Jared Lee Loughner’s Parents: Why Didn’t They Know?

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:

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4 Responses to Jared Lee Loughner’s Parents: Why Didn’t They Know?

  1. Bridgit says:

    God bless you for your transparency. I too have much empathy and compassion for the Loughners. While the media has spent so much time pointing fingers, I have thought how better spent the air time would have been in educating the public about mental illness. I heard someone on TV call him a “nut case,” and my heart just broke. To the Loughner family and friends, he isn’t a “nut case,” he is a young man who has an illness. A very serious illness.
    We don’t know what the parents did or did not know or did or did not do. As a past care giver for a mother who was bi polar, i know how difficult it can be to “convince” your loved one to seek treatment. The insurance criteria then even makes it difficult to keep them in hospitalization if you do get them there. I can’t begin to count the number of times mental health professionals told me that my mother could not be admitted unless she was threatening to hurt herself or someone else.
    What I hope this situation does is help our Nation realize how lacking we are in education as well as treatment of mental illness.
    Thank you again for this post.
    ~b

    • Thanks, Bridgit. I, too, hope that the tragedy opens more people’s eyes to the need for increased education and early prevention initiatives around mental illness, but I suspect it won’t. As as interesting article in Slate points out, “the public sees mental illness as an easy explanation for heartbreaking events.” As soon as a criminal is deemed mentally ill, people can distance themselves from what happened and stop trying to understand. Until people really recognize that severe mental illness can strike their families, too, I doubt there’ll be much of a push toward more education.

  2. Heather – great article! As someone who’s loved more than one person with a mental illness, I know all too well – you canNOT force a legal adult to “see someone” unless s/he is an immediate threat to him/herself or others, and as to *persuading* someone who doesn’t believe s/he is delusional… rotsa ruck on that one! Even if you CAN persuade the local authorities to have such a person held for psychiatric evaluation, as soon as s/he appears lucid and no longer a threat, they HAVE to let ’em go, if the mentally ill person doesn’t want to stay for treatment.

    My heart breaks for all the victims of the shooting, but I refuse to judge Jared’s parents at this time. For all we know, they tried for *years* to get help for their son. Then again, maybe they didn’t, maybe they were totally unaware, or in denial themselves. We make a big mistake to judge them without the facts.

    We need to vastly increase awareness of mental illness in this country, and the vastly inadequate resources there are for helping them and supporting their families (though NAMI is one great place.)

    • Your comment, along with a new post on the World of Psychology blog reinforced my opinion that the legal/mental health system SHOULD force treatment for psychosis.

      When my husband became psychotic, he honestly didn’t know he was ill. He thought he was fine — everybody else was overreacting.

      The last thing he wanted to do was sign himself into the hospital. The only reason he did was because I begged him to do it. (And many people don’t have someone whose pleas will convince them to do something they 100% don’t want to do.)

      Despite how hard he resisted treatment, however, after the fact, he was intensely grateful that he’d agreed to go to the hospital. (And he’s not the only one who’s had this kind of experience. If you’re interested, please check out Crazy Mermaid’s blog.)

      John didn’t WANT to be psychotic. He didn’t know he WAS psychotic.

      Giving people who don’t know they’re sick the “freedom” to stay sick–and get even sicker–is cruel. It can also, as we saw this past weekend, be dangerous to society as a whole.

      Do people who’ve been hospitalized for psychosis go off their medication? Sure. But I’d venture to say that most of them do it because, again, they don’t believe they’re ill, not because they WANT to be psychotic.

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