This is very difficult for me to write. I am scared, depressed, sad, fearful, and angry. The scared, depressed, fearful, and sad are for my family and my son. The anger is at the system, which failed us terribly.
I won’t reiterate the longer history of my son’s mental health issues, or the entire course of events that led up to this tragedy. What I want you to know now is that my son is not the person he became because of the circumstances that led to his incarceration, but a very gentle, kind soul who has many mental health challenges – caused both by genetics and some very difficult life experiences.
In early 2017, when I first noticed that my son’s bipolar/mania was spiraling out of control I started to seek help immediately. I worked steadily for months trying to get services that would help arrest his behavior and get him stabilized. I called many people, many times, from law enforcement to the legal system, hospitals, Mental Health Court and treatment facilities, warning of his decompensating and dangerous behaviors, but got no help. Because my son could no longer control his actions, and the current system would not/could not help, he finally did some illegal and unfathomable actions that led to his arrest and incarceration.
Through the years, up until his arrest, my son has lived with me almost constantly and has been a great asset to my home and our family. He made sure we had the best-looking yard on our street. He would do a lot of our shopping and ran errands for me regularly. My son and I shared a lot of interests and would talk constantly about current events and social issues. There are so many things about him that I miss terribly.
This event has also caused feelings of guilt, fear, and distrust for me. Guilt: that maybe I did not do enough, or do the right things to get him help. Guilt: that when I am able to carve some fun out of life, my son is spending years in prison. I am trying to find some grace to grow through this, as I hope my son will, too. Fear: of how I will be able to face my aging years without him. He was the one who was planning on being there for me. And, fear of how all this will affect him and the rest of the family. Distrust: This whole experience has really shattered my trust. I no longer trust that there is any governmental system that really cares – about the people or the individual. Who will advocate for my son in prison, since I am not there? Is there anyone there who actually cares?
“Our prison system is not set up for true reform or rehabilitation, but seems to just seek punishment and revenge.”
My granddaughter is also suffering. She has lived with us from her birth to the present, and since her birth my son, who is her uncle, has been a constant presence in her life. When she was in theater, he attended every show she was in, as well as any and all school activities. He also helped chauffeur her to and from rehearsals and any social events that she took part in. This has been devastating to her, as she watched him spiral out of control and now sees him in prison. She suffers with anxiety and depression, so the current situation is very difficult for her to handle. My son has always been the only father figure she’s known, and losing him has been the hardest thing she has dealt with.
My daughter has had a hard time, too. While she doesn’t share feelings well, I often hear her crying when we talk about the challenges my son is now facing. Their father died while my son was in jail, and my daughter had to deal with the loss and face the funeral without her brother.
Even before this happened I was speaking about the problems with our “correctional system,” from law enforcement to judicial to prison. Now that this is so personal I feel the need, more than ever, to get involved in helping make much-needed changes. I am angry about what happened and angry about how our system fails. But, while it is hard to do, I am hoping that I can turn the anger into action.
There is something wrong with a system that stands by, doing nothing, while someone’s life is taken over by a brain disorder and drugs, but then congratulates itself when that person becomes so out of control that criminal acts are committed, and then feels justified in sending him to prison for years. And, to add insult to injury, our prison system is not set up for true reform or rehabilitation, but seems to just seek punishment and revenge. Very little is offered in up-to-date mental health services. And now, the system, with more and more privatization, is becoming about profit over people.
There has to be a better way. We need to find ways to help stop destructive behaviors by those with mental health/brain chemistry disorders, when they are no longer able to stop themselves. We must work to erase the stigma still attached to mental health issues. We must better educate the police, legal, and judicial systems. We have to change the focus of our prison systems from revenge, punishment, and warehousing to education, rehabilitation, and reform. We must bring our mental health/addiction systems up to date with the research – the sad truth is we are way behind in both. We must become a more educated, compassionate country that puts people before profits – in all areas.
By Francie Portnoy