When word came that Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard shooter, was severely mentally ill, my heart fell. I’d had nothing but anger in my heart for Alexis before that, but revelations that he was hearing voices and had sought help left me desolate in a way which is hard to describe.
You see, that could have been my son.
Every time word of another deranged person opening fire makes its way through the media, I fear that could be my boy. My youngest son, I’ll call him “John,” is severely mentally ill. The ordeal began a few years before I came into his (and my wife’s) life. John was diagnosed at the very young age of five with Bipolar Disorder I and ADHD. He would run away from home at 18 months, once making his way across the street to a nursing home, only to be brought home by a resident. He would stand in the street with a car coming right at him and laugh, and have to be rescued.
When I came into his life in early 2000, John was 6 years old and was already on heavy doses of Dexedrine. We tried everything. When he was manic, which was often, John was uncontrollable. He would giggle in a way that was anything but cute — it was frightening. He would hear voices, frogs would talk to him, he would see angels — “but not nice ones, mommy” — and they would fly into his mouth. He would lie to his teachers, causing more than one uncomfortable phone call.
Every year, we would face the same uphill battle with the school, trying to get them to see that John needed help. That we needed help. The doctors prescribed more and more medication. At one point he was on six different drugs, including heavy doses of the antipsychotic Zyprexa.
He threatened his elder brother with a knife.
We entered him into an after-school and summer program for students like him with behavioral issues. We used behavior modification plans at home, and got him an IEP and into special ed.
In junior high, we had a teacher call to complain that he was drooling in class. His temper was volcanic. He broke things. We know now those are called “bipolar rages,” and they’re terrifying. Fortunately, we had a new doctor whose response to new behaviors was not to add medication. He got John off much of the medication he was on, bringing him down to just two. John’s focus improved.
But his behavior got worse.