I Could Have Been Adam Lanza’s Sibling

Gun in school bagEditor’s note: The following article was written by a GoodTherapy.org contributor who, out of respect for family privacy, wishes to remain anonymous. It includes recollections and perspectives that some people may have emotional responses to. Any views or opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org.

My brother is my best friend. As children, we stayed up all night digging for dinosaur bones and hunting for salamanders. When I broke my foot hiking, he carried me back to our campsite and did not leave my side. As an adult, he’s sped to my house in the middle of the night when there was a prowler in my yard, helped me move, shown up to hug me every time a pet has died, and recommended an endless list of adventures. He once attempted to donate a kidney to a stranger, and he regularly bankrupts himself to give money to the homeless, to friends, to random strangers he meets. He has run across an eight-lane highway to move a turtle out of the road, and he moves ant hills to what he calls “more ecologically appropriate locations” rather than kill the ants. He doesn’t mind that they sting him as he moves them. He feels empathy more deeply than anyone I have ever known.

But when news of the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, broke, all I could think about was the day my parents found my brother’s collection of assault weapons when he was 12. My brother doesn’t feel just empathy deeply; he also feels rage, and for most of my life, my brother has terrified me. His anger is as unpredictable and deeply felt as his compassion. When he was 2, he started pounding his head daily in fits of rage until he knocked himself unconscious. At 3, he broke a glass jar over my mom’s head while she was napping. He was arrested for making terroristic threats to classmates at age 7, still so small that the police could not fit handcuffs around his tiny wrists. He could not understand why he was being arrested; to him, it was shocking that anyone could think he was dangerous. “I just get mad sometimes,” he told me.

I will never forget the day my parents put locks on the outside of his bedroom door after he chased me around the house with a butcher knife. I remember his pained cries as he sobbed, “But I’m sorry! I don’t know why I did it! I love sissy so much! Please let me out! I’ll do better!” My parents frequently had to choose between my brother’s well-being and mine.

My parents are the kind of loving, nurturing, thoughtful people who only a relative few are lucky to call their caregivers. They read parenting books and took the advice to heart. My dad was involved and supportive; my mother quit her job in mental health so she could stay home and provide round-the-clock care to my brother. They did not cause him to be the way he is, and he did not choose it.

He has spent the majority of his adult life in jails and prisons across the United States. It’s always the same story: He does something horrifying, gets arrested, and then becomes the prison messiah—teaching people to read, helping people talk through conflicts, writing inspirational essays, starting prison pen-pal programs. The guards never believe he’s the violent person his rap sheet indicates until he snaps and tries to start a prison riot. Eventually, he’s released and subsequently cannot get a job, a student loan, or any other sliver of hope because of his criminal record. And it’s back to crime again.

My brother, like many other children, is severely mentally ill. Mental illness does not, in and of itself, cause violence. But children who do not get the treatment they need, who are repeatedly traumatized and retraumatized at the hands of poor psychiatric care and the criminal justice system, do sometimes turn violent. My brother’s list of diagnoses is as long as his rap sheet: intermittent explosive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), oppositional defiance, bipolar, traumatic brain injury. He could have all, any, or none of these. I don’t know because his involvement with the mental health system has been so chaotic and so profoundly unhelpful.

His first therapist told my parents they should give up. The next one said she couldn’t find anything wrong with him. A psychiatrist prescribed him medication that gave him seizures, then told my parents, “Well, it’s better than stabbing his sister, isn’t it?” Another psychologist would not hospitalize him because he was neither psychotic nor suicidal. Many treatment providers told my parents that if only they would discipline him more, read more parenting books, or raise his self-esteem, he would somehow get better.

He has been in countless psychiatric hospitals. They discharge him when he’s “stable,” and my brother is almost always stable—except, of course, when he’s threatening to kill a member of my family—so normal measures of psychiatric stability do not work with him. He’s been to four different residential treatment programs and has escaped from all of them. I will never forget the look of terror on my parents’ faces when they got the call telling them that my 12-year-old brother had escaped from treatment and was hitchhiking to Canada.

My parents are fortunate enough to have health insurance and money, and they exhausted their resources with my brother. They recognized his problems, and he was in treatment at the age of 2. But there were no viable options available; the choice was always between regular therapy, which was insufficient for a child with problems as severe as my brother’s, and residential treatment, which often resulted in abuse from other residents and never taught him how to function in a world that is, to him, overwhelming. My brother needed daily services, a comprehensive treatment plan, and treatment providers who could help him build upon his strengths. My parents needed a break. We all needed to feel safe. His 29 therapists, seven psychiatrists, five psychiatric hospitals, four residential treatment programs, three probation officers, and nine attorneys never managed to give my brother anything approaching the help he needed.

It is easy to give lip service to the importance of mental health care when there is a national tragedy. But the truth is that the kind of care that people like my brother need is expensive and extensive. These kids’ parents need help and support that they cannot currently get because their children are so unmanageable. We’re often eager to lock up perpetrators of violent horrors, but when someone hasn’t yet committed an unspeakable act, we’re not willing to intervene before it’s too late. No matter how frequently we tell schoolchildren to report violent classmates to teachers, guidance counselors, or parents, nothing will change so long as there are no effective treatment options for the children who are reported.

My brother is not a sociopath. He is not disposable, even though I have spent most of my life dreading what seemed like the inevitable: sitting in court as he awaited a death sentence. He was an extraordinarily difficult kid, but we can’t throw children away. There’s nowhere to throw them. And waiting until they do something that warrants involvement with the criminal justice system means waiting until they hurt someone. Even if we, as a society, are completely unwilling to extend empathy to violent children or to their families, the cost of waiting until they do something worthy of incarceration is much too high.

My brother is out of jail again, but this time it’s different. We have hope. In a strange twist of fate, that’s because something horrible happened last year: He pulled a gun on his girlfriend. After several months in jail, a judge who I will always remember as saintly was assigned his case. The judge, the prosecutor, and my brother’s attorney finally recognized what no one in the criminal justice system had before: He needed help. And because he was under the control of the justice system, they could mandate that he got the help he needed. He underwent intensive daily therapy. He was required to develop a plan for his life. And, after serving his sentence, he was released to a mental health court program and required to live in a halfway house with round-the-clock supervision, multiple hours of therapy, life-skills training, and mandatory medication. He’s taking classes that teach him how to manage anger, frustration, and anxiety. And with every step of the program he completes, he gets a little more freedom. Escaping is not an option for him this time because escaping means going back to jail. My brother, I am quite certain, will kill himself if he has to go back to jail.

The list of treatments he’s receiving is exhaustive, but it’s working because the program keeps him and other people safe and his therapists treat his condition as the serious, ongoing issue it is. But his treatment team also shows him the same kind of empathy that he has so frequently shown others. They know that he is good, that he needs help, that he can offer something to this world. He will have to struggle to find employment for the rest of his life because of his criminal record, and he will always carry the stigma of mental illness. But each day, he seems more at peace with this.

I’m not afraid of my brother anymore. But I am afraid for the many children like him who are not getting the help they need, who might grow up to serve a life sentence or who might grow up to be the next school shooter. My brother’s experience is evidence that treatment works. But in my state, the kind of treatment he has gotten is available only to people in the criminal justice system. This is a crime against our society because, in order to enter the criminal justice system, a person has to do harm. We should not wait for ticking time bombs like my brother to explode. By then, it may be too late, and these children may be so damaged that the damage cannot be undone. It’s fair for my brother to have gone to jail for the things he has done. But it’s not fair that he was unable to get help for an illness he did not want and did not cause for the first 26 years of his life. It is not fair that other people have had to suffer because the sort of comprehensive treatment he needed was unavailable.

Good mental health care is costly, but I know that my brother’s life is worth it. And even if it isn’t, even if my brother is unworthy of redemption and help, the cost to society of people like him is too great to refuse them help. I do not know if Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who changed Newtown forever, was mentally ill, and I do not know why he decided to brutally murder innocent children. But I do know that fostering real community, real responsibility, and real dedication to helping people like him works, and I know that it is time to stop talking and start doing.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sherry Osadchey

    Sherry Osadchey

    December 21st, 2012 at 9:20 AM

    THANK YOU! Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I really appreciate everything you have shared and expressed in this article. Really pleased to hear, too, that your brother has found his way to real and compassionate help. Hopefully the tragedy of Adam Lanza’s actions will provide greater motivation for creating a system that will assist those so desperately needing the structure and guidance that finally became available to your brother.

  • Jean Nystrom

    Jean Nystrom

    December 21st, 2012 at 12:33 PM

    Yes, someone is finally speaking out about the need for mental health care. The beginning of the end was when the institutions were closed and funding for the mental health field was cut. What happened? Homeless, mentally incapacitated people went to living on the streets, patients started committing not only suicide but committing horrific crimes. I was there I saw it all happen and there was nothing I could do when one of my patients decided to fill all of his prescriptions when I pleaded with him and the psychiatrist not to do it. I got the call the next morning he was dead. We saw the signs but were helpless to do anything about it and there was no where for him to go but heaven. So this author is absolutely right in saying: “But I do know that fostering real community, real responsibility, and real dedication to helping people like him works, and I know that it is time to stop talking and start doing.”

  • Campbell

    Campbell

    December 21st, 2012 at 5:17 PM

    What you have written is a very important message to get across. But I find that more and more, most people are tired of the excuses and want vengeance instead. I am sorry for your struggles, and I hope for the best for your brother, but ultimately there are 26 people who lost their lives and families who will forever grieve and there are just no answers for that.

  • Val

    Val

    December 22nd, 2012 at 5:45 AM

    Thank you for having the courage to write what you did. I understand what it is like to suffer a mental illness and not be able to get the correct help. I am not as sick as your brother but I still need help and in trying to get that help was abused by the therapist who was supposed to be helping me and to make it worse she made me out to be a liar and basically got away with what she did… Governments worldwide need to make a determined effort to firstly help those who need it and I mean real help, not just lock them up and feed them full of drugs. Secondly they need to determine to find out what causes mental illnesses and why are they becoming more common now. They need to work more with natural therapists in this area and not rely on kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies and ignoring the obvious answers. Finally they need to offer affordable treatments and support to the patient and families of the patient. Until the authorities pull their head out of the sand and do something about both the gun laws and the mental health system these horrible events will continue to happen. I wish you all the best and pray your brother continues to improve and gets the help he needs.

  • Leon

    Leon

    December 22nd, 2012 at 8:16 AM

    We all have someone in our families who could probably do something like this if provoked.

    The key is learning how to step in when we see a tendency like this and stopping it before it happens.

  • JAMES

    JAMES

    December 22nd, 2012 at 8:40 AM

    Comprehensive treatment being unavailable is a serious issue.There is no yardstick in mental healthcare to measure it by but there are a lot of gaps that need to be plugged

    I know how bad your family may have had all over these years.But now let us think if this-insurance companies increasingly choose our treatment methods and the day is not far when the right treatment methods are still available but we will not have access to them.It is preventable but the government seems hell bent on not giving us the choice.

  • Candace

    Candace

    December 22nd, 2012 at 6:49 PM

    As the mother of an 18-year-old boy exactly like you described in your article I know how your mother feels. I fear the day my son commits such an act on society. Since he was 14 I have been unable to do anything because of the laws stating that a 14-year-old has the right to choose to take medication and get therapy. after he was put in the juvinelle system things got even worse, because I was trying to get him help and family members who barely knew him were trying “to save him” by keeping him out of jail to the point where they told everyone I made everything up. he has been a little over two years without any kind of help and I haven’t seen him since he ran away at 16 because I wouldn’t let him go to the drive in on a school night while he was on probation past his mandated curfew. I pray every night that somehow he sees he needs help before he does something like this as I can’t do a thing until the laws are changed in the juvinelle system, mental health systems, family court systems mostly, etc. Children should not be able to make life altering decisions especially ones that threaten the lives of others. My son was diagnosed with depression at 4, Oppositional defiant disoder at 8, and at 15 Antisocial Personality Disorder. he has not received proper treatment in two years.

  • Grace

    Grace

    December 22nd, 2012 at 10:16 PM

    I am so sorry that your family and your brother have waited for so long for the help you needed. Most people don’t understand how hard it is to find the right kind of help and ongoing treatment.

    Depending on your brother’s diagnosis, a social worker with his program should be able to help him apply for SSI and some type of housing program, if he qualifies. This would give him more stability and help keep him out of the revolving door system of jail and the streets. It’s not much, but it’s all we have in this country right now.

    Best of luck to you and your brother.

  • SunFlower

    SunFlower

    December 23rd, 2012 at 2:55 AM

    While its easy to blame the family members and saying that they could have stopped a tragedy if only they had acted before,the truth is that its not easy for them at all.

    I hear your pain and agony, and I really hope the concerned authorities re looking into preventing such an event from repeating by getting to its roots and not working on the superficial aspects.Also,they need to ensure sufficient healthcare is available because they are just so many people in prisons today who are there not because they did something wrong but because of their mental health condition!

  • DC

    DC

    December 23rd, 2012 at 8:23 PM

    Thank you for sharing your story….as the father of a special needs child who could easily follow the path of your brother, I feel deeply for you, your family, and, above all, your brother.

    You laid it out so eloquently and beautifully…our society needs to help our kids with mental health issues before the terrible things happen…and we need to care for our adults who suffer so that they may have a shot at an independent, free life.

    All the best to you this holiday and season of Light!

  • shaun

    shaun

    December 24th, 2012 at 9:07 AM

    never easy to accept the fact that your family member could have a problem that is further landing them into trouble.but the support from you as his/her sibling/parent/child can have a vast effect.

    yes there are people with issues,but what we should also remember that there is a cure for every suffering,that there is help.and if we can bond and support one another in a family,the journey becomes just a wee bit easier.

    cheers to you for having kept your spirits up and I hope your brother makes a quick recovery.

  • Ben Roth

    Ben Roth

    December 31st, 2012 at 6:24 AM

    Having worked in hospitals and clinics where such patients as your brother were treated unsuccessfully I am deeply aware of the problem you so clearly describe.I am a big guy , ex football player and PhD, not afraid most of the time with patients yet in the forensic ward I was well aware of the danger of explosive patients. Violent outbursts have a pattern, a kindling point for rage and guilt or sorrow after . When there is no guilt after there is likely nothing to do but protect yourself. Its hard to recognize how little we know about these people but our tools are limited. Some one spent hours with the parents of the shooters at Columbine and couldnt find a cause. We need to keep trying to face this and not back away

  • Raquel

    Raquel

    December 31st, 2012 at 7:29 AM

    Dear Anonymous,
    As a licensed MH professional, I am so very grateful that you’ve described in detail, the kind of wrap- around, comprehensive help that your brother is finally receiving. Becuase the tendency is to ‘blame the victim’ by saying “Well, geese…he had x number therapists, x number psychiatrists, x number of incarcerations etc, etc so he ‘should’ be better by now!” But when there’s not corroborative, collaborative, wrap around sevices all linked up together with approrpriate oversight in the way your brother is now receiving them, then it simply doesn’t work. And the compassionate, ‘saintly’ judge – bless his/her soul. I would love it if that judge trained other judges on compassionate care and appropropriate MH treatment.

    As an aside, I got DCF involved with a woman on my caseload for child neglect due to continued drug use. As this clt says, it ‘scared me straight’: for the past 2 months, she’s shown negative urins, goes to 14 12 Step Meetins/wk, and has self-referred to higher level of outpatient Substance Abuse tx in order to strenghten her comittment to abstinence for the l-t. I outlined her progress in a letter she presented to the judge at her hearing regarding the custody of her child. What does the judge say? He mandated her to inpatient tx! What??!! Insurance won’t cover it so she’d have to privately pay, and what’s more, the only way she’ll get accepted in-pt is if she relapses or ‘fakes’ suicidal ideation or some other severe MH problem. I know this isn’t similar to your case, but I share it to demonstrate how poorly informed and ignorant this judge is. In team meeting yesterday, a co-worker said a family member was also mandated to in-pt (same city; same judge?) when this member doesn’t meet the criteria. This all to say our Judges need to be educated and informed…again, I wish the judge handling your brother’s case could go train other judges around the country.

    And yes, it’s too bad that we don’t have enough early intervention programs to intervene when we see ‘ticking timebombs’ like the woman who wrote above about her 16 yr old on the run.

    Again, thank you for the time/effort you took in outlining your brother’s experience in detail. I was really doubting that social servies ‘had what it takes’, even though I’m in the field! But what you clarified for me is the importance of all the various facets working together collaboratively and in close communication with each other. And, it sounds as thought the treatment providers are professional. We need to consider raising salaries for folks in the MH field so we can attract highly skilled folks to work in residences (they often go into private practice, leaving residential providers unskilled an poorly pd – but that’s an entire other issue!)

    Thanks again. I hope you read this cuz there are so many posts before mine. I feel so much more hopeful after having read your piece.

    May your brother continue to heal…may his generous heart continue to touch others…may his experience help others, as it already has :)

  • hunter kegher

    hunter kegher

    January 1st, 2013 at 10:10 PM

    Thank you.

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