Struggling to understand

Rep. Giffords.

Well. It’s hard to know what to say following events like this.

Saturday was one of those surreal days for us – we heard a mention of the events in brief while we were listening to the radio. We instantly turned to the internet, but news leaked out so slowly… we were seeing more on Twitter than anywhere else, and it wasn’t new information, just a wave of people finding out. Then of course there were the misreports of Rep. Giffords’s death, swiftly rescinded.

Aurelie Sheehan has a really lovely op-ed about her response in the NYT.

In times of true crisis, the oft-vaunted instant news cycle Twitter affords is not very productive. The reality is that it takes time to for news to develop. That we can communicate broadly and instantaneously across vast geographic boundaries, I think, just means that we can all suffer the terrible waiting en masse. Of course the terrible waiting is more acute for those who have an immediate stake in the health and well-being of loved ones, and I can’t count myself among their number. I’ve been thinking about them constantly, though, especially as I drive by UMC on my way to and from work.

Yesterday – also on Twitter – I saw something that enraged me. @Time tweeted, Tucson shooting: Has society failed at protecting itself from the mentally ill? This is, as Jezebel noted, the wrong question to be asking. For a list of good questions to be asking, see this statement by NAMI’s executive director.

In the state of Arizona, it’s important to note, the legislature is planning to cut funding for the state’s Medicaid program, AHCCCS, which helps many severely mentally ill people, including my sister, afford astronomically-priced medications that keep them functioning. The state of Arizona is also planning to cut funding for the state university system; UA alone is likely to face cuts of $30M or more. I point this out because it’s the human resources of a top-notch research university that were responsible for saving so many lives this weekend. The surgeons who are here could easily be lured away by more resource-rich institutions. Faculty retention is an ongoing issue for universities.

All that said, what really pissed me off about Time’s question was that it seemed to me to come from a place of fundamental ignorance. Jezebel quotes Slate, “your chance of being murdered by a stranger with schizophrenia is so vanishingly small that a recent study of four Western countries put the figure at one in 14.3 million.”

It’s incredibly difficult to be compassionate towards people like Jared Lee Loughner, whose actions are so reprehensible that they defy understanding. But we want to point to where things went awry. We want to fill cracks in the system. We don’t want this scenario to recur.

The thing is, Loughner is in his early twenties. Late teens/early twenties is the typical onset period for a severe mental illness like schizophrenia. Just imagine how strange it would be to suddenly have other people tell you that your sensory perceptions of the world are profoundly warped. Why would you believe them? It takes a while to come to grips with brain disease, to develop insight into your illness. Loughner probably thinks he’s the sanest person in the room.

Late teens/early twenties is also when, in our country, a person is declared of legal age, meaning that they cannot be obliged to seek treatment unless demonstrably a danger to themselves or others. “A danger to themselves or others” means an in-the-moment threat, as my family learned, many times over, when my sister’s illness grew in severity. We knew she needed help, and we tried to get her to get the help she needed, again and again. She thought she was fine.

I’ve seen the Loughner mug shot, and the smirk on his face makes me feel sick to my stomach. I think about how when a trio of bystanders held him down, one applying a foot to his neck, they report that all he had to say for himself was “Ow, ow, ow.” The kind of thing a child would say. He was a child; still is, to his parents.

No one wants to believe that the once-cute kid who’s going through a post-high school rough spot would actually plot a mass murder and then set it into motion. “Your chance of being murdered by a stranger with schizophrenia is so vanishingly small that a recent study of four Western countries put the figure at one in 14.3 million.”

(Please, please, please tell me his family didn’t know about the gun.)

If he was my child, or my brother, or even just my friend, how would I reconcile the person I knew with his actions? I would try to reason it out for myself, that the fault is with the disease, not the person, a play on Joey Pants’s language: “The brain is an organ — just like the heart, liver and kidneys — and we need to encourage everyone to treat it as such from both a medical and social perspective.” But there’s a disconnect between the brain and the heart, isn’t there?

Understanding alone doesn’t make forgiveness possible. Reason has always amounted to cold comfort.


2 responses to “Struggling to understand

  1. Hey Alex, it took me forever to get back to you on this and I keep forgetting to say something to you about it. That first faux editorial is…I don’t know…kind of cynical feeling, though I don’t deny it rings uncomfortably true. And that is an amazing thread of Twitter conversation and evolution of the story as it unfolded.

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