by Nancy Lea Speer
Tragedy – an event in which an individual or group of individuals, as a consequence of a deadly flaw or moral weakness, and/or an inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances, are brought to ruin or to suffer extreme sorrow.
What happened last Friday in Isla Vista encompassed all of the elements of tragedy. That’s the easy part to grasp.
The hard part is taking hold of the truth that this tragedy happened to ALL of us. ALL OF US! We are ALL a part of it! WE are ALL its victim and WE ARE ALL its perpetrator. We have gone too long accepting the status quo.
Not long ago I was in the position of this young man’s parents. What would it take for YOU to call the police on your twenty-two year old son with Asperger? Some parents would do so without hesitation. Not I.
The Injustice System
Calling the police on my twenty-one year old son took a lot out of me. He was already on probation in Santa Barbara County for a string of crazy, complicated, oddball events. All the result, not of Asperger’s, but of chemical imbalances in his beautiful big brain… There was no other choice, no therapeutic environment where I could take him, no kind of psychiatric venue. Calling the police meant he would likely be arrested. My son was an adult and this changed so many things for the worse in our Injustice System; I could no longer protect him.
A month ago, maybe more, I believe this young man’s parents called to have their son evaluated – Is he a danger to himself or others?
We know now he was. Yet the team of police who visited his apartment shortly before the incident, didn’t think so. Was there a representative from CARES with that team?
When I called the police on my son, I also called Santa Barbara CARES… an arm of Santa Barbara County Mental Health. CARES is a group of professionals who make determinations about whether or not an individual is a danger to themselves or others… My son had gone on a rampage, screaming and annihilating his room, crushing or breaking everything he owned.” When they showed up, my son was apologetic and calm. As with the young man in Isla Vista, CARES determined my son was neither a danger to himself or others.
Too much was hanging in the balance. My son takes an anti-psychotic. Rages like that one only occur when he has not taken his medicine. So long as he takes it, he is his own amazing self. When he doesn’t, something gets lost inside him; he turns into someone I recognize, but do not know… So, the police gave me a choice: “We can leave him here with you or we can take him to jail for violating probation.”
“He needs help,” I answer, “he doesn’t need to be in jail; he needs medication and he needs therapy.”
“Sorry, Ma’am, these are your choices. CARES won’t take him. Do you want us to leave him here or take him with us?”
While CARES didn’t see it, I knew how angry my son was – I called the police on him! Had they left him there alone with me, and had he lost control and hurt me, we both would have been deeply wounded. I was unwilling to take that risk.
My son loves me and I love him. He has never ever physically attacked me, yet, I asked the police to take him to jail. What my son needed was psychiatric care and re-stabilization of his medication. However, in wealthy Santa Barbara County, unless you can afford to send your loved one to a psychiatric facility, if CARES deems them safe, the only option is: JAIL! There is no where else for him to go.
Medication is Critical for Many
When my son was released, medicated and stable, he told me it was good I sent him to jail. Had I not done so, he said he worried he really might have hurt me. He said he never wants to hurt me and he was glad I didn’t let that happen. [See the story. That incident was mild compared to what happened a few months later.]
I left Santa Barbara. A month after my departure, my son again refused to take his medication and reside in the room I rented for him. He moved out, sold everything he owned for a song, began living on the street, and ended up facing two years of incarceration for stealing the local food bank van when he was hungry.
What happened to your son now has me wondering: As bad as jail was, as much as it harmed my son, did it actually save his life?
It was a few months short of a year when, through my family attorney, I discovered my son was on the edge of death. Un-medicated and completely psychotic, relegated to solitary confinement the entire time he was in jail, he was lying naked and in fetal position on a concrete floor in The Hole (punishment for attempting suicide and self-mutilating). No therapy was ever offered to him in jail. He was not eating, drinking water or talking. Shortly thereafter he also began tying a tee shirt around his head to cover his eyes and restrict his vision. His face and body were covered with frightening wounds and bruises. His nose was broken and he had lost about fifty pounds. He was a shadow of his former physical self.
Thus began my fight to get him released and into psychiatric care. The worst thing I could imagine was that my son would die before I got him out of the jail… Now I see that many things much worse could have happened to my son, could have happened to me, had he not gone to jail. JAILS and PRISONS are NOT therapeutic environments, yet they warehouse the mentally ill throughout California’s Injustice Systems!
Santa Barbara needs therapeutic and safe facilities for the mentally ill. This would swiftly reduce the number of inmates in the Santa Barbara County Jail.
A Therapeutic Environment Changes Lives
As horrific as the year my son spent in Santa Barbara County Jail may have been, I am grateful today that he is alive. He’s even doing well! After providing my son a year of intensive psychiatric rehabilitation and stabilization, the County of Santa Barbara further afforded him vocational counseling. He has been working and living independently for nearly two years. What does he do for a living? He supervises a team of about thirty disabled men and women who keep the Santa Barbara wharf clean and tidy for its visitors. Each of his staff has their own unique set of challenges, some are in wheelchairs, others are hearing-impaired or limited in one way or another. Gentle and kind, he encourages them to do their best, though sometimes he also must be stern, which is more difficult for him.
Astounding Gifts Come with Asperger’s
I believe one gift my son possesses is an aspect of Asperger’s and manifests often in his work on the wharf. There’s a great blue heron who often visits with him. They are friends. A seal sat by him once as my son munched his lunch. Just yesterday he and his team rescued a baby bird who had fallen out of its nest. His honesty, loyalty and determination to always do what is best are also aspects of his Asperger’s and are making of him a noble and kindhearted man. My son continues to amaze me with his courage and strength. Every day, he grows in compassion.
Like your son this culture has often treated him with great cruelty. With regard to the incident in Isla Vista, my son commented to his dad about the ignorance of so many who don’t have a clue about Asperger’s. We all must learn from this. We have to change the way we treat one another and where we place our values.
Bruce Lipton, in his classic Biology of Belief, suggests to change our culture we must first transform our environment. These tragedies will continue to occur until we are willing to look deeply into ourselves and become the change we want to see.
I mourn for the victims. I mourn for your son and his life cut short by challenges ignored and/or demeaned by this imbalanced and insensitive culture. And I empathize deeply with the sorrow you, the parents and friends of all those precious young lives lost and injured, are suffering.
As Richard Martinez so eloquently and passionately expressed, deadly cultural flaws and moral weaknesses do exist. We must join together in outrage! Not screaming hatred and self-righteousness, we need to demand the protections our government was designed to afford each and every one of us: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!
The Injustice System must re-balance!
We too often see legal justice triumph at the expense of social justice. Individuals our laws were designed to protect are now more often victimized than protected by those laws. The National Rifleman’s Association is an example of a lobbying organization gone awry and reflects another systemic injustice. The Right to Bear Arms was NEVER intended to encourage the slaughter of one another, much less the killing of women and children. It is a cultural flaw and an example of moral weakness on the part of ALL of us to allow a minority of extremist NRA enthusiasts to bully the rest of us into acceptance of the status quo!
The level at which a culture is able to function consciously and with accountability, is evidenced by the way that culture treats its women and children, its indigent and its disabled. How are Americans doing? Allow the deaths of these beautiful young people to make a difference. Stand with your neighbors and DEMAND CHANGE!
County Mental Health, the Sheriff, the Jail, the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors, yes, our local chapter of the NRA, and our FAMILIES ALL need to work TOGETHER! The NRA must compromise and accept the wisdom of couching the Right to Bear Arms in terms that outline limits of this particular civil liberty and reflect reasoned intelligence.
If we collaborate together in the spirit of give and take, imbalances will adjust. Too much ruin, too much extreme sorrow, has been spent mourning losses such as last Friday’s tragedy fomented.
Open Our Hearts to All Who are Mourning
May we release judging one another and instead, open our hearts to ALL who are mourning this tragedy. Take your neighbor’s hand, even your enemy’s hand, and walk forward together. If ever there were a culture that could transform, it is this one… Listen to the raw truth of Richard Martinez’ demands and help make his son’s life, make all the lives lost, count for something GREAT!
In the face of your son’s death, I honor your courage and mourn with you for all that has been lost, hopeful something pure and good and true will come from this grave tragedy.
Nancy Lea Speer is an international mental health advocate and author.