Category Archives: People

A Call for Help


Like many of you, I have been filled with a lot of sadness over the past few days due to the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre.  Since I’m visiting the United States, I’m present to the conversations here, most of them about much-needed gun control, how to cope with grief, and questions about why this happened, who is to blame.

One topic that we don’t discuss enough is mental illness.  As someone who has suffered from depression in the past, I have felt the stigma of disease, of feeling embarrassed or shamed to ask for help, even after I was courageous enough to admit that I needed it.

Here is one mother’s story about living with and loving a son with mental illness.  I am grateful for her transparency and hope her words, along with current events, spur further dialogue here.


I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother: It’s Time to Talk About Mental Illness

Friday’s horrific national tragedy—the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Town, Connecticut—has ignited a new discussion on violence in America. In kitchens and coffee shops across the country, we tearfully debate the many faces of violence in America: gun culture, media violence, lack of mental health services, overt and covert wars abroad, religion, politics and the way we raise our children. Liza Long, a writer based in Boise, says it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.

“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.

“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”

“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”

“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.

We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.

At the start of seventh grade, Michael was accepted to an accelerated program for highly gifted math and science students. His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.

Several weeks into his new junior high school, Michael began exhibiting increasingly odd and threatening behaviors at school. We decided to transfer him to the district’s most restrictive behavioral program, a contained school environment where children who can’t function in normal classrooms can access their right to free public babysitting from 7:30-1:50 Monday through Friday until they turn 18.

The morning of the pants incident, Michael continued to argue with me on the drive. He would occasionally apologize and seem remorseful. Right before we turned into his school parking lot, he said, “Look, Mom, I’m really sorry. Can I have video games back today?”

“No way,” I told him. “You cannot act the way you acted this morning and think you can get your electronic privileges back that quickly.”

His face turned cold, and his eyes were full of calculated rage. “Then I’m going to kill myself,” he said. “I’m going to jump out of this car right now and kill myself.”

That was it. After the knife incident, I told him that if he ever said those words again, I would take him straight to the mental hospital, no ifs, ands, or buts. I did not respond, except to pull the car into the opposite lane, turning left instead of right.

“Where are you taking me?” he said, suddenly worried. “Where are we going?”

“You know where we are going,” I replied.

“No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!”

I pulled up in front of the hospital, frantically waiving for one of the clinicians who happened to be standing outside. “Call the police,” I said. “Hurry.”

Michael was in a full-blown fit by then, screaming and hitting. I hugged him close so he couldn’t escape from the car. He bit me several times and repeatedly jabbed his elbows into my rib cage. I’m still stronger than he is, but I won’t be for much longer.

The police came quickly and carried my son screaming and kicking into the bowels of the hospital. I started to shake, and tears filled my eyes as I filled out the paperwork—“Were there any difficulties with… at what age did your child… were there any problems with.. has your child ever experienced.. does your child have…”

At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You’ll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing.

For days, my son insisted that I was lying—that I made the whole thing up so that I could get rid of him. The first day, when I called to check up on him, he said, “I hate you. And I’m going to get my revenge as soon as I get out of here.”

By day three, he was my calm, sweet boy again, all apologies and promises to get better. I’ve heard those promises for years. I don’t believe them anymore.

On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”

And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise—in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population.

With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill—Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.

No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”

I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.

God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.

(Originally published at The Anarchist Soccer Mom.)

liza long is an author, musician, and erstwhile classicist. she is also a single mother of four bright, loved children, one of whom has special needs.


Update on My Love Life


Now that Matchmaker is gone, I’m having to search for and try to attract my own men here in Panama.  In an attempt to use my resources, I browsed the online dating site Badoo a few times but thought it was awful.  I had never been on a site where men post pics of actors or other celebrities as themselves with such frequency.  Like playing Whack-a-Mole, I report abusers to site administrators and block the likes of Johnny Depp, Nelson Mandela (interesting choice), Matthew McConaughey, a Spanish telenovela star and other handsome men standing in place of men who hide and pretend behind stolen pics.

Sadly, even though they’re fake, these photos are much better to look at than many real pics of *eligible* men, most of whom have round faces and even rounder bellies, the product of too much rice, platanos y cerveza I imagine.  I spent one evening showing pics to a friend who was equally horrified – photos that look like mug shots, pics taken in such exotic places as the public restroom and practically every other shot of someone holding either a beer or a shotgun.  Needless to say, I have very little confidence in finding a mate on this site.

But since I’m curious – and honestly a little desperate – I pay the nominal registration fee which elevates my browsing options from freemium to premium.  I am now able to conduct advanced searches for men who speak English, are actually single and have at least a college degree.  One guy’s pic stands out so I take the bait and check out his profile.  He’s a gym rat with an 8-pack on display in each of his 6 profile pics.  But he also has tattoos and doesn’t seem like my type so I move on without leaving a message.

About an hour later, he sends me a chat.  He probably noticed that I looked at his profile and thinks I might be interested.  Because I’ve got nothing to lose, I’m friendly and respond to his message.  Here is my conversation with Ellis – not his real name.


Ellis — Friday, 30 November 2012 10:03 AM


Laura — Friday, 30 November 2012 10:10 AM

Hola. Como estas?

Ellis — Friday, 30 November 2012 10:12 AM

Bien gracias y tu

Laura — Friday, 30 November 2012 10:20 AM

Muy bien. Parece que te gusta ir al gimnasio. Yo tambien pero no tanto como tu.

[Great.  Looks like you like to go to the gym.  I do, too, but not as much as you.]

He responds by telling me he works out compulsively.  He also states that he’s “preso.”  I’m not familiar with this word so I jump on Google Translate.  Really?  Does this mean what I think it means?


Laura — Friday, 30 November 2012 10:30 AM

Mi espanol no es muy bueno. Que significa “estoy preso?”

[My Spanish isn’t very good.  What does “estoy preso” mean?]

Ellis — Friday, 30 November 2012 06:36 PM

Estoy en la cárcel

[I am in prison.]

Yep, he’s chatting with me from jail.  I suppose he’s using his iPhone?  At least he was decent enough to tell me off the bat, I figure.  I also figure I’ll be emailing Badoo at some point and suggesting their terms of service should prevent inmates from using the site.  I thought online dating stunk in the US.  In Panama it’s a little bit worse.

My Admirer Has a Gun


Each night I walk the dogs, I pass by our neighbor’s huge, beautiful home and dedicated security guard.  Rumour has it that they’re owners of the Burger King franchise in Panama and they have their own guard because their home was once robbed for payroll.  The guard stands in front of their house between 7:00 pm and 7:00 am each night.  For months, I’ve walked past and never spoken to him.  I understand that he’s providing a service to my neighbors and keeping them safe but I’m not really looking to chat with anyone with a gun.  I find his huge weapon off-putting — probably as it’s intended to be…

One Friday night he initiated conversation with me at first asking standard questions about Sammy and Billy — like their gender and age — and then more personal questions about myself.  “Your mother is a doctor, right?”  Yes.  “And you’re an attorney?”  Yes.  I mean, I was.  I think it’s strange that he knows anything about me since we’ve never spoken.  Then he proceeds to tell me what he thinks of me —  that I’m a serious person, that he thinks I’m pretty, that he respects my friendly yet distanced manner, and has since the first time he saw me, because men in Panama sometimes try to get away with too much by women, blah, blah, blah.  When he finally stops chatting I thank him and ask him his name.  “Jose,” he says and outstretches his hand.  I shake it but he does that uncomfortable thing where he holds onto me for way too long.  Blech.  A couple of nights later, he pulls the same handshake stunt so I decide to hold off on longer walks at night and stay towards the other end of the street.

After a few days, when I finally decide I’m done hiding, I walk past Jose.  Instead of just saying hello as I’d prefer, he comments that he hasn’t seen me for a few days and that he’s been wondering if he said something to offend me and whether he should apologize.  Obviously, my attempt to avoid an awkward situation has failed.  Again, I smile and pretend, say that everything is fine, and continue walking my dogs.

As I’m heading back to my building, across the street runs the ugliest animal I have ever seen.  This is no exaggeration. If you’ve ever seen a raccoon or a fox scurry past you, seeing this thing meander nearby by is, like, 10 times worse.  I’m kind of freaked out by this mysterious creature with a snout-type face and long pointy tail but try to stay calm as I pass by hoping Sammy does not notice it and that the creature does not notice Billy and consider him a tasty little snack.  By the time I reach home, I have goosebumps.  I try to explain to Ali and Mom what I saw hoping they’ll identify the type of animal.  Ali is so creeped out by my initial description that she doesn’t want to hear any more details.  “Did you tell Jose?” he asks.  No, I did not.  I’d spent so much time trying to keep a comfortable distance from him that it didn’t even occur to me to ask for help.  Suddenly it dawns on me: maybe it’s a good thing to have an admirer with a gun.

My internet images searches lead me to believe I saw an aardvark or an anteater, which are the same thing, I think.  Since they’re native to Africa, that’s probably not what I saw.  Fingers crossed I never see it again.

There’s Something About Maven


Mom and I both admire Tia Joyce, a long-time and dear 90 year-old friend of the family, very much. She is so sharp and together despite her age that it’s not unusual for Mom to ask Tia Joyce for advice. She is also very much of a lady — extremely polite and well-mannered — but more in a pleasant, old-world kind of way than a stuffy or uncomfortable way. She is elegant, graceful and always impeccably dressed. Each time we visit her well-adorned home, it’s incredibly clean and tidy. She usually has a gift for me when I see her.

Last week, Tia Joyce stopped by to visit after church. While Mom and Tia Joyce were chatting, Maven jumped on the dining room table. “Hay, no, Laura! Maven esta en la mesa!” Mom shouted. I give her a “What-are-you-talking-about-Willis?” look and remove Maven from the table. I then realize what is going on — Mom is trying to act as if Maven’s behavior is unusual in order to save face in front of Tia Joyce.Folks, Maven eats on the table every day.

Since we rarely use it for dining, I place Maven’s food there so that Sammy, our chubby, food-obsessed mini schanauzer puppy, doesn’t eat it along with his own. Needless to say, our home is much less proper than Tia Joyce’s even if Mom tries to pretend otherwise.

In-n-Out Beach Burger


Today I had a chance to leave the City and visit Isla Grande beach off the coast of Colon for the first time. Since my downstairs neighbors Don and Gloria were taking their granddaughter and 2 other family members, I decided to tag along. For additional fun, I invited nephews Stuart and Rueben who are visiting from San Diego.

After a bit of a late start, we drive about an hour and stop first in Portabelo. We pop into a church, where parishioners are attending Sunday services, to see the famous life-sized effigy of the Nazareno of Portobelo, better known as the Black Christ. Town members have been caring for and adorning this statute since the 17th Century. Pretty cool. As we continue walking through town we pass a house with a rather large monkey chained to the front balcony. Turns out I’m kind of a sucker for monkeys — and hope to have one of my very own one day — so I stop and try to make friends with Chalisco. He’s nice enough a first, but our friendship is a short one. Once I get up the courage to touch him and shake his very human-like little hand, he steals my bracelet. The owner’s friend tries to get it back for me but fails. Luckily, it’s a cheepy accessory from Forever 21 so I’m happy to let Chalisco keep it as a toy.

Next we drive another hour, leave our cars and take a power boat ride to the island. Three hours past our departure time, we finally arrive at the beach! Nephews and I take an extra 15 minutes place a to-go order of Corvina y patacones. I’m eager to bathe in the warm Atlantic water so I quickly eat part of my fried fish meal and save the rest for later. “I’m heading in,” I say to my nephews as I leave them behind; I’m tired of waiting so I cruise on ahead across the sand.After a few minutes, Stuart joins me and then Reuben. We swim around on our own and then meet up with the others. When I decide to take a rest in the sun, I march out of the water to our table on the beach, leaving the entire group behind. After a short rest, I head back in, swim around a bit more and then decide to get out again. This time, as I emerge from the water, Gloria approaches me. “Is that how your suit is designed?” she asks. I don’t know what she’s talking about and thinks she’s simply trying to tell me my tag is sticking out. To my total embarrassment, she is NOT referring to my tag but to a giant tear in swimsuit bottom. As I feel around, I can tell there’s a huge whole, about 6 inches long, plenty big for everyone else on the beach to see, including my nephews and the group of 6 hanging out on the beach right next to us. “Oh my god! Why didn’t any tell me before?” I shriek as I hold the whole closed with one hand and dig through my bag for my shorts with the other. Stuart runs up to me as I hide behind a tree to avoid further embarrassment. In a hush voice he tells me and Reuben noticed the whole when I first headed into the water after lunch – like a full hour before. Their conversation included the following statements: 1) Is her suit supposed to be like that? 2) Should we tell her? 3) No, of course she knows. How could she not know? 4) Maybe that’s the style. 5) Aunt Laura is bold. 6) Yeah, but if it were in the front, I don’t think we could hang out with Aunt Laura anymore.

No, Gloria was not the first to notice — she was just the first to let me know that my crack was on display. I could have been wearing a thong and experienced less embarrassment; an out burger is more acceptable than being able to peek at one’s in burger any day.

It’s Complicated


Sometimes I can’t believe how inefficient things are here in Panama. Case in point — getting a new driver’s license. Since I already have a California license, I don’t have to go to driving school or take an exam. Sounds great except that the alternative isn’t much better.

Little did I know when I finally found my way to the DMV equivalent a few weeks ago that I would be g

iven a list of assignments to complete before needing to return. The first step is rather straightforward, albeit a pain — have blood drawn at an approved laboratory to determine blood type. This takes about an hour, costs only $4.00 and is close to the house. Easy. Next, I need to take my license and photocopy of same to the United States Embassy for notarization. This is a bit harder since I need an appointment, have to park off-grounds when I arrive and walk up a long hill, pay $50 and leave my cell phone with security, which I don’t like. But within 30 minutes I am in and out the door on my appointment date. Not so bad.The next task is to take my newly notarized docs to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Department of Actualization and Legalization for certification. This proves to be a bit harder. First, I miss my number being called since I’m messaging a friend on Facebook. Second, after reaching the counter and registering my papers, I’m told to return after 1:00 pm since nothing is signed until then. Third, I’m also required to go to Banco Nacional on the first floor to pay the certification fee of $2.00 For some reason this office doesn’t have a cashier — I guess they don’t trust workers with small amounts of cash — so I make my way downstairs to find a very long line of folks waiting outside. Hoping I don’t have to wait in line, I ask someone what the line is for and realize that waiting is my destiny as well. Unfortunately, I have to pee really badly and go to Spanish class; after 15 minutes I split.About 4 days later, I return to the bank — later in the afternoon than the first time — hoping to find a shorter line. No such luck. There are still about 20 people waiting outside. Again, I form the line but I’m still a bit confused as to what the line is for, why so many folks are there waiting, so I ask the woman in line behind me. She offers various reasons but I don’t really understand her due to my poor Spanish. In my poor Spanish, I explain that I think it’s a bit silly for me to wait in such a long line to pay just $2.00. She agrees and tells me to go up the guard, explain that my papers are for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and that I need to pay before the office closes. He astutely notes the time — 2:00 pm — and tells me that office is open until 4:00 pm. Strike one.

Ten minutes later my line buddy and I are granted access into the bank along with the next wave. This is when I realize there’s another Disneyworld-type queue inside the bank filled with lots of people. Now I’m a bit miffed. Luckily, Line Buddy continues to sympathize with my plight and coaches me to stand in the special line for Senior Citizens, which only has 2 people in it. Willingly, I play dumb and get in line with another person who is also not a senior. After about a minute, I hear someone speaking my way. The guy in front of me is being busted by another person in line. Shortly thereafter, I get busted by the security guard and told to stand in the other line. Strike two.

Not as dejected as I am, and a bit more creative, Line Buddy coaches me again — this time to ask someone at the front of the line if they will do my transaction along with their own. I tell her that that I’m a bit embarrassed to ask for help and explain what I need given my Spanish level. She pumps me up by telling me my Spanish is good! After about a minute, I pick my target and approach a man in the Senior line for help. Strike three. He turns me down without even speaking — he just rolls his eyes a bit and nods his head no. “Egoista!” Line Buddy says when I return to the line in front of her yet again. “He is selfish,” she says in Spanish. “I would have done that for someone else. It’s not a big deal.”

Still committed to saving an hour of my time, Line Buddy goes about searching the queue for a kind face. She spots a short man with a backpack towards the front of the line and asks me for my paper. I give it to her and she makes the request. He agrees! I hand him $4 in coins — $2 for the fee and $2 for his help — and he takes my papers to the cashier with him. I’m so thrilled I forget that I haven’t signed the paper before giving it to him. So even as I try to lay low and stand near the wall behind my helper, I have to make my way to the cashier, ask for the paper back, find a pen — which is I eventually get from the cashier — and sign my paper. Any cover I might have had is blown. Now I am really embarrassed and do everything I can to avoid eye contact with everyone in line. Luckily, Helper doesn’t take long to wrap but and returns my paper to me in jiffy. I’m so thrilled to be out of the line and quietly wave to Line Buddy on the way out. Had it not been for her, I would not have tried every trick in the book — ask for special privileges; play dumb; make a powerful request; pay someone else to do it for you. I’ll have to keep these in mind the next time beaucratic BS threatens to steal my sunshine.

By the way, I still don’t have my driver’s license…