“I chased my mom with an axe.”

[CN: mental health, violent crime]

image-1He said it with a smirk on his face. The tone was the same I’d use when telling my big sister I’d eaten the last cookie. I stopped gluing my collage and looked up. The art therapist asked Chris* what he was feeling at the time. He said he was angry. Then he smiled. The therapist reminded him it was not funny, and that he was there to get help so he wouldn’t do that again. He laughed. Chris was 10 years old. I went back to cutting out clips from magazines. Our project was a collage to express our feelings. Chris didn’t finish his. He was removed from the art room because he refused to sit back down and listen to the therapist.

He was the youngest among us. I was 15 and represented the average age of the patients in the adolescent ward of the psychiatric hospital. Most of us were high schoolers, working out our depression, anxiety, anger management, some were recovering from drug addiction and eating disorders. I was told by others that Chris had been in there a long time. Some of the patients privately disclosed they were afraid of him, others cracked jokes at how “crazy” he was and that he’d never get out of there.

My memories of Chris have stuck with me all these years. If I see a child who looks like him or hear a certain news story, I’ll wonder how he’s doing. Did he ever make it out of the hospital? Is he still alive? His face and his story haunt me. It was hard, at fifteen, to imagine that a young boy could chase his own mother while wielding an axe. Even more difficult to grasp, was his lack of remorse. All the while, spending many of my waking hours in his presence, I got to know him. He was a boy, a few years younger than me. I couldn’t see him as some evil entity, even if I thought many of the things he’d done were in fact evil. He wasn’t one of those kids from the horror movies I loved to watch. He was Chris, someone whose smile I’d come to memorize. Someone who heard my darkest secrets as he sat, often smiling and fidgeting, in our group therapy sessions. Someone who I spoke to, whom I wanted time to heal and to allow a life outside of an institution’s walls.

I don’t know how Chris was really being helped, essentially living in a mental hospital, with a bunch of teens no less. We weren’t exactly the sort of group of young adults I’d leave my children with. The reasons many ended up in the hospital, the things we were discussing in therapy, those coming down from drugs, others having emotional outbursts, all of the moments that occur when a group of people are attempting recovery, it’s not an atmosphere fit for a young child. The things I saw and experienced frighten and bother me to this day. I can only wonder what it must have been like being 10. None of us were exactly role models. Granted, as we recovered and grew, perhaps some of us were. But it was cyclical—as soon as we became “model” patients and peers that someone like Chris might look up to, we were discharged. He was there seeing all of us in stages, continually being witness to the harshest times in an adolescent psychiatric ward.

My Art Therapy Collage

My Art Therapy Collage

Chris’ room was in the North Wing. This was where you stayed when first admitted. It was locked off to the rest of the ward, an alarm went off if you entered the hallway after 9pm. There was a greater staff presence in this hall. People who were newly admitted often had 24-7 monitors. Either they were detoxing or, like me, on “Constant Supe” aka suicide watch. Chris never earned privileges, those were only possible for those of us who graduated out of the North Wing. For most of us, that moment came within a few days of admission. I assume, due to his age, they had to keep Chris in the more secure area. But that meant he never was able to have a radio in his room or to go outside. He was a prisoner more than any of us. During the daytime, he was surrounded by us older kids and our problems. How was that healing him? The older boys would bribe or trick him into pulling pranks. At 10 years old, he was saying sexually inappropriate things. I can’t imagine how month after month, let alone year after year, such an environment would benefit a child. He didn’t belong in any sort of jail. Yet clearly, he was unable to live at home and attend school at the time. So where do the Chrises of the world belong?

Through the entire course of my stay at the hospital, I never heard him say he was sorry for what he’d done. In a group session one day, he callously admitted he might do it again. Today, the thought still gives me chills. When I heard about the school stabbing outside of Pittsburgh this week, I thought of Chris. I won’t mention the name of the teenager who is the suspect in those crimes. He is 16 years old. His name, and worse, his picture (appearing dazed, in a hospital gown and handcuffs) have been plastered all over the internet. I find it highly irresponsible to publish such information of a child who clearly is in need of help and already vulnerable. As of now, he will be tried as an adult. I’d say it’s far too early to make assumptions of the teenager or what led to the stabbings. Whether abuse or mental illness, or both are at play, or whether there are no concrete explanations for his behavior, only time will tell. 16 is never an adult, no matter what. I thought this country had a juvenile court system? Why bother if we never use it? (Granted, I have many an issue with it as well, but that is for another day.)

I can’t simply dismiss a young mass-shooter, or in this case, mass-stabber, as evil and therefore hopeless. I see them as the kid I spent time with inside the psychiatric hospital. And that kid, while capable of doing unspeakable things was also capable of showing kindness, dancing, and being just like any other 10-year old. More than anything, I read these news reports and see a human being. I’m unable to demonize these kids. I understand how and why the public disconnects from such cases. It’s hard for us to reconcile with evil and it’s easier to turn suspects into monsters. I had a discussion on Twitter earlier today and stated I don’t believe people are inherently evil. When crimes like this are committed and the media speculates family setting or whether a kid was liked by their peers, I see Chris. When attempts are made by the press and public to remove humanity from these kids, I don’t see Frankenstein, I see Chris. I know many would label him as evil, but I saw him as a kid who’d done some bad things, had serious problems, yes, but who was a child and not a monster.

During my discussion earlier, as I was saying I don’t believe people are just evil, I was reminded that some are simply psychopaths. This is true. So then what? I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know if lifetime institutionalization is a proper plan for anyone. I don’t know when we’ll create enough alternatives though. I’m quite certain jail is not the place for kids like Chris or the teen in Pennsylvania, and certainly not adult jails or adult sentencing (including life without parole). In time, maybe our reflex will be to wonder if we missed anything, and what more could’ve been done to prevent a tragedy. Perhaps we can put down the pitchforks and torches long enough to see these children are human beings, that we need answers not scapegoats.

What leads a young person to commit such crimes? Are we doing enough to prevent abuse and assist children and teenagers who are victims? How do we implement proper mental health care access and outreach in all communities? In cases where abuse and mental illness are ruled out, and we are left with a child or teen who fits the label of psychopath, what then? What is the best, and most humane, treatment? How do we prevent them from committing further crimes? How can we help these kids and get them back into society where they might have a shot at a decent life? I don’t know precisely what steps we must take. I just know that Chris deserved better, as do all of the kids like him. I know broadcasting names and pictures of young suspects doesn’t feel right. I know using words like “evil” and “monster” only avoids actually working out any of these issues. Instead of dismissing monsters and walking away from these crimes because “sometimes bad things happen,” we need a thorough look at what we’re not doing and engage in difficult discussions. Locking these kids up and forgetting about them should not be an option, regardless of how long we’ve been doing just that.

Forgetting Chris will never be an option for me.

*Certain names and locations have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.