As a seventh grader, in April of 1999 my science teacher was summoned by concerned teachers to come out into the hall. When she came back, she turned on the news and informed us that we were about to watch “something tragic happening at a school”. I remember what I saw very well: the tagline across the news screen read “gunmen at school” and concerned journalists were giving details as the story unfolded while children were running out of the school with their hands over their heads. For the first time ever, everyone in my class was paying complete attention to what was going on up front, cupping their mouths in horror. At 13, I wasn’t easily disturbed but even I found that what I was being exposed to was inappropriate. I also understood why that horrific event occurred and that bothered me.
In October of 1999 my mom took me to a psychiatrist because I got in trouble at school quite a bit. After a few tests given by the shrink and a long discussion, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Rapid Cycling, which is a diagnosis that, according to Department of Psychiatry & Behavioural Sciences, University of Miami School of Medicine, is “a type of manic-depressive illness in which the patient experiences four or more episodes of mania and/or major depression per year”. I was given two prescriptions to what the psychiatrist called “anti-psychotic” medications and sent on my way to deal with her telling me I’m not normal. When you’re an eighth-grader and told you “suffer” from some craziness, admitting that to anyone could mean social suicide.
The transition into being medicated made me completely different and it was a tricky thing to hide from. Everyone wanted to know why I acted like a zombie at school and I’d overhear my mom at home professing to my dad that she “wanted her baby back”. But I was overly focused, unlike my former self. Did I mention a lot of people didn’t like me?
On the way home from a field trip to Wild Adventures, somehow wads of chewed gum were strategically placed in my hair by my school’s “popular girls” while I was napping on the bus. When I saw my mom at the school ready to pick me up, I put my hands in my hair and felt the wads. Most kids would’ve cried in the situation but I kept it in until I got home. I sobbed as my enraged mom tried to pull out the wads of gum with peanut butter. The next day, my mom raised hell all the way up to the school and demanded the popular girls’ heads (metaphorically speaking). She wanted results and she was going to get them. This was the first time in I can remember my mother sticking up for my childhood self because truth-be told, I was always in the wrong. I’ll just say, after she spoke with the administration, they made sure my school would never go on long field-trips again, I got an apology from the mean girls who put the gum in my hair, but it took hell freezing over and getting my mom involved to get that response. In the past, teachers did nothing.
We moved from that town back to my hometown, three years later in 2002 and people still didn’t like me because I was “weird” and I stuck out like a sore thumb. To say my junior and senior years were very emotionally difficult, would be an understatement. I was picked on by a group of tyrannical jocks with a ring-leader who hated me. To this day, I don’t remember uttering a word to him, so I can’t tell you why he hated me. For some reason, I was more focused on the bullying instead of my studies and I began to plan my revenge.
“My medication says that seizures are a side effect. I will fake a seizure and hit (the ring-leader) with my car and hopefully he’ll die.”- I wrote in my journal February of 2004.
I chickened out.
“If he dies, I’ll be questioned by the police and I’ll crack under pressure. They’ll definitely figure out I murdered him. I hate my life.” I wrote a day after my initial entry of wanting to kill my bully.
I continued to endure the torment at school and deal with it at home by crying and never coming out of my room.
After my anatomy class, my tormentors would throw an array of objects at me. I even tried to leave early to avoid having to deal with it, but they always seemed to find me. I felt hopeless and started wondering if anyone would ever stick up for me.
One day, I noticed the ring-leader get in an argument with the assistant principal and I found my answer.
“If (the ring-leader) won’t leave me alone, I will ruin his life. I want him to assault me and I will have him arrested and thrown in jail, (his girlfriend) will dump him for hitting a girl and he won’t get accepted into college for having a criminal record. God I can taste revenge now. I guess revenge really is sweet” – I wrote in my journal March of 2004.
I kept a log of each item thrown at me after my anatomy class, until one day he hit me with something that actually stung a little (a penny and a peppermint). Instead of walking into my sixth period English class I walked straight to the assistant principal’s office and told him I wanted to file a police report because I lied, and said he threw an unopened Coke at me and forced some crocodile tears. The assistant principal informed my mother, who got involved and decided the only rational punishment would be to have him suspended instead of having him arrested.
I graduated from high school in 2004 and I’d like to say that my anger was dealt with and I lived happily ever after, but that’d be a lie. I stopped taking my medication my freshman year in college because I thought I was “normal again”. I was arrested the summer of 2005 after exhibiting self-sabotaging behavior that journalists have referred to as “red flags” in high profile mass shootings – homicidal ramblings that I said were jokes, rants online, drinking and doing drugs in public, crying uncontrollably and getting into fights. I was a ticking time bomb, and I realize that now.
I was turned in by a scared girl in my class for terrorist threats against my college. The detective who arrested me even referenced Columbine and how threats need to be taken seriously while I was sitting in a cell waiting for my mother to bail me out.
Getting kicked out of a college, banned from a town, many court-ordered therapy sessions and finding the right medications later did wonders for me. It took a lot of work, dedication and disregard of stigma, but I am now in recovery. I now have an expunged record, two college degrees and a job I’ve kept for over a year. I’m writing this because I’m a realist. Since little to nothing has helped prevent these tragedies and they continue to occur, I thought I could have an outlet to clear up a few things.
So here goes, after James Holmes unleashed on a theater of packed Batman fans, I decided to reach out to Susan Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine killers. That’s when all of this started with my generation. First, I apologized to her about the death of her son, because I haven’t seen that happen yet and she’s a victim too. If you don’t believe she’s a victim please read her piece in O Magazine. Then, I apologized for what he did and said I believed he suffered from an untreated, mental illness. I also told her I may move forward with a project in discussing what happened with me, because it’s certainly relevant to what happened with Dylan. She wrote back kindly declining to be part of my future projects, but thanked me for reaching out to her. She also wrote “we’re very much in agreement over mental illness” and how it was partly the reason the Columbine massacre happened. That meant the world to me.
Then, twenty children were killed Dec. 14, 2012 by yet another apparently sick gunman. This made me decide to be more proactive in my efforts to tell my story and let people know there’s a lot more going on than what we see in the news. The death of six-year-old children is where I draw the line and put my own pride aside. Everyone should be entitled to a great childhood and that’s a fact. I had a great one up until my teens and even the bad parts of my teens were first-world problems. I couldn’t imagine that level of loss that community is experiencing.
Almost immediately following Columbine, Virgina Tech, Tucson, Batman, and now Newtown, I’ve heard a lot of gun control debates, anti-bullying campaigns, violence in the media, Marilyn Manson causing people to shoot guns, etc. and people still seem to miss the point. It’s more complex than what I’ve heard, but it’s a simple solution. Speaking from experience, people point the blame to everything- from easy access to guns to violence in entertainment, but no one takes responsibility for their part. It’s the human nature in all of us to compare ourselves and judge others based on experiences, but ultimately it’s the responsibility in the individual with untreated illness to be personally accountable for their actions.
Advancements in mental healthcare and a look at stigma associated with it, should be a number one priority in these debates. Medications have horrible side effects and that should be improved, as well as made affordable. For example, my medication now (Seroquel) has weight gain as one of many side effects. So now I have to worry about getting fat, but at least I won’t be depressed about it. There’s so much that needs to be done with improving mental health care and that’s the main key in preventing these horrible senseless acts of violence. Because contrary to popular belief, where I’m from, it is a community issue. If we all have personal accountability and accept each other by noticing the real problem, there should be little to no excuse for the mentally ill to lash out.
I live my life with no regrets now. My arrest was a horrible experience but a humbling one. By knocking me down a few pegs and saving my life, I was given a second chance to live and learn from my crime. I’ve learned that keeping tabs on myself and my emotions (which is a skill I learned in therapy) is very important to my second chance. Truth be told, how I was before my arrest, is no way anyone should ever live. However, what’s sad, is the reality that people do live like that. When you’re like me and have a mental illness, you unfortunately still get attached to a big fat stamp of stigma; but it’s never an excuse to end lives.
You can read more from Mary Lynn Ritch on her blog.
Feature image via Shutterstock, additional image via Brittany Lynch