A few years ago, when he was 7 years old, my youngest son started spitting on the stairs in hour house.
So gross. Nasty, even. I tried to figure out why he was doing it, but got no answer. I insisted that he clean the spit off the stairs. I punished him. His dad and I talked to him about how it was unsanitary and dangerous, but Carter continued to spit on the stairs several times a day. I was wild with frustration and confusion and when he screamed at me, “But I have to! I have to do it!”, I was perplexed and my anger only grew. Really, what kind of terrible parents can’t make their child stop spitting all over the damn house? Loser parents. Failure parents. Jerks. Idiots. People who neglect discipline entirely. People who just don’t give two shits about parenthood. People who should have been sterilized and not allowed to have children in the first place. Probably drug users or alcoholics. What would you see if you peeked in the windows of a family who had a child who behaved in such a dysfunctional manner? Would the parents be beating the child? Locking him in the closet?
Weeks after it had begun, Carter’s psychologist finally explained what was happening: Carter was psychotic. He was seeing monsters and demons on the stairs (hallucination is one component of psychosis) and he believed that he had super spit that would protect the family from those monsters and demons (delusion is the other component of psychosis). What Carter was doing not only made sense, but seemed to him as if it was essential to our family’s survival. Those demons were as real to him as the keyboard on which my fingers are tapping is to me. His spit’s ability to protect us was as real to him as my finger’s ability to generate words and sentences on the screen in front of my face is to me. His behavior was nonsensical to us but vitally important to him.
Carter has a mental illness, and one feature of that illness is that it distorts reality so he believes he isn’t ill. We couldn’t convince him there were no monsters or demons on the stairs by telling him that he was the only person who could see them; he believed the information his senses delivered to his brain, as we all do. If I tell you right now that you are not, in fact, sitting in a chair, that it isn’t real and you are creating it with your mind, will you believe me? Of course not; you can feel the chair under you and your senses tend to deliver reliable information.
I’m trying to find my way into the story of Milton Hall, and the plight of people with mental illness in the US, and the broad, enormous misunderstandings that exist around mental illness and its treatment, but it’s so big, and it’s so personal, that I have to sneak up on it.
Here are the basics: Milton Hall, 49, had some kind of altercation with a convenience store clerk in Saginaw, Michigan on July 1, 2012. The convenience store clerk and Hall both called 911 and when police arrived a few minutes later, they confronted Hall, who was armed with some kind of knife, in a parking lot. Amateur video shot from across the street shows Hall and 6 police officers shouting back and forth for about 3 minutes with police approximately 15-20 feet away from Hall. The police opened fire, discharging a total of 46 bullets, 30 of which struck Hall, ending his life.
I’m not going to address the actions of the police. More qualified people than I will dissect their actions. I’m not going to address Milton Hall’s behavior, either. We know that Hall was homeless and, based on his mother’s statements, that Hall had mental illness, but we don’t have any real information about him beyond that.
What I want to address is the reaction of the public to this story. There has been anger at the police, which Hall’s mother described as a firing squad in uniform, but there is also anger at Hall’s family. As a person who pays very close attention to news stories that include people with mental illness (or, more often, suppositions that a person was mentally ill), I can say this anger at families is very common.
Of Jewel Hall, Hall’s mother, a commentator at mlive.com asks, “That’s right. Didn’t see (or care) that her son needed help before he was killed…” and another says, “He was left to the street by his family and friends.” One particularly angry commentator at the same site asks, “Mrs. Hall… why were you not more active with your sons life? Why did you let him live the life he did..living homeless, with his condition which led to bouts of violence?”
These are the same questions people asked of James Holmes‘s parents, Jared Lee Loughner’s family, and every other family of every other person with mental illness who has, as victim or perpetrator, been in the news.
I don’t know Jewel Hall. She lives right here in my own city, though she and I have never met, but I can tell you that she certainly did know that her son needed help, and she likely cares so much that she’s lain awake a thousand nights in gut-wrenching anguish over her son. The familiar scenario is this: a person becomes ill (rarely as young as my own son; usually in the late teens or twenties), but since a feature of that illness is the lie that it tells its victim (namely, that there is no illness) that person refuses treatment. We don’t force people to get treatment for mental illness unless they are on the very brink of killing themselves or someone else, so they are released to the streets. Parents (or spouses, siblings, or other loved ones) endure an agonizing series of crises wherein they try to keep their loved ones at home and are not able, usually because their loved one refuses to stay or is unable to abide by the basic rules of the household. Sometimes there are children to protect; often other family members’ health is compromised. Mentally ill people cycle in and out of jails, prisons, hospitals, family members’ homes, long-term care facilities, shelters, and life on the streets.
The assumption seems to be that Jewel Hall could have gone to Michigan, picked up her son, brought him home with her, and taken care of him. Drop in to see a psychiatrist! Get him in therapy! Fix everything!
Without institutional support, few (and perhaps no) families have the necessary resources to care for and protect a seriously mentally ill person. We’ve closed most of our long-term mental health institutions, dramatically reduced the numbers of beds available for acute psychiatric care, and allowed civil “rights” (not really rights at all, in the cases of seriously, chronically ill people) to become the altar on which we sacrifice our neediest citizens. Medicine and therapy are essential components of treatment for people with serious mental illness, but they are not cures, and some people are just too sick to build successful independent lives. Some people need to live in kind, structured, supportive institutions. Some people need the support offered by a group home setting. Some people will never be “well” by our definition of that term, but that doesn’t mean the only options are to blame their families and shoot them in the street.
Jewel Hall is living my nightmare. My little boy is only ten, so I still have the legal right to compel him to be treated for his mental illness, and at his young age he usually complies. He goes to a school that is especially designed for kids with special needs and we have arranged our lives around accommodating his illness so that he has the best possible chance for success and happiness. But we won’t be able to do this forever. Someday, in spite of his illness, he will yearn for independence. He will go through puberty and begin to want a social life beyond the carefully supervised play dates he enjoys now. He’ll have the opportunity to do drugs and he’ll meet and interact with people who don’t know that he is ill.
Someday, he may do something to scare someone and that person might call the police. He might see a demon on a police officer’s shoulder, and he might try to protect that police officer from that demon. How many bullets from how many guns on that day? His mental illness and his limited intelligence might conspire to make him very confused and act in ways that will get him hurt. Mental illness isn’t rational. Milton Hall should have dropped his knife and put his hands on his head, but did he know that’s what he needed to do?
Jewel Hall wasn’t powerful enough to keep her son safe, and someday I won’t be powerful enough to protect mine. Her son needed more help than he got and now it’s too late. Will the same thing happen to my son? If I’m on TV in 10 or 25 or 40 years talking about a terrible thing, a tragic thing, how many comments at cnn.com will blame me, question why I didn’t care, ask why I didn’t even try?
Really, what kind of terrible mother will I be then?