- Posted January 17, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Gun control debate: Background checks
Observations from a psychologist and a mom
The road up the hill toward Reed Intermediate School in Newtown, Connecticut that Saturday morning unleashed a flood of memories. On my way to counsel those affected by the massacre less than twenty-four hours earlier, I noted the irony that the site designated for emergency grief counseling was located on the grounds of the former state psychiatric institution—Fairfield Hills Hospital.
For many, many years the name “Newtown” was almost synonymous with this large, sprawling complex of buildings that once housed over two thousand patients. “Newtown” was my first job as a psychologist out of graduate school in 1989, and in the years intervening, whenever I heard a patient say “they sent me to Newtown” I knew, as do many people still in this area of Connecticut, that this was a shorthand expression that meant an involuntary psychiatric commitment.
The middle school had been constructed at some point on the edge of the complex, although many of the original abandoned buildings remain. Fairfield Hills has maintained a certain notoriety over the years since its closing, and several movies have been set in the old tunnels that connected the buildings. “Newtown” for me means other things, however. For three years I worked in the geriatric service, and was a first hand witness to its deinstitutionalization. The administration asked a psychiatric nurse and me to do a “needs assessment” on each patient indicating what each older adult would need to be able to function in a less restrictive setting. When existing resources could not easily meet their needs, our recommendations were ignored. Many patients were inappropriately placed, and many died within six months of discharge.
“Newtown” gave me a lot of things during those years—invaluable experience difficult to come by any other way, knowledge of patients whose charts revealed the history of the mental health movement in the United States writ large across their lives, and regard for the efforts of patients in their later years to maintain some integrity in their lives.
It gave me much, much more than that. My women’s group had developed a relationship with a Brownie troop in Washington Depot, Connecticut and they invited us to a program they had prepared just for us. Their songs, jump ropes, and Suzuki violins charmed me, and I returned to Fairfield Hills telling my colleagues that I, too, wanted a Brownie in my life, and maybe a Cub Scout too.
A year later I left for Bolivia to adopt my son Daniel as a single mom, and my daughter Eva arrived from Guatemala three years later. I settled in a town with a welcoming church not far from Newtown, and began to raise my children.
In 2007, when my daughter was a six grader at our local middle school, her life would change forever. Returning from spring break, we had driven right past Virginia Tech several weeks earlier, and had plenty of opportunity to talk about what had happened there in the car on the way home. One long, lazy, late spring evening that year Eva went bike riding on a Sunday afternoon with a group of friends. One by one, they dropped away to go home, so that Eva was left alone to sit on a log and listen to a friend, a seventh grader. The boy told her that he was impressed by both Virginia State and Hitler, and that he was planning to bring a gun to the middle school. He was angry with his girlfriend, and the girlfriend would be a prime target. In response to a question from Eva, he replied that he could not guarantee that he would not kill her too.
Monday morning Eva had gone with two friends to the guidance counselor. The school had ordered an emergency psychiatric evaluation at a local hospital, and the boy had not been hospitalized, not judged to be an imminent threat to self or others.
I listened, incredulous, the same day as Eva was telling me all this in the car on the way back from music lessons. She said the boy had been in the neighborhood that afternoon chasing the two other kids and threatening to kill them. As Eva’s cell phone rang, I pulled over, and sat with Eva as we heard the same boy, now on speakerphone, threaten to kill Eva if she did not recant the story she gave the guidance counselor. I called the police.
The next year our family life was dominated emotionally by this experience. There was a restraining order (or what passes for one under juvenile law), court appearances, a court order following the parents’ refusal to allow psychological evaluation, and the court’s final opinion after many months that the boy was not a threat—or no longer a threat. Which one? It wasn’t clear.
What would have happened if Eva had said nothing about it to any adult? No one can ever know that for sure. What gave Eva the courage to speak out? Why did the boy choose to speak to her? I’m not sure about either of those questions, either.
As I have raised my kids, I have believed that guns are a symbol of fear. I believe the statistics that bad things are more likely to happen than good ones when a person is in possession of one during an incident. I also believe that the answer is not simply keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, though there are some who should never carry guns. The romantic spookiness of “Newtown” hospital is also a symbol of a pervasive myth in our culture. The myth is that the mentally ill are somehow fundamentally different or more mysterious than you or I. They are not. They are subject to the same impulsiveness, the same temporary lapses in judgment, the same misconstruals of their environment, that the rest of us are.
But the problem cuts even deeper. How do we create a culture where our children find adults worthy of their trust?
As I write this, my daughter, now a high school senior, has returned to her school this morning after a threatening message was discovered in a boys’ restroom. We are texting, and I don’t much care that we’re not supposed to.
Eva: Love you.
Me: You more.
Eva: There are at least 3 police officers at the school right now
Me: Are you feeling okay about it?
Eva: Ya im fine
Me: What are they saying about the threat?
Eva: Just that were have more percautions [sic] and we might have lock down practices
Me: Good that they’re taking these things seriously...
Eva: Ya we have police almost everywhere
Me: Are you frightened?
Eva: Ya why
Me: Just wanting to make sure.