A part of me doesn't want to write this. Honestly, I'd rather not talk about it at all and I usually don't. The only person who knows this story and hasn't been my friend for years is Tommy.
But yesterday, in town, I was waiting in the checkout line at a store. The woman in front of me was talking about the school shooting with the cashier. She said, “I don’t understand why that boy’s mother didn’t get him some help or have him committed.”
I almost said something.
I didn’t, because I knew I would lose my temper and that would accomplish nothing—“Get him help? Are you fucking serious? You don’t think she tried. ‘Oh, shit, get him help! I never thought of that!’ The problem, lady, is that our health care system is fucking broken, and it’s easier to get a gun than it is to get treatment for mental problems.”
Then, today, I read this blog post...
You're not alone, Soccer Mom. So, here goes—
My middle brother is currently serving 56 years in prison and he’s violently mentally ill.
Nearly all my memories involve visiting him behind one set of bars or the other. From a lax juvie hall to a maximum security prison, I’ve seen him walk into the visiting area normally and I’ve seen him lead in by burly corrections officers. Sometimes, he’s been free to touch and hug, but others he’s been barely able to raise his hands thanks to the handcuffs, shackles, and belly chain. I’ve talked to him easily across a cheap plastic table and strained to hear through the vents in thick shatterproof glass.
His behavior started when he was young and only worsened with age. Mood swings become outbursts. Outbursts lead to punches. Punches escalated to full-blown and nearly unstoppable violence. Sometimes, during an unguarded moment, if you approached him correctly and he was in the right mood, he might tell you about the things that followed him home in the dark, watching and whispering.
My mother tried to get him help.
“He’s fine. He’s just being a boy. Boys are rambunctious. They get into trouble. He’ll grow out of it.”
“The problem is you, lady. You need to relax as a mother.”
“We can hold him for observation for only a short time, then he will be released.”
“Your insurance won’t cover more treatment than this.”
“He’ll be ordered to report for counseling.”
“If he doesn’t show?”
“He needs to be arrested for something. That will make detention and treatment easier.”
As a child, I was afraid of my brother. It’s hard not to be when you know he's sick and the only response you can get is from the police and each encounter leads to more officers and the five armed with nightsticks that showed up that last time barely slowed him down and he managed to drop at least two before being subdued. It’s hard not to be when you have a hushed conversation with your mother in your bedroom about what to do if the worst happens, where you are to hide and whom you are to call.
And it’s fucking impossible not to after the day he came by to visit, complained of a headache and went to lie down in the back room. I remember he woke up an hour or so later, and a switch had been thrown somewhere in his brain. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on his face when he came through the bedroom door and rounded the kitchen table. I remember the rest of it—the empty car seat pitched through the glass door, my father lying in the backyard with his nose broken and two ribs busted, our eldest brother’s friend getting beaten with his crutches then strangled until his face started to change colors, our mother getting tossed down the hall then loading her gun and instructing me to follow her to the backdoor and run to the neighbors, standing on the property line crying because the neighbors wouldn’t let me or the other kids in, then there’s only the loud gun pop and my mother is yelling for my brother to stop because she won’t let him hurt anyone else and he moves and there’s another loud pop and the bullet hits dirt a few inches from his boots and she warns him again that if he doesn’t stop she’ll shoot him and he goes to move and she locks the hammer back and thank fucking god sirens are finally blaring down the county road and he’s running off into the woods—but fuck that look on his face. That look on his face...
Looking back and pondering my brother's life, only one thing brings me any comfort—at least he never picked up a gun. That's the best that can be said when you live in a country where a citizen's best hope for mental health care is prison.