Today, I put my daughter on the school bus just like I have done every day since her first day of school in August. But today was different. Today, I felt a tug at my heart and a pang of fear, lack of trust and paranoia come over me. I realized that I will likely never put her on the bus the same way I did before Friday, December 14, 2012.
The school shooting in Connecticut is not the first where I have found myself watching the news reports with tears in my eyes and jaw dropped open at such an atrocity. But this time it hit a little closer to home since this is the first school shooting that has occurred since one of my own children is in school. Not only that, but the children that were killed were only a year older than my daughter. When the shooting occurred, I happened to be volunteering in Maddie's classroom. I spent time with each of the students playing word games with them in the library, three students at a time. I love working with the kids because I get to see all their personalities, get hugs from them because they know that even though I'm not their mommy, I'm still a little piece of their own mommy with them at school. I love to hear their stories about "this one time...my mom took me the store and I wanted a toy and she said no..." or "this one time...my dog took a giant poop in the backyard and I stepped in it and..." or whatever the story may be, I am a captive audience and their little voices, little expressions and even little runny noses make me smile.
I think about my time in the classroom and how the same kinds of things were likely going on at the same time when tragedy struck. Smiling faces, young minds at work and giggles all interrupted and violently brought to a screeching halt. I cannot even wrap my mind around it, yet I can because I can vividly imagine what would happen if a gunman entered my daughter's school. It gives me nightmares. My heart breaks for those families and those left behind with the painful memories and loss. There are so many questions, opinions and a new awakening of fear that may have been put at the wayside between now and the last school shooting we had to hear about.
Then I am shifted to a different time in my own life when going to school meant a constant underlying fear and paranoia. When I was ten years old, my parents split up due to my father's overall inability to provide a stable, healthy environment to my mom, brothers and I. Prior to his departure from our day-to-day lives, he exhibited erratic behavior that prompted not only my mom, but my dad's brothers to step in and try to get my dad into some sort of psychiatric program. Unfortunately, despite his history of violence against my mom and brothers, emotional abuse to all of us, inability to hold a steady job, substance abuse and a long list of manic behavior, the best he ever got was a short stay in a psych ward. See, because family members cannot force their loved ones into treatment. My dad would agree to go in, check out the wallpaper and then check himself out. That's the way the mental health system works.
He was even free to roam the streets freely after the event that lead to my dad to ultimately get kicked out of my grandparent's house where we lived, which involved trying to run my brother over with a car in front of our house. I remember feeling a sense of relief that the day-to-day drama was over, but that just gave way to the kind of trouble my dad caused once he was out of the house. It started with him trying to break into our house, vandalizing my mom's car, stealing my mom's car, sitting out in front of our house and calling the house constantly like a bill collector. We would call the police and they would come to the house to question my dad who likely would be parked out front. He would show them his driver's license with our address on it and they would be on their way. We ultimately changed our phone number and my mom sent my one brother and I away to my aunt's in Pennsylvania for the summer hoping the worst of it would be over by the time we returned. That just made him more angry and fueled his erratic behavior. It meant more mean phone calls to my mom at work, threats, keying the word "whore" into her car and more stalking in general.
Once again, the police were no help because until my dad actually hurt one of us, he was not seen as a threat. Once my brother and I returned from Pennsylvania to start the school year, my dad started showing up at our schools. We were never sure what his motive was, our biggest fear was that he would kidnap or hurt us in some way. His mental state left a lot of questions of what he was capable of. We certainly knew violence was part of his M.O., we just didn't know how far he was capable of taking it.
I was supposed to move from the Catholic school to public school in sixth grade, but it was clear that staying at a smaller school where everyone knew our situation was the safest bet. Around the same timeframe, Laurie Dann, a mentally unstable woman, entered a school in Winnetka, IL, and shot several students, killing one and injuring several others. Winnetka wasn't that far from where we lived and it sent up red flags to many schools to increase safety and security. As luck would have it, it prompted my school to lock the doors and install a doorbell so guests had to check in at the office. This meant that if my dad showed up, the women in the office who knew him could immediately take action. Of course, in retrospect, I'm not sure what they could have really done if my dad really wanted to enter the school and cause harm. Much like the school in Connecticut, the doors were locked and when the man broke the glass and entered the school, the people in the office tried to stop him to no avail.
Even when I entered high school, he would show up occasionally and it was more difficult to explain to my counselor as well as the police counselor why I felt so threatened by my own father. I also worked at the church rectory when I was in high school and he would call me there and sometimes he would just want to talk to me, while other times the calls were threatening. He even showed up at the rectory a few times, but once again because most of the parishioners and priests knew him and our situation, they were able to get me out of there safely.
He showed up at my high school graduation uninvited, and I saw him as I turned the corner inside the school where I was lining up with the rest of my class. I had to dodge him by going through another part of the school to avoid him. I think of all those instances and what his intentions were, but more importantly how much damage he could have done. I want to think that he was just trying to see me, but there are a lot of things "you would think" a father would want for his children and he certainly never did those things, so who knows where his mind was at.
Luckily, he got his hands on an article from the local newspaper that stated I was attending Northern Illinois University even though I had ultimately decided to attend Illinois State. We continued to tell my dad I was going to Northern knowing full well if he knew I was at ISU, he would be on my doorstep much like he did to my brother while he went there.
I lived in college feeling relatively safe until my junior year when I received a phone call from my brother who told me not to leave my apartment. My dad spent a lot of his time in Central Illinois even after my brother left ISU due to some family members from that area. My brother found out that my dad was at the student center at ISU and was worried that our paths might cross. Of course, it had been several years since my dad and I had seen each other face-to-face, but since I lived only blocks away from the student center and walked the path right past it several times a day, there was a good chance we'd end up finding out exactly what would happen if he did recognized me.
I hid out in my apartment for several hours while my brother drove to ISU to pick my dad up and took him to another city where he was ultimately trying to get to. That same year my dad showed up at my brother's wedding uninvited and had to be escorted out by my uncle. Again, another seemingly innocent appearance caused most of us to pause while our hearts skipped several beats unsure of what would happen next. It is a scary place to be and not something I wish on anyone.
Ultimately, my dad continued to live on the streets of several different cities abusing the system and prescription drugs in the process. He was finally arrested in Florida for laying down in the middle of traffic on a busy road and was committed to a mental institution. After years of sampling mental healthy facilities, he was finally forced to stay, evaluated and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Of course, this wasn't the end of his trip. He was eventually released from that facility and to be honest, I'm not real clear on what his exact path was from there. I just know it involved a trial and error process of medications, programs, facilities and jail. He sent a slew of incredibly strange letters with over-the-top religious rants, newspaper clippings with rambling notes written in the margins and random phone calls to whomever he could reach.
As the year's passed, his lifestyle and physical health led to his inability to walk. It was at this time, he was put into a nursing home for both his physical and mental ailments. It wasn't until he was in one of these homes completely unable to get out, that I finally went to see him and was able to forgive him. I wasn't sure to what extent I could have him in my life after all of the horrible childhood memories and fear I lived through, but I needed to come to terms with my relationship with him. I knew that I had to be careful, because I knew full well that when it came to my dad, if you open the door a crack to help him or let him in, he would swing it wide open and take advantage. I kept distance, but forgave him in my heart.
Over the years I have continued to struggle with my relationship with him. It will never be a "normal" father-daughter relationship. His health continues to deteriorate and he has moved from one facility to another. Luckily, after years of tinkering with his psychiatric medication, he seems to be relatively "even-keeled." However, this past year I also found out that based on one of his antics and run-ins with the law in the past, he was placed on the "Registered Offenders List" making it even more difficult for him to find a quality facility to take care of him. On one hand, I try to justify his behavior based on his mental health, but can't ignore the deviant, unpredictable and downright evil things he has said and done, even to members of his own family. The biggest lesson I have learned is that there is difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. I can forgive, but will likely never reconcile.
I wonder if "The System" was different, how things my have turned out differently? Would we have been able to get him into a program that truly treated his mental illness earlier so that he could have been put on proper medication from the get-go? Could he have been a functioning member of society and our family as a result? "The System" certainly didn't make it easy for any of this to happen. I try not to get political, but I can tell you "The System" is broken. The policies in place don't work to treat patients with such mental illnesses properly and certainly don't protect their families. The current state of affairs leaves the decision up to the patients themselves, which seems counter-productive since, in most cases, they aren't in their right mind to make a proper decision to begin with.
And stalking laws have improved slightly since my dad was sitting outside our house and schools, but it still takes a whole heck of a lot to prove that there is a valid threat until it is likely too late. I'm not sure how to fix it. I'm not sure how to help the people who need help or to assist their families to either work and live with mental health issues, or protect them from those with mental health issues. What I do know is that the world is full of sick people who do horrible things and it is clear that there is something seriously amiss with their mental state. On one hand, every where you turn people are taking anti-psychotics, but as someone who takes anti-psychotics myself, it doesn't take much to have them prescribed. I had several doctors offer them to me without even knowing any detailed information about my personality, issues with depression/anxiety or family history. All I had to say was that I "struggled" a bit and they were ready to put me on whatever drug their pharmaceutical rep brought in that day along with a tray of sandwiches for the whole staff. I was fortunate enough to eventually find doctor who knew not only my health history, but asked the right questions to ensure she prescribed me with a drug that was the best fit for me.
Of course, my case is far more mild than what we are dealing with when it comes to my dad or Adam Lanza, but my point is that there is a clear disconnect and lack of true understanding of how serious mental health issues can be. I can only imagine what Nancy Lanza went through raising her child. Reports indicate that he was always shy, awkward and had a hard time fitting in and that he had a Aspergers, a form of Autism. He was removed from mainstream school and partially home schooled. His dad gave more money than his attorneys suggested in order to provide adequate services for his treatment. Clearly, these parents went above and beyond to help support their son and his disorder which is not technically considered a mental illness anyway. Aspergers Syndrome alone does not explain his violent act, however what more could have been done to help this boy in order to prevent this from happening and how can we help other troubled individuals whatever their issues may be in order to prevent this from happening in the future? I don't know the answer to this and I wish I did. I don't know what more my mom and my dad's brothers could have done to get him the treatment he needed. I don't know what any family members of any of the other people who have been charged in previous school shootings could have done. Chances are they were left scratching their heads, frustrated that there were no real answers, no real help or treatment to help with their troubled children much like the lack of resources available when we were dealing with my dad.
Either way you look at it, we are once again looking over our shoulders. Whether it be 911, Columbine, the movie theatre in Colorado, Northern Illinois University or any of the other random acts of violence our nation has endured, we've become a society riddled with fear. All I can do do is hold my babies close and hold my breath each day until they arrive safely home from school.
I'm thankful that I made it out of my childhood alive and as much as I hate to say this, I am thankful that my dad's physical ailments made it possible for him to be in a nursing home where he can never leave. It is one less thing to worry about these days.