Kelly Thomas was beat and beat and beat by Fullerton police officers on July 5, 2011 and while the cops beat him he cried for his dad and God and his mom and they beat him some more until he stopped moving.
I’m compelled to put some words here in honor of Kelly Thomas, some kind of expression of solidarity with his family. I want to express my outrage at yesterday’s acquittal of the men who murdered him, but my feelings are big and language seems too small. I went to sleep last night thinking of the Thomas family, woke up this morning thinking of him and praying a prayer about the men who killed Kelly that I’m pretty sure God doesn’t honor.
So I will tell you this small sliver, this little piece, and it is this: Kelly Thomas is Kelly Thomas. He is described in the news as a homeless man or a mentally ill man or a man with schizophrenia. Those things, those descriptors, are all true, but Kelly Thomas was Kelly Thomas and he was a person and he was beloved of his family and those things are also true.
The surveillance video shows that Kelly Thomas was beat and beat and beat by Fullerton police officers on July 5, 2011 and while the cops beat him he cried for his dad and God and his mom and they beat him some more until he stopped moving. When Kelly was finally unconscious, lying on the hot pavement, handcuffed, his blood pooling around him, the police officers began the anxious process of creating a suitable narrative. “He was really fighting,” one says. “He was definitely on something,” says another. Yes, yes, true. A person in the process of being beaten to death will fight. Terror is a powerful drug.
And they—those police officers, all six of them who got on top of, beat, pistol whipped, tased, and ultimately murdered a terrified, unarmed man—slept in their beds last night. They kissed their children goodnight.
The last time Ron and Cathy Thomas kissed their son goodnight was July 10, 2011, when they removed him from life support.
Think about that, because I can’t stop thinking about it: their babylove, the child for whom Cathy and Ron Thomas stayed up too late on Christmas Eve wrapping presents, and who they taught to ride a bike, who they took to the doctor when he had an earache and later, when he had other, more mysterious symptoms, and they fought and struggled and loved and tried to rescue him when schizophrenia grabbed him and wrestled him away from them and it was they who had to make the choice. It was they who signed the papers that authorized the hospital to turn off the machines. Mom and Dad, who couldn’t protect their son, who will live with the image of his devastated and dying body forever. They, who sat in the courtroom every day, listened to the audio of their son crying out for them, and finally listened to the acquittal of the men who hurt him unto death.
I kissed my own son goodnight, too. My little boy, who is terrified of anyone he doesn’t know touching him, who sometimes acts in inexplicable and frightening ways, who often doesn’t understand what is happening around him. My boy, whose illness sometimes makes him seem weird and unlikeable…how, how, how to make the world understand that he is my beloved son? That we, the parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends of people with mental illness know them to be people? They are not the monsters in the movies or the villains in TV shows or amusing pop-culture characters but people.
Kelly Thomas was not disposable. He deserved so much better. His family deserved better, and all of us who live with or love someone with severe mental illness deserve better.
There are no disposable people, but we sure as hell act as if there are.
On our way home from his therapy appointment today, Carter and I stopped at a red light at the bottom of a freeway off-ramp. Since freeway on-and-off-ramps are popular spots for panhandling, neither of us was surprised to see a young man there. His jacket and pants were grime encrusted; his face and hands were dark from sun and dirt. Most notably, he was carrying on an animated conversation with someone no one could see but him.
Carter watched him silently for a moment, then said, “He’s talking to his little guys, I think.” Little guys is what Carter calls all of his visual creature-like hallucinations.
“Yes, I think so.”
Carter grew quiet again, watching the man and twisting his hair around one of his fingers. “He must not have the right kind of medicine to make the little guys go away,” and he paused, frowning, before he whispered, “I feel sad about that.”
I imagine that the young man’s mom feels sad about that, too.
If you live in an age of social media, and if the most powerful woman in television does a show about something you are experiencing in your own life, you will get a nice, long look at exactly what the world thinks of you.
Which is…….shall we say…….enlightening.
Oprah featured Zach, a young boy with mental illness, and his family on her show today. I was nervous before the show because television has not historically been awesome with portrayals of families affected by mental illness. Dr. Phil did quite the hatchet job on Jen and Brad Wohlenberg in 2009 with a show that did nothing but expand the stigma and judgment of people with mental illness and their parents. I didn’t have high hopes.
In general, though, Oprah did alright. She had enough humility not to question the existence of Zach’s illness, nor its severity, which we parents of kids with mental illness expect as a matter of course. She let Zach and his mother, Laurie, say what they wanted to say, and I very much appreciated that Oprah spoke to Zach with respect.
Oprah was describing things he had done, most notably wielding a knife and threatening to kill his mom. I (ever desperate for something with which to reinforce my denial) said to Brian, “Wow, I’m glad Carter has never been that violent!”
Brian frowned at me and said, “Of course he has. He just tried to kill himself instead of trying to kill you.”
I really hate the sound of the air leaking out of my pretty purple denial-balloon.
Oprah and Laurie talked about other things, things that loom large in the lives of my family and millions like us: shame, isolation, fear, guilt. Day-to-day life is painful and difficult, sometimes dangerous. All of that is true.
What is also true, and even more important with respect to public awareness, is lack of services. At every level, in almost every community of the United States, the mental health system is lacking.
Not lacking a little. There are no “gaps” in our system because there is barely a system at all.
That is what we want you to know. That is what we want you to remember, to write letters about, to scream from the rooftops.
We’re too busy holding our kids and our families together to write as many letters as need to be written. We’re too busy trying to force a profoundly broken medical system to meet the needs of our loved ones. We’re too busy taking care of suicidal and/or homicidal and/or acutely psychotic kids at home because there are no hospital beds for them. We’re too busy homeschooling our kids because the public schools can’t or won’t meet their needs. We’re too busy trying to help our healthy kids have the most normal lives possible. We’re too busy grieving the lives we thought we and our children would have.
Sadly, Oprah missed her opportunity to go beyond the shocking aspects of pediatric mental illness to what Zach and kids like him really need, like more pediatric psychiatrists, more hospital beds, more residential and day treatment programs, and better public school options for kids with mental health issues. We need respite care and more high-quality research with non-ambiguous funding sources.
Just like every family facing a serious chronic illness, our needs are significant. Until we decide, collectively, that it is not OK to send children with mental illness and their families home to deal with things the best they can, we’re stuck cobbling things together the best we can.
Try to imagine that this situation exists for some other problem. What if the state you live in closed 90% of its neonatal intensive care units and started telling most parents of premature babies, “Gosh, sorry, we’re all out of incubators. Good luck!”
We parents of kids with mental illness live with this constant sense that we are being judged or, at the very least, disbelieved. The mental health care system does nothing but reinforce this. When your child is in crisis and you call out for help and the person on the phone makes you an appointment for six months in the future, what can you think except that the whole world believes the problem is not real?
Social media tells me that that sense of being judged is accurate. Also? It can be pretty damn funny.
I spent a little time cruising the comments about the show at Oprah’s site, and a little more time reading tweets about the show. I found a pretty awesome display of ridiculousness. Here is my summary of the proposed causes of pediatric mental illness:
Heavy metal toxicity
Multiple chemical sensitivities
Poor discipline or lack of discipline (or as Brian and I refer to it, a serious prophylactic beatings deficiency) (I’m always left wondering: is the problem that I beat my child (abuse) or that I don’t beat him enough (poor discipline)? The judgers need to make a decision.)
The most popular among these is demonic possession. Show me a blogger who writes about a child with mental illness who has never gotten an email that says, “Your child doesn’t need a psychiatrist. He needs a priest!” and I’ll show you a blogger who is just starting out.
In fact, the demonic possession emails and comments are amusing or, at worst, a nuisance. Ditto people who need to beat a drum about heavy metal toxicity, chemical sensitivities, and other fringe theories.
The abuse and trauma stuff, though? That shit can hurt, especially when it comes from friends, family, or medical or education professionals. Brian and I consider ourselves incredibly fortunate because Carter is the youngest of four children, and our three older children are mentally healthy, with only the most ordinary of emotional issues. We have often used Jacob, Abbie, and Spencer like badges, proof that, as imperfect as we are, we aren’t totally corrupt. Still, it hurts to know that we are viewed with suspicion by so many people.
I do get it. I understand that when people watch Zach on Oprah’s show, or read about Carter and other children with serious mental illness, it seems unlikely, even outrageous. How can it be possible, that a child would explode in anger over nothing? Why don’t the parents don’t just put a stop to it? For goodness sake, take away his privileges until he pulls his shit together!
It’s easier to believe that we let ordinary behaviors of childhood get out of control. We allowed tantrums to turn into dangerous rages. We encouraged imaginary play until it became psychosis. We indulged fears until they morphed into crippling anxiety. At every stage, we refused to discipline, guide, control, or punish our children such that they learned to think, feel, and behave normally.
That is equivalent to punishing a child with cancer for growing a tumor or sending a child with muscular dystrophy to bed early because he won’t stop falling down.
Incidentally, demons don’t cause cancer or muscular dystrophy, either.
And finally, Oprah closed the show with a long conversation about positive and negative energy, and how Zach manages his symptoms by focusing on the positive. I’m at a bit of a loss about this. On the one hand, we work very hard with Carter on a set of skills that he can use to regulate his feelings. An extremely simplified (because of his age) form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, it’s a key component of our treatment strategy.
On the other hand, I’m troubled by what I see as excessive focus on that aspect of Zach’s treatment. A person who is seriously mentally ill cannot trick or talk him or herself out of that illness or its symptoms. I take issue with Oprah’s extended focus on positive energy and white light, giving short shrift to the many other essential aspects of effective treatment, and the nearly insurmountable barriers to accessing that treatment.
Mental illnesses are complex and require multi-faceted treatments. Not everyone who is mentally ill can achieve a “normal” life. Extended conversations about the power of positive thinking and the like serve only to minimize the tragedy that mental illness can be, and give people who want to deny the seriousness of mental illness a little more ammunition.
From where I’m sitting, the deniers don’t need any more ammunition.