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
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, just before things got really bad.
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.