When my son went crazy, he stalked the halls of the hospital and fired lasers from his eyes. He thrashed in the arms of orderlies whenever anyone came on the unit. He believed that the parents who visited their sick children were FBI profilers, executioners, murderers. When he saw me, he screamed that I was an imposter. He stood at the window and scanned the driveways for white vans, convinced they were filled with shooters who were coming to kill him. This was 2003 and the Virginia assassins were much in the news, as was the FBI, and the war on terror. For a very long time, he believed that armies marched on distant plains and killers would come in the night.
If he'd been able to put his hands on a gun, I have no doubt that he would have turned it on someone, if only so he could protect himself.
Lots of people are saying that James Holmes must insane. The chief of police called him "deranged." No one can understand how an Honors student in neurosciences could have turned such a horrific corner.
The night my son left our world for the one driven by the malfunctioning of his brain, he thought a disembodied head floated outside his window. He trashed his room. He ripped the wallpaper from the walls. He upended furniture and screamed. I stepped around the overturned chair, the spill of books on the floor, and asked him to get back in bed. I tucked him in and the next day, I sent him to school. When the school nurse called, she said that my son had to leave. She said he was dangerous. He had to go to the hospital and he had to go now.
Psychiatrists and comics make jokes about denial but I have met an awful lot of people who still tell their stories with shell-shocked expressions on their faces. These are parents who truly didn't see it coming, just as I didn't, or siblings who never imagined that this could happen. They all talk about the strange smiles and the bizarre outbursts, the disturbing language and the peculiar interests. They don't use the psychiatric language of thought disorder or paranoia. But they always say the same thing: they knew something was wrong but they had no idea how wrong. They say it came out of nowhere. They say there were no warnings. Instead, they got this: a wave that washed over them from which there was no backward slide, the sudden change as if the world itself was gone, the thing itself beyond their description. The moment their child put a knife in his eyes, tried to hang by the neck from a tree in the yard, plunged a fork into his stomach.
There is very little help for the seriously mentally ill in America. With Republican control of many states and the House at the federal level, governments large and small have abdicated their responsibility for the most vulnerable among us. The private sector has not found it profitable to step up. Our streets are filled with the wandering lost, off their meds, out of their minds. And some of them eventually come to have guns in their hands. And then they walk into a school, a mall, a theater.
In all of the calls for gun control, I have not yet heard anyone call for more services for the mentally ill -- or even a restoration of the services that have been lost, which includes access to care and ongoing treatment.
I lost a friend in the shootings at Virginia Tech. I feel his loss again whenever I hear that someone has been shot. I feel that loss in a visceral, gut-clenching way. I know what bullets do when they slam into flesh. I harbor no denial about what it is that James Holmes did when he got sick. I wept when I heard of the shootings in Aurora. I cried for those lost and for those injured and I cried for my dead friend and I cried for the young man who had carried the assault weapon in Virginia and I cried for the young man who carried the assault weapon in Aurora. But when I heard the news accounts of James Homes' claims to be the Joker and his crazy red hair, when I saw his body armor strewn across the ground, when I heard of his silence among his colleagues, his sudden academic difficulties, his withdrawal from school, I began to sob.
This is what happens when we persist in cutting the budgets for mental health care. This is what happens when we expect the private sector to care for those who cannot care for themselves. That shooting in Aurora? Just one more of a growing list of catastrophes that better care for someone who clearly has a mental illness could have prevented. These shootings are the fruits of our failures, rapidly advancing day by day.