I tried to reduce my time on the Internet this weekend. The Sandy Hook shootings hit me hard. I have nothing original to say about why it hit me hard. I’m a parent. I send my two children off to school every day. Our local schools are “safe” and “good.” Whatever those adjectives mean in this world. This morning police officers were parked outside our public high school and middle school to reassure parents, to reassure kids.
I tried not to get sucked into gun debate or the mental health debate but then a lovely blog post started going around Facebook, I am Adam Lanza’s Mother. I read it and was extremely moved by this mother’s struggle, and also by some of the women posting in the comments who struggle each day to do the best they can for their children with mental illness. But part of me questioned, how does this blogger know she is in the same place as Adam Lanza’s mother? How does she know what the killer’s diagnosis was (or if he even had one?) and what medications he may or may not have been on? How do any of us know what went on in that household? How do any of us know what made this young man do this? You can never really see inside a family. Are we trying to make sense about the completely and utterly senseless? Are we projecting our national neurosis about mental illness onto this situation? Is all this flailing around indicative of the fact we may never really know what combination of events led to this massacre? Can any of us really say why one person with access to guns is never violent and another person with access to guns becomes a mass murderer?
The second issue I had was the conversation surrounding mental illness in social media and in blogs. I saw people posting the words “crazy,” “insane,” “mentally ill,” “certifiable,” etc. Now, some of the people I am closest to are writers, so this probably skews my perspective a bit because we tend to be interesting characters. But among my close friends and family I have people who are alcoholics and addicts. I have people who have tried to starve themselves to death and people who have tried to eat themselves to death. Several of my family members have committed suicide. I have friends (and students) who have cut themselves and suffered so severely from depression that they couldn’t function in any real way in their lives. I have friends and family with such severe insomnia that they’ve been exhausted to the point of hallucinations. I myself have been a few cans short of a six-pack at several points in my life. These people have all been, according to the DSM, mentally ill and they have taken some dazzling and powerful psychotropic drugs. And, this is important… none of these people would ever, ever walk into a school and start shooting people, especially children who haven’t lived long enough to wrong anyone in an even imaginary way. Many of the “mentally ill” people among my family and friends would have been the first to put themselves in front of the children, just as so many of the brave teachers, staff and administrators did.
I certainly never want to discourage a dialogue about mental illness and its stigma and the horrible lack of care in this country. There aren’t enough psychiatrists and the psychiatrists that are practicing often don’t take Medicaid and many mentally ill people in this country live in poverty. There is a waiting period to see any psychiatrist in almost every area of the country with almost any insurance that anyone might have. There is a complete and utter lack of emphasis of what I call “living a good life”-rest, nutrition, close relationships with friends and family, talk or group therapy, exercise and meditation. If practiced effectively with great patience, these things can be just as helpful as many psychotropic medications, especially for depression and addiction. So while I don’t want to discourage this dialogue, I would like to ask for some courtesy. Just as it is not pleasing or accurate to say “the black people” as if people of color were one giant monolithic person with a single personality and a single experience; it is not pleasing or okay to speak of people with mental illness in the same manner. No doubt mental illness played a role in this horrible tragedy but so did many other things-America’s perpetual warmongering, our culture of violence (including violence against women which is commonplace but treated as though it is some pesky thing that comes up during election cycles)and this notion that the right to bear arms is somehow more sacrosanct than the right for people to peacefully assemble, or the ninth amendment in the Bill of Rights, which everyone seems to forget about–“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
And I think we can all agree, that to assemble in a classroom for education without being gunned down, is certainly a right to be retained by the people of this country.