From time to time on this blog, I’ve lamented the uncounted family members—mothers, mostly—who are aware of the hideous abuse their mentally ill children suffer in jails, and sometimes in care centers and by law enforcement; yet who choose to keep their voices muted for fear of stigma and possible retaliation by the abusers.
On Sunday I persuaded one such mother to let me share the latest of several testimonies that she has written and posted on a members-only website for families of SMI (serious mental illness) victims. I have withheld her name. It is the details, after all, that matter; not the specific identity.
This woman is hardly a malcontent: she is a Sunday-school teacher at her church, has had years of experience as a foster parent (including for refugee children) and is civic-minded in many other ways. What you will read below is not her first plea for help and understanding. Her son has been mistreated in all sorts of unthinkable ways: by the community and by “care-givers” as well as the violent inmate who attacked her son on Saturday night.
So, here is a rare public accounting of the ongoing private hell routinely suffered by those trapped in the sub-universe of mental illness. (I should note that this message has received a tremendous outpouring of concern and offers to help from fellow members on the site.)
Our society needs to hear many more such voices: enough voices, and enough response to those voices, to disprove the ironic title of my forthcoming book, NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.
“Ty is a victim again. Tyler our 18-year-old son was beat up last night in jail. The guy was a lot bigger than Ty. No one stopped it. Saturday night is commissary night. No one called the guards. They didn’t want to get locked in before they received their commissary. There are parts of it he doesn’t remember. They asked him a few questions, then he fell asleep. Thank God he woke up this morning. No one checked on him during the night. Why would you put a kid, who never has hurt anyone in with violent offenders? He has a headache and a black eye. He’s nauseated, feels drunk and tipsy. He was never checked on by a nurse or doctor. They don’t have a doctor, on weekends. This is concussion number 5 or 6. All have been severe. Another Traumatic brain injury! Getting beat up is nothing, new for my baby. This might not help his other problem, as he hears voices. If only they would have kept him in the hospital for long term. Out of 15 ER visits in under 2 years. Ty has only spent 2 weeks total inpatient. He’s been hearing voices for at least a year and a half. He’s never been stable. Hope they take him to the hospital to get him an MRI. Is that wishful thinking? He’s is going to see a forensic psychiatrist next month. Prayers, ya all! It’s us again! One song Ty is playing every instrument seperately, then mixed, in ghostbusters. The other song is my grandson, singing and Ty is playing. Ty wrote this song one Sat. afternoon In 15 mins., then played it for the first time. Titled ‘We are all God’s people.’ Just wish everyone else realized this!”
Kimberlee Cooper-West is an unassuming mother, a Sunday-school teacher, and a civic volunteer who lives in a village of about a thousand people on the western border of Michigan, the state where she was born. (Not all that far, as I think of it, from the Interlochen Arts Academy, where my late son Kevin spent three happy years before succumbing to schizo-affective disorder.) Photographs on her Facebook page show her wreathed in family members, or busy at a Catholic charity event. She has had extensive experience as a foster mother. In short, she is one of the countless quiet pillars of community upon whom the cohesion of society depends.
It is a pretty safe bet that Kim West has never thought of herself as intersecting with a moment in history. And yet this intersection seems a possibility.
Kim West is the woman who a day ago gave me permission to reprint the post quoted at the top of today’s blog: a post that detailed the beating her young mentally ill son Ty endured in a jail cell from another inmate on Saturday night.
Kim had submitted her post to a site called the Circle of Comfort and Assistance, one of many “closed,” or private websites whose members are assured anonymity, and who in turn agree not to publish others’ writings without permission. She has been a sadly regular contributor.
I came across Kim West’s (latest) essay during one of my frequent visits to the CCA page. I could hardly contain my outrage, even though this kind of atrocity-account is hardly new to me. It was the accumulation of cruelty and neglect suffered by the boy that prompted me to intervene: years of unresponsive “care-givers,” draconian court decisions, hostility to the West family from within its community, and a string of prior beatings behind bars.I wrote and asked her for permission to reprint on this blog. I have made similar requests to other contributors in the past; have been turned down; and have honored their understandable wishes for privacy. Kim agreed. And this morning (Monday), she advanced farther out of the cold, into the light. She gave me permission to go public with her name, her family’s location, and more particulars of her son’s horrific–but not uncommon–treatment by the “normal” world around him.
I should also mention that Kim West’s fellow CCA members were also stirred to fury and compassion. A long thread of reactions to her complaint offered equal measures of sympathy, excoriations of the region’s mental-health “system,” and generous helpings of advice: get a lawyer. Contact the ACLU. Call the governor and your representatives in Congress. Alert a newspaper or three to what is going on. Raise hell. At least one of them, Marie McAuley Abbott, of Pontiac, Michigan, the mother of a mentally ill son named Kyle, decided today that she would join with Kim. She posted, and gave me permission to re-post:
“Kyle has been without any power since last Wed. No one from CMH or his guardian has called to check on him! My daughter picked him up and kept him for awhile and now I have him. I live an hour from him! He could be laying somewhere dead and they would never know. They are in charge of him! I’m sorry for all the other people in his complex with no one looking out for them!”
Until Kim West, and now Marie Abbott, decided to step out of the cold and into the light—into what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is”—calls to action from within the world of the afflicted have largely fallen on deaf, or at least closed ears.
For decades. For centuries.
Families and friends of the insane do not want to talk about their, and the victim’s, problems. They choose to draw a protective blanket of silence around themselves, for the same reasons of combat veterans have done, and families of cancer victims.
The reasons have to do with the dread of stigma and shame, and even reprisal.
If I tell the truth about what I saw and did in the war, my buddies will call me a rat. And a crybaby. If I talk about my night-sweats and nightmares and heavy drinking, they’ll laugh and say I couldn’t take it. Coward. And anyway, it’s unspeakable.
Or in the case of cancer:
If I talk about my husband’s cancer or put that into the obituary when he dies, my friends will find it sickening and turn away. Or they’ll think maybe I’ve got it too, and it’s catching. And anyway, it’s unspeakable.
Or in the case of severe mental illness:
If word of this gets out, people will think my daughter is a monster. They’ll think my son is a criminal. Or that I gave it to him. Or they won’t think at all; they’ll just want her put away somewhere, out of sight. They think crazy people aren’t even human anyway.
Or bigotry to that effect.
This silence has devastated mentally ill individuals, and it has devastated the sub-universe of the insane. The silence has erased mad-people’s human identity and rendered them mere abstractions. What’s the problem with slashing public spending for. . .abstractions? Why be concerned if an abstraction gets beat up in jail, or left homeless, or shot dead in the street?
Because of this pervasive self-inflicted silence, the persecution of the mentally ill has not changed in many ways since the opening of Bedlam Asylum. Seven hundred years ago.
And now a quiet church-going community volunteer and family woman in a Wisconsin village has said to herself and to the world,
I am going to be silent no more.
This is the way mass movements begin. With a quiet mother deciding, No more. With a mild assistant department-store tailor deciding that she did not want to move to the back of the bus. With a sickly woman visiting insane asylums in Massachusetts and coming back to report on what she had found. With a tiny legal representative decided to march two hundred forty-one miles from the Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, on the coast of the Arabian Sea, in India, to pound salt.
Lest anyone think that the possibilities I’m imagining here are overblown, let us be clear: as I write, the interests—including the survival interests—of insanity victims in America are in extremis. The Republican president and the Republican-controlled Congress seem to have it within their grasp to destroy the Affordable Care Act, and with it, the most important source of funding for hospitals, care centers, doctors, and medications essential to these victims’ continuing status as human beings.
The mighty lords of politics in our time could not care less about any of this. It is going to be up to the small, quiet women of our society, the unacknowledged pillars of our little communities, to save the insane.
Kimberlee Cooper-West, Marie Abbott—this is your moment. History is waiting.
Watch “Got us Fallin In Love Again, Usher, by Ty West” on YouTube
Watch “Ghostbusters, remix by Ty West” on YouTube
Watch “We Are All God’s People, written by Tyler West” on YouTube