Month: May 2013

Stuck in the Middle with You (Hearts & Minds)

“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you…”


-Stealers Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle with You,” 1972.



On the Jani Foundation Facebook page I put up a post from my friend Karen, whose daughter Alysha also has child onset schizophrenia, not that that really matters.


“One of the most disturbing things I have ever seen today. A young boy 10-12 years old coming out of the psychiatric area of the Denver Children’s hospital with a large leather strap around his waist. Attached to that strap were his HANDCUFFED wrists. He was being lead by an armed police officer to a waiting caged police car. Breaks my heart that this CHILD was being lead away from a psychiatric facility to most likely a juvenile criminal facility. Obviously this CHILD must have done something very serious, most likely with mental health issues, and being taken away from psychiatric help.”


Interesting that she wrote “child” twice in all caps.  Probably trying to appeal to hearts and minds with that. We live in a society so ready to throw down the hammer of what we now consider “justice” that it was necessary to keep reinforcing that we are talking about a child here, in the hope that while you might dismiss an adult, there is still some shred of humanity left in you that believes a child can be innocent.


I once saw a similar event outside the Santa Clarita Child & Family Center. The LA County Sheriff’s Deputies pull up and a therapist, clearly distraught, runs up to them. I was too far away to hear every word of the conversation between the therapist and the deputies but I got the gist. A “client” had become violent in her office. I think he was trashing the place. What I did clearly overhear was the deputies asking how old the CHILD was (and yes, they used the word “child”). “He’s twelve,” came the answer.


I posted a shortened version of this response to Karen’s post and thought nothing more about it. To me, it was just another example the increasing criminalization of the mentally ill. We’re getting down to kids now. I don’t blame the cops. I’ve had enough interaction with the LA County Sheriff’s Department to know these men and women don’t handcuff young boys because they get off on it. They do it because they don’t know what else to do. Seriously, what do you do with a mentally ill young minor? You can’t take them to jail (at least not yet-give it another year or two until they can survive a holding cell). You can’t take them back to their parents, primarily because their parents brought them to the facility for help in the first place.


In North LA County, kids get taken the Psychiatric ER at UCLA Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar. It doesn’t look anything like any ER you’ve ever been in. The kids are placed into a series of large rooms with multiple other kids. In essence, the place looks like a drunk tank in a county jail. From there, the overworked attending (and there is just one doctor) desperately tries to find a bed in a real psychiatric hospital. Olive View is not for treatment. It is for holding. You got one room for men, one room for women, one room for male children and one room for female children. Holding tanks. If the attending can find a child psych hospital with an open bed, the child will be transferred. If they can’t, they will be held there until their 72 hour hold expires and then released.


The only reason Jani didn’t end up there was because she was a six year old girl at the time the cops came for her. That and a committed deputy who refused to simply pass the buck and force me take her home.


Anyway, tonight I get Jani down to bed and come back to see this comment, posted in response:


“It is so bad that our children have MI , but that isnt a open book for ur kids to break the law. We as parents have to teach our kids right from wrong. I hope this never happens to my daughter, but if she breaks the law then she has to do the time. MI doesnt give them the right to do as they please.”


Now, several hours after I first read this, I notice the “ur kids,” meaning that hopefully, if God exists, this woman does not have mentally ill children. The “our children” threw me at first because I couldn’t understand how any parent of a seriously mentally ill child could believe this.”


Anyway, my second reaction, after “May God have mercy on this woman’s children should they ever cross the law” was…


Really? Really??!!!!!


Is there actually someone left who is stupid enough to believe that, throughout the course of human history, there has EVER been a parent who didn’t teach their children the difference between right and wrong? Really? Really?


If so, they would be a freak of nature. I have never seen a parent not correct a child’s bad behavior. I have never seen a parent not teach a child what is right and what is wrong.


And I never will.


Because they don’t exist.


Teaching the difference between right and wrong is so much a part of parenting you don’t even freaking think about it. In fact, that might be the ONLY thing about parenting that you don’t have to learn to do. You HAVE to teach your kids the difference between right and wrong just so they can live in your home. You do it everyday. You’ve probably done it at least once today without even thinking about it. You teach your children right and wrong so they can function within the ever increasing environments they will be exposed to. Let’s take hitting. You teach your toddler not to hit. Why? Because you don’t want them inflicting pain on other children. You want them to be liked by other children. You want them to have friends. As they get older, you don’t want them to get their ass kicked or to inflict serious damage on another human being. You don’t want them suspended or expelled from school.


And, eventually, you don’t want them to go to jail. Prison. Death Row.


You don’t want to be left with nothing but photographs.


Instinctively, we raise our children to survive and function. We raise them with the hope that they will be comfortable and happy, perhaps with a family of their own, when you go to meet your Maker.


You see, I know what you think. You all think Jani is “better” now, and she is, in some ways.  She has come a long way, longer than you could possibly know. You watch the TV specials; you watch our Jani Foundation Youtube videos and you see a bubbly and happy little girl. Because she was introduced to you at such a young age, she remains frozen for you as you first saw her.


You commend Susan and I for our commitment to her yet Jani is where she is today because of her own hard work and, to be brutally honest, pure dumb luck.


You heard me. Pure dumb luck.


In Jani’s case, we found a cocktail of medications that has allowed her to slowly reintegrate into society.


We got lucky.


For three years, Jani could not go to school. She would go for one to two hours AFTER the school day had ended, and work one on one with a teacher and an aide.


Why? Because she didn’t want to be around other kids. She couldn’t help hitting them.


Her words.


So either she understands the difference between wrong and right or she just doesn’t like hitting people.


She is now in her second year back in a classroom. A SED (severely emotionally disturbed) classroom but a classroom nonetheless.


With other kids.


What I don’t share with you, what few people outside of Jani’s immediate circle know, is that she does hit her classmates. Not every day. Some days are better than others. Some days she has a great day. And some days she overturns her desk, throws chairs, crumples and destroys the work of her classmates (including their STAR testing sheets), and hits them.


By the way, Susan and I waive the STAR testing. Remember my focus early on in January First on Jani’s genius? My belief that all she needed was a more challenging intellectual environment? Screw that now. Now I couldn’t give a damn about academics or whether she ever goes to college. She goes to school for one reason and one reason only: to learn to function in the microcosm of society that school is.


And every time I read in her day note that she hit a classmate, I go into a lecture driven by fear.


“Jani, you can’t hit people.”


“I hate boys.”


“What does that mean? What does it feel like to hate?” (I am trying to get her to recognize emotions). “Hate is a strong emotion, Jani. Hate is reserved for those who really hurt us. Do the boys hurt you?


Jani shakes her head. “They swear at the teacher sometimes.”


Jani can punch and kick but would never utter a curse word if her life depended on it. So much for learning from what one sees.


“Do they swear at you?’


Jani shakes her head.


“Are they mean to you?”


Jani shakes her head, even though I already know this. Jani is the only girl in the class, surrounded by ten, eleven, and twelve year old boys, which means that they are caught between being annoyed by her and strange feelings they can’t quite articulate yet. When she screams, “I hate boys!” in the middle of class, they just roll their eyes and say, “We know, Jani. You hate boys.” Some of them still want her to sit next to them. They give her small trinkets. They make things for her in class.


In other words, they are becoming men and learning what we all learn…. For a woman we like, we’ll pretty much put up with anything.


By the way, these boys have their own issues. They are sometimes violent. The police have been called on a few. Yet at their core, despite their respective illnesses, they are still navigating the minefield that is puberty.


Back to my lecture to Jani:


“Why did you hit _____________? Did he do something to you?”


Jani shakes her head. “I just hate boys.”


I sigh. “Jani, you’re ten right now. Right now it is just hitting boys. But in a few more years, hitting boys becomes a crime. It’s called ‘assault and battery.’ You could go to jail.


“I don’t care,” Jani announces. “ I still hate boys.”


Because her schizophrenia, when acute, robbed three years of development, that probably sounds to you a lot like something a little kid would say. Little kids have no concept of jail, of the law, of consequences they have never experienced.


The problem is she is not a little girl anymore. She is on the verge of adolescence. What will happen when she hits a boy at sixteen? Either she will get attacked herself or suspended or expelled or arrested.


The boys that Jani claims to hate so much have even less time.


Every single parent of a mentally ill teenage boy I have ever met has dealt with the cops. Boys, unfortunately, get bigger and stronger. They achieve “lethal” capabilities before girls do. Combine the mental illness with testosterone flowing through their bodies and you can see the writing on the wall. It is only a matter of time. 13? 14? Whenever they are big enough and strong enough that only the cops can take them down, you have reached the end of the road. Maybe their mental illness might be a mitigating factor. Maybe not. Either way, at 18, the criminal justice system ignores all juvenile medical history.


And the boys who draw pictures for Jani today could very easily wind up rotting away in Chino for the rest of their lives.


My point is this:


I have yet to meet a schizophrenic, bipolar, or otherwise severely mentally ill child or teenager that did not know the difference between right and wrong. They act out not because they don’t know any better or because they are bad kids. Quite the opposite. They are sweet kids. Just like your kids. They like Pokemon and animals, planes and Legos. They play Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, not violent video games (because their parents don’t allow it and to be honest they don’t show much interest in them).


No, they erupt, they break your laws and maybe your face because something deep within their brain compels them to do it. And after the psychosis or rage is gone, they fight back tears and wish they were dead.


Ever heard a ten year old tell you he wishes he was dead because then he wouldn’t do bad things anymore?


I have. It rips me up every time and I commit myself yet again to doing everything I can to save them. Because like Jani, I can see who they really are when their illness lets go.


In truth, I see more humanity in them than I do in some of you. They fight every single day against forces that seek to take control of them.


And you just sit and judge.


I’m not a very good advocate because I am not very good at “hearts and minds.” At least, not your hearts and minds. To me, you are the clowns to the left of me and the jokers to the right.


And I’m stuck in the middle with these kids. But that’s okay because that’s where I want to be.


Because I can see their hearts and minds.


PS: For a better example of how to reach out to your hearts and minds, read this by my friend Janine