Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Strike a Match

Until you’ve had a mentally ill child, you can’t understand the isolation and fear and sadness that the parents of the mentally ill endure.

We all know the saying, “The Buck Stops Here.”  Well, that’s parenting.  And all the it-takes-a-village rhetoric is very nice indeed, and in many ways true, but the village can only do so much.  The village of neighbors and teachers and friends and health care professionals can only do so much.  Because at the end of the day, the parent is the one who tucks that child into bed at night … or wrests the sharp nail scissors from his hands at bath time when he suddenly and unexpectedly threatens to injure himself or, worse, his siblings.

While the rest of the “village” sleeps, the parent stares, dreamless and panicky, into the dark and begs the god who created this child to help him, help her, help all of us understand what’s going on ….

One very brave parent, Liza Long, has written an essay called “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” about her struggle raising a mentally ill son. It’s gone viral, and sparked countless comments, and hopefully will move us forward in the conversation not only about violence in our society but about mental illness:


“She’s describing our lives,” one woman commented to me, when we discussed this essay.  “No one understands what this is like.”

“It’s like groping in a dark tunnel with no lights,” another woman once described to me, about their frustrating, heart-wrenching journey toward a “diagnosis” which would explain their young son’s antisocial behaviors.  An entire “village” of professionals tried to help, but ultimately, they could always walk away at the end of the day and go back to their own warm suppers and not-nearly-so-dysfunctional lives, because treating this child was, for them, a job.

But for the parents of the mentally ill, it’s day in, day out, and all night.

One line in Long’s essay really struck me:  “You’ll do anything for [health] benefits.”  Families of the mentally ill know exactly how profound that statement is.  Because health benefits are the keys which unlock the gates to the “village.”  Treating mental illness is staggeringly expensive, and most families cannot begin to pay out-of-pocket for treatment.  And without treatment … meaning doctors, evaluations, therapy, possibly medication …  there truly is no hope for a mentally ill child.  They don’t “outgrow” this stuff.

I know that many advocates for the mentally ill have been angered by Long’s essay, and feel she’s stigmatized her son by writing this.  But I’ve got news for them:  the stigma is already out there.  We see it in the unfair, and dangerous suggestion floating in the news that Adam Lanza might have shot twenty innocent children because he possibly had Asperger’s (which has been described as a mild form of Autism.) 

People with Asperger’s are not sociopaths.  The New York Times had a good column about this today:

We need to shed light on the reality of mental illness, and Liza Long has struck one solitary match in the dark tunnel.  And found, I believe, that she wasn’t in there alone.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous essay, Maria. I agree. And your image of striking one match in a dark tunnel is apt. Dealing with a mentally ill loved one does indeed plunge one into darkness, groping anywhere and everywhere for a little light.

    Thanks for writing this and for sharing those excellent links.