|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.