Written by Liza Long, republished from The Blue Review

Friday’s horrific national tragedy -- the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut -- has ignited a new discussion on violence in America. In kitchens and coffee shops across the country, we tearfully debate the many faces of violence in America: gun culture, media violence, lack of mental health services, overt and covert wars abroad, religion, politics and the way we raise our children. Liza Long, a writer based in Boise, says it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

While every family's story of mental illness is different, and we may never know the whole of the Lanzas' story, tales like this one need to be heard -- and families who live them deserve our help.

Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.

“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.

“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”

“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”

“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan -- they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.

We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.

At the start of seventh grade, Michael was accepted to an accelerated program for highly gifted math and science students. His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.

Several weeks into his new junior high school, Michael began exhibiting increasingly odd and threatening behaviors at school. We decided to transfer him to the district’s most restrictive behavioral program, a contained school environment where children who can’t function in normal classrooms can access their right to free public babysitting from 7:30-1:50 Monday through Friday until they turn 18.

The morning of the pants incident, Michael continued to argue with me on the drive. He would occasionally apologize and seem remorseful. Right before we turned into his school parking lot, he said, “Look, Mom, I’m really sorry. Can I have video games back today?”

“No way,” I told him. “You cannot act the way you acted this morning and think you can get your electronic privileges back that quickly.”

His face turned cold, and his eyes were full of calculated rage. “Then I’m going to kill myself,” he said. “I’m going to jump out of this car right now and kill myself.”

That was it. After the knife incident, I told him that if he ever said those words again, I would take him straight to the mental hospital, no ifs, ands, or buts. I did not respond, except to pull the car into the opposite lane, turning left instead of right.
“Where are you taking me?” he said, suddenly worried. “Where are we going?”

“You know where we are going,” I replied.

“No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!”

I pulled up in front of the hospital, frantically waiving for one of the clinicians who happened to be standing outside. “Call the police,” I said. “Hurry.”

Michael was in a full-blown fit by then, screaming and hitting. I hugged him close so he couldn’t escape from the car. He bit me several times and repeatedly jabbed his elbows into my rib cage. I’m still stronger than he is, but I won’t be for much longer.
The police came quickly and carried my son screaming and kicking into the bowels of the hospital. I started to shake, and tears filled my eyes as I filled out the paperwork -- “Were there any difficulties with… at what age did your child… were there any problems with.. has your child ever experienced.. does your child have…”

At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You’ll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing.

For days, my son insisted that I was lying -- that I made the whole thing up so that I could get rid of him. The first day, when I called to check up on him, he said, “I hate you. And I’m going to get my revenge as soon as I get out of here.”

By day three, he was my calm, sweet boy again, all apologies and promises to get better. I’ve heard those promises for years. I don’t believe them anymore.

On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”

And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise -- in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population.

With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill -- Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.

No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”

I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.

God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.

(Originally published at The Anarchist Soccer Mom.)

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  • Connecticut State Police Release Sandy Hook Report

    NEWTOWN, CT - UNSPECIFED DATE: In this handout crime scene evidence photo provided by the Connecticut State Police, shows the Newtown Tehcnology Team ID of Adam Lanza in the bathroom at the suspect's house on Yogananda St. following the December 14, 2012 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, taken on an unspecified date in Newtown, Connecticut . A report was released November 25, 2013 by Connecticut State Attorney Stephen Sedensky III summarizing the Newtown school shooting that left 20 children and six women dead inside Sandy Hook Elementary School. According to the report, a motive behind the shooting by gunman Adam Lanza is still unknown. (Photo by Connecticut State Police via Getty Images)

  • Connecticut State Police Release Sandy Hook Report

    NEWTOWN, CT - UNSPECIFED DATE: In this handout crime scene evidence photo provided by the Connecticut State Police, shows ammunition infrot of a gun safe in the south east bedroom (shooters room) at the suspect's house on Yogananda St. following the December 14, 2012 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, taken on an unspecified date in Newtown, Connecticut . A report was released November 25, 2013 by Connecticut State Attorney Stephen Sedensky III summarizing the Newtown school shooting that left 20 children and six women dead inside Sandy Hook Elementary School. According to the report, a motive behind the shooting by gunman Adam Lanza is still unknown. (Photo by Connecticut State Police via Getty Images)

  • Connecticut State Police Release Sandy Hook Report

    NEWTOWN, CT - UNSPECIFED DATE: In this handout crime scene evidence photo provided by the Connecticut State Police, shows a Bushmaster rifle in Room 10 at Sandy Hook Elementary School following the December 14, 2012 shooting rampage, taken on an unspecified date in Newtown, Connecticut . A report was released November 25, 2013 by Connecticut State Attorney Stephen Sedensky III summarizing the Newtown school shooting that left 20 children and six women dead inside Sandy Hook Elementary School. According to the report, a motive behind the shooting by gunman Adam Lanza is still unknown. (Photo by Connecticut State Police via Getty Images)

  • Connecticut State Police Release Sandy Hook Report

    NEWTOWN, CT - UNSPECIFED DATE: In this handout crime scene evidence photo provided by the Connecticut State Police, shows firearms and ammunition found on or in close proximity to shooters body at Sandy Hook Elementary School following the December 14, 2012 shooting rampage, taken on an unspecified date in Newtown, Connecticut . A report was released November 25, 2013 by Connecticut State Attorney Stephen Sedensky III summarizing the Newtown school shooting that left 20 children and six women dead inside Sandy Hook Elementary School. According to the report, a motive behind the shooting by gunman Adam Lanza is still unknown. (Photo by Connecticut State Police via Getty Images)

  • Pro Gun Control Group Hold Memorial On Anniversary Of Sandy Hook School Shooting

    CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 14: Shundra Robinson holds a picture of her son Deno Wooldridge, 18, while speaking at a gathering of gun violence victims and gun control advocates at Cornell Square Park on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting December 14, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. Thirteen people, including a three-year-old boy, were wounded when gunmen opened fire on a crowd gathered at the basketball courts in Cornell Square Park in September. Twenty children and 6 adults were killed when a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook School. Wooldridge was shot and killed while standing on his grandmother's porch on October 18, 2010. More than 400 people have been murdered in Chicago so far this year, most by gunfire. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Second Report On Sandy Hook Shootings Released

    NEWTOWN, CT - UNSPECIFED DATE: In this handout crime scene evidence photo provided by the Connecticut State Police, shows a rifle in the master bedroom in the suspect's house on Yogananda St. following the December 14, 2012 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, taken on an unspecified date in Newtown, Connecticut. A second report was released December 27, 2013 by Connecticut State Attorney Stephen Sedensky III gave more details of the the Newtown school shooting by Adam Lanza that left 20 children and six women educators dead inside Sandy Hook Elementary School after killing his mother at their home. (Photo by Connecticut State Police via Getty Images)

  • Second Report On Sandy Hook Shootings Released

    NEWTOWN, CT - UNSPECIFED DATE: In this handout crime scene evidence photo provided by the Connecticut State Police, shows a Glock 20, 10mm found near the shooter in Room 10 at Sandy Hook Elementary School following the December 14, 2012 shooting rampage, taken on an unspecified date in Newtown, Connecticut. A second report was released December 27, 2013 by Connecticut State Attorney Stephen Sedensky III gave more details of the the Newtown school shooting by Adam Lanza that left 20 children and six women educators dead inside Sandy Hook Elementary School after killing his mother at their home. (Photo by Connecticut State Police via Getty Images)

  • Second Report On Sandy Hook Shootings Released

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  • Twenty-seven small U.S. flags adorn a large flag on a makeshift memorial on the side of Highway 84 near the Newtown, Conn., town line as residents mourn victims killed by gunman Adam Lanza, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. On Friday, authorities say Lanza killed his mother at their home and then opened fire inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, killing 26 people, including 20 children, before taking his own life. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • In this photo taken with a fisheye lens, a message honoring the victims that died a day earlier when a gunman opened fire at an elementary hang from a bridge near Hawley Pond, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. The massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school elicited horror and soul-searching around the world even as it raised more basic questions about why the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, would have been driven to such a crime and how he chose his victims. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Mourners carry ornaments to decorate the Christmas trees at one of the makeshift memorials for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims, Monday,Dec. 17, 2012 in Newtown, Conn. Authorities say gunman Adam Lanza killed his mother at their home on Friday and then opened fire inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, killing 26 people, including 20 children, before taking his own life. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

  • Crayons sit on a table outside of a barbershop a day after a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn. The massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school elicited horror and soul-searching around the world even as it raised more basic questions about why the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, would have been driven to such a crime and how he chose his victims. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Crayons sit on a table outside of a barbershop a day after a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn. The massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school elicited horror and soul-searching around the world even as it raised more basic questions about why the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, would have been driven to such a crime and how he chose his victims. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Tamara Doherty

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  • Tamara Doherty, Jackie Gaudet

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  • Kristin Hoyt

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  • A Newtown, Conn., resident, who declined to give her name, sits at an intersection holding a sign for passing motorists up the road from the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. The massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school elicited horror and soul-searching around the world even as it raised more basic questions about why the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, would have been driven to such a crime and how he chose his victims. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • A snowflake ornament with the name of 6-year-old Noah Pozner hangs on a Christmas tree at a makeshift memorial in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn., Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, as the town mourns victims killed in Friday's school shooting. Pozner, who was killed Friday when gunman Adam Lanza opened fire inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School, will be buried Monday. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Twenty-seven small U.S. flags adorn a large flag on a makeshift memorial on the side of Highway 84 near the Newtown, Conn., town line as residents mourn victims killed by gunman Adam Lanza, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. Authorities say Lanza killed his mother at their home and then opened fire inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, killing 26 people, including 20 children, before taking his own life, on Friday. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    Twenty seven wooden stand in a yard down the street from the Sandy Hook School December 16, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-six people were shot dead, including twenty children, after a gunman identified as Adam Lanza opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Lanza also reportedly had committed suicide at the scene. A 28th person, believed to be Nancy Lanza, found dead in a house in town, was also believed to have been shot by Adam Lanza. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    Newtown residents Claire Swanson, Kate Suba, Jaden Albrecht, Simran Chand and New London, Connecticut residents Rachel Pullen and her son Landon DeCecco, hold candles at a memorial for victims on the first Sunday following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 16, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

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  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

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  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    US President Barack Obama speaks during a memorial service for the victims and relatives of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 16, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-six people were killed when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary and began a shooting spree. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN

  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    A woman covers her face as US President Barack Obama reads out the names of children killed during Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting at a interfaith memorial for victims and relatives at the Newtown High School on December 16, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-six people were killed when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary and began a shooting spree. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN

  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    A woman pays respects at a memorial outside of St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. On Friday, a gunman allegedly killed his mother at their home and then opened fire inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    Residents wait for the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    Cheryl Girardi, of Middletown, Conn., kneels beside 26 teddy bears, each representing a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, at a sidewalk memorial, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children.(AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

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  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    Ava Staiti, 7, of New Milford, Conn., looks up at her mother Emily Staiti, not pictured, while visiting a sidewalk memorial with 26 teddy bears, each representing a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    This photo provided by the family shows Jessica Rekos. Rekos, 6, was killed Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, when a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn., killing 26 children and adults at the school, before killing himself. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Rekos Family)

  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    A U.S. flag flies at half staff outside the Newtown High School before President Barack Obama is scheduled to attend a memorial for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

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  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

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  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

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  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    Residents greet each other before the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. President Barack Obama is to scheduled to speak at the event. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    Residents greet each other before the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the elementary school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak during the vigil. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

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    This image provided by the family shows Grace McDonnell posing for a portrait in this family photo taken Aug. 18, 2012. Grace McDonnell was killed Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, when a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 26 children and adults at the school. (AP Photo/Courtesy of the McDonnell Family)

  • Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

    This Nov. 18, 2012 photo provided by John Engel shows Olivia Engel, 6, in Danbury, Conn. Olivia Engel, was killed Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, when a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn., killing 26 children and adults at the school. (AP Photo/Engel Family, Tim Nosezo)

  • Emilie Alice Parker

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  • Noah Pozner

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    This handout image provided by ABC News, shows Nancy J. Lanza mother of suspected mass shooter Adam Lanza at an unspecified time and place. Twenty six people were shot dead, including twenty children, after a gunman identified as Adam Lanza opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Lanza also reportedly had committed suicide at the scene. A 28th person, believed to be Nancy Lanza was found dead in a house in town, was also believed to have been shot by Adam Lanza. (Family of Nancy Lanza / ABC News / Getty Images)

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    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20121215/us-school-shooting-victims/?utm_hp_ref=homepage&ir=homepage">Lauren Rousseau, 30,</a> had started a job as a full-time teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School this fall. She was killed in the Dec. 14 shooting at the school.

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    School psychologist Mary Sherlach, 56, was killed during an attempt to stop gunman Adam Lanza during the Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20121215/us-school-shooting-victims/?utm_hp_ref=homepage&ir=homepage">Sherlach and school principal Dawn Hochsprung</a> reportedly both lunged at Lanza in an attempt to protect the school's students and teachers. Both Sherlach and Hochsprung were killed.