Morning Zen Guest blog post ~ Liza Long ~
Dear Claire Dunphy: From one soccer mom to another, here’s why your Halloween Insane Asylum of Horror was anything but awesome
You may remember seeing me at the soccer field, the grocery store, the PTA meetings. Like you, I’m pretty Type A when it comes to raising my kids; for many years, I viewed birthday party goody bags as a competitive sport. But then something happened to my family that I wouldn’t wish on anyone: my second son began to show symptoms of a serious chronic illness.
By the time he was in preschool, we knew something was not right. At first, they said maybe it was autism. Later, they would tell us it was Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. There were so many labels and different medications! We took parenting classes, got on wait lists for specialists, and restructured our entire family’s life around the child who had an illness, as many families in our situation do. We also became increasingly isolated from our friends and community, as it became harder and harder to manage our son’s behavioral symptoms.
In the midst of the struggles to find an answer, my marriage disintegrated. It was not my son’s fault. But the stress of raising a child with a serious illness can prove overwhelming sometimes. And suddenly, like many other single moms, I was doing it alone. I remember one time at the soccer field, when my son’s shoe came off, and he couldn’t fix it, and he collapsed, wailing and screaming. I will never forget the look of absolute disgust on your face and the faces of other parents that day, the look that said, “What’s wrong with that mom? Why can’t she control her kid?”
Or the time in the grocery store when my son was screaming “Child abuser! Child abuser!” at me and you threatened to call the police and took down my license plate number. Fortunately, the store manager protected me. “I understand,” he whispered to me. “My nephew has autism.”
Or the time you stood at your front window and gawked when I called the police on my own son, because in America, that’s what we have to do when our children have an uncontrolled brain attack. You stared as three policemen put my son in handcuffs and carried him twisting and screaming to the back of their car. You didn’t hear the policeman say to me, “You’re a good mom, ma’am. Never forget that. We know your son needs help, and we will help him to get it.” (God bless our crisis intervention team-trained police department!).
When you found out my son was in an acute care psychiatric hospital, you didn’t offer to watch my other children so I could visit him. You did not bring me a casserole. Mental illness is not a casserole disease, I guess. Fortunately for us, after nine years, my son finally got the correct diagnosis. I was relieved when I found out he had bipolar disorder, because I respect and admire my friends and acquaintances who are successfully managing their bipolar disorder and living productive, happy lives. This was the future I had thought my own child could never have. Suddenly, we had hope.
I’m a soccer mom like you, Claire. And what happened to my child could happen to your child. Mental illness is not a choice or a character flaw. This is why your Insane Asylum was so offensive to me and to my son. It’s not funny to ridicule people who are sick. Worse, the image of mental illness you portrayed is not remotely what mental illness really looks like.
You seemed to recognize your cruel mistake when your neighbor Ronnie lied to you and told you his wife had spent six months in the “cuckoo farm” (lovely words, those). But what about all the real people—children included—who could have been harmed by your Halloween “joke”? What message did you send your own children? My son has worn a straitjacket too, but his was during a behavioral episode. And like many children with mental illness, he has been institutionalized, though we don’t really have insane asylums anymore. We have something far worse: prison. My son was in juvenile detention four times before he was 12 years old, not because he's a bad kid, but because he had behavioral symptoms of a brain disease.
Claire, here are some truly scary facts about mental illness:
- In any given year, only 20 percent of children who need treatment for psychiatric disorders actually get it.
- Half of all mental illnesses start before the age of 14.
- 65-75 percent of youth in juvenile detention have at least one mental illness.
- It costs states $5.7 billion per year in the U.S. to incarcerate an average of 93,000 youth.
- There is not a single child psychiatric hospital bed in Orange County. Not one.
- One in five people with bipolar disorder (what my son has) die by suicide.
- Worldwide, suicide is the cause of death for more than 800,000 people each year.
- Adolescent males with mental illness are being shot and killed by police in ever increasing numbers.
Many people have defended your actions, saying “It’s Halloween! She was just having fun!” Others have accused me of focusing too much on political correctness. But I don’t think I’m out of line in asking for some basic respect from you. We talk a lot about the word “stigma” when we talk about mental illness. But what we really mean is “discrimination.” Your unrealistic and negative portrayal of mental illness perpetuates that “us vs. them” mentality that allows those of us who are not living with it to continue thinking mental illness is a choice, or that it is caused by bad parenting.
So Claire, as a fellow soccer mom, I’m officially asking for an apology. Your Insane Asylum of Horror, had you let it stand, would truly have been the most frightening house in the neighborhood. But for different reasons than you think.
P.S. To the writers of Modern Family: one in five children in the U.S. will suffer from a serious and debilitating mental disorder at some point before age 18. You have five children on your show. I challenge you to introduce mental illness for one of those children into next season’s plot line. You could use your platform to change people’s perceptions about mental illness in real and meaningful ways.
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Liza Long, aka the Anarchist Soccer Mom, is a writer, educator, mental health advocate, and mother of four children. She loves her Steinway, her kids,and her day job, not necessarily in that order. Her book "The Price of Silence: A Mom's Perspective on Mental Illness" is now available in bookstores.