I am “Michael”

Hello, world.  My name is Leah.  I am a 27-year-old student about to graduate with her bachelor of arts in history, in the process of applying to graduate school.  I have a wonderful boyfriend, two pet rats and two amazing sisters.  I enjoy knitting, singing with my college a capella group, cooking, lifting weights, playing D&D and cooking.  I am mentally ill.

However, the mental illnesses I am being treated for, anxiety and depression, are not the ones with which I contended as a teenager.  I was, by all measures, a very bright, outgoing, gregarious child.  My mother is also mentally ill, but never sought appropriate treatment.  Let me preface this by saying my mother is not a monster.  She did wonderful things, took us on trips, sent me to summer camp… but there was another side, too.  The abuse started when I was about nine.  By the time I was twelve, I was big enough to start trying to defend myself and smart enough to start reporting the abuse.  That is when my mother started calling the police on me.  She would scream and hit me with objects and, if I dared to raise a hand to defend myself, she would call the police saying I was “out of control”.  The local police saw the marks.  They knew what was going on.  They chose not to deal with it and instead told me to “respect my mother”.  My father tried to stop her — one time, when she was beating me with a broom, he physically pulled her off of me and she started hitting him, screaming at him that she should be allowed to “discipline her child”.  My father left my mother around this time and things got worse.  She found a perfect tactic to stop me from reporting the abuse:  She was (and still is) a teacher, and she told me that if I reported it, she would lose her job, we would lose the house and it would all be my fault.  She was my mother.  I believed her.

Me at age twelve

Me at age twelve

When I was thirteen and still fighting back and also defending my sister when I could, the psychiatric abuse started.  I was dragged to psychiatrists until one would give me the diagnosis she wanted — bipolar.   She knew exactly what to say and nothing I said was believed.  As a young teenager, we look for labels and identities to cling to as we discover who we are.  I believed it.  I believed that my normal teenage mood swings were “rapid cycling” and that I had to tell my psychiatrist every time I was angry or sad, because that wasn’t good or normal.  However, the medication didn’t work because I was not bipolar, but it just confused my brain.

When I was fifteen, I could not find my glasses one morning before school.  My mother flew into a rage and smashed my guitar over my body.  She then called the police and I was taken to school in a police car.  I came home that day to learn I was kicked out of the house, so I went to live with my father.  At this point, the combination of unnecessary drugs and trauma led to a total breakdown.  I was hospitalized twice.  I never finished high school, but rather was given nominal “home instruction” and a pity diploma.   Even though I was being treated for bipolar, I never really presented any of the typical signs.  However, they kept stretching the definition of the diagnosis to try to make it fit, eventually ending up at the frankly absurd “atypical bipolar II without mania”.   I gained an ungodly amount of weight and the unnecessary drugs (at one point twelve pills a day, a cocktail of stimulants, benzodiazepines, SSRIs and a mood stabilizer for which I had to undergo weekly blood tests to make sure it wasn’t damaging my liver) wreaked havoc on my already fairly chaotic traumatized teenage brain.

Me at age fifteen, before things got really bad.

Me at age fifteen, just before things got really bad.

Age seventeen, at the worst of it.

Age seventeen, at the worst of it.

In my mid-twenties, I went off of my medications and it felt like I was born anew.  It was as if I had been living the past decade with a sack over my head.  A few years later, a successful student, finally in college, I made the difficult decision to seek psychiatric help for my anxiety — something I never knew I had, because it was accidentally controlled by all of the drugs I was on before.  I was terrified that they would think I was bipolar and just didn’t want to take my medication.  I was so afraid of being that powerless child again.  However, the psychiatrist I saw was willing to listen.

“I’ll give you a theraputic dose of an SSRI,” she said.  “If you’re bipolar, you’ll go manic and we’ll know.”

I agreed.  I didn’t go manic.  It just started controlling my anxiety.  I still struggle with self-regulation of mood sometimes, an effect of never learning to do that myself in my formative years.  I am working to accept that it is okay to be angry sometimes and it is okay to be sad sometimes.  All told, though, I am now a very successful person, maintaining a 3.6 GPA and with excellent graduate school prospects.

On Saturday, I read Liza Long’s “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” post.  It read like something that could have been written by my own mother.  At that same age, she would tell the police that I was abusing her and she was afraid of me after incidents such as one where she rammed down my bedroom door and beat me with a belt, so I kicked her to try and stop her.  One incident that struck very close to home was the jumping out of the car story.  I know that feeling all too well.  There is screaming, insults, verbal assaults… and you, a child, would rather jump out of a car and die than deal with it.  You believe the horrible things your mother says about you and feel you don’t deserve to live.

I read that post and I smelled a rat.  Not a cute one like my two pet rats, but a big, ugly, greasy, yellow-toothed monster.  Not only is this woman telling an incomplete story, she is exploiting her child for media attention.  Sure, she gives him a flimsy pseudonym, but she uses her real name and his real photograph.   I know that if I was “Michael”, I’d sure as hell be suicidal now if I wasn’t suicidal before.   I’m sure he does have problems.  I know there are kids out there with severe psychiatric issues and good parents.  Most of those parents don’t ruin their children’s lives in this manner.  Now, I am not ascribing malicious intent — I firmly believe that both Ms. Long and my mother truly felt they were doing what was in the best interest of their child, but their beliefs are not in line with reality.

I agree with her on the issue of access to psychiatric care.  We have a care access crisis in this country.  When I tried to get help for my anxiety, I had to jump through incredible hoops and, if I was less dedicated to my own self-care and didn’t have a father willing to help me foot the bill, I would have given up.  I disagree that care needs to be accessed to keep people with mental illness from hurting people — that’s not the point.  This is a cliche at this point, but still true:  People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crimes than commit them.  Access needs to be there for the issue of basic healthcare and human rights.   However, psychiatric abuse is a real issue and one that needs to be acknowledged both by the mental health profession and society at large.

I am one of the few victims of psychiatric abuse to make it out both alive and functional enough to tell my story.  Many of us successfully commit suicide or end up addicts or otherwise incapacitated.  Whenever I run into one of the kids with whom I was in partial-care group, I find that they are on disability, never finished school and spend all of their time going to similar partial-care groups — basically outpatient institutionalization.  I don’t know what makes me different.  I don’t think I’m special or better than they are, just happened to luck into a set of circumstances that allowed me to take control of my life and move forward.  Of the people I’ve met with similar circumstances, I am the only one like me.

I wish I could write a letter to Michael.  I wish I could tell him that, to borrow a phrase from the GLBTQ community, it gets better.  It doesn’t get better overnight.  It will hurt.  It will take a lot of hard work.  However, if he is committed to getting better, he will get better.  In a few short years, he can distance himself from his mother.  From that distance, he can cultivate a civil relationship, if he wants, while building his own life.  Maybe his high school career, like mine, will get screwed up and college won’t be an option immediately, but a few semesters in community college will let him go wherever he wants as a transfer student.  I wish I could hug him and let him know that this media attention won’t last forever, that the public eye is fickle and won’t remember in a year.

Maybe he will read this someday.  Maybe other kids like him will read this and find hope and strength.  Most likely, I either will not be believed or will be shouted down by people who miss my point entirely.  This is the internet, I get it, but I had to use my voice.  I was silenced for too long and now, after all of my hard work, I believe that I am credible and deserve to speak, so I will.

Me, age twenty-seven, holding my baby sister.

Me, age twenty-seven, holding my baby sister.

21 thoughts on “I am “Michael”

  1. This was so brave of you write. Thanks for bringing this perspective out into the world! It is a part of the story that needs to be discussed as well.

  2. Bravo! I was recently convinced the Liza Long was a total rat, after at first defending her. This only amplifies that notion all the more.

  3. Beautifully written Leah. Honest, humanistic, thoughtful…thank you for speaking up for this neglected/underserved population! This took a lot of strength and courage to write, great work!

  4. Thank you. I can all too well relate to the story you just told, you told the story that many of us have lived. I am currently a college student with a PTSD diagnosis and single parenting a child with ASD. My biggest fear in this life is becoming the woman my mother was/is. I have struggled with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts most of my life because of the childhood that I had, and I am just now realizing at 30, after over a decade of attempting to run away from myself, (and failing) that I can chose who I want to become. I am not doing as well in school as I would like, but I keep trying, and I make being the best parent I can be the most important thing in my life. I fall somewhere in between the category of “you” and “the rest of us” and I can say that it is a struggle, it is not an easy mountain to climb. You inspire me, and I would love to initiate communication with you if that is your wish, because people like you help people like me not give up when life feels too big to carry. I cannot thank you enough for posting this, and I hope it reaches other people out there like “us” so they can pick themselves up and move forward.

  5. This WAS very brave of you write, thank you. Please remember though, “Michael” is not you and his situation may be very different. I have a high-functioning autistic older brother. As he grew up he became angrier and angrier, it is a known issue for people with Aspergers. He was not abused by my parents. We had a solidly-privileged middle-middle class childhood. My mother did a truely spectacular job and was way ahead of her time in dealing with it. Sometimes she had to fight the schools and doctors to make sure he got what he needed. He had support systems not medication. But he became angry, his rage was most often directed at me, his younger sister (because we argued, nothing really out of the ordinarily sibling way). When he got really angry his face would turn red, he would spit as he yelled, he was pretty scary, and 200lbs at 16, not a small person. It never actually came to blows, but once during one of his rages he picked up a pair of scissors and stepped toward me. My boyfriend at the time was off the sofa before he knew what he was doing, had twisted the scissors out of his hand and pinned him to the wall (he did not hurt him). That was the FIRST time in his life anyone had ever laid a hand on my brother; he was so shocked he snapped out of it and started apologizing. Not that it didn’t ever happen again, mind you. He later lost a wonderful volunteer position doing something he loved when he threatened a women on staff with rape and assault because he didn’t like how she treated him. I don’t think he’d have actually done anything to her, but who could blame her for being scared? I’m truly sorry you endured what you did, that your mom lied about you, and glad you were able to survive. But not every family with a violent child is lying about it.

  6. As much as I feel for you, I think it’s unfair to assume that Liza Long is an abusive parent. Thank you for putting your story out there, though. Misunderstanding and ignorance are a major problem regarding mental illness.

  7. Thank you for writing this. I don’t think, unlike Scaredsister, that you were trying to say that because of your experience, Liza Long’s “Michael” was not dangerous, only that there is more than one way to view the story Long presents. You aren’t the only person who has pointed out how poorly Ms. Long has maintained her son’s privacy, something I missed as an early adopter of her story (I have since apologized). And you own questions about it, based on your experience, shot straight home with me because I too had a crazy mother, who used the system when I was a girl to keep me from repeating my first attempt to report her abuse. She convinced the social workers and the court we dealt with that I was unstable, and she convinced me that the only thing protecting me from a stint in a psychiatric ward was her. I knuckled under until I escaped to college, and it took me two years of therapy to get my head straight.

    Mental illness is hard to diagnose properly in kids. The people who handled you–not your mother, you–owed it to you to listen to you, not her, and put you in foster care if necessary to observe you away from your home environment. I am sorry that they failed you, and congratulate you on being strong enough to work your way free. I’m glad your dad was able to help (I’m guessing that, like my father, he was isolated from you by your mother>), but all the help in the world wouldn’t have worked if you didn’t have a spine of steel.

  8. If I could, and if it were acceptable to you, I would hug you! Your experience isn’t exactly mine, but it does illustrate the dynamic I had with my father.

    Thank you for writing this! It’s hard for me to express how much that means to me.

  9. I have a friend whose child often threatened her and his three siblings, and who also went so far as to grab a kitchen knife. She was able to get a fair amount of help for him, but from the time he entered kindergarten it was practically a full time job to advocate for him, get the counseling he needed, work with the schools, etc. She was fortunate to be able to be a stay at home mom, but the stress was unrelenting and only got worse when he reached adolescence. Like others, I am very sorry for what you experienced but I also appreciate and believe Liza Long’s message. There must be some way to both protect kids from mentally ill parents while ensuring that mentally ill kids get the help they need.

    • To be fair, I don’t think anyone disagrees with Liza’s message. It’s the part where she posts his name, medical records, and photos, doubtlessly without his input, for millions of people to see for an article where he is compared to mass murderers.

  10. Your story is seriously my story. I just turned 32 a couple of days ago and it wasn’t until this past summer that I got my diagnosis reversed. I would really like to speak with you if possible because “Of the people I’ve met with similar circumstances, [YOU ARE] the only one like me.”

    thank you for your courage to tell your story <3

  11. I have a mother like yours. I suffered years of both physical and emotional abuse. I don’t have a counselor. I don’t have anyone to speak to. A lot of it I’ve been able to overcome on my own, because I believe I was strong enough and smart enough to, but I still find myself falling back into habits of feeling guilty, feeling ashamed and I still suffer from depression. My mother has emotional issues, ones she never sought to get help for. Because of this, I was never forced into therapy or forced to take medications (in fact, my situation is slightly different in that when I asked for help in my teens, I was denied it because she didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. When, in fact, what was wrong with me was just years of abuse weighing me down). I like to think I’m better now. I talk to a doctor (just a family care) and I’m on medication that helps me keep my mood, thoughts, and what not in check. I like to think I’m stable. I have another medical condition that weighs more heavily on me now, but otherwise, I’m okay, even though I’m disabled. I wanted to thank you for putting this out there, for having the courage to tell your story and sharing what it’s like from the other side of the spectrum.

  12. For another perspective: http://sarahkendzior.com/2012/12/16/want-the-truth-behind-i-am-adam-lanzas-mother-read-her-blog/

    I have seen both aspects of this issue and the grey between. We need to learn not to judge people so quickly. We usually do not know the truth of their homes. We still hold to this idea that abusive people are not “nice” or “good looking” or “charming” when frequently they are! The person we see as angry or whatever may be the victim, while the charmer is out of control. After reading this mother’s comments, it is clear to me that she needs help as does her son. What her post points out is the need for good mental health services! True for all of us, mentally ill or no… we do not know when we might need help in this life. Maybe we should all challenge ourselves to be nice to the grumpy, unpleasant people in the world. Spread some kindness where you can.

  13. Thank you for sharing your story and good for you for believing in yourself long enough to find the help you needed. I hope this will allow others to get help, as well. Bless you.

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