Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sins of the Mother

A child's death by suicide is every mother's worst nightmare.
Why Blaming Nancy Lanza for Adam’s Illness Is Easy (and Why We Need to Stop)

“Mom, I don’t want to be anymore.” My son, four years old, his eyes swollen and red from sobbing, burrowed his white duck-fuzz head against my chest.

I froze. “What do you mean?” I asked gently. “Everything is okay now. The nightmare is over.”

He looked up at me. “I want to be a zero,” he replied. “I don’t want to be anymore. I want to be a zero.”

Nothing in the parenting books or classes about preschool behavior prepares you for this: your young child’s desire to end his own life. True, “Michael’s” nightmares were getting worse, and he sometimes sleepwalked. Days could be even tougher: Michael would throw tantrums that lasted for hours and left us both exhausted. I didn’t know what to do.

As he grew older, his suicidal thoughts became more frequent and more detailed. He threatened to kill himself several times a week. Though I normalized many things about my son’s unpredictable and sometimes violent behavior, I never got over the suicide threats. They still haunt me.

For this reason, I followed Brittney Maynard’s tragic life-ending choice with a different perspective than many people. While I respect her struggle and her wish to end it (I too have lost a loved one to cancer), I know many other young people who are diagnosed with a serious, life-threatening illness who repeatedly express a desire to end their own lives. My son was one of them.

So was Adam Lanza.

Now a new report from Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate details the many ways the system failed Adam, and the children he killed at Newtown in December 2012.  One significant finding: Adam was “completely untreated in the years before the shooting and did not receive sustained, effective services during critical periods of his life.”

In fact, if you read the summary of Adam’s early life, it looks like my son’s (and many other children’s) path. Adam had developmental challenges in early childhood. I’m sure at least one person told Nancy, “He’s just a boy,” or “He’ll grow out of it.” School personnel identified social/emotional challenges that became more apparent after fourth grade. I’m sure that’s when they started suggesting that Nancy home school her son, ostensibly for his own good, but actually to prevent disruptions in the learning environment. He was initially evaluated by a costly outside expert (Yale), with a recommendation for a comprehensive treatment plan of the type, no doubt, that bankrupts even moderately wealthy families like the Lanzas. In this respect, my son differs from Adam: we never had access to that kind of resource until my blog about Newtown went viral.

Where my son’s path diverged from Adam’s is at age 13, when my son was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Since that diagnosis and treatment began, my son has not had any violent behavioral outbursts or suicidal thoughts. He is back in a mainstream high school, doing well in all his classes, writing a sequel to his first novel (tentatively entitled The Demigods from Outer Space), and starting a chess club.

But here’s the thing: I don’t attribute my son’s remarkable progress to anything special about my parenting. I was lucky, period. I got a diagnosis for him, and medications that work. And most importantly, I was able to intervene before my son turned 18, despite the many wrong turns we took in the baffling and fragmented mental health care maze early on.

When I tell people—including media professionals—that parents cannot help their sick children after the age of 18, many of them are surprised. After all, if your 20-year old son was in a car accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury, you would be right there by his side, communicating with his healthcare team, and likely even making decisions about his care if he lacked the capacity to do so.

When your child has a serious mental illness and is over the age of 18, it doesn’t work like that. Serious mental illness is classified as “behavioral health,” and in most cases, people who have behavioral health problems have the right to refuse treatment.   The very public spectacle of Amanda Bynes’s breakdown has introduced many people to this terrible parental conundrum for the first time.

Unlike me, Nancy Lanza was incredibly unlucky. Yet the Child Advocate report, in the time-honored tradition as old as Eve of blaming the mother, concludes that Nancy “enabled” her son and was perhaps in denial of the seriousness of his illness.

I completely understand how that can happen to a parent who has tried, many times, to get services, and failed. I completely understand how that can happen to a mother who is raising a potentially violent son on her own, without support. And I can completely understand how that can happen to a parent in a society that stigmatizes mental illness and medication, that insists on treating mental illness as a “choice” rather than as a disorder.

Through the years, bit by bit, Nancy normalized Adam’s extremely abnormal behavior. In fact, what seems very bizarre to outsiders becomes “normal” for many families who are struggling with mental illness. This concept is difficult to understand unless you have actually lived it. But if you are living it, I know you’re nodding your head in agreement right now.

High profile murder-suicides like Columbine or Newtown bring attention to the problem of mental illness. Yet two years after Newtown, we still don’t have solutions for children and families. And two years later, both this most recent report and the media are still blaming the mother.

What will it take? How many more families will suffer from tragedies because we lack effective treatments?

Mental health professionals tell us that suicide is preventable. But if numbers are not decreasing, it’s clear we need better solutions, beginning with earlier diagnosis and intervention for children who suffer. That’s one area where I agree completely with the Connecticut Child Advocate report.  A child’s death by suicide is every mother’s worst nightmare. Though Nancy Lanza paid the ultimate price when she couldn’t get help for her son, at least she was spared this: she didn’t live to see her child kill— or die by suicide.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this thoughtful article on how blaming the mother-or any family member/loved one-who has tried every which way possible to get the "system" to provide appropriate treatment just reinforces our powerlessness. It's another slap in the face. Today is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, and as a psychotherapist who lives with bipolar disorder, and who lost my father and brother to suicide after years of serious mental illness, I understand the stigma and frustration. Here is a guest blog I wrote to help others understand what suicide survivors want after a suicide loss.

Rubye Jack said...

Pain is pain and I never have been able to understand why some people think mental pain is any less significant than physical pain. I fully support Brittany Maynard's decision and in turn wonder if a person's mental anguish on a day-to-day basis should not give them the right to a death with dignity. I say this as someone who has coped with emotional pain all her life and as the mother of an adult son who is unable to find help and so presently lives a life of homelessness like many other mentally ill adults.

Suicide is one of those issues our culture simply refuses to look at with an open mind and prefers to see it as wrong, bad, sinful, incomprehensible. Something so wrong that it is not even possible to talk about it in any other manner than as something bad and selfish. I am not suicidal but have felt that way in the past and so have spent a lot of time thinking about it and I feel like the stigma we have established keeps those who are suicidal from being able to talk about it. They know it has to be their "dirty little" secret and so too often would not be able to get help even if there was any to be gotten.

Of course a mother is not responsible for their child's suicide and to assign culpability to the deceased is kind of oxymoronic imo.

This is a wonderful post. Thank you.

Jenn said...

I must admit, I am one of those who wondered why she didn't push harder for further treatment for her son, since the media had reported that it was known he had mental issues before the shooting. However, knowing how difficult it is to get proper treatment in our country, I can understand her struggles there. What I cannot understand is why there were so many firearms at his disposal, especially if she knew he was disturbed.

What remains is that the system failed Adam. The same way it failed Gus Deeds.

How many more tragedies will it take before our government will make the changes necessary to be able to provide services to the mentally ill? Earlier diagnosis and intervention is a good place to start, and I believe in order to do this, one thing we need to do is educate the public on the signs and symptoms.

Powerful post, Liza.

JanetDavies said...

Excellent post Liza! Jennifer Marshal, I don't know if you will come back to read this but I can guess why she didn't push harder. You are told all kinds of things when you try to get help. That they will grow out of it, that your child needs a better school, diet, more structure, less structure, and here's the clincher, watch out because they may become violent towards you or other people. (My son was never violent until he was left psychotic for months) The media gives us all a knowing look as they insinuate that the parents are to blame while the laws, ignorance and stigma tie our hands.
My son did not become violent until he was an adult so my story is a little different. I still can completely understand what led Nancy to make the choices she did.

Unknown said...

I haven't figured out this whole blogging thing so forgive me, but

Until last night I had never heard of you, but I am so blessed that I did. I was watching a documentary on Netflix and saw your portion at the end, You stated after you started your blog "you realized your not alone." Thank you for that.... I have a lot of the same issues with my daughter. We have had numerous diagnosis, medicines, one stint at the "behavioral center", problems with school administrators and all the while everyone has an opinion but no suggested solutions besides "she's out of control", "you need to light her rear up" and "she's hopeless" To all of those people, I will NEVER give up on my child and perhaps instead of spouting stupidity you should educate yourself. Just saying. Thank you for doing your best to KEEP mental heath at the forefront of society.

Lynne Warberg said...

We are all in this together, warriors championing for a positive outcome for our child. 18 years of being told I am to blame for my son's behavior. Sam is 23 and in many ways it does get worse because you cannot force an adult into treatment unless he is a danger to himself or others.

I am so grateful to know you ladies together we will make a difference.

Tricia said...

My 20 year old daughter and 18 year old son both suffer from mental illness. They live with me, do not work and occasionally take a class at the community college, frequently not finishing. They do minimal chores around the house. They are brilliant, funny and damn good looking.

Many, if not most (including their father) believe I enable them to be useless adults. Here's what I know, and I will defend our truth with my head held high (even in court next week with their father) ...
Adding any level of expectation or responsibility results in a melt-down of some type. Angry outbursts. rage, binge eating, starvation, 15 hours in bed.

Between both kids, they are on 7 medications. So please, do not judge me for my lazy and spoiled young adult children. I am doing my best to keep them off the streets, out of prison, not addicts and alive. It is what moms do, protect their off spring, even from themselves. It may be my mission and occupation for the rest of my life. a
Somebody bring me a casserole.

Sandra said...

Nancy Lanza CHOSE to keep an arsenal of legally obtained weapons/ammo in the home ache shared with her mentally ill son -- the one decompensating in front of her.

$300k a year in child support/alimony is enough to ensure that paying for treatment -- $6k/month -- is not a problem, even if insurance won't cover it.

Adam Lanza was too ill to earn the $ to get a car, gas, weapons, ammo, etc - his rampage was enabled by his mommy, she deserves to rot in hell!

Kate said...

No expectations? None? This is considered an appropriate coping strategy for your adult kids?

You're absolutely spoiling and enabling the lazy buggers! Perhaps if you'd started trying to teach them life/coping skills years ago, they might have some!

Is Nancy Lanza your role model?!??

Kirk White said...

Our son was hurt in a freak sporting accident and was in a wheelchair with zero drive and would not even talk to us. Once we got him in physical therapy, he took immediately to the nurses who would play games and challenge him that he could not do simple tasks. Each day he tried to show them how tough he was, healing a little at a time without even knowing.

Kirk White @ Med Care Pediatric