What is Your Major Malfunction?/Who is Going to Hold You When You Break?

I don’t know how soldiers deal with the death of a fellow soldier. And I am not talking about the war movie cliché where one second your buddy is next to you and the next his face is a pile of goo. War movies are, in essence, “buddy films,” and so they tend to focus on the relationship between one soldier and another, just as this blog often focuses on the relationship between me and Jani. Jani is, in some ways, “Private Pyle” Full Metal Jacket and I am Matthew Modine’s “Private Joker.” It is interesting that Kubrick’s characters were never called by their given names, but by the psychological states they represented. Each character in Full Metal Jacket deals with the psychological assault of war in a different way, and that different way gives rise to their names within the film.


Thanks to films like Full Metal Jacket, there is a conception that basic training in the military is all about breaking you down from a human being and rebuilding you into a killer. This is not true. Kubrick’s film was an intentional gross exaggeration of Marine basic training. The real goal of basic training is not to teach you how to kill but to teach you how to survive. The military is not interested in training its soldiers to be cannon fodder. When Osama Bin Ladin said that the fundamental difference between the West and his version of Islam is that we celebrate life, while they celebrate death, he was correct. American soldiers are not trained to kill and die. They are trained with the goal of ensuring their survival. The goal is to send an American soldier into the combat zone and then retrieve him or her in one piece.


This means that survival is drilled into the psyche of the American military recruit, but not only his/her own survival. Soldiers must also ensure the survival of every member of their unit to the best of their ability.


This means that if you lose a solider in your squad or platoon, you have failed as a soldier. Even if the death was completely unavoidable, and it often is, the individual soldier takes it as a personal failure, which in turn leads to “survivor’s guilt.”


I have never been in the military. When I was in high school, the Army tried very hard to recruit me. I wasn’t really interested because I had a very arrogant and insulting attitude toward the military, believing then that they were a bunch of thugs who got off on killing things. Needless to say, I was very wrong about this. Still, such a view of the military, particularly the Marine Corp, was reinforced six years later when it was revealed, after the Columbine Massacre, that Eric Harris has attempted to enroll in the Marine Corp and been denied because he has taking a prescribed anti-depressant. Contrary to urban legend, he was not aware of his rejection on April 20th, 1999 when he and Dylan Klebold began their killing spree. There are actually no indications that he was serious about joining the Marines and certainly nothing to suggest that had he been accepted he would not have carried out the massacre.  He and Dylan had begun planning the Massacre during the winter of 1997/1998, shortly after they were arrested for breaking into a van to steal electronics, so it is doubtful that he ever really seriously wanted to join the Marines. Even if he did, he was probably “inspired,” for lack of a better word, by events of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, not by the determination and resolve of the Marines but by the fact that those assaults seemed, to a disturbed kid, like a “suicide mission,” ignoring the fact that the Marines don’t willingly send soldiers off to die on suicide missions. No Marine is expendable.


As it happens, although I never actually signed enlistment papers, I was rejected from the Army for a similar reason to Eric. I was fresh out of a drug abuse and psychological inpatient stay and once the recruiters found this out, it tempered their interest in me. They told me to “give it a few years.” In other words, my history of narcotic use and psychological problems made me an undesirable recruit.


Even then, though, there was something that drew me to the military, and still draws me today: the idea of brotherhood, or, in the broader sense, a common humanity caused by being placed in a common situation. I was drawn to the idea of being surrounded by people whose job it was to look out for me, as it was my job to look out for them. Indeed, this concept of belonging to something bigger than yourself was the primary recruiting tool of the US Military (other than the ubiquitous “money for college”) prior to 9/11. That attitude of one for all and all for one is so much a part of military training that it has entered our cultural collective unconscious and probably contributed to the idea that Eric Harris was a “loner,” and if he had only had that group, that brotherhood who would look out for him, he would not have killed 13 people. Of course, it is entirely untrue. Eric Harris was no “loner.” He had many friends and was very popular. He also had an overwhelming sense of superiority common to sociopaths, seeing others as less than human and not deserving of life. What ever drove him to kill was entirely within his own head. The rest of us had nothing to do with it.


I, on the other hand, always wanted that brotherhood. I always wanted a group that I could trust with my life, and in return I would value their lives as much as my own. This desire has, I think, been my primary influence in my relationship with Jani. She was part of my platoon and as such I was obligated to do whatever it took to keep her going. It also caused me to take her loneliness, her struggles to connect to our world and actual flesh and blood friends, deeply personally. For so much of my life I have felt like an outsider, the strange one, the odd duck, that identified with those feelings in Jani. Like Jani, I can be incredibly charming, but I can also turn on a dime and lash out at friends and family. The duality of my own nature helped me accept the duality in Jani’s nature. Lexapro has balanced me so I am not as high-strung as I once was, but I knew what it felt like to lose control and turn on those you love. The only difference is I have a voice of logic inside my head. Jani, on the other hand, has hundreds of voices inside her head and almost none of them are logical. It takes far, far more effort for her to think rationally than it does for me.


But I always believed I had value, even in my moments of greatest despair and my moments of monumental failure. I never have believed that I was irredeemable. And so I saw Jani the same way. Despite her flaws, she was not irredeemable. And there have been times when Susan and myself were the only ones who could see that. What the media attention has done for Jani is not showcase her as a freak. Quite the opposite. Actually, it has allowed the world to see Jani beyond her illness. It has shown the world what we always knew, that our daughter was still in there, that there was a sweet child underneath the crushing pressure of the schizophrenia. I never wanted to show Jani as “mentally ill.” I wanted to show her as an incredible child. Because if the world could see the child instead of the illness, maybe they could start to see other children instead of the “behavior.” I wanted you to see Jani, Becca, Brenna, Ailish (and soon Mari & Logan when the Discovery Health special airs in May) as they truly are. You know what my favorite part of the “20/20” episode was? When Jay Schadler is talking to Brenna via Skype because she is in residential in Colorado and she smiles at him. It is a beautiful, child-like smile. Jay and the “20/20” producers managed to show the children inside these illnesses.


And you know what that means, don’t you?


It means that if they are still in there, we have to go in and get them. We are the parents of the mentally ill. We don’t leave any child behind.


When my blog first became public, and some were shocked by the some of the past mistakes I have confessed to, I don’t think those people ever understood why I revealed those things. It wasn’t because I didn’t think anyone would find out. Hell, my blog was public knowledge. I wrote them because I believed, and still believe, that my mistakes, my failures, do not outweigh the good that I have done.


For me, the key scene in Full Metal Jacket is when, after the entire platoon is punished for a transgression by Private Pyle, the platoon straps him down and assaults him with soap bars swung inside socks. As Pyle cries out in pain and despair, there is a pivotal moment where Private Joker hesitates, sock in hand, not sure what to do. The platoon is trying to teach Pyle a lesson, that what he does affects them all, but Joker hesitates, not because he is unwilling to inflict pain upon Pyle. He, too, is angry about being punished because of Pyle. He hesitates because he is not sure the soap beating will do any good. Unlike his fellow recruits, he is conflicted over whether Pyle can learn. Eventually, of course, he does hit Pyle with the soap. Mostly, he hits out of frustration because he has invested so much time and energy in Pyle. He has worked with him, doing what the real Marines teach, which is never leaving a man behind. But despite all his efforts, Pyle cannot change his nature. In “impotent rage” (long time readers of my blog will get the reference), he strikes at Pyle. But it is a quick hit, as if he knows it is in vain.


Of course, that attack changes Pyle. He becomes a model soldier, but he is irreparably broken, as becomes clear the night in the latrine.


To this day, there are still those, including Jani’s last doctor at UCLA, who tell us to hit her with the metaphorical soap in the sock. But I am done with that and have been ever since Jani tried to jump out of her window, which was our night in the latrine so to speak. I don’t give a damn anymore about discipline because discipline is becomes punitive if the person can’t learn. And I don’t want Jani to ever put that metaphorical rifle in her mouth. She has a lot to offer. Part of why I write this is to remind myself of that, to remind myself that a soldier never leaves another soldier behind. Watch below to see the worst example of negative reinforcement that will hopefully remind you how humiliating it is.




Jani herself is alternating good days and bad days. On the bad days, she is more resistant than she has been in a while. She is back to screaming “No!” or “I don’t want to!” over things she was starting to be able to deal with on her own. And it isn’t a tantrum. She is on the edge and she knows it and she is screaming at us so we don’t push her over. We are almost completely separated as a family again because Jani, at unpredictable times, is unable to deal with Bodhi’s crying, and Bodhi is crying a lot because he is in the middle of the terrible twos and his verbal skills are lacking (he now is speech, occupational, and group therapy, along with preschool twice a week in the morning). He rages like a two year old, unable to have something that he wants, but unable to communicate what it is. Sometimes I think even he doesn’t know. Maybe he is reacting to my absence more, for I spend nearly every moment of every day with Jani, because Jani is often unwilling to go with Susan. This is nothing against Susan. I think Jani just knows she is on the edge and she feels safer with me around because she feels I am better equipped to pull her back. After all, I am her platoon buddy. I get her (although so does Susan). I know Susan feels rejected sometimes, both by Jani and by me. Only in this blog do I have the time to explain to her that I feel like I am trying to keep everyone from going over a cliff. By the way, this Saturday is our ten year wedding anniversary. Susan is the best soldier in this fight I could have asked for. I love her very much and am proud of everything she has done.


And not just Jani. Many adults with mental illness have been drawn to me over the past nine months and many of them are in crisis, too. I feel responsible for them. I just set up a private online support group for adults with mental illness, but it feels like handing them a peashooter in the face of an approaching army. It is not enough. The girl who sat behind me in high school psychology class, during the very time the Army was trying to recruit me, is hanging over a cliff and it terrifies me. Last week, her college roommate dropped her three kids, ages 10, 7, and 3, off with my high school friend, then promptly went home and killed herself. She was later found by her husband. My friend desperately needs somebody to be there with her right now, but her damn therapist only has 50 minutes and then it is out the door, regardless of what my friend’s emotional state is.  I want her to go back to inpatient but her insurance won’t cover it. I want her there because I want her safe. I am terrified but I am 1500 miles away.


I am so angry that there is nothing between a therapist’s 50 minute session and inpatient hospitalization. How the fuck are the mentally ill suppose to make it through life with those two options? There has to be a third way. There has to be a place where the mentally ill can come and be safe, be with those who will watch them, talk to them, keep them going through a crisis until the crisis passes. Because all crises end, just as long as you don’t end them too early with the barrel of a gun in your mouth.


There is another friend, who reached out originally to help Jani, who has given us money to maintain the two apartments. I haven’t heard from her in weeks and the last time I spoke to her she was in crisis.


I want to rush off and save all of them, but I have Jani. So I feel like I am on the radio, desperately calling for air support. I cannot save all these people. I am trying, but I am only one person.


I am not angry that I was drafted into this war against mental illness in my daughter. I do not curse God. I am grateful for the gift. But I am also compelled to save everyone, and it is breaking me.  If you call me in crisis, I cannot ignore you. I am not going to tell you some bullshit and then send you on your way. I am committed to saving you to the best of my ability.


This is the link to the private adult mental illness group I set up. If you are an adult dealing with mental illness, please consider joining. I am in desperate need of psychologists/psychiatrists would be willing to share and marshal resources if somebody is in crisis.


Next is the link to the Village Project, which is just a Facebook page right now, but I need to make it a full non-profit organization providing trained interns to assist families with mentally ill kids within a year, because that is when Jani’s intern program runs out. I need someone who can write a grant and get funding to incorporate and file for non-profit status. I need someone who can help me plan this thing. Obviously, it has to serve others than just us and Jani, but the families who need it are spread across the country. I can’t pay you now, but I will. I need an administrator who can set this up. I know people have written to me about this before, offering help, but I can’t keep track. I am doing everything to keep Jani afloat, despite all the interns we have. They are working, but Jani needs them all the time. She can’t function without them anymore.


I know many of you will tell me I need to focus on my own family, and you are right. But I can’t.


I can’t leave anyone behind.




6 comments on “What is Your Major Malfunction?/Who is Going to Hold You When You Break?

  1. Apologies to those who posted comments
    I had to retool the blog and unfortunately, all comments (there were two) associated with the blog got deleted. They were cool comments. Wish I had saved them.

  2. Jay and the “20/20” producers managed to show the children inside these illnesses.

    20/20 did a GREAT job! Especially if you compare it to Dr. Phil.

    Note to Cat: Dr. Phil’s show was a travesty and was all about him, not what Jennifer, Brad, Brenna, Ailish, and Keiran were suffering through.

  3. Hi Michael,
    I emailed you from my gmail account about setting up a possible intern program at my college and how to get started. About to join the new group for adults with mental illness, but I just got a message from a friend. She has a boyfriend whom she has a 3 year old child with who is a paranoid schizophrenic (the boyfriend) and desperately wants help. She asked if I know of any support groups for the families of people with schizophrenia. Please don’t go out of your way to search because your family does and should come first, but I was wondering if you knew of anything off hand.

    Note from Michael: I’ll look around. The only thing I know off the top of my head is to check and see what resources they have. Unfortunately, most of my knowledge is children and adolescents with mental illness, not adults, although I am very aware that services for adults are lacking as well. If anybody knows of anything, please suggest it in the comment box or email me at think the key is really whether the boyfriend is willing to accept help. If he isn’t, there aren’t a lot of options. I do know a friend who has a similar situation with the father of her child. I could put your friend in touch with her, but her main focus in on her child, not on the father, who refuses to seek help for his own mental illness.

  4. As far as I know the father is unwilling to accept help, so the mother (my friend) is looking for a support group where she can go to help cope with it better. Thank you so much, Michael. I think I’m gonna call some numbers on the NAMI website. I let her know also that my focus and volunteer work has all been with children and adolescents with mental illness as well, so I’m not so aware of adult services.

    Note: Is she on FB? I have a friend who can definitely relate. Her child is mentally ill, and if your friend had a mentally ill child I would invite her into our group but a boyfriend is different. I suppose I am kind of cold in that respect. If you are in a relationship with an adult who is mentally ill but won’t seek help, the choice, although difficult, has to be put to the individual:either seek help or I am leaving. I realize she has a child with this man, but it can be no good for the child if he is not getting treatment. Still, send her my email and I will put her in touch with a friend who is went through something similar, but I expect she will say the same thing: you have to put the child first. I have made plenty of mistakes in my life and I don’t vilify someone for making mistakes, but they have to be willing to seek help. Unfortunately, you can’t force an adult into treatment against their will unless they are an immediate danger to themselves or others.

  5. I saved mine, thankfully! Though I am not sure I would call it a “great” comment, I hope it helps!

    This hit the nail on the head for me. I, too, want to save everyone and anybody. Either they be mentally ill, addicted, in the midst of family dysfunction, and all those who love and care for said people. My eyes wander especially to the kids and adolescents (my peers), because I understand exactly what they are going through. I get having to manage friends (if you have any), school and mental illness. It is a terrible, stressful, pressuring situation to be in. You cannot swim through it alone.
    Even though I am just one fourteen year old who isn’t even completely stable herself yet, I feel so compelled to reach out my hand and pull them up from drowning. I cannot tell you how many times I sat with people in distress, talking on the phone with others until morning, and constantly reading between the lines of someone’ speech to see if I can pick something up. You are correct, it is draining and near impossible to achieve when you have pain and crises of your own to deal with. But we keep going, trying to do it anyways. We do it because we care, and maybe – on a subconscious level – because we are not sure we can save ourselves and/or our loved on. At least, if we save a friend or stranger, we have won at least one battle in this terribly painful war.
    I would also like to add that there are options between the seas of the therapist’s office and inpatient hospitalizations. While the insurance still may not cover it, and she may not qualify (as was with Jani’s case), I would suggest she look into intensive outpatient programs, group therapy, and online therapy ( ). The outpatient program can give her support and safety for at least a few hours a day, the group therapy can offer more support and people who understand what you’re going through, and the internet therapy can offer her support and advice at all hours the day. With the last, unfortunately, you do have to pay after you decide to “hire” a therapist. She can also see her therapist more than once a week/month, and possibly even add on another therapist. Then there are always hotlines, who will not always send someone to the hospital (especially 1-800-SUICIDE, as it is not linked to the government). In addition, there are many online support groups and chats for those seeking community. I recommend Psych Central Community and live chats ( ). I wish your friend luck.

  6. About the ‘halfway house’ option
    So, so true. Wish that people in power would conceptualise this. Society needs to come forward to find more intuitive, human ways of supporting those with mental illness.

    Note from Michael: We are working on it.