This morning on CNN they had a poll question for their audience: should Nancy Lanza be considered a victim along with all the other people her son murdered? To say that my mouth literally dropped open would not be an exaggeration. In internet parlance, double you tee eff? We’re really asking this question?
Let’s parse this. If Nancy Lanza had been shot to death by her son who then killed himself without first going on to also shoot a whole bunch of uninvolved people presumably unknown to him, most of them tiny children, would anyone be considering her anything other than a tragic victim of domestic violence and/or the sad casualty of a loved one’s apparent mental illness? But because her child did take out a whole bunch of other innocent people, she is...at fault? She...deserves to be dead? Is that what we’re saying here?
Shall we examine what exactly she is supposed to be responsible for? Not knowing what her adult child was planning? Not stopping him? Having weapons available for him to use in his killing spree? Or, most simply, being a bad mother? Every time I think my feelings about this sort of thing have been blunted by time, another horrible news event occurs and the resulting coverage by people who know nothing and understand nothing brings them to the fore.
Six and a half years ago, my then-20 year old son, my only child, whom I love more than I could possibly love anyone else, was on a locked ward for two and a half months, being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Schizoaffective disorder: either a really really bad form of bipolar disorder or a milder form of schizophrenia, but in any case, not really anything with which you’d want someone you care about being diagnosed. It wasn’t his first diagnosis. Since he first became really sick his senior year in high school, various clinicians had posited first bipolar disorder, then depression with psychotic features. But somewhere around the beginning of June 2006 during that long inpatient stay, the S word was first brought up. It was devastating to me. Before that, as heartbroken and frightened as I was by his problems, I was certain that all we needed was to get him on the right medication and get him to stay on it and then we’d all live happily ever after. But schizophrenia? That seemed like a living death sentence to me. That was something no one ever got better from. That was crazy dirty homeless people shouting at the voices in their heads on street corners. That was...people committing atrocities because of their delusions.
One summer night, in amongst this little slice of hell, I was leaving the locked ward after the visiting hour. (By the way? When you visit your 20 year old son on a locked ward, your belongings are searched and you aren’t supposed to have physical contact with him. It’s like prison. Prison for people whose only crime is being sick. I disobeyed the no physical contact rules regularly and without shame. Try to keep me from hugging, kissing, and holding the hand of someone I love when they’re so sad and so scared they’re shaking and crying. Try.) On my way out, his case manager stopped me to tell me what a nice, sweet, polite kid he was. “You did a good job with him,” she said kindly. “Apparently not,” I answered, choking back the tears that immediately welled up. “Or he wouldn’t be here.” “Oh, no. No. You know that’s not true, don’t you? It’s not your fault that he’s sick, Andrea.”
I will never forget that woman’s kind words, both her praise of my son, and her reassurance that I was not to blame. Because, believe me, when you have a child with mental illness you will blame yourself, and as CNN helpfully reminded me this morning, so will other people. Because no one really knows yet what causes schizophrenia though there are dozens of theories, you will take each one of those theories you hear or read about and apply them to yourself, always with culpability. Heredity? Yeah, it’s your bad genes or those of that person you were foolish enough to breed with. Exposure to toxins or a virus in utero? Oh my god, it must have been the flu you had in your 7th month or those chemicals at work that weren’t supposed to be a pregnancy risk. Childhood trauma? You got a divorce. You had a house fire. Cannabis usage in adolescence? You should have somehow prevented him ever trying marijuana in high school. Etc. And etc.
Then there’s the blame you ascribe to yourself, and everyone else ascribes to you, in intervening. You shouldn’t have let them put him on antidepressants in high school! No, you should have had him on antidepressants sooner! You should have--somehow--gotten him to keep taking medication and going to psychiatrists and therapy even when he was over 18 and refused to. Somehow. That’s the heartbreak just about everyone with a mentally ill loved one knows about. You can’t force them to get help. You can’t force them to comply with treatment. And except in extraordinary circumstances, neither can anyone else. Basically you have to be actively threatening yourself or someone else before you can be forced into treatment. Prior to my son’s hospitalization in 2006, he’d been off all psychotropic medications for over a year and a half and I’d watched him getting sicker and sicker. Watched him helplessly.
There was the summer of mania where he paced the house endlessly, read an entire encyclopedia front to back (searching for hidden messages?), went for walks in the middle of the night leaving the front door wide open, snapped at you whenever you spoke to him, and entirely stopped bathing. There was the winter and spring of deep depression and eventual auditory hallucinations, where he just got very quiet and sad, showered for hours, watched the same DVDs over and over again (searching for hidden messages?), became afraid to sleep in his own bedroom, and never left the house at all. And all that time all I could do was wait. Wait for him to agree to go to the doctor. Or wait for something horrible to happen.
The last few days before his admission, he was obviously getting more and more frightened and afraid to be by himself and admitted finally that he was hearing voices. The night he was admitted, he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t settle, was going from room to room, listening to the walls. I convinced him at last to call 911 so that they could “give him something to sleep” in the ED. When the EMTs came, they told him his pulse was racing and his blood pressure was very high, and he agreed to go with them. If he hadn’t, they couldn’t have made him. He wasn’t threatening suicide. He wasn’t violent. Well, not until he decided midway through the trip to the hospital to attempt to fight off the EMT and try to leap out of the back of the ambulance so he could “answer the white phone.” That sort of sealed his sojourn on the locked ward. Thankfully.
So, Nancy Lanza. We don’t know what was wrong with her 20 year old son that made him kill her and kill himself and commit an atrocity. Apparently he was “on the spectrum.” He was also at the prime age to have a first psychotic break, but with him dead and his computer destroyed, we have no clear cut evidence that he was in fact delusional or, if he was, what form that delusion took. We don’t know if he was, rather than being delusional, simply sociopathic. We don’t know. We’ll never know. But do I think that if his mother thought he was a danger to himself or anyone else, she’d have had weapons where he could get at them? No. Do I think she was probably where I was seven years ago, watching her son struggle with an illness she could do nothing to intervene in and waiting for him to agree to get help, all the time thinking (hoping, praying), “oh, we just need ____ to happen and everything will be okay”? Yes. Do I judge her? No. Does my heart break for her as much as for the parents of all those babies her son shot? Yes.
Do I think it’s disgusting a major news outlet would question whether this dead woman was a victim? Oh, fuck yeah.
One last thought: I couldn’t watch the tributes to the victims--how this little girl loved horses and that little boy liked to play with his cousins--without thinking that had Adam Lanza died when he was six, someone would have said such things about him. No matter what heinous acts he committed, he was once someone’s little boy.
My own story has, of course, a much happier ending. My son was never violent. He got help, is on a good combination of medications to control his illness, and is committed to complying with treatment. As his mother I of course wish he didn’t have to suffer with a lifelong illness, but I’ve come a long way since I thought this was a living death sentence. It’s not. Mental illness, like diabetes or epilepsy or cancer, sucks, but all you can do is keep trying to kick its ass.