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.

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.

TO MY FRIENDS WHO FOLLOW THIS BLOG

Beginning in a few days, I will be posting, on this blog, some audio and, later, video tracks of my late son Kevin in performance. These will showcase his more mature work–if “mature” is the right word to describe a gifted young musician who, in the fog of schizophrenia, took his life a week before his 21st birthday in 2005. I’ve published a few pieces before this, but they feature Kev mostly as an early adolescent, sometimes in duets with his older brother Dean–who also was struck by schizophrenia, but who is stabilized at age 35.

kevin-powers-guitar
Kevin’s hands

I have mixed feelings about offering up these audios and videos. From a personal standpoint, it is still difficult for my wife Honoree and me to hear Kevin’s music sixteen years after he left us. Until this past weekend, I had not been able to bring myself to look at the videos–recorded mostly at the Interlochen Academy for the Arts, where he spent his prep years–since his death. Last week I finally braced myself, dug the cassettes out of storage, and brought them to a technician in nearby Rutland for transfer to the MP4 format, which enables editing and sending the material to my blog administrator. On Saturday, notified that the transfer was ready for viewing, I returned to the studio. I made myself stand beside the technician and watch the monitor screen as it shifted from blue to footage of the Interlochen jazz ensemble, with a T-shirted Kevin pumping out one of his glorious solos. I held it together. At this writing, Honoree has not viewed the tapes, but she has signaled her determination to do so.

The second reason for my mixed feelings is related to the first. This blog is followed by many parents who have lost children of their own to the awful scourge of schizophrenia. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that many of these good, bereaved people will experience the pain of recovered memory as they watch. For this, I am genuinely sorry.

Yet my reason for posting these sounds and images of Kevin has nothing to do with indulging my own sorrow, nor of activating anyone else’s. It certainly has nothing to do with promoting Kevin as somehow more deserving of attention than the countless other young victims of brain disorders. Quite the opposite: my goal is to celebrate the tremendous joyful life-force that was Kevin–and, by extension, the equally precious, and unique life-forces within all his brothers and sisters who have been taken or diminished by serious mental illness.

Every parent or other surviving relative of a mental-illness casualty harbors rich memories of a child in the full exuberance of his or her life–a time of hopes and dreams unlimited, until the unthinkable occurred.

Kevin was nothing if not generous and humble–he was “notorious” for giving up his own solo time to fellow musicians who yearned for a little spotlight. He would have held these young people in his big-handed embrace. He would have insisted, correctly, that each one of their lives was as precious and filled with potential as his own. He would have insisted on consecrating his music to all the beautiful young souls who seldom if ever enjoyed the pleasure of a “solo,” yet enriched the earth around them, each in his or her own way.

So, please: if you can, enjoy Kevin’s music in the same celebratory spirit that he played it: the spirit of life, and laughter, and friendship, and of giving up a solo to a friend every now and then.

DEAN ON CAPRI

This is one of my favorite photographs of Dean. I took it during our visit to Italy in 2008, three years after Kevin’s death. Honoree had dreamed of a family visit to Italy for years, and we finally made it–but not in time for our younger son to enjoy the splendors of the country with us. Dean was 27 then, still devastated by the loss of his brother–perhaps more than we realized–but still resilient, even as the “prodromal” phase of his own affliction with schizophrenia was advancing. I made this photo through the window of a cafe beside a harbor on Capri, where Honoree and I were having a light lunch. Dean, who was still capable of joy and discovery, had decided to take his notebook and pen outside, where he positioned himself on the rocks by the water, in the sunshine, and channeled his inspiration into his journal.

Dean was then two years from his own psychotic break, triggered by romantic loss, but really the inevitable result of several years of accumulating stress, including his beloved brother’s suicide. As of today, Dean is still fighting gallantly to regain the equilibrium he maintained on that sunlit vacation. He lives in the warm embrace of our household in Vermont. My account of his saga–described in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE–is a testament to all the unknown battles being waged by victims of this horrible scourge who still can muster the mental resources, and the deep wells of character, to carry on their daily struggle for a meaningful life.

I admire Dean and his late brother more than anyone I have ever known or known about–including heroes of politics, war, literature, or any other field of endeavor. I know that many thousands of young men and women struggle as ardently as my sons, in anonymity, away from public recognition and perhaps scorned and feared by the strangers who encounter them. My book, besides being a journey of inquiry into the long history of mental illness, is meant to be an affirmation of Dean’s and Kevin and their brave brothers and sisters

I never glanced into the journal entries that Dean created in the exhilaration of that sunlit day on Capri. He didn’t volunteer to show us what he’d written, and Honoree and I respected his boundaries, and did not ask.

But I know that the words Dean set down are irradiated with his loving ardency and eloquence. Maybe someday I will look.

A Report from Dean’s Soul

Dean March 2016
Dean March 2016

A little while ago, I idly clicked on my son Dean’s Facebook page and found the stunning post below. As I told him a bit later, my heart was still pounding. And it still is.

On the surface, this is an account by Dean of his attempted suicide about four years ago. (Our family had lost Kevin, Dean’s younger brother, to suicide in 2005 after his three-year struggle with schizophrenia deepening in to schizoaffective disorder.)

This at least is the surface account—which Dean has never talked about until this morning. On a more profound level, it is an extremely rare glimpse into the soul of a schizophrenia sufferer, written with blazing clarity and candor. In NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, I narrate that terrible day from Honoree’s and my point of view, as we realize that we have lost phone contact with him, then learn from police that his truck had been found beside Lake George, some thirty miles to the west of us, and then sit helplessly for hours, trying to absorb the possibility that we had lost our remaining cherished son.

I am inexpressibly proud of Dean for giving us this. He was a promising young writer until misfortunes in his life began to multiply, culminating in a psychotic break a few years after Kevin’s death. This essay tells me that Dean is working hard and fearlessly to regain and re-master his gifts. To which I say, Godspeed, my good son.

But the significance of the essay goes well beyond my fatherly pride for Dean. It should be read by anyone who believes that mental-illness victims have lost their humanity; that they no longer are capable of insight or of reaching out to the “normal” world.

And it should be read by sufferers themselves. One of your brothers has held out a lamp to illuminate the richness that remains in you.

__________________________________

“Three years and several months ago: i texted my buddy and boss as my gps led me to the wrong spot. “I’m lost.”

I saw a truck that looked like mine parked beside a trail. I parked there and started walking down the trail. Snakes got startled, several of them, slithering away as i walked past them as though they were frightened by me. As i walked i felt the tedium of daily life weighing on my shoulders.

I came here knowing there was danger only to face it and meet my fate. As the steps drew on and i felt tired bugs started swarming around my head. I had a vision in that moment of me several thousand years ago drunk and staggering and lonely. Death sounded like comfort.

I turned around and walked back as a crossed a small wooden bridge i saw trash in the water and my Eyes started to tear up as it crossed my mind that we are trashing this gift God gave to us. Then a low flying plane flew directly over head as if God was telling me you made your appointment i see you and all is well.

Then i got back in my truck and drove to Lake George. My eyes scanned my surroundings at a red light and they settled on a “no right on red” sign. I gunned the throttle and turned right on red. I pulled into the parking lot, left my wallet and my phone in the truck.

I got out walked to the beach took off my shirt socks and shoes and got in the water. It was July. There were other people in the water. It felt good. I walked out a little ways till i was waist deep and took a plunge. Suddenly i felt this wonderful energy running through my arms and chest as i held my knees to my chest. I was going to turn into a school of fish and swim off into open freedom. It was like i could breathe under water.

But before i took my first breath an off duty new York state trooper pulled me out of the water. My arms opened up wide like i was on the cross myself staring up at the sun as he dragged me out of the water and put me on my back on the beach. I wondered if God could see me. Then i looked down at the water and saw a boat, the Minne Ha Ha. It was as though some competing force was telling me the world is mine haha. Then a helicopter swooped over head. It was like a movie.

The first thing i said to him was, “it’s in the eyes.” His eyes were hazel. Then all these competing arguments about the origins of the world and God flashed before my eyes. My heart beat rapidly in panic. I saw Ireland with its eyes never closing even as europe fell asleep during a card game. This gave me hope that it wasn’t all as bad as it seemed. Then before even a second elapsed I was put on a stretcher and put in an ambulance with two emts with blue eyes and i panicked again.

“All i want to do is rest in peace,” i said to them. “Oh we hear you,” the man said to me. He flicked the lights above me on and off several times. Then they took me to the hospital and i heard birds chirping and saw lights flashing when i blinked my eyes.

Eventually they put me in the psych Ward and i got pissed that i was getting locked up again. 5 guys and i were standing around in a circle. I said “nobody here has any authority.” Then they bowed their heads. They bowed their heads as if the authority was spiritual. Then they all laid hands on me and put me on my bed and shot two needles in my butt. And i said “those shots better kill me.” The medics head jerked as i said this as he plunged the medication home.

Later as i reflected on it i thought to myself, “they pulled me out of the water.” Baptism, evolution, pirates. “They pulled me out of water.” I was baptised into my true spirituality by an off duty new York state trooper. It also symbolizes our journey out of the ocean and onto land. And if i had walked the plank it’s like they threw me a rope to pull me back on board.

And if he hadn’t pulled me out i might have breathed and i might be dead. I don’t even know his name, but i want to thank him.”