A STUNNING REVIEW IN THE WALL STREET JOURNAL!

When Your Sons Are Schizophrenic

 

In “No One Cares About Crazy People,” Ron Powers writes of parental love, bewilderment and rage at the vagaries of biological fate. John Donvan says it is one of the most engrossing accounts of raising a family he’s ever read.

Photo: Getty Images

 

Winning the Pulitzer Prize is one kind of writer’s dream. Nearly a year on the New York Times best-seller list is another. A third: when the best seller becomes a movie with a big-name director. Ron Powers is among the few to hit this particular trifecta. The onetime newspaperman won the Pulitzer for TV criticism in 1973, and “Flags of Our Fathers,” the immensely popular Iwo Jima history he co-wrote, arrived as a film in 2006, directed by Clint Eastwood. Mr. Powers’s newest book is a memoir, covering many of the years during which he scored these wins. A victory lap, however, this book is not. The story he relates—with searing humility and deep respect—concerns his two sons and the mental illness that flowered within them. “No One Cares About Crazy People” is a chronicle of deepening devastation recorded by a father able to do little in response to his boys’ suffering other than to witness and to love.

Mr. Powers’s memoir is the culmination of both those processes, and is motivated by his insistence on making us care—not just about his two boys, Dean and Kevin, but about all individuals and families wrestling with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, acute depression and other forms of mental illness. His title signals his grim recognition that this will be an uphill battle. He pulled the phrase, verbatim, from an incident unrelated to his main story: In 2010, the future governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, was still serving as the Milwaukee County executive when a scandal erupted over the abuse of patients at the county mental-health hospital. Subpoenaed emails revealed Mr. Walker and his aides worrying about damage to his political future. In the midst of these exchanges, one aide, who later went to prison, attempted to reassure another member of the team with the blunt political assessment that “no one cares about crazy people.”

Unfortunately she was right—mostly. Few of us care about the challenges of mental illness until the emergency is inside our own homes. Mr. Powers didn’t—until his sons began showing symptoms as teenagers, which is usually when these conditions clearly manifest. But once he was awakened, the world he had entered frustrated and enraged him.

Mr. Powers gives away the climax of his story in the preface: Both his boys, starting at different times, were beset by schizophrenia, and for the younger one, Kevin, the illness proved fatal. At 20, after three years of struggle, he hanged himself, at home in the basement, while his parents slept upstairs. Mr. Powers’s decision to put this stunning revelation on his first page was a gesture of respect to his son’s memory. There would be no storyteller game-playing with Kevin’s life—no ominous foreshadowing, no false hopes for a happy outcome planted along the way. If anything, the author risks scaring away readers uncomfortable with darkness. But those who stay will learn not only what the stakes are but also why they are on this journey.

The stay is worth it, for what unfolds is one of the most engrossing accounts of raising a family I have ever read, one in which Mr. Powers makes universal his themes of parental love, bewilderment and rage at the vagaries of biological fate. At the start, he was just a dad, and his wife, the scientist Honoree Fleming, was just a mom. Neither had any experience in raising children with mental-health challenges. They weren’t experts in schizophrenia. Nor did they need to be, for the first 15 years or so. Mr. Powers’s early chapters conjure his family’s time of pure ordinariness—a quality he cherishes all the more because it was lost. He seems tormented by these recollections—his family’s “before” years—but also blessed by them. And by sharing them he lifts his book into something more elevated than a eulogy for Kevin.

Instead, Kevin lives again in Mr. Powers’s poignant portrait, which he pieces together from excerpts from middle-school essays; quotations from father-son bedtime conversations that sound as fresh as last night; and, most powerfully, Mr. Powers’s descriptions of Kevin’s musical talent. The young man was a true prodigy on the guitar, playing since age 4, and was on his way to making a career as a singer. You can find at least one of his teenage performances on YouTube, and his dad’s right—Kevin Powers was going to be great.

All of which makes his deterioration, with its declared inevitability, more moving and painful to observe. Mr. Powers, in the middle of it all, had no idea where his son’s life was heading or how to keep him from slipping deeper into trouble. Medications were tried. And hospitalizations. But Kevin eventually wanted no part of treatment. The laws limiting involuntary treatment made it difficult to counter Kevin’s preferences—a reality Mr. Powers laments. In a way, Kevin had moved past his parents’ help, which is one of the things that still eats at the father even now.

Another thing is the sorry history of American society’s response to mental illness over the past two centuries. Mr. Powers thumbnails this history in chapters alternating with his sons’ stories and aims his anger at the seemingly natural impulse most of us possess to shun the mentally ill, much as we do the severely developmentally disabled. There is a loneliness to being in either of these categories, a loneliness that also afflicts the families of affected individuals and that is exaggerated by the “solutions” developed, over time, for “dealing with the problem.” Thus Mr. Powers relates the many remedies put forth over the years by usually well-meaning people who, in profound ways, missed the mark. He covers the eugenics movement; the many decades when the severely mentally ill and developmentally disabled were warehoused in so-called asylums; and the scandal that followed the deinstitutionalization movement, when a benevolent assertion of civil rights led to the shuttering of mental-health centers, but without adequate provision for former residents’ continuing need for treatment or even basics like food and shelter. The result: a swelling number of homeless and the transformation of the prison system into a custodial program for people who should be getting help, not doing time.

The real scandal of Mr. Powers’s exposé—and he knows this—is that he is not revealing anything new. These failures have been described many times, by muckrakers and reformers, since the mid-19th-century. But each time the outrage proved short-lived, swallowed up by renewed indifference or perhaps mass amnesia. As the author keeps finding, society’s impulse to “other-ize” the mentally ill is constant: These individuals are politically voiceless and therefore easy to marginalize.

The most uplifting chapter in “No One Cares About Crazy People” is its brief epilogue, focused on the present. Mr. Powers talks about getting visits in his dreams from a guitar-playing Kevin, and he reports that his older son, Dean, who was given the same diagnosis as his brother, is now “doing fine.” Dean has acknowledged that he needs help. He is, says Mr. Powers, “in possession of himself, aware of his limitations, and ready to live on his own in the wider world.”

Still, you can hear the caution in those words. Mr. Powers seems to sense that the progress is provisional; that Dean, now 35, will always be at risk; and that his own fathering remains on trial. Assuming the best, though, Dean will outlive his parents, who are his current chief protectors. That is when he will need the rest of us to be on his side—his and all of those among us who face similar kinds of struggle. That’s why this book was written: to get us to understand, to empathize, to identify. In short, to make its title a lie.

—Mr. Donvan is the co-author of “In A Different Key: The Story of Autism.”

 

THE REST OF THE BOOBY CD!

Here are the other three pieces that Kevin and Booby recorded in Florida during that sublime all-night session in 2000 with his pal and bassist Peter Rogers and the promising young drummer Scott Shad.

Scott’s life ended in tragedy only a few weeks later. I lay out the details in Chapter 5 of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE:

Kevin’s voice was leaden when he called home in March. Scott Shad, the gifted young drummer who’d sat in on that magical recording session in Jacksonville, was dead. Scott was a diabetes sufferer. On March 6, he’d been caught without a needed dosage of insulin at the worst possible time.

Kevin explained the details in an email:

Subject: hey

Date: Thu, 08 Mar 2001 00:13:12

From: “Kevin Powers” <hoist@hotmail.com>

To: hfleming@adelphia.net, ropo@sover.net

hey guys-

. . . we found out that scott had a free period at school so he went to get a cd and on the way back I guess he had a seizure while he was driving on the highway and went across the lanes and into a building wall.

I’ve never known anyone as well as him who has died so its really weird. its just really really shocking on so many levels. how is dean?  give grammy my love and I’ll see you guys in a week or so

Kevin

He wrote another, even more heartfelt letter to the Cleveland novelist, screenwriter, musician and family friend Scott Lax. Scott was among the first to recognize Kevin’s talent, having met him and the family at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in the 1990s. Scott formed strong bonds with both Dean and Kevin. He wrote to Kev after I had told him of my son’s devastation. Kevin replied:

Hey Scott-

Thanks for writing.  Its unbelievable how powerless I felt when it happened.  He was such a great guy and so inspirational.  I’ve never lost such a close friend before.  I think you’d like him-Never once had a negative thing to say all smiles and incredibly modest just an all around good kid.  He was a divine talent on the drums.  He played in another band that just got signed and has been together since Jr. High.  I don’t know what to do I know that I have to be strong but its hard knowing we won’t have a chance to play or just hang out anymore.  So it will be hard but I’ll have to cope with it.  But memories are everything, he was a happy kid so he had a happy 18 years which is the most important thing.

I hope we can keep in touch and if you have any advice on ways to deal

with this I’d like to hear it,

Kevin

Kevin himself  had less than five years to live.

Ron Powers | Kirkus Reviews

When Kelly Rindfleisch wrote the words, “No one cares about crazy people,” she never dreamed Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times-bestselling author Ron Powers would read them.

“I cannot describe to you the emotion, the shockwave, that hit me when I read that quote,” says Powers, author of No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America, who Kirkus reached at home in Castleton, Vermont.

Rindfleisch, who was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Deputy Chief of Staff, wrote the hateful words in a 2010 email uncovered by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. To her campaign colleagues, she mocked and dismissed the depredations of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, where a woman being treated for bipolar disorder died of starvation. Where workers sexually assaulted and impregnated patients.

“The fact was ungodly abuses happened at the Milwaukee County Hospital that were medieval in nature,” Powers says. “The rape of patients, starvation, naked patients walking around, physical abuse—there it is, in our time. It’s not something you have to look in an encyclopedia to find.”

Powers is an award-winning writer with criticism, narrative nonfiction, and biography to his credit. He is the author of Mark Twain: A Life and coauthor of the No. 1 New York Timesbestseller Flags of Our Fathers, which was adapted into a film directed by Clint Eastwood. He and his wife, Honoree Fleming, a pioneering biochemist, are the parents of two sons, Dean and Kevin, who were diagnosed with schizophrenia in young adulthood.

“This is the book I promised myself I would never write,” Powers writes in No One Cares About Crazy People. “And promised my wife as well. I have kept that promise for a decade—since our younger son, Kevin, hanged himself in our basement, a week before his twenty-first birthday in July 2005, after struggling for three years with schizophrenia.”

No One Cares About Crazy People is a treatise on the state of mental health care in America today—how we arrived at the disgust, hostility, and ignorance embodied by Rindfleisch and her ilk. It’s also the emotional story of the Powers family’s struggle with the fearsome scourge of schizophrenia.

“I did not want to commodify my sons,” Powers says of his hesitation to include his family’s struggles in the booka decision that came at the behest of his literary agent, encouraged by his editors at Hachette. “I didn’t want to turn them into a profit center, even unconsciously. I didn’t want this to be a ‘poor daddy’ book. There are so many…unworthy motives you could [have] for writing a book like this.”

3.20 Powers_CoverPowers spent a decade researching nosology, political history, and structures of care and governance of schizophrenia (i.e., how the police and the courts treat the afflicted). In the book, he traces mental health care’s shocking history: from “Bedlam” asylum in London, the scene of centuries’ worth of shocking abuses, through American deinstitutionalization; the deleterious denial enacted by popular figures like Dr. Thomas Szasz, author of The Myth of Mental Illness and L. Ron Hubbard colleague; the noble mental health care initiatives of Presidents Truman and Kennedy and mass defunding by President Reagan; and the consequences for those living with the disease today, bumping up against untrained police, ignorant lawmakers, and fearful neighbors.

“Schizophrenia is different from depression, it’s different from hysteria, it’s different from any kind of bad mood or grudges or the kinds of things we all encounter,” Powers says. “It has a genetic component and it flows through families—probably, almost certainly, has flowed through mine, although no one in my family was ever diagnosed…. It must be understood as different, and it requires different solutions than I think we traditionally apply.”

Forced to bear witness to the inadequacies of our current system, Powers has issued a clarion call to arms: to do better by those with mental illness, their loved ones, and communities; to move toward ameliorative policies that consider their health, well-being, and civil liberties. In short, that we start to care about “crazy people.”

“I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” Powers writes. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been in writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene. Only if this happens, and keeps happening until it needs happen no more, can we dare to hope that Dean and Kevin and all their brothers and sisters in psychotic suffering are redeemed; that they have not suffered entirely in vain.”

Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.

FROM THE MOTHER OF A MENTALLY ILL SON, BEATEN (AGAIN) IN JAIL

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!”

Update

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.

For veterans:

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,

No more.

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

GUNS FOR THE MENTALLY ILL–PRACTICE VS. THEORY

In my previous post, I speculated on the dangers of the GOP congress’s rollback of President Obama’s strictures on permitting the sale of firearms to serious mentally ill people. Here is an example of what can go wrong: A warning, a gun sale and tragic consequences

GUNS FOR THE MENTALLY ILL!

You may have missed it, given the uncapped pipeline of news raging out of Washington, but on Friday, February 28, President Trump signed into law a Republican-backed measure to restore gun-owning rights to people afflicted with serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia. The rollback would relieve some 75 thousand mentally ill people from accountability to background checks.

Photo by Mika Järvinen (originally posted to Flickr as M4gery) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Trump’s action struck down a congressional regulation spurred by President Obama as a response to the notorious 2012 massacre of 20 young schoolchildren in Newton, Connecticut. That particular butchery was carried out, via a (legally purchased) semiautomatic Bushmaster XM 15-E2S assault rifle, by the 20-year-old Adam Lanza in Newton, Connecticut. Lanza had begun that morning by putting four bullets into the head of his mother at their home with a (legally purchased) .22-caliber Savage MK II-F bolt action rifle. Then, carrying the Bushmaster and two (legally purchased) handguns, a Glock 20SF and a 9 mm Sig Sauer P226Lanza climbed into the family car and drove off to the nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School. He used the Bushmaster to shoot his way through a locked front-entrance door, then stalked the corridors and classrooms, gunning down children and teachers in small random clusters. In addition to his tally of 6- and 7-year-olds, Lanza murdered the principal, the school psychologist, three teachers and a teacher’s aide, and wounded two teachers. At least two of the teachers had been shielding children with their bodies when the Bushmaster’s bullets struck them. The dead teachers included the school psychologist and a part-time behavioral therapist.

Lanza, who had methodically paused to reload in the course of his meandering spree, then withdrew the Glock and shot himself in the head as police closed in.

A search into voluminous police reports later revealed that the young man underwent consultation at the Yale Child Study Center as an adolescent, and had been prescribed an antidepressant. The files revealed no diagnosis of serious mental illness.

Obama’s measure had infuriated Republicans and the National Rifle Association from the outset. (Technically, the rule required the Social Security Administration to inform the FBI about disability insurance recipients with mental impairments—and who needed a third party to manage their benefits–effectively disqualifying them from buying guns.)

Sam Johnson image via Wikipedia Commons

It was the Republican congressman Sam Johnson of Texas who introduced legislation to block the bill. (Around this same time, in late 2016, Johnson, in his role as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security, also released a plan that would drastically reduce that program’s benefits.)

Johnson’s GOP colleagues (along, of course, with the National Rifle Association) had condemned the Obama order as unconstitutional. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, according to one report (https://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2017-02-14/senate-wants-to-block-rule-on-guns-and-mentally-ill), went so far as to predict that before you knew it, the order would be keeping folks with eating and sleeping disorders from buying guns! (This line of reasoning might qualify as a suitable Republican party motto in its Latin form, Reductio ad Absurdum.)

Sen. Grassley image By United States Senate [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
All of which is by way of saying—brace yourself—that yet another of the most morally fraught public crises of our time, the question of powerful firearms in the hands of the mentally ill, has been distilled into ideology.

Let me acknowledge the two most formidable arguments posed by those who agree with the congressional GOPs who voted to roll back the rule.

One argument involves the impossibility of determining who, among the mentally ill, is a threat to commit deadly violence, and who is not. Homicidal schizophrenia is not predictable. Mental illness itself is not predictable. Sandy Hook was not predictable. (See Adam Lanza.) Therefore, the Obama rule was prejudicial, to the disadvantage of nonviolent people with serious mental illnesses. Or so one may persuasively argue.

The other argument restates the familiar Second Amendment case held by gun-rights advocates: restricting firearms possession by anyone is unconstitutional. Period.

Is there a logically airtight counter-argument to these positions? If there is, you won’t find it here. I am not by temperament an absolutist—not on any topic. Dammit. I kind of envy those who are, though I don’t much care to be around them. Absolutism, like carpet-bombing, gets rid of a lot of thorny impediments. It just ain’t my style.

And yet I believe that the new Trump law is wrong; an unnecessary risk to public safety, including the safety of people with eating and sleeping disorders; and an affront to those trying hard to invest the troubled American mental healthcare scene with clarity and moral purpose. I’ll explain, in my timorous, hanky-twisting way:

Schizophrenia is different. Guns are different. Each is different from its category on an order of magnitude that sets it apart from recourse to fixed ideas. Each poses a unique menace to safety, to the Self, to human life. When combined—when a firearm is made accessible to a schizophrenic person—these menaces increase in potency, even though any given afflicted gun-owner is statistically unlikely to commit violence.

Let’s take guns first. What is there left to say? Guns are instruments of killing. Increasingly, rationalizations aside, they are manufactured specifically to kill people. In this they are categorically different from (more intentionally lethal than) any other consumer product. The ideology of unconstrained firearms ownership has survived and hardened in the face of every interrogation of the Second Amendment’s ambiguities, every conceivable appeal to moral restraint, the safety of children in the household, common sense, self-evidently sensible safety measures. No argument I can make here will shift one grain of sand in that desolate desert. I might mention, for example, that my younger brother Jim, in the midst of a marital crisis in the 1970s, turned his hunting shotgun on himself and blew a hole in his head, leaving a widow and two young daughters. (Jim was untreated for any mental illness, and I do not take up his suicide in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.) The responses to such tragedies from the gun-rights people are inscribed in the cosmos: Tough titty. These things happen. Shoulda seen a shrink. Law-abiding citizens’ rights. The only way to deter a suicidal man with a gun is with. . .

So let’s move on to schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia (along with its related afflictions such as bipolarity) is a brain disorder without parallel in human history. It is not a mood, reparable by therapy or good fortune. It is not an attitude, responsive to correction or coercion. It is not curable, though in many of the afflicted its symptoms may be controlled by antipsychotic medication. Such medication is resisted by a great many sufferers, whose judgment is crippled by the frequent companion scourge known as anosognosia, or the incapacity to understand that one is ill. The potential calamities enabled by anosognosia are self-evident. Thus, at least as it seems to me and thousands of others, schizophrenia victims require care and treatment that is different—more case-specific, more morally nuanced and always more undergirded with psychiatric insight—from treatment given to “normal” people in crises. This may mean, amidst hundreds of other considerations, keeping firearms out of the reach of certain mentally ill people—say, disability insurance recipients with mental impairments and who needed a third party to manage their benefits.

For understandable reasons—furthering fear and stigma, for instance—mental-illness advocates hesitate to emphasize or even admit the fact that psychosis and guns can combine to spread carnage. (This is one reason why the lessons of Sandy Hook have remained tragically muted.) Yet, as D.J. Jaffe, the outspoken director of the Mental Illness Policy Organization, has written: “. . .4 percent of those with mental illness are affected by serious ailments, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, causing them to hallucinate or become delusional and psychotic. When these people go untreated they do have a higher incidence of violence than the general population. http://mentalillnesspolicy.org/consequences/violence-statistics.html It’s an unpleasant truth that the mental health industry has encouraged politicians to ignore. Without recognizing the problem, policymakers won’t take steps to fix it.”

 

And so here we are, preparing to cope with one more feckless and gratuitous disruption of the arduous project to make society safer—not only for potential victims of people in violent psychosis, but for the mentally ill themselves.

I will not pretend to vouch absolutely for the nosological claims I have advanced here. No one can. That is due to schizophrenia’s properties as different.

But enough disclaiming. I believe that mixing guns and serious mental illness is an abomination.

WORST NIGHTMARE

This article by Natasha Tracy in Huffington Post spells it out, folks: the menace that every parent and caretaker of a mentally ill victim has dreaded since Donald Trump (and Paul Ryan and others before him) gained power in national Republican politics. Our helpless, blameless charges are being pushed to the edge of a precipice.

So much of the money needed to combat serious mental illness and safeguard its victims is enfolded into the Affordable Care Act. Its repeal–perhaps not likely, but eminently possible–would be tantamount to a brutal eviction notice slapped on the millions of people who now live in some degree of humane circumstances thanks to mental hospitals, community care centers and other forms of supervision and medication. Back into the streets. Back into the mercies of predators. Back into deepening psychosis unchecked by medications and counseling. Back into their centuries-long prospects of incomprehension and early death.

It is clear that Donald Trump has not paid a seconds’ worth of attention to the realities of serious mental illness, and this fact increases the likelihood of a reign of terror upon these victims. In this, he is hardly alone among politicians. Recall that only a few weeks ago, Chris Christie was blithely opining that solitary confinement was just fine with him as a means of punishment–or emergency shelter. (The consensus among psychiatrists is that solitary confinement, even for brief periods, is the most catastrophic of all remedies in the criminal-justice system; it not only degrades the mental stability of “normal” prisoners, but drives those in psychosis deeper into irrecoverable madness.

I urge you to sign every petition, join every march, telephone every congressperson, take part in any coalition that has a voice in preserving Affordable Care. The alternative is a new Bedlam.

Read the full article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mental-health-care-in-a-trump-administration-devastates_us_58b5944ee4b0658fc20f9a25

ANOTHER MENTALLY ILL INMATE DIES IN JAIL

In NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, I write, “Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.”

Here is one more among the unending examples of what I mean: Inmate, 23, who died in Orleans Parish jail Wednesday identified.

Adventures in Audioland

ron powersBack in the Friendly Confines (credit to Ernie Banks) of Castleton after completing work on the audiobook version of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. The project was accomplished at a beautiful, hilltop, state-of-the-art recording sound studio, Guilford Sound, in the woodsy Green Mountains of Southern Vermont. http://guilfordsound.com/ The owner is the innovative former rock drummer Dave Snyder.

ron powersFar from an easy job (imagine filibustering a bill for four and a half days, or being Chris Matthews), yet worth the throat-tearing effort on a number of levels.

The process put me back in touch with the book in a far more concentrated, analytical way even than the process of writing it, which was strung out over more than two years.

Also, it amounted to a good prep (I hope) for any interviews that might come my way.

Finally—a bit of inside baseball here—no more foolproof method exists for detecting flaws in one’s work than reading it aloud. And yes, dammit, I came across some passages that cried out for further attention–including matters of repetition, which is one of my bad habits. Including matters of repetition, which is one of my bad habits. Ha-ha! a little writerly humor there!!
The process is highly physical. Reading aloud involves the entire body, even when one is sitting down. (I was often distracted by the vigorous circling motions of my own right hand as I read; and my creaking chair caused an unseemly number of re-takes.) The strain of it makes you aware of certain muscles in the throat that you seldom use to the point of stress. You become aware in part because, late in each day, you find that you cannot count on these flabby muscles to form the sounds you expect them to; they’re tired of it. Your mouth might be forming an “O,” but what comes out is a measly little “eeeee.” So you pause to go back and do it again, hoping to get there before the producer blares in your headphones, for about the eight hundred nineteenth time, “COULD YOU GO BACK AND DO THAT AGAIN?!”

A sip of water helps, but the price of sippage is seepage. Audible seepage. You must sit still for several seconds while the sip makes its way through your digestive system, every drip and gurgle of the journey dutifully recorded by the CIA surveillance-grade mic in front of your face, put there to ensure that no sound gets lost in the telephone-sized booth in which you are being held without bail.

You realize—horrors!—that the process does not stop when the workday ends. When at last you are ensconced in a booth in a local diner, reading the newspaper while spooning up the chili con carne, you come to a Twilight-Zone kind of realization: as you silently read the words on the page, you can hear yourself narrating them through your mind’s ear, in the same annoying singsong voice you have been spewing forth all day, as you involuntarily calibrate which syllables just ahead need theatrical stressing.

And here you thought showbiz was pretty.

What I liked best about the experience was the collaboration: with the very cool young sound engineer Matt Hall across the window in the Vermont studio (see photograph), and with an amazing blithe spirit and gifted producer named Bob Walter, who directed everything through our earphones from his own studio in Los Angeles. Bob immersed himself fully in the nuances of the book, and coaxed me gently into more fitting intonations at several points. The three of us were Very Professional and Serious in the early going, until we (inevitably) stumbled upon the realization that we were all born world-class wiseasses; at which point every “COULD YOU GO BACK AND—” break in the narration was filled by an interlude of wacky voices, improvised shtick, name-dropping and outrageous insults. Our antics kept the inevitable tension at a minimum and made the hard work go easier.

All of this in the service of an audiobook that I hope will convey my full measure of love for my beautiful sons, Dean and the late Kevin, and my passion for illuminating the great human tragedy of schizophrenia, the affliction that took over their lives yet did not manage to extinguish their soaring human spirits.

The audiobook is in post-production as I write. Plans are to integrate excerpts from the boys’ guitar performances as they coincide with elements of the narration.

ANNIE DON’T WAKE THE DAY

Dean and Kevin recorded this rollicking ballad in 2004. It is among the best of several pieces the two of them produced over that summer, a happy time for both of them, when Kevin visited his older brother in Dean’s Colorado Springs apartment. Kev’s schizophrenia had forced him to suspend his music education at the Berklee’s Music School in Boston, and the ensuing year would be his last. But this summer was filled with creative effort and close loving friendship between the two brothers.

Dean wrote and sings lead on “Annie Don’t Wake the Day.” He also created the visual montage that accompanies this song on YouTube. At about the 1:45 mark, the boys launch into blazing alternating guitar solos: Dean/Kevin/Dean/Kevin.