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Friday, April 20

On Mental Illness

I've blogged before about the fact that my mother has mental health issues. Actually, that's a bit of an understandment. The truth is that my mother is and has been for a long time profoundly mentally ill. Although she is now medicated, she spent years out of touch with Mother Earth. She actively hallucinated, she heard voices, she believed people were trying to control her by taking over her brain, she believed people meant her harm, she believed people were trying to kill her. She would become fixated on one person as the source of all evil in her life and would chant or pray or perform "witchcraft" to free herself from the perceived tyranny of this malicious individual. Eventually, she would move on to become fixated on another person and the cycle would begin again.

My mother was very clever at hiding the depths of her illness. On one level, she operated perfectly normally. She could get up every morning and prepare herself breakfast, take a shower, clothe herself, go to the grocery store, work in her yard, and so forth. She would confide some of the more bizarre ideations only in those whom she still trusted: myself, my brother, the occasional close friend. Sure, to the casual observer or friend, some of her behavior was "odd" but insignificant enough that it was passed off as eccentricity. As she would reveal some of these strange notions, though, one by one, her friends deserted her, until she was alone and isolated, and then the disease just overwhelmed her. Because she was almost 1,000 miles away from where I lived, I did not know until years later that her neighbors had restraining orders against her. Apparently, she would stand at the fenceline of her property and scream at them. Her grievance? She believed that I had born a child and her neighbors were holding me and her grandchild hostage in their basements. Never mind that I had just spoken to her by phone a day or two before and told her I was fine. Never mind that this was Florida, where no houses have basements because the water table is too high. Never mind that the neighbors were perfectly nice people who didn't even know her name or anything about her. In her mind, my captivity was a fact from which she could not be dissuaded. Thankfully, she apparently never thought of getting a gun, but had she done so, there is no doubt in my mind she would have used it to "protect" or "rescue" me and the phantom grandchild.

I think we are all trying desperately to understand how and why Cho could have done what he did. But in doing so, we are trying to impose reality-based thinking on something that was not based on our reality as rational human beings. Words fail me, but the closest I can come to expressing it is: in his mind, the grievances he expressed in his so-called manifesto were real. I have heard and read comments from people speculating that he may have been bullied and mocked by his classmates in high school, that he may have been abused by his parents, and that these experiences triggered his alientation, with the shooting as the result. I think this is indicative of how poorly mental illness is really understood in this country. It may be true, though I doubt it, that he was victimized to some extent by classmates, and maybe even his parents, but that did not "cause" his mental illness. The more logical explanation is that they shunned him because of his odd behavior, as my mother's friend shunned her because of her "oddities." It's more appropriate, in my view, to view their aversion to him as the "effect" of his burgeoning mental illness and not the cause of it. Mentally ill people are born, not made. Their experiences with others or with life events (in my mother's case, a World War) may exacerbate the underlying illness, but it does not create it or cause it in the first instance.

I spent years trying to impose upon my mother this same reality-based thinking. I would reason with her, provide her with proof positive that her ideations were incorrect in fact. I begged her to see a doctor, to get some kind of treatment, to persuade her that what was going on in her head was not real. To her it was real, and she could not and would not be persuaded otherwise. If we ever hear from Cho's parents, I think we will hear an equivalent story.

I know I am in a significant minority when I say that I feel a lot of compassion for Cho. The way his illness expressed itself is awful in the extreme, and my heart bleeds for the people who died. But my heart also bleeds for Cho. I can't help myself; I do indeed pity him.

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