Many of you have already seen this essay by the mother of a mentally ill child called “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” There has been a lot of talk around the internet about whether this mother is unfairly demonizing and pathologizing her son, about whether the somewhat macabre humor on her blog is a sign of her own mental instability and unfitness as a mother, about whether parents have the right to speak openly and publically about their children’s mental health issues.
I don’t want to even try to take on all of that, but there are a few things about this piece and the response to it that really touched me. I agree wholeheartedly with Andrew Sullivan that the horror of last Friday in Sandy Hook is as much about our inadequate treatment of mental health in our culture as it is about our insanity about guns. Both/and.
But I want to talk about mental health. Or at least first I want to talk about mental health. And not just my own, but my son’s as well. Which of course puts me in the category of moms-who-may-be-maligned-by-invading-the-privacy-of-their-children, but so be it. Because I think that’s such a huge part of the problem. If my son had diabetes, or Crone’s disease, or sickle cell, or any number of other illnesses or syndromes that we consider “physical” as opposed to “mental,” there would be no shame in my writing about it. If I had lupus, or asthma, or I took medication for high cholesterol, no one would cringe a bit when I wrote about it, or tell me I’m “brave.” Maybe brave for coping with an illness, but not for merely talking about it openly.
Here’s the thing: Micah and I both have diseases that are physically based and have mental/cognitive and psychological manifestations. Micah has ADHD and anxiety; I have generalized anxiety disorder. We both take medications for our illnesses: Micah takes stimulants for ADHD and Zoloft, an SSRI, for anxiety; I take Lexapro for anxiety.
I’m not ashamed that Micah and I have these diseases, and I’m not ashamed that we both have had our symptoms alleviated to an extraordinary degree by medication. I am doing my best to normalize ADHD and anxiety for Micah, so that he can continue to be well without shame.
It seems to me that we can’t say on the one hand say, “Oh we have to destigmatize mental illness, get rid of the shame,” and on the other hand say, “But don’t talk about it! Don’t invade anyone’s privacy.” You know, that private place where we hide from stigma and hold onto shame? We can’t have it both ways.
So that’s one of the things I want to say. I’m not ashamed, and my son shouldn’t be either, and I talk about our mental health challenges not to pat us on the back or to “be brave” or to draw attention to us, but merely because this is who we are. Trixie has asthma, Julie has high cholesterol, Micah has ADHD, I have anxiety. Welcome to the pharmacy that is our lives! We’re all doing just fine.
But the second thing I want to talk about is how we weren’t always all doing just fine. Before we were both diagnosed and started getting treatment – a confusing, complicated and very expensive journey through our mental health and educational systems – life in our house felt a little like a war zone a lot of the time. Micah and I were both volatile, and we pushed each other’s nerves in the sort of exquisite ways that only two people who are too alike and highly sensitive and totally enmeshed can do. I yelled a lot. Micah threw things. It was often pretty ugly.
And a lot of the time I was scared nearly to death. Scared I was getting it so wrong, and that he would be scarred forever. Scared that I just wasn’t up for parenting a kid like Micah very well. Scared that things were going to get worse and worse.
And I was really scared that Micah was going to hurt someone some day.
And here’s the thing: unlike the mother in the “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” essay, I have never worried that my son was evil. I have never worried that he was a bully. I have never worried that he would intentionally hurt someone. He started throwing things in frustration at around 15 months old, but he never threw things at people. His violence was always about releasing tension and frustration; it was never meant to hurt anyone.
But of course, when you throw things, slam doors, hit windows, stomp around a lot, eventually you are bound to hurt someone. Especially when you are on your way to being big, strapping man.
The fact is that Micah is a very sensitive, kind kid. He’s like the opposite of a bully. He’s got strong emotional radar and cares deeply about people. Even so, if we hadn’t figured some things out, he was going to end up hurting someone.
Thank God we figured a lot of things out. But that wasn’t easy. Not at all. And it was, and is, super expensive. Way beyond the means of people like us, and without family financial support, I have no idea how we’d be coping right now.
So when I think about that mother who wrote “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that she isn’t demonizing, isn’t pathologizing her son. Micah’s and my issues are so, so mild in the scheme of things. And yet I felt driven almost to despair. Should this woman really be quiet, keep it all to herself, pretend that her son’s problems could never lead to terrible, awful violence? I for one am very glad that she’s speaking out, that she has helped to get a much-needed conversation started about how poorly we treat mental illness in this country, and how little we support the families of those affected by it.
And I hope she will get the help and support she needs.