The shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Holy shit. It’s seriously something out of a horror movie…but more than scary, it’s also just so incredibly sad. As a person with no particular connections to anyone in Aurora who might have been there that day, even I’m having trouble getting my head around it. I can’t even imagine what it must be like a witness, or some of the injured, or a loved one of one of the twelve people killed. I’m seeing people all over Reddit asking for advice with coping after losing a friend in the incident, and it makes my heart sink to somewhere in the region of my kidneys.
What makes it even worse is knowing that, after a few days of statements about the nature of the tragedy, our political figures (and a lot of laypeople as well) are going to start making this an issue of gun control.
And I think it’s so unforgivably fucked up to be using so many peoples’ pain and trauma as a political tool like that.
Now, I am not against gun control. The idea of everybody and anybody being able to just pick up a handgun like it’s nothing is very, very scary. But what I’m getting at, here, is that that’s not what’s at the heart of the issue here. I know this will sound like I’m quoting the NRA, but I promise this does go in a very, very different direction than that sort of propaganda…
If someone really puts their mind to it, they can probably commit violent crimes, and kill people, with any number of things that it’s impossible to control. Have you read Fight Club? Despite many glaring inaccuracies in that book, there is one part that is very, very true and carries a lot of weight to any conversation on public safety: you can make explosives out of any number of commonplace things. Frankly, you could probably do the same to create a crude firearm, though I have no personal knowledge on the subject.
Access to weapons is not the problem, it is a thing that aggravates the underlying problem: the fact that the U.S. mental health system has been completely fucking gutted.
I think that just about anybody will agree when I say that a person has to be very mentally unstable before they’ll do something like kill a bunch of people. Two important caveats: 1) not everyone who is mentally ill is violent, and 2) there are some exceptions, such as Ted Bundy, where he was able to mask how deranged he was very, very well.
But the fact remains that, of the killings I’ve heard of, the large majority were perpetrated by individuals who were known to be unstable. Their friends, coworkers, family members, or neighbors knew this. Many of them had gotten into trouble with the legal system before – domestic violence or child/animal abuse charges seem most common – or even had previous brushes with the mental health system. For fuck’s sake, James Huberty, who killed 21 and injured 19 in a mass shooting, had even attempted to reach out to a mental health center the day before he went on his rampage; however, they did not return his call.
It’s absolutely playing with fire, the way we’ve stripped this system of anything that could remotely be helpful to the common citizen. What has been done is analogous to eliminating all but a few hospitals in the country, and only keeping emergency rooms running. We still have the capacity to do an evaluation on someone who has made a suicide attempt…but after that 72 hours is up, they’re given a “recommendation” or some pills that, if they have any sort of paranoia or denial, they will likely not take in the first place, and then they are set on their merry way. You want preventative care? Too bad. You want the chance to, even voluntarily, be committed to some medium-to-long-term inpatient therapy? Too bad. If your problems are larger-scale than can be helped by seeing a therapist, but you haven’t gone postal and killed or injured anyone, you are S.O.L.
Let’s have two real world examples: my rapist, and also myself.
He tried to kill himself, publicly, after months of erratic and threatening behavior that was observed by several people around him, and was apparently violent when they tried to take him for his evaluation. Seventy-two hour watch period, throwing a few more pills into his concoction, a pat on the head and he was set free. A few months later, he has another psychotic break, runs away, tries to walk from Bakersfield to the Pacific Northwest without shoes on in the middle of July and is found collapsed in Fresno. Emergency room followed by another 72 hours, some finger-wagging from a few doctors, sent back home. Another month later, makes a few disturbing and disjointed calls, packs his new truck and then leaves it in the driveway, disappears on foot in the middle of the night on some form of illegal drugs and assaults somebody. Badly. You guessed it: seventy-two hours, some new pills, and done. As of a year later, he is given a conditional dismissal: found guilty, but no sentence made. His ongoing rape and abuse of an underage girl is reported to the police, they don’t even assign a case number. That’s the last I’ve heard; it’s the last I know.
That is a kid that, quite clearly, should have been involuntarily committed a long time ago. Now, I am not a fan of much of anything involuntary. I claim to be an anarcho-communist, for chrissakes, there is nothing I like about the idea of involuntarily committing anyone to anything. But when someone has clearly demonstrated a) the capacity to carry out extreme and repeated violence against both themselves and others, b) blatant unwillingness to take medication or continue with outpatient therapy, and c) psychopathic behavior*. I don’t know what else to recommend or think in a case like that. I just don’t.
Okay, then, there’s my case.
I’m smart. I know I’m smart. I’m really, really smart. I was talking in complete (albeit short) sentences by a year old, could name all the planets and most commonly known dinosaurs when I was barely three, and had the reading comprehension level of the average eighth grader by fourth grade. I have a perfect score in my computer science course and can make my points convincingly enough for even the Provost of my college to seek me out for advice on improving policies.
Problem is, it’s hard for me to actually be a contributing and functioning member of society even though I’m so smart. I was raised in a severely emotionally/verbally abusive household with some other things I don’t even like to think about thrown in there as well, and more or less isolated from normal childhood experiences entirely. I was raised by two autistic parents who couldn’t stand each other and nearly divorced because my father had wanted me aborted so badly, and to whom my academic success was infinitely more important than my happiness. I was raised in a household where accidentally dropping a baby carrot on the floor would lead to my father leaving us for hours or days, and attempting to see my friends would send my mother into a bout of sobbing and suicide threats.
In other words, I never really learned how normal interactions with normal people work, or how to have or communicate emotions, or how to put certain things (such as perceived failure) in perspective. I have struggled with self-injury and an eating disorder for over half of my life, have dealt with fluctuations of anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember.
I know I’m smart, and I know I care a lot about people. I know I could contribute a lot to society. But even though I’m smart, I nearly failed my second-semester Calculus class because I went into panic attacks every time I didn’t understand something right away because I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is it this is the thing that will prove that I’m really just stupid and useless and I can’t ask for help because I’m so frustrating and anyone who tries to explain it to me will hate me and think I’m an idiot. Even though I’m smart, I had severe doubts about my ability to finish high school or college because the pressure got to me so badly that the need to have someone left to take care of my aging parents has at times been the only thing keeping me from acting on suicidal thoughts. Even though I’m smart, I sometimes can’t concentrate in class because I was up the whole night before compulsively picking at my skin. And even though I care a lot, I find it extraordinarily difficult to have relationships with people because I don’t really know how normal friends act, or when people are and aren’t upset with me, or how to advocate for myself in any way. I don’t think I even know how to have emotions on a normal level.
I have tried the Normal Therapy that is still available for people. I’ve tried to balance my everyday life with bi-weekly hour-long stints on industrial-upholstered squashy couches having discussions with therapists that really end up going nowhere. It aggravates the problem, if anything, because I am left trying to both continue a lifestyle that is often nearly overwhelming me, on top of trying to make flailing attempts at working through very deep-seated problems that I have struggled with for the majority of my life.
I have thought for a long time that some sort of inpatient treatment – in the short or medium run – could potentially help me a lot.
Problem being, there is no inpatient program that would actually be available to me. Considering that I am able to perform the functions of daily life – I can keep myself and my environment clean, feed myself, hold down a job, attend school – and have not tried to kill myself or someone else, the few publicly funded wards still around are not the place for me. They are designed for people who are truly at the end of their rope – an emergency room of sorts. I, with my middle-class upbringing and lack of specific and imminent danger to myself or others, have no business there.
Then, there are the few private ones, which are so fucking expensive I can’t get my mind around it. Choosing to receive treatment (beyond the issue of my parents likely disowning me for it) is not something I can afford to do at the expense of being able to finish my fucking college degree. There was one hospital in particular that I had considered for a while back in high school, during a period of time when my self-injury had progressed to a daily occurrence. I couldn’t do it anymore; it was tailored for people 18 and under. I’m too old for it.
I have no fucking options, unless I’m willing to throw away a large portion of my life’s opportunities in exchange for subpar care in an underfunded and understaffed facility that is only designed for people much worse off than myself in the first place.
I am one of the lucky ones. I am not violent, I am not a threat. I am merely struggling, confused, scared. The system is losing something by letting people like me slip through the cracks; but when they’re even overlooking people who are prone to violence, who do present a danger, that’s when tragedies happen. Maybe that tragedy is another mentally ill person becoming homeless, maybe that tragedy is another mentally ill person carrying out an act of mass violence. Neither is acceptable. None of it is acceptable.
This is not an issue of gun laws. This is an issue of our society’s unwillingness to confront the issue of how we handle mental health services.
*Look it the fuck up if you want to tell me that I’m going into hyperbole or misusing the word. He literally fits every. Single. Descriptor.