article

01.10.11

Mother of a 'Monster'

My mentally ill son was sentenced to life without parole for murder, and I couldn’t shed a tear. So as I watch the Loughner horror unfold, I’m pretty sure I know what his family is going through.

My mentally ill son was sentenced to life without parole for murder, and I couldn’t shed a tear. So as I watch the Loughner horror unfold, I’m pretty sure I know what his family is going through. By Jeannette Halton-Tiggs, as told to Mansfield Frazier.

What kind of mother doesn’t shed even one tear as her only son is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole? My only answer is, a very strong—albeit very tired—one. My son, Timothy Halton, Jr., was 29 when he received such a sentence last year for gunning down Cleveland Heights Police Officer Jason West, in what was alleged by the media to be in cold blood. Officer West’s gun was still in its holster when my son shot him point-blank, and then stood over his prone body and shot him three more times.

Gallery: Mentally Ill Killers

While I might have wanted to cry as the sentence was handed down, I felt it would have been disrespectful to the memory of Officer West for me to be seen by his mother and the members of the media crying in the courtroom for my son, when her son is dead—killed in such a shocking, brutal, and heinous manner. But then again, maybe the reason I wasn’t crying is I’m just cried out… I simply don’t have any more tears left.

And so, as I watch the horrifying story of Jared Loughner, the man who killed six innocent people and severely wounded Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, I can’t help but think of my own life.

The majority of the last 20 years has been such a pure, hellish nightmare for me and my entire family. As guilty as it sometimes makes me feel, the sense of complete relief that came over me once I knew Timmy wouldn’t face the death penalty, nor would he be likely to ever again have the opportunity to harm anyone (or himself be harmed), was palpable.

Throughout Timmy’s proceedings, the media portrayed him as a monster, so I guess that makes me the monster’s mother… and that thought, that mischaracterization of both my son and me, hurts deeply. Because, in truth my Timmy is not, and never was, a monster… what he was cursed to be is one of the literally millions of hopelessly and irrevocably mentally ill individuals in the world today. He suffers from a severe form of paranoid schizophrenia that renders him incapable of controlling his thoughts, emotions or actions when, for a variety of reasons—some beyond his control—he is off his medications. And I did everything humanly possible within my power to keep him on a treatment regimen, but, alas, to no avail.

The reality is, no one can be as deranged as my son, or as Jared Loughner apparently is, without many people being aware of his deteriorating mental condition—yet seemingly no one moved to force him into treatment. The burning question following a mind-boggling incident of this kind should be: “Why do we, as a society, allow known dangerously mentally ill individuals to make their own decisions in regard to receiving treatment?”

There is a powerful contingent of folks in the mental-health care delivery field in this country who posit that no one should be compelled to be treated for their illness unless, and until, they harm someone. This, in itself, is insane… and dangerous to boot. I screamed at the top of my lungs that my son was one day going to hurt someone, or himself, but no one in a position of authority to avert the tragedy would listen or do anything.

I screamed at the top of my lungs that my son was one day going to hurt someone, but no one in a position to avert the tragedy would listen or do anything.

Before he turned 18, I had control and could require my son to take his medication; however, after emancipation he was free to do as he chose. Like many other people who can be stabilized with proper treatment, he sometimes opted to not take his medication or see his mental-health worker… which inevitably would send him into a tailspin.

For over a decade, I tried to prevent Timmy from doing harm to others and actually thought that when the phone call eventually came (as I knew one day it would), it would be Timmy, in the end, who would be dead at the hand of a police officer. The thought never occurred to me it would be a police officer that would wind up dead with his blood on Timmy’s hands.

When he was 8, I knew something was wrong with my child when he began capturing and torturing small animals—birds, cats, and squirrels. I would later learn this type of cruel behavior is often the first early-warning sign of developing schizophrenia in children. Early on, I sought out treatment for Timmy… establishing a pattern of parental involvement that continues unbroken to this day, and will continue for the rest of my life. I can’t just abandon my own flesh and blood, no matter how sick he is or what he has done.

However, I was often very much alone as I sought help because my family members were in total denial about Timmy’s mental illness. None of them would ever admit, even as his behavior became increasingly bizarre, there perhaps was a problem that needed to be addressed professionally. This certainly was not helpful, as I was roundly criticized—and to some extent at times even ostracized—by those closest to me for seeking treatment for Timmy. I would learn this type of behavior on the part of families is not all that unusual.

I’m pretty sure I know what Loughner’s family is going though. The guilt, the shame, the sense of despair. While the stigma against mental illness (and resistance to seeking treatment) is perhaps stronger within the African-American and Hispanic communities, there certainly is a great deal of it in white communities as well. Naturally, these prejudices and fears—this sticking of the head into the sand—only inhibits rather than encourages finding solutions to this allopatric problem. This willful blindness on the part of family members, in part, sets the tone for how society in general has historically viewed mental illness going back thousands of years, and still holds sway today. Much of this resistance is founded in the belief—which to some extent is true—that any kind of history of mental illness will limit the opportunities in one’s life, in addition to reflecting negatively on the gene pool from which a person sprang. Nonetheless, propagating ignorant beliefs, superstitions, and mind-sets only insures mental illness will remain on the fringes, marginalized and underfunded as the larger health-care debate moves forward.

I screamed at the top of my lungs that my son was one day going to hurt someone, but no one in a position to avert the tragedy would listen or do anything.

It’s been estimated by psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, the founder of The Treatment Advocacy Center, that more than 40,000 dangerously mentally ill individuals are roaming America’s streets on any given day, untreated… akin to walking time bombs. Why are we so surprised when one occasionally goes off?

Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.