Two days ago I came across an article with the words “Wish . . . Had Never Been Born” in the title. I immediately flashed back to my preteen years, hearing these words shouted at me an incalculable number of my times by my strung out, mentally ill older sister. She wishes I’d never been born. Ingrained in me. Wrestled through. Words that stuck.
More than twenty years later, The New Yorker releases an article with a similar statement from Adam Lanza’s father regarding his son. Peter wishes Adam, his son, had never been born.
And while the sight of those words pierced me to my core, I can attest to how heartrending it is to be related to someone with a destructive mental illness. The embarrassing arrests. The suicide attempts. The lashing out I feared would or could one day lead to murder. As shocking as they sound, I will not judge Peter for his words.
The Newtown tragedy hit close to home for me for other reasons. It occurred in my native state the year all three of my girls were attending elementary school. Adam murdered twenty-six people.
Just as with the shootings at Columbine, everyone scuttles about what the parents did wrong. What could have been done to prevent these heinous acts? Good questions to ask. But sometimes more problematic to answer than it might originally seem.
A year or so ago I read an article listing all the ways a troubled actress had been acting out. Toward the end of the article the reporter wrote she just wished the actress’s family would be more involved, would help her straighten up. When I set the magazine down, I was overcome with a mixture of anger and guilt.
Don’t people get it? Don’t they see that we’ve done everything we possibly can? This is an illness! There are some situations that don’t have simplistic remedies. Some causes that can’t be pinpointed adequately enough—satisfying the need for someone to blame.
This brings to mind Defending Jacob, an excellent book club choice, portraying a father having to come to terms with what he believes about his own son’s guilt in a local murder case.
And it challenges my thoughts about how we as a culture need to continue to get more honest about mental illness. We need to be mindful enough to know that most people struggling with mental illnesses won’t walk into a school and mow down dozens of children. However, also be conscious enough to realize how haunting and disturbing it can be to live with someone whose mind is sick.
We need to stop blaming, work harder to understand, engage in honest dialogue, seek help when or perhaps even before necessary, and empathize more than we judge.
One of my book groups recently discussed Still Alice, a novel about a successful Harvard professor who begins to demonstrate early onset signs of Alzheimer’s. In one scene Alice expresses her shame about what she’s dealing with, how if she had cancer people wouldn’t be afraid to sit next to her as though it were contagious.
I wish I could fix my sister’s illness. Wish I could bring her back to the vibrant young teenager I remember her as before all kinds of chaos infiltrated and shattered her mental understanding of the world.
Sometimes I wish I could slide into her shoes to fight her demons off for her. But I can’t. And there is no easy fix, no easy cure for her. This breaks my heart every second I’m alive.
It is with unending gratitude that I can say I’m thankful I was born. And I’m grateful my sister was born, too.
I may not understand why our roads are paved so differently. But I don’t have to understand.
I just have to do as Bono My Bono sings, “Walk on, walk on.”
*I realize Alzheimer’s disease isn’t a mental illness, but included the Still Alice point because people often treat anything influencing the brain, as opposed to the body, differently.