A Reflection on Mothers, Children, and Mental Illness


I woke up this morning and there it was again, I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother. This essay is all over the internet, written by a woman who is using her personal story about experiences with her “mentally ill” son, whom she is “terrified of,” to appeal for more dialogue on the issue of mental health. As I write this, her son’s picture has been viewed by over a million people. They have read her accounts of what may be some of these young man’s most painful childhood memories.

Fortunately, Michael’s mother updated her blog with this statement, responding to another blogger that voiced concerns about children’s privacy rights:

“We would like to release a public statement on the need for a respectful national conversation on mental health. Whatever our prior disagreements, we both believe that the stigma attached to mental illness needs to end. We need to provide affordable, quality mental health care for families. We need to provide support for families who have a relative who is struggling.

We both agree that privacy for family members, especially children, is important. Neither of us anticipated the viral response to our posts. We love our children and hope you will respect their privacy.

Our nation has suffered enough in the aftermath of Newtown. We are not interested in being part of a ‘mommy war’. We are interested in opening a serious conversation on what can be done for families in need. Let’s work together and make our country better.

“Thanks, all!”

Liza Long was successful in raising awareness and in creating dialogue. Her essay went viral with surprising aplomb. It was pulled from her small blog, republished on a regional academic website, and then picked up by both The Huffington Post and AlterNet. At last check, it had been shared almost 400,000 times.

On twitter and Facebook, people are exchanging links to articles and bits of personal stories, opinions about whether or not it is abusive to share your child’s story in such a way.  People are discussing the culture of violence and gun control, Asperger’s and medications.

People have not, unfortunately, been so quick to realize that forced treatment is itself violent. The posts acknowledging the role of psychiatric drugs, largely SSRIs and stimulants, in aberrant violence are woefully few and far between.

I think that young man, Michael, has every right to be angry and hurt and confused.

I don’t know when being angry and hurt and confused became a mental illness.

As an adult survivor of early psychiatric treatment, a recovery educator, and as a parent, I am deeply concerned that we live in a world that is so punishing of difference that parents are pressured to hurt their children, taught to view them through diminished perspectives and to hear their cries for help and efforts to voice distress as symptoms, manipulations, and fits.

It is concerning to me that the relationship between a mother and a child can be so damaged that the child is harmed by the mother and the mother is afraid of her child. I actually have a lot of respect for Liza Long, because she was honest about how she felt and about how she perceived her son’s behaviors and attitudes.

Fear, sadly, is one of the common effects of mental illness.

This term “mental illness” was introduced in the age-old tradition of establishing formal pathologies for things which fall outside of the statistical norm or which appear to function in a way that is deemed useless or undesirable. While the technologies of medical “study” and “intervention” may have become a bit more “sophisticated.” The basic premise is the same: individual human struggle is due to a flaw in the individual human structure.

At age 12, I sat in a room with my mother, in an office that I didn’t want to be in, and listened to her discuss with a doctor what might be “wrong” with me.  She was concerned and she had every right to be. In fact, she had a responsibility to be and, as a mother, she had an instinct to be. I was her child and I was struggling. I was angry, violent, suicidal, sullen, and rude.

Do you have any idea what a 12 year old girl’s fist can do to a door? Quite a bit of damage, as it turned out. There have been times that my mother was scared of me.

At that appointment, my mother found out that my IQ, like Liza Long’s son, was “off the charts.”  She listened to the numbers and she nodded, smiling at me. “Well, we’ve always known she was smart.” I don’t know if my parents told those first doctors about the speech classes the school sent me to when I was younger, about my social awkwardness, my sickness when it was time to leave the house in the morning, to ride into town, to go to school.

I don’t know if they told those doctors that I had just watched our family land be cleared and developed or that I was terrified of my math teacher or that, the year before, I had gone to Catholic school for a year, where an 8th grader had kissed me on the bus.

The next year, following a defiant underage late-night driving escapade in a slightly older girl’s mother’s car, I was sent to my first stay at a residential treatment facility.  It was there that I was first told that I had a “mental illness” and that there were pills that I would need to take every day, even after I was able to return home.

When I did return and I had to go back to school, everyone knew where I had been. I was, from then on, “a kid who had problems.”

I will never claim to be a person who didn’t actually have significant difficulty in my experience of living. I definitely struggled for many years. I have scars and records, memories sharp and foggy of things that, in retrospect, I am lucky to have survived. I did though, and I have recovered from my diagnosis of a severe and persistent mental illness. This does not mean that I have learned to “live with my illness” or to “manage it.”

This means I have recovered from the idea that the way I experience the world is an illness.

None of this is to say that people do not have difficult times. Some people experience the world in ways that can be very challenging and, at times, extreme for them. This is not to say, even, that some people’s brains don’t work differently than others. In fact, no two people experience the world in the same way.

However, the construct of “mental illness” tells us that some of these differences are more concerning than others. By and large, the dangers of mental illness are closely related to being treated as if one is mentally ill, from self-destroying social and emotional abuses, to the hopelessness of believing that one has an intrinsic flaw in one’s brain that will never allow them to stray too far from being sick and caught in struggle. Further, the “treatment” of “mental illness” itself is damaging, as evidenced by the many deaths and disabilities caused by forced and coercive interventions and chemical toxicity.

My family spent many thousands of dollars trying to help me and, as it turned out, the help hurt me more.  Further, the idea that I had something out-of-whack in my brain drove an invisible wedge between me and the rest of my family, who spoke in measured tones and who would glance at me furtively, wondering if I was about to explode.

The years I was on SSRI’s, drugs that are known to cause violent and extreme mood states, I was explosive. I slammed things. I screamed. I hit myself in the face and put my head into a wall so hard I saw stars. I did not want to do those things. I was as if a switch got flipped and all the feeling I had ever felt…all the rage and grief and fear…it all came out at once and I’d always end up crying, wanting to go home, even if I was home.

It wasn’t until 20 years later that I learned that the way I process information affects how I feel and that not everybody’s brain works like mine. Nobody’s brain works the same way.  Nobody feels the same way about things. We are all in our own little worlds, together alone.

For some, the world is a loud and clumsy place, full of laughter that isn’t understood and a deep observant sadness. For others, clothes hurt and school is a nightmare. The lights buzz. The cafeteria stinks. The kids are mean and the teachers are uninspiring. For some, it is all very confusing and hard to keep up with. The frustration alone brings tears and anger.

No parent wants to see their child struggle. I am the mother of children sometimes remind me a bit of myself as a kid, kids who are bright and sensitive, who feel things deeply and who sometimes aren’t easy to comfort when they have simply had enough. I understand how it feels to not know what to do, to see that your child is struggling and to find that efforts to “make it better” seem to cause more upset.

I have made appointments and I have filled out long questionnaires and have watched for signs of this and for signs of that. I have stuffed a crying child into the car seat and I have sat in the waiting room. I have tried to be the calm, perfect mother as I watched the blood be drawn, ruling out any and all diseases and syndromes for which there are actual tests. I have sat across the desk, like my own mother did, and listened to the doctor tell me all about a child who she had met approximately eight minutes prior.

It wasn’t radical holistic righteousness that turned our family sharply away from pediatric behavioral interventions, it was a quote, found in the book Not Even Wrong, by Paul Collins, in which he writes about his experience as the father of a child with autism. I was reading everything I could get my hands on and some of what I read was terrifying and some was hopeful. This helped the most:

“…the ultimate square pegs, and the problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It’s that you’re destroying the peg.”

There aren’t easy answers. It is not as if the parents of neurodivergent kids can structure the perfect educational environment and can create safe social spaces that respect autonomy and diversity of communication, interests, and experience. Can they? In most cases, no. The demands of modern culture and economy depend on monolithic public schooling, often in environments that are assaulting to the senses and damaging to self-esteem.

Can families find skilled and conscientious supporters to help empower their children to be confident in the worth of their differences and to find self-determined ways to navigate challenges?

Can parents become, themselves, skilled and conscientious supporters of their children?

Can parents of a child who is struggling turn to anyone other than a mental health professional?

Yes. They can turn to their child and they can look at him or her and they can ask them, “What do you need?”

Often, children don’t know how to articulate what they need.  However, they will try to tell you. Sometimes, when children “act out,” they are trying to tell you.

It is safe to assume that all children need love, they need security.  They need trust, in both themselves and in their caregivers. As someone with lived experience in this area, it is very difficult to trust people who call the police to take you away because they don’t understand what is going on with you.

What does it feel like when the people you most need to believe in the strength of your future and the sincerity of your struggle sit down and inform you that there is something imbalanced in your brain and that it means you’ll probably always struggle and that it means, also, that people may be scared of you, because they don’t understand.

Do you understand?

The idea of mental illness creates and sustains stigma, by informing us that people who struggle with their humanity in ways outside of the acceptable range of normality are inherently flawed,

What are the costs and benefits of investing in a pathologized view of your child?

What are the other options?

We now know that even people who have been diagnosed with “severe, persistent mental illnesses” can and do recover. We know, also, that many people live in the world in ways that are outside the boundaries of normative function but which suit them just fine.

Why would we accept a prognosis for ourselves and for our children that is so hopeless and fraught with anticipated trouble?

There is more and more evidence that trauma and abuse contribute mightily to people’s experiences of distress. However, the use of the term “mental illness” informs us that human difficulty is due to a brain disease and that those who have brain diseases must have these diseases “treated,” even if that treatment must be forced and even if it seems to do more harm than good.

People are beginning to realize that the “progressive” nature of many mental illnesses, the tendency for people to get worse rather than better, is very likely due to the damage caused by pharmaceutical therapies and profound psychosocial abuses. The voices of the people harmed by medical model interventions are largely disregarded by the biopsychiatric industry, as are the voices of the people who’ve recovered from difficulties that they were once told they could not recover from, that the best they could hope for was to “stabilize” and to “manage.”

Parents can’t stand it when their children are unhappy. It hurts parents to see their child struggle. They want to make it better. They want it to stop.

Parents will do anything to try to help.  They will miss work, they will fill out forms. They will take out loans and they will even, if asked to, hold their own child down, believing that it is what must be done to help.

I don’t think parents realize the exchange they are making when they buy into ideas and treatment that, over time, have the potential to erode some very basic relational/trust bonds between child and caregiver.  When I was in the midst of recognizing what had gone wrong in my story, I angrily told my mother, “You believed the professionals over me! You even trusted the professionals over yourself…and they didn’t even know what they were talking about!”

When the professionals teach mothers to see their children as ill, both mother and child are harmed in that they lose something essential to the parent-child relationship, which is the ability to see their children clearly, with compassion, love and a commitment to their brightest possible futures.

In my home, we don’t use the term mental illness, other than to occasionally remark that it is a shame that some people choose to see the human condition, rare and wonderful in each of us, as something that is sick.  We don’t use diagnostic terminology. Our lives have been written in relation to the system driven constructs of mental health for too long.

Who is to say, at this point, that the peg doesn’t fit because it is square. It is entirely possible that the hole was cut the wrong shape.

I stand by my statement that Michael has every right to be hurt, angry, and confused. In fact, I think every child in forced treatment has a right to be hurt, angry, and confused. Chances are good that being hurt, angry, and confused are what got them put into treatment in the first place, because the world has grown too busy for the messiness of a child’s broken heart, too clean for the jagged edges of their deepest fears, too normal for the mismatched intensity behind their closed eyes.

At the end of the day, which began hours and hours ago, with coffee on the porch and a small sigh of dismay to see that Liza’s essay had gone even further, I am thankful that I had a chance to think about how her story is also my story, and how my story is also her son’s story.  I feel hopeful that with dialogue, the conversations we need to have can be had and that these small tragedies amidst the much larger tragedy of children lost and parents wounded will somehow help us to see that the problem in this country is not one of mental illness, but one of intolerance, false science and brutally irresponsible treatment, trauma and grief, bonds broken and dreams dashed.

I am deeply sorry that some children become so wounded that they really do become ill, sick in their souls, ravaged by pain and rage, their brains addled by anti-this and anti-that, left with no safe place in the world and no one they can trust to speak to.

We have a responsibility, all mothers and as fathers and also as sisters and brothers, to protect one another from a fate so desolate and so damaging as that.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. yes, Faith, thank you.
    Much of this dialogue has been chaotic and reactive which has been totally understandable but hard for those without lived experience to understand quite often…

    Your response is one that will cross boundaries I think…that’s a lovely talent to have.

    And I’m so glad you’ve underscored that forced psychiatric treatment is VIOLENCE. If people don’t understand the tragic irony inherent in that fact we will truly never resolve these issues.

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  2. There are so many voices and people that I value.

    I have to say that you three women are all sources of true strength and inspiration to me. You all have nurtured me in your own ways. Ha! Monica, you don’t even know how much guidance I get from receiving the posts to Beyond Meds. I get them on my phone and, always, they help keep my head clear, my heart informed, as I think about all of this…all of this…life.

    I sinerely wish that people who didn’t think that there was any other way but to be frightened and sad could know that there are other ways…and that those ways lead to happiness.

    To be happy we, as humans, must simply be who we most truly are in the best possible ways for the most possible good.

    Thanks for appreciating who I am.

    Much Love!

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  3. Thanks Faith, for giving an insight into both the mother and child perspective of the challenges facing us nowadays in daily living. Compounded by mental illness labels and forced treatment. We’re all in danger of being swept away by a hurricane not of our own making.

    As a mother and grandmother I know what you mean about trying to make the pain stop, and even trying to prevent any pain occurring. Preferring that my sons wouldn’t have to learn by their mistakes but rather learn by my mistakes. But it couldn’t be prevented and they had to go through their own trial and error sort of a thing. And I had to stand by and watch it. Then be prepared to help, if and when. It doesn’t get any easier when they are all grown up with bairns (children) of their own.

    It’s really tough today for mothers, I think, compared to even a few decades ago. The world is moving at a fast pace and to stand still in the midst of it is not easy. And I like your comment that “We are all in our own little worlds, together alone”. Mothers carry their babies inside them for 9 months, together as one, and then at childbirth the separation starts. For both. It’s a challenge.

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    • Oh, thank you, Chrys for so wonderfully articulating that bittersweet dance between protecting and letting live.

      Through my work, I had the chance to become a Love and Logic facilitator. It’s a parenting program that is pretty big here in the States and does a fair job of offering strategies to learn how to honor and respect children’s choices, let them learn from the natural consequences of their mistakes, and to approach one another with empathy and perspective. I teach the class in a setting the serves a lot of people that are dealing with things like intergenerational abuse, trauma, poverty…and it’s just so hard for people…it’s sad and remarkable, how much the odds are stacked against families and kids these days.

      So many people are strained in so many ways, all struggling.

      There is so much we don’t talk about when we talk about so-called mental health. My background is in sociology and cultural studies and I just cannot help to see this more as an issue of societal ills than anything that may be mysteriously imbalanced in any child’s brain.

      Not only are we all alone together, we are all connected.

      When I read about those children that died last Friday, I thought of my own children. When I read about Liza Long’s son, I felt my own story.

      I remember that after I had my first child, I felt that I had become part of some big and sacred club, because only mothers know how it feels to be a mother.

      I have so much faith that mothers and fathers really are trying to do what they truly believe is the right thing to do. It makes me so sad. I want to say to them, “Wait! Stop! Don’t give up hope! Please, try to see it another way! The “imbalance”? It’s fear! It’s stress! It’s sadness! The cure is to live and let live and to live together! Please, don’t see your child as sick! YOUR CHILD IS NOT SICK!”

      It just feels so urgent in my heart.

      Much Love.

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  4. My mother has not written an essay, been critiqued under a microscope, nor have I committed heinous acts that would have spurred those debates. Instead, I was like Faith Hyne’s in my adolescence. I spent my struggling through dysfunction, parents infidelity, their subsequent divorce (but not before years of “functioning dysfunction” living amid the chaos & a hemisphere away from other family), and then a codependent mother who suddenly felt abandoned & looking for her next sickness to fix… my pubescent, angry, confused, displaced (now, back from the other side of the world) psyche made for an easy target.

    We were living with extended family, then in a small apartment right after the divorce. There was the new school in the small town of kids who had grown up together. My mom waged her battle against “the system” to get me seen by the right people, so that I could live “normally” with her and my sister and stop interrupting the calm she was convinced existed on the other side of my “sickness. I am sure that I did seem to be unresponsive to the pharmacy of medications I’d been given. I don’t remember staying on any 1 drug longer than 2-3 months. That includes the combinations of 3-4 medications at once. There was little to no structure in my life—remember, co-dependent mother, she’s the victim of me and I can’t be controlled. The few counseling sessions I remember we’re beyond frustrating as I listened to the parallel universe that existed for my Mom. The one where I was absolutely uncontrollable and continually destroyed the mirage of calm—all, of course, unfixable by the accounts of failed medication regimens.

    I’ve been free of any significant mental health diagnoses, while still regularly engaging in constructive therapy, since I left the area my Mom and her family live in. I have a fantastic and healthy marriage. I’ve earned my Bachelor’s degree in nursing and I’m currently in a Master’s program. I have an unnatural obsession with the field of psychology. I’m so intrigued by all of it. I attribute this, entirely, to those who had the obsession with my adolescent psyche, but never stepped back and let their roles as children, siblings, parents, or friends allow them the common sense to say, “her psyche is the only thing we haven’t addressed.”

    (My mother remains much the same as she was then and I have not spoken to her in the last three years. It was the single most freeing decision of my mental health.)

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    • “the parallel universe that existed for my Mom”

      Thank you so much for sharing insight on the contexts in which struggle arises.

      I cannot help but to see how much relational pathology there can sometimes be in the space between mothers and children, all sorts of unmet needs and misappropriations of meaning and identity. I think if mothers were more honored in their role and more supported in general that maybe they wouldn’t be so vulnerable to the mental health system.

      For a lot of moms, their kids therapists and doctors are the only one’s that listen to their (the mother’s) fears and worries and affirm to them that, “Yes, it is hard, but you are strong, you are doing the right thing…”

      Unfortunately, in these therapeutic relationships the “right thing” is often forcing ones child to take medication that is physically and neurologically harmful to them and investing in a belief system that puts mothers in a position that requires them to view their child as having a brain disease that promises them a life of struggle and a lonely childhood of restraints and appointments.

      It takes so much strength to walk away from toxic family, but it’s true, in order to heal some people have to distance themselves from the source of so many wounds to self and value.

      The thing is that, even if we walk away from family, they are still a part of us. We then become people who have walked away from our families, because our families became unsafe for us in some way.

      It is so amazing to me that the mental health system has the power to completely change our personal histories, to alter the outcomes of our stories…and that, so often, people’s lives are written all wrong by the professionals…and we pay them to do this!

      What, really, are we buying?

      A lot of adults who are in the mental health system began mental health treatment when they were younger, often in the context of trauma, familial disruption, or other major stressors. Would they still be in the mental health system if the mental health system were doing its job?

      What is the job of the mental health system, anyway?

      Oh, I shudder to think what is going to happen when ALL THESE KIDS grow up…if they survive.

      I don’t want any more kids to kill themselves because they are scared of what might become of them.

      Thanks for sharing your story…it’s so important to look at the bigger picture.

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    • Wow.

      “remember, co-dependent mother, she’s the victim of me and I can’t be controlled.” “The one where I was absolutely uncontrollable and continually destroyed the mirage of calm—all, of course, unfixable by the accounts of failed medication regimens.”

      Gave me chills.

      I was 11 years old when I ran away from a sexually abusive step-father, whom I had been alone in the house with. I ran to my father’s parents’ house where shortly after arriving, the phone rang. It was the monster.

      Through gnashed teeth and threats of violence (usual), I was “embarrassing her” and commanded to go home immediately. Just a few months later, the sexually abusive step-father kicked me and my older brother out of the house on New Year’s Eve. 10PM, New Year’s Eve, an 11 and 13 year old wandering the streets at night. I actually hate New Year’s Eve, for way too many reasons.

      I had been confronted by monster when sexually abusive step-father told her that I had been locking my bedroom door at night. She told me to STOP locking my bedroom door.

      I got my first period on a day when monster was hosting a dinner party. She announced to the entire dinner table that I started my first period. For years, she forced her own periods on me – telling me every time she got her period, describing it in detail, whining and complaining to me. Her invasiveness and annihilation of my boundaries are still evident today.

      I eventually called the state and went into foster care, which resulted in my baby brother being taken away from monster and her parental rights terminated. It wasn’t HER fault that he was taken away. It was MY fault.

      I had that “you’re sick” thing put upon me as a child, from which she derived sympathy from others. She is a “master” manipulator and a genuine pathological liar. The word ‘sick’ itself is a huge trigger for me. Monster tells everyone her version about me, “she’s sick”. And they believe her.

      I haven’t seen my own daughters in over three years. I won’t be seeing my own kids this Holiday season but the state of New York thinks it’s okay for monster to see my kids. The state of NY is actually sending my kids to Massachusetts at the end of this month, to visit monster. Three years away from their Mom, my kids are successfully brainwashed. Even they say it, like parrots: Mom, get the help you need. You’re sick.

      It sort of burns me in Hell.

      Nobody truly knows a woman unless they have her as a mother.

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      • After reading this I was suddenly struck by the fact that you’re a true survivor. You are a strong individual. However, I know that this doesn’t take the pain away. I’m not sure how one ever really gets rid of the pain, unless it’s by telling one’s story.

        I agree, you never truly know a woman unless you have her as a mother.

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  5. Brava! What a gorgeous piece. Letter perfect, in my opinion. This is so close to my heart, and is my same understanding about how mental health issues can originate and flourish.

    “Can families find skilled and conscientious supporters to help empower their children to be confident in the worth of their differences and to find self-determined ways to navigate challenges? Can parents become, themselves, skilled and conscientious supporters of their children? Can parents of a child who is struggling turn to anyone other than a mental health professional?”

    Indeed! Yet, families seem to not have been doing terribly well, in general, at creating grounded, heartfelt, authentic, emotionally and spiritually generous individuals. Neither has society. (I’m sticking here to referring to American society, which is what I know from lived experience). Perhaps some pretty healthy and generous folk, here and there, but this group is being glaringly overpowered by what seem to be dominant toxic influences, whether it be damaging family dynamics or a culture of social ills—both of which we seem to have, in abundance.

    What comes first, individual or social healing? Certainly, one stems directly from the other. How can an individual be healthy with no healthful support, when it would seem that a sick society would prefer to prevent healing of the sick, based on esoteric power dynamics? By the same token, how can a society heal when its individual members are literally driven mad by that same society? These are the questions on which I currently meditate. In the meantime, I work to keep myself healing and growing in my spiritual awareness every day. I feel that’s really the best I can do for myself, my family, and for my society.

    Thank you for your wonderful and enlightened article!

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    • I wish there was some way to burst the media bubble that surrounds the voices of survivors. I mean, wow, here you have a AN ENTIRE WEBSITE of esteemed and compassionate professionals, many of whom have worked the front-lines of humanity for decades and many of whom are survivors and many of whom actually work for and in some cases direct the mental health systems…and yet the media spreads inaccurate vitriol that distorts, manipulates, and misleads people who are so trusting of what the “experts on the tv” say…and it ruins people’s days, it puts worry and fear into their hearts, changes the way they see the world, they way they see each other.

      There are actually so many solutions that could be implemented, evidence based and well established ways to support healing and true recovery.

      However, our culture and media are aligned with the medical model and its language and its treatment, which really are based on absolutely terrible ideas about human beings.

      Here’s another thing, you know how my parents found out that I was smart? Well, I wasn’t just smart, I was a “genius.”

      (Note: Heart is far more important than head.)

      Nobody paid much attention to that.

      I am not being conceited or boastful or self-promoting when I suggest that if someone gets 2 points shy of a perfect score on the GRE Logic and Analysis test, without really paying attention, people should probably PAY ATTENTION…especially if this person (after 23 years of involuntary participant observation and hundreds and hundreds of hours of deep contemplation) figures out that what is called a “mental illness” often has everything to do with being brilliant in our own ways.

      Somewhere, everywhere, there are little kids with golden hearts and fine minds that figure and fix and THEY ARE BEING HURT and damaged and…scared…and alone.

      Right across town from my house is a hospital with a locked pediatric psych unit. I can see it from my porch.

      There are ways to help kids learn to heal fear and anger, to manage the hugeness of their feelings and the depth of their wondering and how to dance freely while being out-of-step with the world.


      The world needs them.

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  6. Wonderful piece, Faith. I’m glad you held out sympathy for the mother. We’ve all been in her shoes, tired and stuck in a confrontational rut with a particular child. In my case, it was actually my middle son, who never got saddled with a mental health label, but boy, was he a challenge. He didn’t then, and still won’t now, do anything if it comes with an order attached. I would yell, he would yell. I got to the point where I was bribing him with “treats” if he would get through the day without a major shouting match between us. (I know, I know – poor parenting skills – I was desperate!)After one particular incident, my husband and I took him to a psychologist who fixed the problem in about two sessions. The psychologist said to me, your son is like Huckleberry Finn. He wants to do what he wants to do and he doesn’t want all these restrictions placed on him. He wants to be free to roam. (Suburban mothers live in fear of the man in the white van snatching children – Eyewitness News stuff that we mothers tend to stupidly pay attention to, to the detriment of our children.) The penny dropped for me. We moved just after that to a city with a great transportation system. He was 11. I said, “here’s your bus pass, kid” – come home when you are good and tired. Things got better for us and today I would say we have a pretty good relationship. I learned not to even try to control him.

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  7. Thanks so much, Rossa, for commenting. You’re a wise mother and it’s true, those simple shifts in thinking about power/control/ self-determination can make a huge difference.

    I used to bribe my kids, too, and wait on them hand and foot. I was a perfect helicopter mother, hovering and swooping in to save the day.

    I don’t do that anymore, because I realized I was ripping them off of the joy of learning to (age appropriately) take care of themselves and that, if I did that, well…then they wouldn’t be very likely to be able to take care of themselves, which seemed somewhat opposite to the function of parenting in societies.

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  8. It’s very interesting for me to see the other side where young people were over treated. The adults in my life didn’t believe in treatment and just told me to snap out of it. I didn’t know how to help my son nor could I afford any medical assistance and the schools were terrible at helping me to figure out what was going on with him. At age 30 he still struggles with the same problems that I have plus substance abuse. I in turn have felt like a horrible mother – yes I know – co-dependence. So the cycle turns. Not that we are not working on it, we are.

    Things are looking better each day. But for those that were over treated, at least your parents cared enough to try and do something instead of telling you that there was nothing wrong with you and leaving you to feel like you belonged nowhere, least of all in your own family. What does it all mean?

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    • “What does it all mean?”

      That’s such a wonderful question. Just to clarify, in a way, my family did tell me there was nothing wrong with me…they told me I was special, and that I was just fine, and that the root of my problems was not something real and true that could be unraveled but the irrational effects of a presumed chemical imbalance.

      Confusing? Yes, indeed.

      My hope is that people can find some inspiration to consider the role of prescribed ideas and externally imposed explanations for the landscapes that make our internal world, from which our movements and meaning in the world are charted.

      Defiance played a big role in my recovery. I was like, wait a second, what the hell am I letting happen to my story?

      This was a couple of years ago, sitting in an old green chair and so shut down I could barely breathe. “This is what it must feel like to slip into catatonia.” I felt as though my mind were finally completely severed from my body and that something vital in my heart had sputtered out. This was an afternoon alone, following a particularly traumatic and fear/stigma-fueled period of psychosocial/emotional crisis that left me feeling fairly convinced that I was damned to be a chronic mental patient and that nobody would ever let me be anything else. I was tired of it. I was sick of it, deeply ill.

      Then I pictured what would happen if I gave up. I pictured my parents picking me up from a group home to wheel my silent body to my children’s graduations…and how I would be the saddest story that nobody would ever talk about and how that would affect my children’s stories…and how my own mother would look so small and old behind the wheelchair.

      I felt something crumble a little in me and I simply refused to let that be my story.

      …and then I realized that, in my heart, I could make my life whatever I wanted it to be, that I could make whatever meaning I wanted of it and that I did not have to view my experience through a fatalist lens.

      We all just do the best we can do at the time, given the circumstances and the resources we may have available. One thing that has been invaluable to me has been perspective and mindfulness, breaking the day into a hundred little crossroads, thinking about what I might be able to make of each moment.

      “How do I want this to unfold?”

      “What do I want to come of this?”

      “How do I want to participate in this?”

      “Who do I want to be?”

      Things do start to look better each day, huh?

      I find that I am often excited about tomorrow, even if it is just a usual day…not that there is any such a thing as that.

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  9. Reflections on Connecticut – I have to say as someone in recovery now for many years that I always think very heavily on events such as the one recently in Connecticut. I remember the first such similar episode in Columbine years ago. I remember my first reaction was horror but by second reaction was a sad kind of laughter. Not laughter at the actual events but laughter at how the media was portraying the perpetrators. Over and over and over we heard “oh he was the nicest person, he never got angry, he was the last person in the world we would ever expect….etc. etc” I laughed inside because I was once one of those individuals in my own life in my own high school. Thanks be to God that I never had outward violent tendencies, but did I carry around that kind of anger inside of me, ABSOLUTELY!!!! And would I have been described as the nicest person, the ideal student, etc, yes you bet I would. My course was a different one, my life imploded by the time I reached college, my anger turned inward into fifteen years of schizophrenia and hopelessness.
    So what am I saying? I am saying that we need more school social workers, school psychologists, and more education on mental illness in general. In my high school, we were taught about sexuality and contraception but no one was given and education about basic signs of mental illness. How many kids begin to have symptoms of mental illness by their high school years? Millions and millions. Why is mental illness in the closet? Why don’t we teach parents and especially kids about it??? In my life as a social worker, I see over and over, the kind of dysfunctional families from which a mentally ill person comes from. If the family can’t provide, who will? Who will stem the anger? Who will reach out their hand when the anger gets so enormous that a kid wants to lash out? It has to be the school, it simply has to be.
    Let’s get well trained people in the schools, let’s educate our teachers, let’s educate our parents, lets especially educate our kids so that mental illness is out of the closet.
    When people react to these tragedies by blaming it on mental illness, they do so because it’s the easier thing to do than to look in the mirror and ask themselves, is there something I can do to eliminate the stigma? Is the answer to simply “blame” these killings on mental illness or is to promote PREVENTION!!! Mental illness does not happen in a vacuum, it is only scary when it goes ignored for years and years.

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  10. “At age 12, I sat in a room with my mother, in an office that I didn’t want to be in, and listened to her discuss with a doctor what might be “wrong” with me. She was concerned and she had every right to be. In fact, she had a responsibility to be and, as a mother, she had an instinct to be. I was her child and I was struggling. I was angry, violent, suicidal, sullen, and rude.”

    This, for me, captures the “paternalistic” nature of society? As Murray Bowen pointed out in the 1950’s, “society functions just like an extended family?” The Doctor, “the health care professional,” is perhaps “saddled” with “projection” of paternalistic needs, as the good enough parent we never had?

    Charged with prividing “the missing experience,”your ok my child, everything is alright and nothing to fear, but the sensation of fear “inside?” If Daddy had been there? Would he have held me in arms, all through the night? Would he have imparted the vital need of a “secure base,” with his embrace?

    Would my good enough parents have downloaded, as if by magic, the neural imprinting of my brian/nervous systems requirment of “secure base” through their loving gaze? Loving Eyes – Like a neural wifi connection, ensure the magic, in that generational transmission of affect/emotion and crucial need of positive vitality effects?

    Sadly, most Doctors simply “rationalize” these vital secure-base needs, perhaps not having really experienced them themselves, with own good enough parents? Does our tendency for verbal diarrhoea have much to do with “being fully present” for each other? Imparting, by “the transmission of affect” those oh so vital “attachment” needs?

    Its wonderful writing Faith, I wish I had your gift and your determination to take us beyond the typical reactions of fear & loathing.

    Best wishes,

    David Bates.

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    • Hey David – Not sure if you’ll catch this, ’cause it’s been a few days.

      Time is so slippery around the holidays and there is always so much to say. It meant a lot to me that you responded to this and that you appreciated it.

      I have a great deal of respect for your insights and the way you approach these ideas about “mental health” and human experience.

      I just read over your comment again and I so love these questions:

      Does our tendency for verbal diarrhoea have much to do with “being fully present” for each other? Imparting, by “the transmission of affect” those oh so vital “attachment” needs?

      I have often thought, quite consciously, that my long-windedness and the impetus of emotion that writes so many of my words may well be rooted in a basic human need to assert myself to the world and to hope that someone finds some value in me.

      There is something very damaging about being raised in a framework of external definition that defines one as never being quite okay, bringing a hesitation to any proclamation of love, breaking the eye contact.

      Many times I have written of wanting to be seen clearly, to be seen at all, and I absolutely believe that the role of psychiatry in my family relationships compromised that most basic security, the ability to trust the people that you love and that love you.

      You are spot on in your identification of the paternalistic other, which seems to be a pervasive/severe and persistent cultural force in the western world.

      There are so many agencies through which we are reminded that we are not to define ourselves, and we are not to question the expectations set for us. We are not to challenge, we are to obey, we are to comply. It’s for our own good.

      Oh, it’s all such rubbish.

      It’s so easy to become beleaguered by all the troubles of the world, mass atrocities and the million tragedies that occur every single day.

      There is little pleasure in seeing clearly when what you see is so much apparent blindness.

      Is there a myth about a person who could not see and who wished and wished (and perhaps even bargained) to have sight, to have vision…only to find that when they opened their eyes, they saw that the rest of the world was blind and so with sight came a great sorrow that others could not see, leaving the one who sees wandering and trying, through will and magic and desperate hope, to find someone who will see with him?

      It is my great hope that the practical mechanics of consciousness shift and shared understanding will work and that, slowly at first and then with great vigor, people will realize how thoroughly psychiatry – and particularly pediatric psychiatry – demeans and destroys what may be our most basic human notions of a worthwhile self.

      It’s a human rights issue. We have the right to not be forcibly medicated. We have the right to know how our minds/brains/hearts work and to explore those workings in ways that inspire us and reinforce our self-identified strengths.

      Thank you again for taking the time to comment and for bringing to light the ways that systemic/third party paternalism trickles down to our families and for noting the effects of basic human needs – connection, trust, love – going unmet, denied.

      Just as our systems of culture and economy have mediated our understanding of what it means to be human as individuals, they have also significantly distorted what it means to be human together.

      Hope you have a good night and a decent enough holiday season.


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      • “my long-windedness and the impetus of emotion that writes so many of my words may well be rooted in a basic human need to assert myself to the world and to hope that someone finds some value in me.”


        That line of yours (directed to David) has inspired me to offer this comment…

        Your post is excellent.

        Though relatively long, as posts go, it’s *perfect* – truly.

        Thanks for generously sharing about your own struggles as a child – and for including clues as to how, as a parent, you came to successfully transcended the dismal ‘mental health care’ framework, that’s promoted via the medical model…

        (In your reply to Chrys’s comment, you mentioned: “Through my work, I had the chance to become a Love and Logic facilitator.” I have one of their books – From Innocence to Entitlement – and would be interested to learn more about their program. Perhaps, you can write about it?)

        Just one tiny bit of criticism: Were I you, I’d keep “mental illness” in quotes, in the title. (I know that’s a very small matter – which I figure may have been out of your hands.)

        And, lastly, I must say: *if* your writing demonstrates “long-windedness,” then, well, I suppose there’s hope for us long-winded writers!

        Happy Holidays and More Power to You…



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  11. Faith-
    This is a beautiful and articulate essay. It captures so much of the complexity of this discussion which will be ongoing. I appreciate that you do not deny the pain and confusion that families’ may experience while at the same time recognizing that our currently available treatments and constructs for even framing the discussion may not help and may make things worse.
    Thank you,

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  12. I don’t know if I was mentally ill during my first diagnosis. I actually don’t even remember it. I was six, and my mother likes to regale me with the story. The words sound like she should be embarrassed of me, but like all of her best remarks they are said in a sugary sweet voice like she’s telling me some well kept secret. I guess she didn’t like that diagnosis because I was with a different doctor six years later. I still don’t know if there was anything mentally wrong with me then, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that if there weren’t a few things sideways in my head then, by the time they were all done (and they’re never done because she can call or drive over even now) there was quite a lot wrong. Some of it even I wouldn’t know about for another twenty years. One thing that has always stayed with me though is the way that diagnosis began to define me, and the way they used the label like a weapon. “It’s not our fault. See! There’s something wrong with you!” However, I have to wonder, do people with serious mental illnesses ever come from a family where there isn’t something notably wrong with them too?

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