Yesterday, like so many, I was watching the horror unfold in Connecticut on TV. My hands were shaking, tears were flowing and all I wanted to do was run up to my own children’s elementary school and hug them.
I got sad, and still am, but then I got pissed and I wrote something. I wanted to write something while the rage and sadness was fresh. I wanted to make sure I don’t forget how much this hurts. Because I want to see change. I want a compassionate, emotional discussion about guns and mental illness.
I actually began this post a couple weeks ago, because of a story I saw in the news. Remember the story about the nice police officer that gave the cold homeless man boots? Remember how that made us all feel happy and have faith in the goodness of people?
The video went viral and everyone felt better about the world. Yet, there was more to that story. A couple tiny articles online reported that the homeless man had a home and a family. That man “chose” that lifestyle and there was nothing anyone could do about it. The article mentioned the man’s family had tried for years to help him and were grateful to the police officer for giving him the boots. That part of the story is hard for people to understand. It’s hard to put that in a sweet video that goes viral. Because there is nothing sweet or simple about mental illness.
Living in fear of the call
When I read the rest of the story about the homeless man I nodded my head. I know that man. I know that family. Not literally, but you see I am that family. My own mother suffers from mental illness. We have tried for over 20 years to get her help. She lives alone. She has pushed everyone, and I mean everyone, past the point of helping her. Aside from my sister and me, there are only two other weary, tired people in this world that would come to her assistance.
We’ve called social services (several times), sent her to detox, hired drivers and personal assistants (which she promptly fires and has even called the Better Business Bureau to report bogus claims), encouraged her to live in a swanky assisted living situation, worked with her doctors, limited her finances, tried to reason with her, begged her and it goes on and on.
For so many years, we’ve waited for the call. We live in fear of the call that she’s burned her condo down and not only was she hurt, but hurt other people too. We live in fear of the call that she’s gotten into a car accident because she’s doped out of her mind on too many of the opiates she’s addicted to and killed herself and someone else.
A couple years ago, I found myself sitting in front of a team of psychiatrists who were treating my mother. They were again explaining that since she’s a drug addict, they would first have to detox her to get a baseline of behavior to diagnose the actual mental illness and THEN they would treat her. The problem lies in the fact that you can’t force people to stop doing drugs. I desperately explained that this had been going on for so many years. I told them about our fears of her falling asleep with lit cigarettes (which happened/s all the time) and setting fires, the crazy fact that she is still driving.
“Please help me,” I screamed. They shifted in their seats, but not did nothing. “What do I do? What do I do?” They pushed a pamphlet across the table and nodded, still silent. I picked up the pamphlet and took a look. It was counseling resources for family members of drug addicts. “This is it?” I was now screaming just a little bit. I pounded my fists on the table, “If she hurts someone it’s on you! It’s on you!”
“Has she threatened to hurt you?” they asked, for the first time hopeful. You see, if she had threatened or attempted to kill me or someone else, they could lock her up. I shook my head, but in retrospect I honestly wish I had lied.
They asked me if I needed a minute alone before taking my mother home with me. And then they propped her up in a wheel chair and like a scene in a movie I wheeled her out of the hospital with tears streaming down my face.
No one looked at me. In fact they looked away. Because mental illness is complicated and messy and frustrating.
There has to be a better way
I have learned so much over the past few years. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that the way the system is set up now, you have to hurt someone before anything is “done.”
My mother isn’t a violent person nor does she have access to guns. I am not fearful that she will hurt people with guns. Actually, I have feared that she will hallucinate to the wrong person or will anger the wrong person with her mean-spirited delusions. The wrong person that might just be mentally unstable as well — and have a gun.
What scares me even more is the fact that people suffering like my mother are all over our country and they might be angrier and more violent. It scares me that they can get guns so easily.
Look, I’ve been lectured by social workers and therapists about civil liberties regarding my inability to keep my mother in a psych ward/hospital against her wishes. And I’m sure there are many gun lovers that will school me on civil liberties regarding the second amendment right now.
Even though I would like it if all guns were illegal, period, I understand that bad things would still happen and that it’s an unlikely goal in our NRA dominated political U.S. of A. But I have to believe that we can find a better way. Why can’t we make buying a gun more difficult and expensive. While we’re at it why don’t we fund more research for mental illness and re-evaluate how we treat mental illness?
I have to believe out of the heartbreaking tragedy in Newtown we can start working together to find a better way. We do not have to be powerless in the face of fear or mental illness. I want a compassionate, emotional discussion about guns and mental illness.