Sensationalist headline out of the way? Good. Now that we’ve moved past that, I’d like to start with a clarification: I’m not Adam Lanza. That person is deceased. I’m also not someone named Adam Lanza that just happened to be associated accidentally. My name is Eric Ravenscraft. I’ve discussed it here before, but I have some form of mental disorder. I’d like to tell you what, but the diagnosis never stayed the same. The last one was Asperger’s, but that’s not even in the book anymore. So I don’t know what I have.
I’m not the only one, though. This article, titled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” describes a child that could easily have been me. When I was younger, I was violent. Difficult to control. I scared my family. I was in and out of therapists offices, on a variety of medications and had all manner of bizarre tests done on me. I ended up in youth detention centers and mental institutions on multiple occasions each. I know what it’s like to wear an orange jumpsuit and have my shoelaces taken. I’ve been restrained and held for observation overnight. I’ve had electrodes glued to my head and been in and out of MRI tubes like they were tanning beds. If you were to compare the stories about what Adam Lanza was like to my life, you might be hard pressed to tell the difference.
I’ve never killed anyone. And I would never.
After Friday’s horrific incident, where a severely disturbed young man entered an elementary school and murdered over two dozen people, many of whom were only children, the discussion on mental health services started immediately. “Gun control won’t solve the problem if we don’t deal with the lack of proper mental health services in this country!” Dear god, yes. Please. Let this happen. You have no idea how very true it is that we need this. The system is woefully underfunded. Schools for special needs children are an after thought. The medical system is even worse. As of right now, state-funded institutions are being dismantled in favor of outpatient care in my home state of Georgia. Similar endeavors are being explored or actively pursued elsewhere in the country. And worst of all, reform comes slowly.
When I was younger and would have an outburst, my schools were authorized to carry me to what were called “Quiet Rooms.” As you might expect, these were not nearly as nice as they sounded. Picture a padded room without the padding, just bare concrete walls, sometimes not much larger than a closet. In one school I attended, the doors were sealed with electromagnetic locks that could not be opened except by the press of a button outside or a fire alarm. These rooms are no longer legal in my state. In 2004 a student killed himself in a room like this. A speedy six years later, a ban was placed on so-called “seclusion rooms.” Six years.
So, yes. Mental healthcare reform is something that is desperately needed.
However, this has always been the case. It’s nothing new. As any doctor or psychology student could tell you, the entire system is difficult to navigate, can be insanely expensive, and ultimately will fail to help a number of patients who will then be turned loose, left to their own devices. This isn’t something that has suddenly gotten worse very recently. This is a problem as old as modern psychology itself.
So, when the discussion comes up that we need reform because of a mass murderer, I get worried. Genuinely glad the conversation happens, but very, very scared. Because, you see, as I read descriptions of Adam Lanza, I see a master class in creative storytelling that manages to create new stigmas out of old ones. “He was a loner. A huge nerd. Probably a genius. Hung out with the goths.” This is all pretty typical amateur, armchair profiling that news organizations and idle speculators like to do. But a new element is being added to the mix. “He may have had some form of autism.” The beauty of this, from a narrative standpoint, is that autism provides us with a center. “What do all the people in this class of brilliant, asocial gunmen have in common? Well, it’s probably that durn autism!” It’s an easy way out. It provides us with both an explanation and the possibility of a solution. If there is a tangible underlying cause that makes people lack the empathy required to not kill children, then we can stop it right?
Except the problem isn’t that simple. And when you present it that way, you take a terrible risk. The autism spectrum is not an inherently violent disorder. Even among disorders that are (such as Intermittent Explosive Disorver, which is defined in part by extreme anger), assuming that the ultimate goal of treatment is to avoid a mass shooting will necessarily color the treatment and interactions with the patient. They’re a time bomb. The only goal here is to prevent them from causing harm.
You can’t see it like that. They’re people. They don’t seriously want to kill people. Not most of them. In a majority of cases, in fact, they just don’t know how to handle themselves. This is why they’re described as having “special needs” and not “needing to be put down.”
I read stories like the one I linked to at the beginning of this article and, as horrified as I am by what this kid did (even moreso because I know I’ve been no better), I feel sympathy. I know how it feels. It’s like an exposed nerve. The feeling is inescapable. Inasmuch as clinical depression feels like a weight of sadness and despair that can’t be overcome, so too do these emotional outbursts feel more amplified than they really are. Someone on the autism spectrum may have a tendency to get fixated on a certain thing or subject because these are their few comforts. Take it away and they lack the perspective to know it’s not the end of the world. Any child will pout when they can’t get their way. With the right mental condition, though, it can feel like unbearable. It feels like physical pain.
My experience is not the same as everyone else’s. In fact, that’s the point. That just because one person who may or may not have had a place on the autism spectrum did something horrible doesn’t mean that all of them would. Mental illness isn’t something that breaks a person. It doesn’t make them somehow less of a person. It’s a thing you adjust to. You learn how to deal with it and, with the right support, go on to live a very fulfilling life.
Nearly two years ago, I wrote a piece on here about how I’ve adjusted since my early days in the mental health system. I talked about how my experiences will always be different and I can’t change that. I wrote that I’d even grown to be a fully functioning adult just fine. Something that I’ve learned since then that doctors did not expect I would be able to do.
In the time since I wrote that piece, my life has changed dramatically. I’m currently employed by multiple websites as a writer on a variety of topics. I make 100% of my income online in a career that I simply decided to take on. I haven’t been to a therapists office in years. I do not take medications anymore, aside from a bit of St. John’s Wort sometimes. I didn’t go to college for writing, nor do I have any official training in journalism. I was educated as a video editor and somewhere along the way I decided I wanted to write. So I did. At the time I wrote the last piece, I was astonished and thrilled that I’d been given the opportunity to write a few guest posts for Lifehacker that received over 100,000 views combined. Today, between the sites I write for, my articles have easily seen over a million views total. This is a series of changes that, according to the diagnoses I’ve received over the years, should not be possible. I’m resistant to change. It makes me uncomfortable. Someone with my conditions should lash out at the prospect of such severe change (and I’ve certainly shown that this is the case for me in the past), and yet here I am. I’ve had a year of intense change and I make it through. Recovery and adjustment is possible.
I have friends. I’ve had lovers. I enjoy movies and games and long conversations with other people. Sometimes I stay home and play violent video games, other times I go watch Shakespeare plays. I have not physically harmed a person (outside of playful rough housing) in years. I still sometimes get more emotional than I should, but I get by. I’m capable of taking responsibility for my actions and, in general, ensuring that I don’t have the same kind of outbursts I used to have that could ruin my life.
I hate to describe it this way because I feel a default sense of self-consciousness when I say good things about myself, but the truth is I’m a success case. I’ve done well. My father has told me before that my life is like I’ve started a race with a backpack full of rocks strapped to me. It’s true. I was screwed up from the start. But I’ve also been pretty blessed to find people that didn’t give up on me. People who gave me chances I didn’t deserve. People who didn’t compare me to mass murderers and wish I’d never been born.
The conversation is going to go forward and there’s nothing I can do to stop that. I only hope, for the sake of both the victims of these shootings and the people that we might prevent from doing the shooting in the future, that we don’t characterize mental illness, particularly the autism spectrum of disorders, as the cause of violent crimes. They need help adjusting. They need to find their center, just like the rest of us.
And for anyone who knows or is related to someone with a difficult-to-handle disorder…I promise, it gets better. It really does. It doesn’t always have to be the way it is now. For every tragedy there is also a success story. There are happy endings everywhere. Look for those. Strive for those. Don’t give up. We can and will do better than this.