From loving child to terrified youth from Hell

Published on: December 27, 2012

For those with loved ones suffering from mental illness, it is difficult to find the doorway to help and recovery before it is too late. Mitch Traphagen Photo

For those with loved ones suffering from mental illness, it is difficult to find the doorway to help and recovery before it is too late. Mitch Traphagen Photo

By Lou Joyce

I could have been that dead mother of the shooter. Circumstances were similar for our family.

During the horrible unfolding of the story in Connecticut, I was in anguish. Yes, anguish for the families who lost their beautiful children and loved ones, but also for the shooter and his family. Why? Because I have lived a similar story with my mentally ill son.

Have you ever seen someone in a crowd whose eyes are blank as he furtively looks around, checking over his shoulder, someone who looks paranoid? I watched my funny, musically talented, hardworking, successfully employed young son slowly lose who he was and descend into a horrible place where ordinary people are aggressors, a place where a crowd of strangers is a terrifying military infantry out to get him, a place where neighbors stalk him. He saw strangers and was in mortal fear for his life. He could not see children, families, or me. Once he asked me if I was the devil and evil. That chilled me to the bone. This was the young man who only months before had told us he loved and appreciated us, held a very good job, drove a nice car, and went to parties. We knew this change was happening, but he wouldn’t often talk to us about it. One day he just quit his job, came home, went to his room, and wouldn’t come out. He said in a moment of wisdom and clarity, “I’ll come out when I’m well.” That clarity was fleeting and Phillip was 19 years old, a legal adult, when his illness began to worsen.

As a family, we went through a living hell to get him treatment. Over and over, we were told by Crisis Intervention, the police, doctors, and psychologists that we needed him to agree to go into a hospital.

We learned that the law says he must demonstrate that he is a danger to himself or others. How does one do that? By hurting someone? Yep, someone had to be hurt before we could get him evaluated without his consent. A politician once told me that my son would be better off in prison because there he would get better care for his mental illness. I went to our state capital to beg for help for my son and that is what I was told. Why? Because our laws won’t allow a loving family to get help UNTIL IT IS TOO LATE, until our loved one hurts someone.

If you are wondering why Phillip didn’t seek out help and freely give his consent, it is because he did not know he was sick. Mental illness targets the brain and it is not pretty. It leaves the person without normal reason, compassion, initiative, and so many other mental capabilities we take for granted. There are many symptoms of the disease, but unlike cancer, diabetes, or heart disease there aren’t enough advocates or medical facilitates that treat it in a compassionate, competent way. Dr. Xavier Amador’s book, I Am Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help!, helped me to stop trying to convince Phillip that he was sick. Instead, I learned to listen, empathize, and agree to disagree with his perspective. I learned to be a partner, to watch, and to pray a lot. Nothing else was available to me in our current system.

Phillip eventually decided to run away from those he believed were out to get him, keeping us unaware of his plans. He took some of his savings, got into a car, and went to live alone in the woods. He stopped somewhere along his journey to buy a gun for protection because he believed the military was gathering in the parks, out to kill him. Fortunately, a store clerk looked into Phillip’s beautiful eyes and saw fear, confusion, and desperation. The clerk convinced him that he only needed a gun that looked dangerous and sold him a BB gun that looked like a real handgun. The story’s terrifying trajectory ended when the police stopped Phillip. By the grace of God, he dropped that BB gun and instead of being shot and killed, he ended up in jail.

In jail, Phillip received no mental health treatment. They did not believe he was mentally ill, despite his bizarre behavior and delusions. They thought he was just trying to get out of jail. Three months passed before he ended up in a pool of his own blood at the jail, finally managing to hurt himself seriously enough to require hospitalization. During this entire time, we tried to get Crisis Intervention involved, but Phillip refused help, so no help came. He was too sick to know how sick he was. After his hospitalization, it was back to jail and the awful burden of trials, pills, and more jail time for being sick. Our health care system could not acknowledge Phillip’s illness, leaving law enforcement, his family, and Phillip himself to treat his symptoms.

I have many other stories about the roadblocks thrown at our family every time Phillip had a change in mental health. Mental health is like any other disease it gets better, it gets worse, and sometimes it stays the same. Early intervention might have saved some of his brain. What hasn’t gotten better is our system for identifying, treating, and caring for those who are mentally ill. I’ve seen our current system for treating the mentally ill as if they were not ill at all, but rather choosing this abnormal lifestyle.  I’ve wept for the humiliation and total destruction of self-esteem that treatment causes in the one who is so sick. Would you open up to anyone and tell them what you were thinking if you suspected the police would be sent to handcuff you to get you into treatment?

I wept, too, for those children who died in Connecticut and for the adults who tried to help. In my heart, I know the shooter’s mother, she who played Bunco, tried to seem normal, tried to get help for her son before it got this far. Would I ever have had assault weapons around my son? Absolutely not!  But I know that you just don’t talk about the struggles of mental illness with friends and neighbors. The help and support isn’t there. The stigma of mental illness is just too much for families to bear.

Where am I going with my story? We must have better mental health assessments for mentally ill people BEFORE they hurt themselves or others, and we must have solutions for implementing those assessments. Mental health teams, not just police, must be available when family members call for help. Treatment centers must be a place of safety and comfort, and not set up for punishment rather than healing. If we are going to fix mental healthcare, let’s put our brightest and most forward-thinking medical teams on this problem of assessment and treatment. We lose too many people every year by people whose minds are untreated for delusional behavior. Once again, as a mom with a mentally ill son, I am begging people to rethink how we look at and treat the unfortunate person who has a brain that decides to attack from within.

By the way, Phillip is now in his late twenties and living in an apartment. His treatment started too late to save his brain before it was ravaged by mental illness. There is damage there. He receives regular medication to help him and is in a good program that is understaffed and underfunded.  But Phillip is so much better and has some very wonderful days with his family. Friends are hard to find. The stigma, you know.

I’m just a mom in mourning.

The writer is a daughter, sister, mom, and artist in the Midwest who has worked most of her life helping to rehabilitate seriously injured or ill people through therapeutic activities such as art or adapted sports. In 2011, she lost her job when the hospital program was closed.  Since then she has been diagnosed with breast cancer, undergoing radiation and two surgeries, including a mastectomy. Phillip continues to have good spells and bad.  His main support is his mom.  If you would like to comment on this article, please email