In this case, and in so many of the past shootings, it is a mental health issue.

This post by this mother says so much. She needs help, her beloved child needs help. Help is just NOT out there.

I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother

Liza Long

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.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan-they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.

We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.

At the start of seventh grade, Michael was accepted to an accelerated program for highly gifted math and science students. His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.

Several weeks into his new junior high school, Michael began exhibiting increasingly odd and threatening behaviors at school. We decided to transfer him to the district’s most restrictive behavioral program, a contained school environment where children who can’t function in normal classrooms can access their right to free public babysitting from 7:30-1:50 Monday through Friday until they turn 18.

The morning of the pants incident, Michael continued to argue with me on the drive. He would occasionally apologize and seem remorseful. Right before we turned into his school parking lot, he said, “Look, Mom, I’m really sorry. Can I have video games back today?”

“No way,” I told him. “You cannot act the way you acted this morning and think you can get your electronic privileges back that quickly.”

His face turned cold, and his eyes were full of calculated rage. “Then I’m going to kill myself,” he said. “I’m going to jump out of this car right now and kill myself.”

That was it. After the knife incident, I told him that if he ever said those words again, I would take him straight to the mental hospital, no ifs, ands, or buts. I did not respond, except to pull the car into the opposite lane, turning left instead of right.

“Where are you taking me?” he said, suddenly worried. “Where are we going?”

“You know where we are going,” I replied.

“No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!”

I pulled up in front of the hospital, frantically waiving for one of the clinicians who happened to be standing outside. “Call the police,” I said. “Hurry.”

Michael was in a full-blown fit by then, screaming and hitting. I hugged him close so he couldn’t escape from the car. He bit me several times and repeatedly jabbed his elbows into my rib cage. I’m still stronger than he is, but I won’t be for much longer.

The police came quickly and carried my son screaming and kicking into the bowels of the hospital. I started to shake, and tears filled my eyes as I filled out the paperwork-“Were there any difficulties with… at what age did your child… were there any problems with.. has your child ever experienced.. does your child have…”

At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You’ll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing.

For days, my son insisted that I was lying-that I made the whole thing up so that I could get rid of him. The first day, when I called to check up on him, he said, “I hate you. And I’m going to get my revenge as soon as I get out of here.”

By day three, he was my calm, sweet boy again, all apologies and promises to get better. I’ve heard those promises for years. I don’t believe them anymore.

On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”

And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am Jason Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys-and their mothers-need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise-in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population.

With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill-Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.

No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”

I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.

God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.


liza long is an author, musician, and erstwhile classicist. she is also a single mother of four bright, loved children, one of whom has special needs.

Republished with permission from the Blue Review, a non-profit publication affiliated with Boise State University that publishes a mix of scholarly essays and journalism. The original post can be found here.

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18 Responses to In this case, and in so many of the past shootings, it is a mental health issue.

  1. kimkiminy says:

    Reblogged this on Check Your Premises and commented:
    “In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.”

  2. Jaypo says:

    That poor mother… her heart must break a little more every day. Many issues are at stake in these tragedies–mental illness, gun control, school safety, individual rights. I can barely comprehend the extent to which they each affect an outcome like Newtown’s fate. Apparently mental illness isn’t always a factor, though I find it hard to believe a person who would such things is psychologically “normal.” Psychologists debate whether autism, Asperger’s, ADHD are mental illnesses at all. Last year was the first they were included in the PDR for Mental health.

    It all gives me a headache.

  3. robpixaday says:

    No words, not useful ones, anyway.
    It’s staggering what some people live with, the devastation and horror that some human beings can cause… the love that endures in spite of that devastation. Society’s approach to “mental health/mental illness” has always been crummy. It may be better than it was, but it’s got a long way to go.
    Wow.

  4. The debate of sane/insane raged in Norway after the killings at Utøya – in the end, he was deemed to have been sane when he shot and killed 77 people (most of them kids, some of them friends and family of me), though no one claims that the actions in themselves were sane. Could he have been picked up by the system? Who knows. He was never considered a danger until 22nd of july 2011. But in cases like the heartbreaking one described above, it must surely be clear to anyone that the kid (and his family!) needs help, and fast??

    • Lauri says:

      I truly do know that we cannot stop all of these incidents. There is just no way.
      But, it’s a sad state of affairs with mental health care being cut to bare bones that our society can’t find it worthwhile to spend money. Not on regular health care, not on mental health care. It disgusts me.

  5. At least the kid is vocal, unlike Adam Lanza, who was silent. “I’m going to kill you” is a threat, and in the end, if the mother really wanted to, she could press charges against her son.

    IF she wanted to: that’s the problem. As Long says, what mother wants to place her own child in jail or juvenile detention when she knows he or she is sick?

    I was also thinking that these situations are somewhat like dealing with old people with dementia. One minute they’re lucid and know exactly what’s going on. The next minute they’re accusing you of stealing from them and are telling you to get out of their house, even though you know (and they probably do too) that they can’t manage without you. You also know at some point you won’t be able to care for the person with dementia, but the county has certain standards for “committing” a person to a care facility against his will, as does the hospital and health insurance company. And then there’s the cost—that’s what it’s really all about in the end. Caring for someone with behavioral problems is expensive, especially if it’s apparent the person will require supervision for the rest of his life.

    There’s also the belief that people with mental illness shouldn’t be institutionalized, but allowed to live independently as long as he doesn’t “appear” to be a danger to anyone else. Even if his family knows the person is a time bomb waiting to explode. I don’t want to go back to the days of “the snake pit” or Bedlam, but for everyone’s safety, there has to be someplace decent for people like this.

    • Lauri says:

      I wouldn’t want to go back to those days either. And it’s so so so hard, because of all the reasons you listed. Like I said before, we are not going to stop every incident. It’s just impossible. But assault weapons are ridiculous and the state of healthcare…mental or otherwise is equally ridiculous.

  6. Jaypo says:

    Obama’s speech last night was so heartfelt and sincere, and like he said, No amount of rules are going to eliminate evil in the world. But we can look at what we can do now to change it. They were calling him “Comforter-in-Chief” because of all the shootiings he’s had to deal with in his presidential career.

  7. amelie says:

    It will be interesting to see this unfold; unfortunately the media has taken this rumor and run with it. From what I understand there’s no evidence that Adam Lanza was mentally ill, furthermore autistic and Asperger’s sufferers are known to be overwhelmingly nonviolent. More likely to be victims of violent crimes, statistically.

    • Lauri says:

      You know, you are right about Adam Lanza. There is no evidence that he had the kind of disorder described in this article. Or that he had any kind of mental illness….until he did the shooting, that certainly is a symptom.

      • amelie says:

        I only had that information because I follow the best science blogs on the web, and a few of them have great articles from neuroscience. I don’t know what could have been wrong with Lanza but I suppose that depends on if we believe that normal people can be just plain bad or (more likely) fly into an uncontrollable rage with no illness involved.

  8. amelie says:

    I also feel sorry for his brother; taken away in handcuffs, lost his mom and brother all in one day. I don’t know any more of his story but will be interesting to see. Although I approve of CNN’s approach to focus on the victims……

  9. I really agree with this. And the lack of help for families in situations like these is everywhere, not just in the US. I’m going to attach this post on my facebook so that more people can read about this.

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