So many things have stirred in my mind as I watch people analyze and speculate and diagnose yet another disturbed young man who did the unthinkable. For years I have worked behind the scenes to redefine the stigma attached to mental illness, and how easily we all throw around the terms crazy and insane in defining or judging those we do not understand. I have been warned many times that by coming out or speaking publicly I will be stigmatized, hold myself up to public scrutiny or possibly be unemployable, unmarriable or shunned by society. Well, those who matter and love me know, and those who don’t know most likely do not matter. Those who do matter to me are those who are unfortunate enough to suffer with a true mental illness. Those who carry the shame and confusion, swim in denial or self medicate their way through, those who beg for help in words or actions only to find no one there. Those who are lucky enough to have support or people who care, yet do not have the money or resources or insurance to do anything, or are overwhelmed by the fear and what ifs that they become paralyzed and simply hope for the best.
Well, when dealing with true mental illness, diagnosable and treatable neuropsychiatric medical diseases, there is no hoping for the best, as there is no hoping for the best for the chronic alcoholic or drug user. The end is inevitable when one goes untreated, and yesterday we clearly saw one man’s inevitable play out before our eyes. And thus, for those who suffer…
Today I am hearing at every angle the words that make my skin crawl-crazy and insane-thrown around with reckless abandon by the media, journalists, friends, families and strangers. Cursing this evil, this ugliness, this madness beyond our capacity to process. As someone who suffers, I want to share something I know for sure. Mental Illness is obvious, it is identifiable, there are signs and symptoms that show through to both the sufferer and those around them. Parents, Family, Friends and acquaintances, even the local Wawa Clerk, can see signs here and there that are obviously signals that someone is unwell, and yet when a tragedy like this strikes everyone writes it off to he was crazy or insane, when really he was sick and untreated or untreatable. The stories start to trickle out about people ignoring or deciding to do nothing when seeing signs of distress or odd behavior, and obviously all of this is irrelevant now.
Another thing that blows my mind is the pundits and even experts who are putting the Movie Theater Shooter, The Virgina Tech Killer, and Yesterday’s Perpetrator in the same category as the BTK Killer, Ted Bundy, Scott Peterson or even Bernie Madoff. Defining evil is very dangerous, and leads to no answers and a lot of questions. The practice of calling it all related and able to be defined as evil promotes and perpetuates ignorance, as well as preventing the mass understanding of what true mental illness is and is not. To even find the comparison between those who have obvious mental defects and brain diseases to those with personality disorders such as sociopathy or psychopathy diminishes the necessary and incredibly important need for a conversation about mental illness and the pressing urgency of American mental health reform and law. Our mental health system is tragically flawed, and our general scorn and fear of those who do things the average Joe can not comprehend or possibly understand becomes too overwhelming to even look at or handle.
People with serious and definable mental illness need treatment and medication to live healthy, productive lives. As long as they go unmedicated, untreated, and remain in denial or in bad circumstances the illness will just continue to manifest, and they end up where we were yesterday. True mental illness is absolutely treatable, and with therapy and conscious living episodes are entirely preventable, but if left untreated they are as deadly and destructive as cancer or heart disease. Sandusky, Peterson and Bundy, these class of predators are Psychopaths or Sociopaths that lack empathy, guilt, remorse and are devoid of conscience. They are usually predators that walk among us, often successful people in their outward lives, sometimes not, who live the Machiavellian Ends Justifies the Means mentality to a point where getting what they want is all-consuming and whatever that want is, no matter how horrible, will be achieved regardless of who gets destroyed in the process-at the end of the day to these people you nor I matter or exist other than for their own twisted pleasure or gain. These are not mentally ill-I repeat these people do not have a treatable, diagnosable medical disease that therapy medication or support can thwart or end. No medication will ever stop their behavior and paths of mass destruction. They often are so sure they are the ones who are smarter, more deserving and so far superior that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them that even if they were forced into treatment it would not help.To confuse mental illness with these cold hearted, conscienceless killers is simply false and counterproductive to encouraging change of any kind to the current system.
I remember watching as the world watched Britney Spears have her first major Manic Break unfold, and my heart broke knowing we shared a complicated dual diagnosis. I remember the shame I felt having to listen to the talking heads on HLN and TMZ feeding off of her pain and suffering with flippant remarks and destructive, insensitive judgement. She was clearly sick, something was obviously terribly wrong with this young girl that required a strong supportive family, an empathetic and excellent psychiatric staff, and time to heal and allow treatment to take her back to healthy and whole. We saw her step up to face all that happened to her, rooted for her as she healed, and watch as she has blossomed, with help and support, to better than ever. Yet I remember Nancy Grace and Jane Valez Mitchelle, (who being a recovering alcoholic became and will forever be a hypocrite in my book), snidely described bipolar disorder as the flavor of the month for psychiatrists, and Brittney was really just a spoiled rich party girl being irresponsible and using drugs and alcohol recklessly and that she should be ashamed of herself and openly calling for the removal of her children and horrible role model she was being to all the little girls who idolized her. On Oreilly Kimberly Guilfoyle laughed when bipolar came up, saying it was an excuse defense attorneys used to get their clients light sentences and slaps on the wrist. I myself experienced a taste of my own discrimination and disregard in my own harrowing experience when being questioned about what medications I was on by an LAPD Police Officer. I told him I was on Lamictal and Paxil for Bipolar disorder. He laughed, an obnoxious good long one, and said, “Right. Okay…Honey, we are all Bipolar, infact, I’m Tripolar. What a crock. If a doctor told you that you should ask for your money back.” A Cop? Really?
I am not saying the shooter from yesterday is Bipolar, I have no idea, as no one else does, what was wrong with him, but I do know that something was terribly wrong with him ,and now we find out that there were many signs and many people who saw this, and yet no one, it seems, said or did anything or reached out to him or his family. Another thing I do know for sure, there is no “snapped” out of a vacuum. There are always definable signs, behaviors, and symptoms that everyone who comes in close enough contact with the untreated mentally ill can see, in one way or another, often for years. Even worse is that even when someone does something or tries to help they are stifled by an insufficient and outdated Mental Health Care System, a system that will not do much until after a tragedy and will do nothing if the person is uninsured or underinsured. Sadly, most write these lost souls off as crazy or weird or scary and looked the other way.
I had my first episode at 17, a debilitating depression following a date rape by a friend that triggered a mixture of genetics, inherited mental illness and alcoholism, nurturing, experience and environment, processed together with some alchemy that culminated in my living an often reckless and dangerous confusing ping pong ball of an existence for the next 15 years. I did not want to be “crazy,” but those around me saw the changes, those who loved me knew for sure, and those I let in close enough, close friends, roommates, and especially boyfriends were not only aware something was wrong with me but were often terribly hurt by my conflicting behaviors and self-destructive, uncontrollable mania followed by bouts of unpredictable long-lasting morbid depression. So many times I looked in the mirror filled with guilt and shame, so confused by another episode, another lie told for absolutely no reason seemingly without thought, another night or multiple days with no recollection of anything I had done, or another shameful display or disgraceful exit, and wondered what was wrong with me. I was ashamed, humiliated, self loathing and so confused between who I thought I was and behavior that seemed to me out of character for myself-even sometimes like it was somebody else entirely that I could not control. The frustration of trying to understand myself with no ability to do so would inevitably lead to self medicating through what I chalked up to being crazy and desperately wanting to avoid or ignore it and hope no one noticed or remembered. I was constantly anxious and terrified I would be found out and exposed as an insane person, but, the truth is, anyone who was close enough already knew and said or did nothing out of their own fear or ignorance. Honestly, it probably wouldn’t have helped anyway until I, myself, popped out of denial to where I could finally take no more and begged, pleaded and invested in serious psychotherapy on my own accord, with my own will and desire to understand myself and change-I was in my thirties by the time that finally happened.
I learned that my Mania was always triggered by a stressor or situation someone like me, fragile in my ability to cope and deal with other than balanced honest sober living, could handle, and the self-destruction would begin a cycle that would play itself out even when I was in therapy or medicated if I did not cut it off at the pass. If I, myself didn’t know and recognize the creeping symptoms like not sleeping for days yet not being tired at work, constantly thinking people were judging me or trying to sabotage me, talking incredibly fast and not finishing one thought before going on to another, and drinking or doing drugs to the point of prolonged blackouts and no memory of sometimes the night before and sometimes days before. Often I would go into grandiose thinking, make impulsive decisions without thinking of consequences or even tomorrow, and, for me, eventual relapse into a numbing frenzy just to silence the guilt, shame and humiliation I had caused myself. Thanks to the internet, my worst times, unlike people who do not step into the public eye, are out there and will forever be, and yet somehow I have to make sense of all the chaos. There is no moment of my Mania that is worth the sometimes years of depression, guilt, self loathing and constant battle to not end it all during my lows. The consequences of my manic episodes eventually came to pass leaving me in a comatose blur of sleeping all day, drinking to pass out every night, and otherwise functioning like a zombie trudging through another day. Those are my polar opposites, my duality, my truth unmedicated and untreated.
It took me until 32 to be honest and open enough to pin point these symptoms as warning signs to myself first and then to others. To get to the place where I would say to my Doctor or Family I am not well, and I am scared I am spinning towards an episode of mania. I could have learned this much earlier and saved a lot of heartache and pain I caused myself and others, but I had to hit bottom and lose everything first before I could see clearly. If I had taken therapy and medication properly early on, and understood that I had a real medical illness that could be treated and that I could proactively change my self-destructive patterns of living and that I could be so-called normal and live a stable, productive life I would be in a very different place right now.
My Hero of an ex-boyfriend, himself a diagnosed Bipolar Alcoholic, saved my life, and I will forever know that had he not intervened I may be dead or at the very least continuing to put myself and those I love in danger, emotional or actual. He saw in me what he saw in himself before he knew what was wrong with him. He told me he loved me and knew I was a good person with a great heart and so much going for me, and he shared his story explaining that we both were just born this way and not at fault. He assured me that there was help and treatment that would turn it all around. He promised he would hold my hand through it, and assured me that I, like him, could be happier, more stable, and the best me I could be if I invested my energy in changing what I could. I gave the okay, and he made the call, took me in to a charity based program, and I was blessed enough to find the most amazing Doctor who saved my life and would lead me back to hope, faith, self acceptance and living a life worth living. I will forever be indebted to both men, and know how unbelievably lucky I am that someone reached out, someone who could say, “You don’t seem well, are you okay? What’s going on? Can I help you?” Someone who came clean with their own struggle and told me their truth and their journey and lead me to a place where I could safely and without fear tell mine. If only everyone was so lucky.
Now, back to the heartbreaking shooters of late, all of them are at the age when serious, treatable mental illness begins to clearly reveal itself. Many people, family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors came forward after claiming they knew each was not “normal,” that strange alarming behavior had been witnessed or a distinct personality changes were beyond obvious and caused them to fear or avoid them. They had all been diagnosed or treated for mental illness at one time or another, but like most teens and young adults do not want to believe something is wrong with them or cannot accept it and either choose to remain in denial unwilling to be medicated, unable to accept or be helped by treatment, or not financially or culturally able to get the help they really need so they end up self medicate only to exacerbate the situation to its inevitable end. It is a vicious cycle, and usually so much pain and ugliness has to surface until the surrender to acceptance and the deep commitment to wanting to change emerges from the gallows of one’s soul.
So when you throw around “crazy” and “insane” like common knowledge when discussing this kid or those who came before and will inevitably come after, stop and think if there is anyone close to you or around you that may need help, a kind word of support, and how or what you can do to help them. Sometimes just sincerely asking someone if they are okay is enough. Like my ex-boyfriend or many of my friends in AA and recovery, sharing your own truth and your own experience freely and without judgement may save someone’s life in the end. After someone “snaps” it is too late. There are signs and symptoms prior-ALWAYS. The idea of someone “snapping” out of the blue is simply fiction, and it is up to every compassionate, understanding human being to know that those who suffer usually do not know what is wrong with them, are too ashamed or scared to ask or say anything, and usually will do whatever they have to do to avoid coming to terms with the truth and seeking treatment at all costs. After lives are lost or suicides come to pass it is simply too late to say, “are you okay?”