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Left to Our Own Devices (The Optimist)

Antoinette Tuff’s name is very appropriate. While Dekalb County prosecutors fall all over themselves to come up with charges for Michael Brandon Hill, who Tuesday walked into Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy with an AK-47 and more ammunition than your average military platoon carries (because of course there is no better deterrent for people in a severely psychotic state than a long prison sentence), Tuff, a front office worker at the school, may have helped the cause of treating the severely mentally ill take a giant step forward.

 

For the first time in one of these “tragedies,” there was no tragedy. Everybody got out alive, including Hill himself. That is the first significant part of this. Adam Lanza’s not around for us to ask him questions anymore. For James Holmes and Jared Loughner, it is too hard for society to look beyond the crimes they committed. In Aurora, they still want blood.

 

But no blood was spilled in Decatur. No lives were lost or changed negatively forever. No one took a bullet.

 

For me, this is a seminal moment in mental health history. Perhaps it is fitting that it happened in Georgia, the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. For me, Ms. Tuff is the spiritual descendent of Rosa Parks. She defied fear and made a difference.

 

What did Tuff do that was so incredible?

 

She treated Hill like a human being. She talked calmly to him. She told him what he needed to hear to stop whatever it was he planned to do with that AK-47.

 

I would strongly encourage DeKalb County Sheriff’s to hire Tuff as a hostage negotiator.

 

Of course, credit must also go to Hill himself, who had enough logic left inside his psychosis to tell Tuff that he knew he should have gone to a hospital instead of coming to the school.

 

One human reached out to another human who was losing his humanity to his illness and she pulled him back. It is too late for DeKalb County prosecutors to be heroes. Tuff did what will not occur to them as they now try to punish Hill, or to the police with long guns who were ready to kill him. Without a weapon and without the loss of life, Tuff brought Hill back from the hell he was in and the deeper level of hell he was going to. It appears he wanted to die at the hands of police. They might have obliged. But Tuff made human contact despite her own fear and changed the course of history.

 

For the first time, there is nothing to distract us from the truth, which is a severely mentally ill man off his medications went into a school with a gun and was not so far gone inside his psychosis that an office worker couldn’t get through to him. We have to face that truth because that is the only truth there is. If Hill had been undergoing intensive outpatient therapy like AOT (mandated medication), he would not have gone to the school that day. But this time there are no dead children or dead anyone to mourn for. There is no killer to shake our fists in rage at. There is only a sick man.

 

I want you to sit with that for a moment.

 

Hill is and was no killer. He was a sick man in incredible pain caused by a disease you can’t see until he stuck a AK-47 in your face. He wanted to die because he wanted to end the pain. But instead of dying or killing, a woman saw the humanity that was still inside him. She saw the man inside the disease

 

And by God the disease, the psychosis, let him go long enough to lay down his weapon and get directions from the police, via Tuff, on how to surrender.

 

What makes this such a seminal moment is that for the first time the public heard from the would-be killer before he could kill. He spoke. We will never know what Adam Lanza said or did not say because everyone who could have heard him speak is dead. Holmes and Loughner said nothing because they were already too far gone. The psychosis had erased their true personality. All we have from Seung-Hui Cho is the rantings of his disease that he recorded hours before he killed 32 people and mailed to NBC News. He, too, was too far gone to show anything left of who he really was. His rants have nothing to do with why he killed and the reveal nothing about who he really was. In fact, they directly contradict who he was by the reports of those who knew him when he was still just sick and not yet a killer.

 

But Hill was not that far gone yet. Maybe because he had lived with his disease (according to his brother, it is bipolar) longer. Maybe it hadn’t been that long since he stopped taking his meds. Whatever the reason, there was enough left of him so that when Tuff talked him, he talked back. And slowly, she got him to reveal who he really was.

 

On the 911 call, Hill can heard saying, “he should have just went to the mental hospital instead of doing this, because he’s not on his medication.” Tuff reports that “He said he don’t care if he dies, he don’t have nothing to live for.”

 

He said nobody loved him.

 

And Tuff replied that she did.

 

Was she lying to save her life? Perhaps. We could be cynical like that. But I don’t think so. She obviously came across as sincere enough that Hill didn’t proceed with his “suicide by cop” plan.

 

She also shared her own personal struggles with Hill, which whether she intended it or not was brilliant because it humanized her to him, not that there is any evidence he planned to kill her or anyone else in the school.

 

Take away the gun and you have two people, two human beings, sharing their pain with each other.

 

And isn’t that what we are supposed to do for each other anyway?

 

When I teach rhetoric to first year college students, I focus on pathos, which is the appeal to emotion. Why? Because I tell them that there is one language we all understand.

 

Pain.

 

Every human on earth has experienced pain. It is pain, not joy, that is the only thing in common that all humans have.

 

Sharing our pain with each other is how we form bonds. It is how we humanize each other. It is the vehicle of our empathy, which is the most powerful of human gifts. Not sympathy. Sympathy is a false expression of something you can’t relate to. Sympathy is empty words. You all know that. Empathy is something you FEEL. Empathy is when you feel another person’s pain because it reminds you of your own.

 

Empathy, my friends, is what makes us human. It is what keeps us from hurting other people or when we do it is what makes us try to make it right. Empathy (along with medication) is the greatest enemy of severe mental illness. Because severe mental illness like the psychotic illness make you think the world is against you. It tries to isolate you. But empathy is the enemy of isolation. You stay isolated if the people around you can feel just a little something of what you feel.

 

You may never know what it is like to hear voices in your head telling you you are worthless and that you should die.

 

But you know what that feels like. Everybody has felt it. Everybody has had that moment of darkness where you can’t see the sun rise again. Everybody knows what it feels like to have moments of irrational anger. Everybody knows what it feels like to lash out at somebody that you really love and everybody knows the guilt afterward when you can’t for the life of you figure out why you hurt that person.

 

You may not know the thoughts of someone who is bipolar, schizo-affective, or schizophrenic but you know the FEELINGS. The only difference is that for you it is a moment. For them it is lifelong. You don’t have a disease that can rob you of your humanity. They do.

 

The Jani Foundation provides free social events to kids in the special education classification of “emotionally disturbed.” They are “emotionally disturbed” because they are all mentally ill in some way, but not all them have a diagnosis. Some of them may not get one until they are Michael Hill’s age.

 

But this is what I do know. Even though the vast majority of them are white and male, just like the general profile of mass shooters, I know in my heart that none of them will ever do something like this. I know you will never hear about a kid who went through the Santa Clarita Valley’s ED programs shooting up a building or killing anyone.

 

Why?

 

Because they will not grow up alone. Because of your financial support that allows to put on these social events, currently for K-6 but next year grades 7-8 and the year after that 9-12, the mentally ill children of Santa Clarita will never feel alone. They will never feel like nobody loves them. Whatever struggles they go through from here, they will have their peers and other families to support them. They will have the community which is getting to know them.

 

This is why we preach socialization over isolation. This is why we oppose residential treatment. This is why we do what we do, which is just taking these kids out to a fun event just for them and their families where no one will look at them funny or judge their actions.

 

Because medicated or not medicated (although we believe in medication, not all parents do), isolation will kill. One way or another, it allows the disease to take over.

 

Socialization pushes back against the disease. Every party, every fun event, every playing with their ED classmates tells the disease “We will not let you win. We will not give up on this child.”

 

We’ve only done two events and already I have seen amazing things. I have seen the diseases retreat. At our last event, at SkyHigh Sports where the floors are trampolines, they gave the Jani Foundation group a dodgeball court before I could realize what was happening. Dodgeball is not good for ED kids. They take it too personally. I’ve seen boys get accidentally hit in the face with a stray ball on the playground of the school and try to kill the child who threw it. I watched them go after the poor general ed child with the bad aim and watched multiple instructional aides have to hold them back. I have listened to the string of foul language directed at the other child, words that should come out of no 10 year old’s mouth.

 

Yet, this last Friday at our event at SkyHigh, they had dodgeball. And before I realized what was happening, a boy, the same boy I described above, got hit in the face by an errant throw. Both his mother and myself rushed to the edge of the court, holding our breath, ready to jump in if he went after his fellow ED student.

But he didn’t. He took off his classes, made sure they were cracked, blinked a few times, and put them back on. Then he picked up the ball that had hit him.

 

“Are you okay,______________?” His mother and I asked simultaneously.

 

He looked over at us. No rage.

 

“Yeah.” He turned back to his classmates. “Guys, watch my glasses, okay?”

 

And he went back to playing with them.

 

This is a boy who at school prefers to walk in circles by himself because he doesn’t want to talk to his classmates. He doesn’t “like” them.

 

And yet he was, actively engaging in appropriate play.

 

We had over 20 kids, all from the ED program.

 

And you never would have known that any of them were anything more than just normal kids.

 

That one moment justified everything that Susan and I have worked to bring about with the Jani Foundation. It proved to me that our program, although small and pretty simple, actually works.

 

Assuming we can keep raising money (Your tax-deductible donations to www.janifoundation.org/donate/ make these events possible).

 

Of course, I am sure there will be bumps in the road. I am sure there will be meltdowns and threats of violence at some point. It is a daily battle against their own minds for these kids.

 

But I firmly believe that as long as they are not left alone to play “Minecraft” in the basement, if you ever hear about any of them on the news, it won’t be doing something awful.

 

It will probably be for inventing the next hot video game.

 

Watch your back, “Minecraft.”

 

And watch your back, mental illness.

 

Because we know how to fight back now.

 

You will not win.

 

These kids, these brilliant, wonderful, funny kids, are ours.

 

 

 

3 comments on “Left to Our Own Devices (The Optimist)

    1. And thank you to you, Will, Craig, and the girls for helping to make it possible! For those who don’t know Will, here is the link Will is our patron saint.

  1. I was in an emotionally disturbed school program for part of my high school years. I can tell you that it most likely worked in helping save my life. It, at some points, brought me out of the loneliness I would feel from my illness bringing me down. It brought light into my life and connected me with others like me that I probably wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise. I wish something like that would’ve been offered to me when I was 12 years old and struggling, reaching out to find someone like me and coming back with no one there. Just that you can provide that for these kids, as you’ve seen already, can save their lives. Thank you for doing this for them, Michael.