I've been quiet for over three months. It's tough to write while you nurse a baby who is kicking at the laptop screen, challenging its right to share your lap. Babies are so selfish. Also, I'm a terribly languid summer sun worshiper. I've always worked hard. When I was younger I ascribed to a Work Hard, Play Hard philosophy. These days I catch myself more often thinking Work Hard, Rest Hard. While some moms prudently slather on spf 2000 and go for 20 mile bike rides, hopeful that they can stave off the wrinkles and cellulite just one more year, I myself prefer to grease up with Hawaiian Tropic Dark Tanning Oil, huffing the coconut fumes from my skin while I "lifeguard" the kids from behind my book in a reclining chair.
I had a conversation last week that interrupted my mental sloth. I'll get to that, but first the backdrop:
My son has a friend who lives around the corner from us. I'll call him Alex. Until we moved into this house a half a year ago, Alex was just someone Billy knew at school, not really a friend. The first time I saw Alex he was standing in the street, yelling angrily and kicking the front of a car while a woman sat inside on her phone. Later the woman came to our house asking if we'd seen him. She is Alex's mom. Billy appeared a little hesitant when Alex started coming around asking to play, and I wondered if maybe Alex was one of the kids who had been mean to him last year. The more time I spent with Alex, the less likely that seemed.
Alex is small and sweet. His voice is soft. His green eyes twitch rapidly and he turns his head like a slow moving sprinkler constantly from left to right. At first I thought he was nervous. As it happens, Alex is completely blind in one eye. The other scans quickly left to right in an effort to compensate for the missing half of the panorama. The first time Alex stayed the night he presented me with four separate bottles of pills to be taken before bed, and another in the morning. Alex and Billy get along great. He's respectful, he's sweet to B's sisters. He never excludes the eleven year old, loves the baby, plays Tickle-Monster with the four year old. He is respectful and well-mannered, insightful, inquisitive. I love having him over. So why all the medication? And why was Billy so reluctant the first few times Alex came over to play? When I asked him, Billy told me that Alex gets into a lot of trouble at school.
I assumed Alex was one of the 11% of kids diagnosed with ADHD in America. I assumed his mom, in cooperation with the school district, preferred to medicate him rather than deal with him: Eat Your Pill and Get in the Box. I assumed he was yelling at her and kicking her car that day in the street because she is a bad mom. I told Billy that I didn't want him to play at Alex's house because I supposed things are not great over there. I assumed. I jumped to conclusions. I judged. Then I congratulated myself on my superior mothering skills, skills like making great pancakes and being really good at getting a tan while they swim.
Right. I'm an asshole.
Two weeks ago, Alex was arrested. We didn't know why. All we knew was that some of the kids from the neighborhood saw it happen and that Alex called out from the back of the police car for them to tell Billy about it. He had stayed at our house the night before. We were baffled. He had been fine. Everything had seemed fine...
I speculated. From the outside looking in, I inferred that something must be really screwed up at Alex's house if the same sweet kid who had spent the morning with us was in a detention facility a few hours later.
We didn't see him again until last Friday at the first meeting of the 8th grade football team. It was then that I got a more accurate picture of what happened with Alex, and a humbling blueprint of my own unreliable perception. While introducing herself to the new coach, Alex's mom described him as "having an attitude." I told her that he's always very sweet and well-behaved when he's at our house. "I know," she remarked, "but there's a lot you don't know..." In the parking lot of the middle school, while the boys ran wind sprints a few hundred feet away, she filled me in.
Alex was arrested on a charge of felony battery. The victim was his mom. It was the eighth time this year she's had the police at her home. They were called to school six times last year. Alex has unpredictable fits of violent rage, and many of these are directed at his mom. She has learned how to restrain him, how to hold him down so that he can't hurt her or himself, but he's getting stronger every year, and sometimes he escalates beyond her ability to help him. Sometimes he hurts her badly enough that she needs intervention. "Try explaining to the people you work with," she said frankly, "that the bruises on your face and neck are not from your boyfriend. That your son did it." She said no one believed her until a co-worker witnessed one of Alex's fits first hand.
Alex is ill.
Alex's mom, the woman I assumed was awful to him and negligent and lazy... she's a good mom. There is a father who lives in another state and has washed his hands of any of it. There is an older brother far away in the military. She works at a convenience store. There isn't any money. There is no one else to help. It's just her and him and a counselor who incites as much anger and aggression as Alex can muster, which is a lot. And the police. There are also the police, because Alex's illness causes him to behave violently, and that's against the law. She's hopeful that maybe football will help redirect some of his aggression. She is out of ideas. The resources available to her are tapped...
Imagine that your child is ill and that you are one of the triggers for his symptoms. Imagine asking your parents or friends to take him from your home because you are afraid that if his symptoms flare, it will mean that he is violating the conditions of his release from jail, and that he will be permanently removed from you.
If Alex had leukemia or Muscular Dystrophy or some other physical disease, we would all hold telethons and there would be Kickstarter campaigns and there would be coffee cans with his sweet face on them at the grocery checkout and celebrities would go on television to raise awareness and funds for treatment and cures... There is no one. The celebrities are silent. The politicians are silent. Alex, and kids like him, are easy to dismiss as Crazy while we close the door on them. We judge their parents as inferior and inept. How could someone with a truly loving mother be so violent? So troubled?
When I talked to Billy about all this, he told me that kids at school distance themselves from Alex because he is unpredictable. He acts crazy sometimes. Billy's social status is already precarious. I could sense his reluctance to align himself with someone who holds an even lower position in the vicious social hierarchy of junior high.
I told him that's what we all do. We turn away. We're afraid of getting any on us. If a kid has a physical disorder, people show up from everywhere to donate their time and resources to the family in support. We rally around them, we hold them up, we want to be a part of the effort. A mental illness or emotional disorder brings about an entirely different response, one in which the affected are left ostracized, ignored, or arrested.
I forbid it. (I didn't really have to. Billy is a kind and generous kid. He'd take this hit anyway once I framed it as the right thing to do.) But just for good measure, I forbid him to turn his back on this kid. He needs us. His mom needs us. I'm not sure what for. I don't know what the answer is, I just know that walking away isn't it. Insulating ourselves from them isn't it.
We could do that. That would be the safest thing to do. I could say he can't play over here anymore. I could say that I don't feel safe inviting someone in who could snap and any moment. I could say that I don't owe him or his mom a thing. I could say Tough Shit, Nutjob,
But what if... just what if... Alex, the sweet boy who is in my son's room right now on this rainy morning (I can hear him shouting and laughing as I type), what if he can be saved. As it stands, it looks like if he doesn't get the help he needs, sometime in the next few years he is probably going to really hurt someone, or really hurt himself. He will go to jail, and we will all move on and forget about him, the same way we've forgotten about countless other prisoners who are the victims of mental illness. Ah, there's a word to chew on: victim. The victims of mental illness. Who are they exactly? The mentally ill? Yes. Their mothers? Also yes. The innocent victims of their unpredictable, violent outbursts? Still yes.
I have a neighbor who is mentally ill. He is thirteen. His mom doesn't know what to do. I don't know what to do. I want to help, but the only thing I know to do is to treat this the same way I would if I found out Alex has a life-threatening illness. He does. And it's not only his life that is threatened. We can't not talk about this anymore.
My door is open. He's right there, in the next room.