Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thoughts on the Aurora shooter

So it's happened again.   Another young man, armed with four weapons and 6000 rounds of ammo, all of which were purchased legally, has inflicted unspeakable pain and suffering and terror on innocent people who were simply living their lives.  As yet, the shooter, James Holmes, is an enigma.  Initially I was convinced that he was a sociopath, i.e., not someone with an Axis I major mental disorder, but rather someone with an Axis II personality disorder.  I thought that someone with schizophrenia would not have the cognition or volition to carry out such an elaborate plan, based on my own experience with Gabriel.  But after seeing Holmes in court, with his flat affect and spacey look, I began to think that he could, in fact, have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.  And I began to feel very, very sad.

That sadness turned to despondence as I read comments on various news sites and Facebook.  All too many people expressed the opinion that we should just skip the trial and "fry" him immediately.  So much for that pesky Constitution.  Others fantasized about all sorts of vicious torture and mob violence that should be inflicted on him.  Most were dismissive of the possibility of a severe mental illness as a cause of Holmes' horrific acts.  Some felt he was just faking in court.  Most seemed unable to believe or comprehend that something like schizophrenia could drive someone to do these things.  And some didn't care, making reference to the need to "put down a rabid dog."

Naturally my thoughts turned to Gabriel.  As I mentioned before, he would never have the cognitive skills nor the motivation to complete such a complex plan.  When he is actively psychotic, he is so nonfunctional that he can't even fix himself a sandwich or put his shoes on or answer the simplest question.

Gabriel is also the most nonviolent person I've ever known.  I could  count on one hand the number of times that, as a kid, he hit or even pushed another kid.  Even when other kids did mean things to him, like intentionally jumping on his arm when he was on the ground and breaking both bones in his forearm, Gabriel never sought revenge.  He only got his feelings hurt:  he simply couldn't understand why someone would be mean.

But, in spite of Gabriel's 26 years of nonviolence, I can imagine schizophrenia causing him to do things in a psychotic state that he would never do when he's in touch with reality.  When he had that 5 month long period of active psychosis in 2008-09, I realized that maybe he could reach that point.  That was when he told the doctor at the psychiatric ER that he thought about stabbing himself in the head to make the voices stop.  The doc told me to hide all the knives and sent Gabriel back home.  I hid the knives.   He was awake for days on end, and he stayed up all night in the living room, watching TV.  I could hear him from my bedroom, saying things like,  "Fuck you, bitch!" and "Die, bitch!"  It scared the crap out of me, until I realized that he was talking to the mafia guys who were threatening him.  (I still told Marcus to lock his door at night and I locked mine, too, and I slept with one eye open.)  I noticed him staring intently at me while we were eating lunch one day.  I asked him,  "When you look at me, what do you see?"  "Sometimes I see an alien," he answered.  Eventually he started trying to punch and kick the mafia guys  (I'm glad I didn't look like a mafia guy), and that's when the hospital finally admitted him.

It's also worth noting that, when Gabriel had his first psychotic break, at age 20, its onset was so fast it took my breath away.  Over a weekend in July, he was morose, and seemed worried about some joke I made about the police.  By Monday evening, he was convinced that someone was trying to kill him and that the police were in the room upstairs, listening to everything we said.

So if James Holmes has had an onset of schizophrenia, I can't help but feel some compassion towards him, in spite of the terrible things he did.  I know it's not a popular way of thinking.  People think I'm making excuses for him or trying to absolve him of responsibility.  Some think I'm "rooting" for the underdog.  I'm doing none of those things.  It's just that once you've lived with schizophrenia, and you've seen a loved one suffer because of it, you can't help but understand in a way you perhaps wish you didn't.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Remembering Anna B

On this day, 120 years ago, my grandmother, Anna Barthel Adams, was born in Muskogee, Indian Territory to Frank Barthel and Mary Elizabeth "Molly" Kerr.  

Molly died when Anna was only 10 years old.

Anna grew up to be a beautiful and very capable young woman.  After a properly chaperoned trip to New York City to visit relatives, she announced her intention to move there and support herself by working as a secretary.  Her father forbade her to do so, declaring that no daughter of his would work as some man's secretary!

Young Anna married Nathan Adams and, after their first child was stillborn, they had a son whom they named Hollis Fannin Adams.  Shortly before his second birthday, he became very ill, and when the doctor came to the house and told the young parents that the child would most likely die, Nathan had to be restrained by several men as he threatened to kill the bearer of such bad news.  Young Hollis died.

Hollis Fannin Adams

Soon Nathan left to serve as a medic on the battlefields of France in World War I.  His letters home told of the horrors he saw there, which disturbed him deeply.  Meanwhile, back at home, Anna gave birth to a daughter, my mother Esther.  Anna waited until Nathan returned to officially name her daughter, so for 5 decades, her birth certificate listed her only as "Baby Girl Adams."

When Nathan did return from France, he was a changed man.  Today we would say he had PTSD, but back then the condition was known as being "shell-shocked."  After several years of trying to deal with his rages and drinking, Anna finally had to have him committed to a VA hospital psychiatric ward, where he lived the rest of his life.  My grandmother applied for his veterans' benefits, but, much like the situation today, the VA denied that his condition was a result of his combat experiences.

Virtually a single parent, Anna had to support her two daughters in a time when opportunities were scarce for women.  She began teaching in a little two-room country school, Sally Brown School, when she didn't even have a high school diploma, but she went on to earn not only her diploma, but a BA and a Masters, all while working full-time as a teacher.  And I mean working!  She drove the dark country roads long before dawn to get to school early, so she could build a fire in the wood stove so the school room would be warm when her students arrived.  During the Depression, she gave the kids haircuts and ran a clothes closet out of the storeroom.  She got farmers in the area to donate a small part of their crops and created a veggie burger made out of blackeyed peas and ground pecans.  (The county extension agent did a survey of the nutritional status of students in the area, and the kids at my grandmother's school had the best nutrition out of all the schools.)  That little school was the center of that rural community, and Anna B, as she was affectionately known by friends and family, was the backbone of that school for over 40 years.

Anna B with her class at Sally Brown School

Anna tried to get work as a bookkeeper, too, but no one would hire a woman for that position.  Ironically the local business school hired her to teach bookkeeping to men however.

My brother and I went to Muskogee OK to stay with her for a week every summer, and how well I remember those times.  We pulled into her driveway after the sun went down, and we rushed to the porch to ring the doorbell with the crescent moon glowing on it.  She would come to the door, making a sort of cooing sound of pleasure at our arrival, and give us a kiss and hug, enveloping us in the smell of face powder and Sweetheart soap.  We spent our week driving from house to house, visiting friends and family.  I explored the books on my grandmother's book shelves, and she always gave me a few out-of-adoption textbooks discarded by the school.  She had an old treadle sewing machine and I liked to give my dolls rides, up and down, on the treadle.  As hard as I tried, I couldn't follow the adult conversation about relatives I couldn't keep straight, so I amused myself.  (Now I wish I had absorbed all those family stories!) 

Anna B passed away in 1974.  On her gravestone her life is described in one word:

These are the strong women in my life who taught me by example to be capable and independent.

My mother Esther, my grandmother Anna B, my Aunt Jing
Happy Birthday, Anna B!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Justice for Kelly Thomas!

On July 5, 2011 the police in Fullerton CA got a call that someone was breaking into cars near a transit hub.  Officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli arrived on the scene and saw a homeless, schizophrenic man named Kelly Thomas, who frequented the area.  Since this was the officers' regular beat, they were familiar with Thomas and surely knew that he showed signs of a serious mental illness.

The officers searched Thomas' backpack and found items that they decided weren't his.  They ordered the schizophrenic man to sit on the ground with his legs in front of him and his hands on his knees.  Officer Ramos snapped on a pair of latex gloves, held up his fists, and snarled,  "Now you see my fists?  These fists are getting ready to fuck you up."  Kelly Thomas, confused and frightened, attempted to move away.  Ramos took out his baton, and Thomas held up his hands in a defensive posture, with palms out to deflect the blows.

Ramos and Cicinelli beat Thomas with their batons, tasered him 5 times in the course of the beating and beat him 8 times in the face with the Taser gun.  Four other officers arrived and joined in.  Bystanders were not close enough to visually record the beating, but their camera captured the horrific sounds of the murder:  the zapping of the Taser and Thomas' agonizing screams and his repeated calls,  "Dad...Dad...Dad!"  The officers continued to beat him, even after he was still and making no further sounds.

Kelly Thomas was taken to the hospital.  When his father, a former sherriff's deputy, arrived at the hospital and came to his son's bedside, he could not even recognize his son.

Kelly Thomas died five days later.

His father and the community demanded an investigation into the indefensible murder.  Last week, the DA of Orange County announced that Officer Ramos had been charged with second degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.  Cpl. Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.

This story has been so disturbing to me.  Of course, many, if not most, citizens would be outraged by the deadly actions of a couple of rogue cops.  Very few parents could hear those heart-rending screams of "Dad" without feeling empathy for this grieving father.  And for those of us who are parents to sons or daughters who have schizophrenia, this is often our greatest fear...that someday our child will have a confrontation with police when he/she is actively psychotic...a confrontation that could end in tragedy.

I remember that many years ago, long before the onset of Gabriel's schizophrenia, there was a terrible incident in the middle class neighborhood where I worked.  A mother was having trouble with her adult schizophrenic son, and she called the police for assistance in getting him to the psychiatric ER at the county hospital.  When the police arrived, the son was in the front yard, wildly waving his arms.  They thought he was brandishing a weapon, and they shot him dead.  That incident stuck with me, and often comes to mind when Gabriel is having trouble.

During Gabriel's first psychotic episode, he had been furloughed from the county hospital, but by the next day, it was obvious that he was having difficulties.  He was outside, when the phone rang.  It was the local police department.  They told me that Gabriel had called 911 and told him he was smoking.  Of course they thought he was making a prank call and called to see what was going on.  This was the first and only time that the police in our little burg showed restraint and didn't show up at our house to bully or harass us.  Thank God they didn't.  Gabriel told me later, when he was lucid, that he saw helicopters chasing him and people trying to kill him, and he called the police and told them he was smoking in an attempt to get the police to come.  Of course, if they had come, the situation might have taken a turn for the worse, as paranoid as Gabriel was.

And then there was the five month period when Gabriel was very, very psychotic in 2008 (after the doctor monkeyed with his medications).  He laughed and paced 20 hours a day.  He stared at his aliens and the members of the Mafia who were threatening him.  He began to curse at the mafiosos, and punch and kick at them.  Most of the time he stayed in the house, but sometimes he went out in the front yard.  I was SO worried that neighbors would see him out there, laughing hysterically or punching at thin air, and that they would assume he was high on drugs and would call the police.  I was still working at the time, and it was so stressful to have to leave to see patients, not knowing what he would do.  I don't know for sure what would have happened if the police had come, but I think it could have turned out very badly, as paranoid as he was, and as confrontational as those police officers were.  When he is that psychotic, he is unable to answer the simplest of questions and unable to understand and follow the most basic directions.  I have no doubt that those officers, lacking adequate training, would interpret his response as defiance and resistance.

I hope Ramos and Cicinelli are found guilty of the most serious charges and that they are given the maximum sentence.  But beyond that, I hope that police departments in every city will strive to improve their training for all officers on how to best respond to people with serious mental illness.  And I hope that they will always try to improve their psychological screening process for their officers, so that they can weed out officers who have a tendency towards such violent and aggressive actions.

Monday, July 11, 2011

When the world out there wants an explanation...

When we are in our normal routine, everything seems pretty much, well, normal.  After 20+ years together, I know without having to think about it what the boys' deficits are and what I need to do to accommodate for them.  I know that if I'm standing to Marcus' right, he can't see me and if I don't speak or I'm not ready to spring out of the way, he will run right into me.  I have learned not to think out loud around Tevis, because if I casually mention that one of these days I need to take the dogs for their shots, he will ask me 30 times a day, every day,  "When are you going to take the dogs for their shots?"  And I know that if I tell Gabriel something, more than likely I will have to repeat it, maybe three, maybe five, maybe ten times, because he didn't understand what I said in the first place or because he has forgotten what I said 30 minutes later.  That's just how it is.  There is no need for explanations.

But then there are times when the world out there demands an explanation, when it robs us of our sense of normalcy.  I remember that whenever I had to take Marcus to the eye doctor or to the Commission for the Blind to discuss services he needed, he grew ever more uncomfortable and morose the longer we sat there discussing his visual impairment.  Day in and day out, as he went about his daily activities, he could almost forget that he was legally blind, but those appointments always reminded him, like a slap in the face.

Last Thursday, when the mail came, I saw that there was a Jury Summons for Gabriel, and I knew that this was going to be an uncomfortable situation.  For some reason, at the age of 59, I have never been called for jury duty, but almost every one of my kids has been.  When Marcus got a summons in Texas, I just sent it back with an explanation that he was unable to read and write, and he was excused.  I never said anything to him about it, because his inability to read is a real source of grief for him, and I felt he didn't need his nose rubbed in it.  Gabriel also got a jury summons in Texas, at a time when he was actively psychotic.  Again, I just sent it back myself, with an explanation that he was schizophrenic and hears voices.  The court was more than happy to excuse him.

But the court here wants a note from a doctor in order to be excused for a physical or mental disability.  Given the push for disability rights, I am not even sure that the doctor would automatically write a note excusing him simply for being schizophrenic.  I considered the idea that maybe he should just go, banking on the probability that he would not be selected.  But I could not knowingly put him in that situation.  He almost always listens to his Walkman radio, to drown out the voices, and without the radio in the court, he would probably go to sleep and be found in contempt or something.  And Gabriel has regressed so much cognitively since the onset of his schizophrenia, that I know he is not mentally capable of attending to, processing, and understanding testimony.  I debated with myself how best to say this, tactfully, to him.  So I showed him the summons, explained it, and asked him gently,  "Do you think you'd be able to concentrate well enough to be on a jury?"  I could see him debating with himself as well, and he finally said that he thought he would see if the doctor would give him a note "because of the voices."  Over the weekend his anxiety level was sky-high over this.

Sometimes I'd like to tell the world out there to mind their own bizwhacks...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day

Dad and Mother on their wedding day, 1937.
Mother and Dad were married 69 years.  They grew up during the Great Depression and married a few years before World War II.

Dad served in the Navy and worked for the US Government after the war, retiring at the age of 59.  He worked hard to provide for his family and to send my brothers and me to college.

Dad and I circa 1975.
This is one of the few photos I have of me with Dad, because he almost always was the one behind the camera.

Dad on the golf course in the early 1990s
This is really how I remember my dad the best.  After he retired, he played golf every day but Sunday, until back trouble made it impossible to play.

It was only in recent years that I really understood how much my parents had been shaped by the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II, and how much they sacrificed so that their children would have a better life.  I wish I had told Dad how much he meant to me, how much I appreciated all he had done for me. He died when he was 92, and it was almost as if he had lived so long, I thought he would live forever!

If your father is still living, never miss an opportunity to spend time with him and to tell him how much he means to you!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Looking back

Ward at a state institution circa 1960

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, there were no special education classes in our public schools.  People with disabilities were, for the most part, invisible.  I remember one student in my elementary who had had polio and walked with leg braces and crutches.  I remember one student in junior high who was blind and had a guide dog, but I don't know what special services he may have had.  I only remember seeing three people with developmental disabilities when I was growing up.  There were a brother and sister who could frequently be seen walking to Oakland Park to go fishing at the small lake.  (I later worked with the sister when she was transitioning out of a state school.)  The other person with developmental disabilities I was aware of was a girl who went through high school with us.  I suppose her parents must have insisted that she be in school; she went to  regular classes and the only thing she could do was write a few letters of her name on a piece of paper and turn it in.  I don't think I ever heard her speak.

Where were all those kids and adults with developmental disabilities?  I occasionally heard adults talking in hushed voices about someone who had a son or daughter "with the mind of a 2 year old."  But these people were well-hidden.  At that time, most parents were advised by their family doctors to place their delayed children in state institutions, and since there were almost no services in the community, most parents felt they had no choice but to follow that advice.

In 1974, fresh out of college with a degree in history and no marketable skills, in the midst of a recession, I got a job as an attendant at the Denton State School.  With my vast experience of having seen all of three people in my life with developmental delay, I jumped in with both feet.  I loved the kids in my charge, about 15 boys, ages 6-13.  I taught them self-help skills, sang songs to them, played with them.  I knew their little idiosyncrasies and what would make them laugh.  Back then, state institutions were very, well, institutional.  All the residents of the dorm slept in one large room with several rows of metal beds.  The day room was bare except for hard benches along the walls, with a TV on a bracket up high on one wall.  The bathroom was a large communal bathroom, with a row of toilets, a row of sinks, a raised tub, and a shower.  The kids whose parents still came to visit them wore clothes their parents provided.  The others wore clothes that were sewn by prisoners in state prisons; the outfits bore a striking resemblance to prison uniforms, in kids' sizes.  I sometimes bought regular clothes for some of those kids, and my dear mother sewed many lovely dresses for the girls on the neighboring dorm.  As much as the other staff and I tried, it was still an institution.

Because of this experience, I am deeply affected when I see folks with developmental disabilities out and about in our communities today.  When I see them out eating or shopping with their families, watch them play basketball or run track, see them pursuing their interests like art or dancing, see them working at the grocery store, my heart soars!  It is so moving to me, to think what a fundamental change has occurred in my lifetime.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Revisiting Tucson

From that dark day in Tucson, I have been personally touched by the shooting of Gabby Giffords.  Like most Americans, I hoped against hope for her survival and have cheered her amazing progress in rehabilitation.  But I also felt a personal connection to the events because of my sons, one of whom had a traumatic brain injury like Gabby, the other of whom is schizophrenic like the shooter Jared Loughner.

Like Gabby, my son Marcus had damage to the left side of his brain, resulting in language difficulties and right side weakness/spasticity.  And, like the congresswoman, he demonstrated the same drive and motivation to overcome his disabilities.

Yesterday I woke up and checked Facebook, and the first thing I saw was the new photos of Gabby, the first since the shootings.  The sight of her smiling face brought tears of joy and relief to my eyes!

With the release of the photos, little notice was given to the other news from the shooting.  It was reported on Saturday that Jared Lee Loughner's lawyers had once again filed a request with the court that they be notified if the hospital where he is being treated attempts to medicate him.  Even though he is so psychotic at this point that he cannot even cooperate in any way with the lawyers, they argue that the medications pose a risk to him because of their side effects and that they would hamper his ability to cooperate with them in his own defense.  They also argue that, since he is so out of touch with reality, even if he agrees to be medicated, he cannot actually give informed consent.

I found this article so disturbing!  It is quite obvious that the only goal of the defense attorneys is simply to keep Loughner out of the courtroom indefinitely.  They are acting in his best interests only as a defendant, not as a person.  Making sure he stays in a severe psychosis, unable to communicate or to know what is going on outside of his head, is in his legal best interests, but I think most people would agree that it is not in his best interests as a person.  I think it is very unfortunate that Loughner does not have a legally appointed advocate, who would be able to act with legal authority in Loughner's  personal best interests, as a person who is very, very ill, rather than as a defendant.  I know that most people don't really care about what would be best for him; they only want him to regain his faculties so he can go to trial.  But, even though he is a person for whom it's hard to feel any sympathy, I can't help but feel some for him, because I know the anguish, the torture, the hell, that Gabriel lives through when he is actively psychotic.  And I know that Jared Lee Loughner must be living in that same hell.

So it was a weekend of both good and bad news relating to the Tucson tragedy.  I hope that Gabby is soon able to return home and continues her remarkable progress.  And I hope that someone will do what is right for the shooter.