In the wake of last weekend’s tragic shooting in Arizona, many people are speculating that the gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, is mentally ill—most likely schizophrenic—based on reports of his antisocial and paranoid behavior.
Many people are also asking why his parents didn’t intervene and get him help for his mental problems, as evidenced by this comment from a recent MSNBC article titled “Ariz. Suspect’s Parents: ‘We Don’t Know Why This Happened’”:
The parents had to have known they had a disturbed man living with them, and it was their responsibility to get him to a doctor who would put him on medicine or hospitalize him. Even if he failed to voluntarily commit himself for treatment, he could have been involuntarily treated. The reports of his behaviors in school and by classmates, “friends” and observers are concrete and undeniable as to the severity of his mental problems! And it’s clear these problems had been going on for some time. The parents were apparently the only ones who failed to see them—it’s called denial. They should feel awful and very, very guilty for responding so irresponsibly to their son’s illness and indications he was a danger to others.
I really don’t know much about the Loughners’ situation, and given that John was never violent, I can’t imagine what they’re feeling right now, but here’s what I can tell you: When John became psychotic, I was the last to know.
Even after his employer called the police to come to our apartment to check on him because he seemed “distraught and incoherent,” I still didn’t think the situation was all that dire.
I thought my husband was a little punchy—nothing a good night’s sleep wouldn’t clear up. I even said as much to the vice president of HR at his company, who called me to check on my safety:
“He hasn’t been sleeping well the past couple of nights, but I’ve just set up a doctor’s appointment. He’ll be fine.”
“Well, as long as you’re not concerned . . .”
“He’ll be fine.”
Famous last words.
Before John got sick, I had the vague idea that psychosis meant hallucinations and delusions. But I didn’t realize that these delusions and hallucinations are often based on a kernel of truth, which made it difficult for me to identify that the things he was saying were, in fact, psychotic.
When he told me his colleagues had found a place to sleep at work that was watched by a security guard, I thought it sounded odd, but not entirely out of the realm of possibility, given that some of the work performed at his company was considered “classified.”
When he told me he’d taught his colleagues a system of hand gestures so they could communicate with each other without speaking, I simply chalked it up to stress and figured it would pass once he got some more sleep.
It never occurred to me that he was going crazy. Things like that didn’t happen to people like us.
(Yes, I know how snotty and stupid and arrogant that sounds, and—believe me—I’ve had my comeuppance, but it was true at the time, and I’m not going to sugarcoat it now.)
I beat myself up for a long time for failing to recognize the distress John was in until after his employer had called the police, but I don’t think denial* tells the whole story. There are two other reasons I can think of for why I was the last to know that my husband was in serious psychological distress.
* My NAMI Family-to-Family class defined denial as, “A protective response giving us time to process the painful events that have turned our lives upside down. We decide all this is not really happening and/or there is a perfectly logical explanation for these events and/or it will pass, etc. We ‘normalize’ what is going on.”
Because John had no history of mental illness, and because I hadn’t been educated on what to look for when someone is suffering from psychosis, I didn’t catch the early warning signs, which for him included:
- Changes in behavior, including sleep disturbance and social withdrawal.
- Unusual perceptual experiences such as greater intensity in smell, sound, and color.
- Changes in emotion, including increased anxiety and suspiciousness.
- Development of strange or unbelievable ideas.
- Assigning great meaning to things that have no significance.
Having missed the warning signs, I wasn’t able to get him help until he was, as described in his hospital admission report, “floridly psychotic.”
Today, I’m a big proponent for increasing the level of education around mental illness. I did receive education about eating disorders in junior high, but I never—at any point during my high school, college, or graduate school days—received any training about the signs and symptoms of psychosis.
God knows colleges spend enough time educating kids about STDs and birth control. Why not spend a little time educating them about the debilitating condition of psychosis, which strikes about 3% of the population (and typically as young adults), as well?
Another reason that I failed to realize the trouble John was in was that, as his spouse, I was completely enmeshed in his world.
(The fact that he’s a genius, and that I don’t have one engineering bone in my body, also played its part. I didn’t know enough about his work to recognize just how bizarre some of his statements were. It’s possible that the Loughners felt the same way about their son’s expulsion from school.)
A passage from HURRY DOWN SUNSHINE, an engrossing memoir about a father who’s forced to see his daughter through a psychotic breakdown, underscores how easy it can be to get lulled into accepting psychosis when you have an intimate relationship with the person who is suffering (I added the bolding):
In a confessional, almost hypnotized monotone Pat is telling me about her closest friend when she was in her early twenties, a woman I have never heard of until now. “…She went mad, but it took me weeks to notice. We were too close for me to accept that anything was wrong. It wasn’t unusual for us to say the same thing at the same time. And there was a point when even my dreams seemed to be a version of hers. We lived so deeply in the same world I thought her delusions were normal, they were okay—I have a high tolerance for aberrance, I suppose….
“With my friend, it never occurred to me to step back, I was inside it with her. And when she started claiming that she had invented the alphabet, and drew diagrams on a pad to show me how she had done it—I felt destroyed.”
I know nothing of Loughner’s parents’ political beliefs, but it’s quite possible that they’re right-wing. And when such public figures as Sarah Palin are putting “bullseyes” on liberal politicians’ backs, it’s not that difficult to see how a parent could chalk up violent political comments as nothing more than idle talk.
As far as I can tell, a lack of education and a tight emotional bond played just as big a role in my inability to see John’s psychosis as denial, so I have a lot of compassion for the Loughners.
Today, I’ve forgiven myself for my oversight—you don’t know what you don’t know until you know it, and we were fortunate that John’s psychotic episode didn’t result in unemployment, divorce, suicide, violence or other negative outcomes. (There’s a great post on the NIMH blog about violence and severe mental illness, by the way.)
I’m also fairly certain that John wouldn’t have agreed to seek help at any point during the prodromal phase of his illness, so any attempts I might have made sooner would most likely have fallen on deaf ears. (And to the commenter on that MSNBC article, it’s not so easy to get someone who does not believe he’s ill to a doctor/hospital, and it’s even more difficult to have him involuntarily committed.)
Although I was the last to know about my husband’s illness, in the end, I was the most helpful. For that, I’ll always be extremely grateful.
The Loughners, given the terrible consequences of their oversight, will probably never come to peace with the fact that they failed to act. For that, I will put them in my prayers.
MORE INFORMATION ABOUT HELPING SOMEONE WHO’S PSYCHOTIC:
- What Not to Do When Someone You Love Is Psychotic
- How Do I Convince My Friend To Get Help For Bipolar Disorder?
- Staying Calm During a Psychiatric Crisis
- Supporting the Mentally Ill: Best Things to Say
- NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program