Parents terrified of becoming Adam Lanza's mother

Dec 18, 2012 at 6:00 p.m. ET

When 20 children are gunned down in their classrooms, nothing is certain but that emotions and accusations will ricochet globally, penetrating hearts and minds like bullets.

"I am Adam Lanza's mother"
Upset woman looking away

Parents will say unreasonable, irrational things. Experts will theorize and analyze and dramatize. What will stick through the clutter? Possibly, Liza Long and her story. Possibly, because the world is full of many parents who could be Adam Lanza’s mother.

Liza Long has a blog. She is a single mother with a blog, four children and visions of being murdered by her 13-year-old son.

Long calls her son “Michael” to protect his privacy (although she blogs under her actual name). Long says Michael has special needs that have not yet been defined.

“We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael,” Long writes. “Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.”

She doesn’t know what combination of challenges catalyzes his occasional but ferocious mood shifts.

What she does know is that her 13-year-old son can be sweet and loving, and he can threaten her life with a knife.

Newtown, Connecticut, massacre

Friday, December 14, a 20-year-old named Adam Lanza allegedly massacred children, teachers and school staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Before the killings, he took his mother’s life with a gun she owned legally — but that’s a detail from the end of this story.

Let’s look at the beginning. Before Adam Lanza was a man who killed children, he too was a child.

A family member, speaking to media after the attack, said Lanza had always had “problems.” Lanza’s alleged problems have not yet been defined.

Saturday, Liza Long titled her blog post, “Thinking the unthinkable,” and posited that she could very well be the mother of the next killer who goes on a rampage.

When her post went viral, social media (as it’s prone to do) changed the headline to the much more provocative, “I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” from an excerpt in Long’s original post.

“I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” Long wrote. “I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys — and their mothers — need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.”

Her essay demands a national discussion about mental health. Some labeled her messaging tactics as seeking attention. Backlash for what some termed Long’s “libel” of her own son — in a way that denied him any privacy — came swiftly.

But this article is not about children’s privacy.

By Liza Long’s account, she cannot afford to wait for a break from her son’s darkness. She has abandoned a freelance career for a job that has benefits, because while she cannot afford to care for her son with individual insurance, she cannot afford to get anything but the best care.

Because if she doesn’t keep trying, the price she might pay could be her life.

Commonalities in each 'unique story'

When asked to report on the story of Liza Long, I began to research and ask for parents’ advice on resources. What should parents like Liza do? Have you ever heard of similar stories from parents? Who has answers?

What I’ve come to realize is that no one has answers because no two stories are alike; in fact, many of the parents who shared their stories with me began with, “Our story is unique” and “Our situation is different.”

What I take away from less than 24 hours delving into the world of parents dealing with children with mental illness is that while chains of events may vary, each story — each family’s experience — shares many commonalities.

This article is about the many parents out there who could be Adam Lanza’s mother.

You know a child with mental illness

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports 4 million children and adolescents in the United States have a serious mental disorder that affects them at home, at school and with peers.

In fact, NAMI reports, of children ages 9 to 17, 21 percent have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that causes some degree of impairment.

The statistics go on to report that “half of all lifetime cases of mental disorders begin by age 14. Despite effective treatments, there are long delays, sometimes decades, between the first onset of symptoms and when people seek and receive treatment. An untreated mental disorder can lead to a more severe, more difficult-to-treat illness and to the development of co-occurring mental illnesses.”

How does the American health care system respond? “Each year, only 20 percent of children with mental disorders are identified and receive mental health services,” NAMI reports.

You may know Adam Lanza’s mother

Last night, I welcomed parents’ stories on a public Facebook page that acts as a forum to support parents whose children are mentally ill. I didn’t realize my inbox would swell with notes from parents whose hearts were broken long ago by a system that hasn’t helped them.

The results of my search for stories aren’t statistically relevant. They illustrate just one person’s experience from tossing a net across various social forums where most participants are seeking some level of interaction and comfort, if not real help.

What that net yielded are stories that evoke images of parents racing down every possible aisle of hope, frantically turning from agency to agency, from social worker to teacher to psychiatrist to law enforcement. Feeling helpless. Frustrated. Lost. Angry. Alone.

Some parents who shared their stories spoke of divorce and custody battles. It occurs to me that if the mental health industry can’t sort through a child’s illness and provide effective care and treatment, how can that child’s parents make a marriage work when they’re facing unprecedented challenges in their personal life together? What if one parent’s response is fight and the other’s is flight? What if both parents choose flight? What if flight is their only means of survival?

Up next: What mothers are saying >>

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