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Gun Violence Must End, But Not By Throwing People Into The Mental Health System

Reflections on Obama’s gun control strategy from a "survivor" of the mental health system.

(Editor's Note: The reponse by President Obama and states like New York to the Newtown school massacre includes a larger government role in treating people judged as mentally ill. This is the very personal account of a 30-year-old woman who is a "survivor" of the mental health system and urges caution.)

“And so what we should be thinking about is our responsibility to care for [our children] and shield them from harm and give them the tools they need to grow up and do everything that they're capable of doing, not just to pursue their own dreams but to help build this country. This is our first task as a society, keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged.  And their voices should compel us to change."

- President Barack Obama, January 16 th, 2013 [ Transcript]

As a child, I was full of life, and lucky enough to grow up in an era of minimal household technology; thus, I learned to find solitude in the outdoors, in books, in puzzles, and in being alone.  Videogames were strange to me; I’d much rather find real adventures in the woods with my dog.  The thought of a computer in the house, let alone in my hand twenty-four hours a day, never once crossed my mind.  I was allowed to watch one television show during the week— ‘Full House’, on Tuesday nights— and on Saturday and Sunday mornings, cartoons; I couldn’t have cared less, really, as I much preferred to lose myself in the pages of a book.

I looked at the future as a path of infinite possibilities, and I felt big feelings, thought big thoughts, and dreamed big dreams.  Blessed with an endless imagination, I daydreamed about all that I could be when I grew up— a marine biologist, or an architect, or an orthopedic surgeon, or the first professional female ice hockey player.  I was given space to bumble about in my childhood, making mistakes and learning along the way.  Even in my most painful moments, later on, when I was desperately uncomfortable in my skin, confused about my identity, and feeling isolated from family and friends, I intuitively knew that I belonged in the world, and to the world.  I didn’t know it in my mind— indeed, as I reached puberty, my thoughts often made me feel more alone— but I felt it in my heart, and it emanated from me, driving me forward with clumsy, awkward childhood determination.  You see, until the age of fourteen, I had a right to all of these things: to feel my human spirit, to own my body, my emotions, and my mind.  To own the right to define myself.

With twenty-twenty hindsight, I see today that I was “safe”, “taken care of”, and “shielded from harm” in those years, even when it didn’t feel that way to me.  The pain I felt was the pain I was meant to feel, the pain that all human children feel, the pain of growing up in a confusing, scary, complicated world.  Although I didn’t always believe it, I was making my way through, figuring my life out, until suddenly, everything changed.

"Everything Changed"

I was 14, and it was decided that my worrisome behavior, intense mood swings, constant door-slamming, screaming, and raging had crossed a line.  I don’t blame my parents an ounce for reaching this conclusion; I was troubled, and it scared them.  I caused a tremendous amount of distress in my family, and the tension had reached a breaking point.  Even the guidance counselor, headmistress, and some of my friends had their concerns, as my problems were spilling outside of the confines of my home.  I was a livewire.  I was unpredictable.  I was hanging out with the “bad” girls, smoking cigarettes, cutting my arm with razors, shutting myself up in my room.  I was no longer the ‘old Laura’, no matter how much it seemed like I still had it “together” on the playing field or in my schoolwork.  I was spiraling out of control, and it was decided that something had to be done.

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