First Person / To the parents of James Holmes: Our son has schizophrenia; we know how hard it can be
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An open letter to Mr. and Mrs. Holmes, parents of James Holmes, who stands accused of mass murder in Aurora, Colo.
I, too, have a son who has an undergraduate degree in neuroscience and who had planned on doing an M.D. and PhD. in neuroscience. At his university graduation ceremony, I asked myself who this son was, as he was so unlike the son I had seen as recently as semester break. Distracted, preoccupied, the stare.
I knew there was something wrong but had no idea of the terrifying journey that we would travel for the next 10 years.
After almost two years with an ineffectual psychologist, my son wanted to continue his studies. I found him crumpled, catatonic, on the floor of his apartment having not eaten or moved in a week. Searching for clues and information, I discovered the sections on schizophrenia highlighted in his neuroscience textbooks.
Over the next few years, in and out of psychotic episodes caused by taking and not taking medicine (the disease attacks the frontal lobe where decisions are made), my son thought his money was not worth anything and so starved for a week; he thought he would see a dinosaur if he climbed a specific mountain; I believe that he heard voices, whereas in reality schizophrenia had taken over his life.
After he'd been silent and unreachable for three weeks, his father and I talked, cajoled, begged, ignored and tried to bring him back to reality with love and antipsychotic medicines. I was scared, worried and, as unmotherly as it sounds, embarrassed and frustrated. My son was like a 5-year-old whom I needed to rescue from psychotic unreality.
Schizophrenia is a heart-breaking disease that destroys for a time young men in their late teens or early 20s. It seems that just as these young men begin an independent life, they are frozen in time, some becoming paranoid, some hallucinatory and all psychotic.
Though they seem to have had this disease from birth, something triggers it around this time in their lives. Tragedies continue to happen because of our communal non-comprehension of these diseases and a refusal to take seriously that people die because of our unconcern.
Psychosis is not sociopathy or psychopathy, yet society does not seem to want to parse the difference. As I hear politicians and news anchors demand immediate answers, few seem smart enough to talk to people who actually know. Society wants answers now, and so news stations must respond immediately to keep their audiences.
Why is your son James now accused of this terrible massacre? He must be diabolical; he looks like a devil. Our society tends to generalize, lumping all mental diseases into one evil stigma, destroying children, adults and their families. They all seem to know that the mother, the divorce, the whatever, is at fault. They know so much ... and so little.
Your son apparently has acted against a society that may have tried to help, but failed miserably. He was smart, educated and yet his body, the chemical imbalance in his head, went awry.
For all of our sakes, but especially for James' sake and yours, I want our society to become more aware of mental illness, to not respond without knowledge and to begin with understanding before judgment is carelessly assigned.
This tragedy has correctly begun a national discussion on federal control of rapid-fire weapons, but what is perhaps more imperative is a discussion about, recognition of and understanding of mental illness and the people who suffer from it.
My heart is with the victims and my heart is with you through the upcoming journey of pain.
First Published July 28, 2012 12:00 am