ourselves or others."

So what they're telling me is that nothing can be done until something really horrible is imminent or has happened.

It's an illness, a brain disease that is very often treatable. I know major changes in law and health-care protocol must take place, but let's get busy and do whatever it takes to put the following in place:

• Take early symptoms seriously.

• Screen every young person from 18 to 28 for mental illness.

• Respond when someone seeks help for a mentally ill family member.

• Make it much easier for someone to be held in a hospital for 72 hours and evaluated for mental illness.

• Consider psychosis both a medical and public-safety emergency.

• End the stigma against mental illness.

If we're going to live in a country where there is a gun for every man, woman and child, I'd say we need to take better care of the mentally ill.

We, as a society, better stop looking at mental illness as a stigmatized territory solely for outcasts. Let's get familiar with it.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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