James Holmes and Us

It’s hard to look at the footage of the bug-eyed, neon-orange-haired James Holmes sitting in court yesterday and not wonder how a life can go so wrong. I can’t look at him and not think about my brother. My brother never hurt anyone. He was a gentle giant of a man who loved listening to music and painting and talking about philosophy over dinner. But he also had bipolar disorder, and when his mood went dark, the person I loved disappeared, replaced by someone I didn’t recognize.

People rightly want to know what Holmes’s parents knew or tried to do to intervene as their son lost control of his life. If they’re like most parents with a mentally ill adult son or daughter, I imagine they had few options. Getting help for a grown family member with severe mental illness — even with garden-variety depression — can be a complex series of small steps forward and many more back. In my brother’s case, his inability to stay on his medication — and our family’s helplessness after years of his being in and out of institutions that never really helped — ultimately led to his suicide.

Then again, Holmes may have snapped without warning, never giving his family any sign of impending danger. We don’t yet know. What we do know is that no parent envisions his or her child growing up to be a mass murderer, a “monster” as some have called him. But for those of us who’ve wrestled with mental illness up close, with our own resignation in the face of its intractability, it’s not hard to feel a queasy recognition when we see Holmes in that courtroom. Which is why I don’t judge his parents. Staring into his vacant eyes, I can’t help but wonder if his family could have been my own.

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  • Jeff Baily

    James Holmes behavior does not resemble bipolar. With measured calculation he prepared for the shooting two months in advance. You are making assumptions about a mental health diagnosis which hasn’t been confirmed. Minimal information about James Holmes’ background has been made available, please don’t try to haphazardly speculate that he has bipolar disorder. You are adding to the stigma and are doing a diservice to your brother and those like him who have that awful disease.

    • Jennifer D

      Jeff, you make a good point but I think you missed another point. Katherine’s article points to mental illness and sites her own family history as an example. She doesn’t claim that James Holmes has biopolar disorder – she merely suggests that, like most people are thinking, he could be afflicted by some type of mental illness. It could be an act or it could be the cause – no one knows yet. I too struggle with a bipoloar family member. I took no offense to this article because I too wonder if it might play into his motivation. My family and I also struggle with how to get the right help for our family member before harm is self-afflicted or done to others. It all hits close to home and when something like this happens, it gives cause to wonder.

    • SARAH

      TO JEFF, YOU TOTALLY MISSED THE POINT OF THE ARTICLE. THE AUTHOR IS NOT STIGMATIZING MENTAL ILLNESS AT ALL. SHE IS JUST SAYING THAT PEOPLE THAT DO HAVE MENTAL ILLNESS CAN BE VIOLENT. NOT ALL, BUT MOST OF THEM CAN BE. I WORK IN THE MENTAL HEALTH FIELD AND HAVE WORKED IN SEVERAL PSYCHIATRIC WARDS. I HAVE SEEN SO MUCH VIOLENCE BETWEEN PATIENTS AS WELL AS VIOLENCE BETWEEN PATIENTS AND STAFF MEMBERS. I HAVE MYSELF BEEN ASSAULTED BY A MENTALLY ILL PATIENT BUT I CONTINUE TO WORK IN THE FIELD B/C I CARE ABOUT THEM. I FEEL SYMPATHY FOR THE FAMILIES THAT LOST LOVED ONES BUT I ALSO FEEL FOR FAMILIES THAT HAVE A FAMILY MEMBER WHO HAS A PSYCHIATRIC ILLNESS. MY COUSIN HAS SCHIZOPHRENIA. SOME PATIENTS DECOMPENSATE WHEN THEY STOP TAKING MEDICATIONS, BUT SOME STILL DECOMPENSATE EVEN WHEN THEY ARE ON MEDICATION. IT IS TRULY A HUGE PROBLEM AND I HOPE THERE WILL BE BETTER DRUGS IN THE FUTURE TO DEAL WITH PSYCHIATRIC ILLNESSES.

  • Aaron Busby

    @ Jennifer. Jeff is absolutely right. Katherine might not come out and say that James Holmes has bipolar but she infers that he may have a mental health illness. You yourself state that it gives you cause to wonder. These spreculations are premature. They add to the stigma that comes encombered with mental illness. I urge you to be more responsible with your posts. Ultimately, I feel that the strategy should be to convince James Holmes to plead guilty. The man was caught red-handed. Unfortunately, the American knee-jerk reaction has been to prepare for an insanity plea. Subsequently, celebrity mental health experts are being paraded on talk shows discussing schizophrenia and bipolar. This is unfair to people that actually have schizophrenia or bipolar.

    • J Lawrence

      I have to say I disagree completely. I have a moderate to severe variant of bipolar disorder. And while I must emphasize that each individual variant has its individual identity, what scared me most about this incident was not the horrible senseless murder that took place, but rather how much I could relate to the killer based on incidents and symptoms in my past that I’d like to forget but that I will share with you now to make a point. The delusional thinking and perhaps psychosis that James Holmes clearly was undergoing was reminiscent of the time I, in my early 20′s as well, assaulted two police officers for no reason except I was manic and delusional. I had tried to take the gun away from one officer, and had I succeeded, I very much regret to say that I would have tried to kill them. It’s painful to relive this now, as I was out of my mind, having recently been taken off my mood stabilizer and given a tricyclic antidepressant, which I now know is the worst thing for my illness. After treatment I never have behaved in such a despicable fashion, and in fact I also eventually went to grad school and studied computational biology (similar to Homes). Furthermore, after seeing Holmes on Monday look terribly fatigued at the arraignment, I said to myself, “I’ve seen that face before…in the mirror when I was extremely depressed.” Depression doesn’t just mean low mood (although Holmes did appear very sad as well). Fatigue plays a pivotal role in depression. I’m not suggesting Holmes has bipolar disorder, but he clearly has some sort of mental illness that impacts his affect (going from the irritable “Joker” to that sadsack) and his thought process. Absolutely no doubt. And it’s a shame because there’s likely to be some drug combination that would have remedied this somewhat and prevented this terrible tragedy from occurring (IMO). Of course substance abuse, common with mentally ill people, may also be playing a role here.

      • BioGradStudent

        Thank you for sharing your insights. They are very much appreciated.

  • Katherine

    I appreciate your careful reading of my post. I wasn’t trying to imply that James Holmes was bipolar and apologize for any confusion. I found David Brooks’ column in today’s NYT compelling: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/24/opinion/brooks-more-treatment-programs.html?_r=1&hp While I disagree with him on the topic of gun control, I agreed when I read this: “…there also has to be a more aggressive system of treatment options, especially for men in their 20s. The truly disturbed have always been with us, but their outbursts are now taking more malevolent forms.” Time will tell if Holmes will be considered insane at the time he committed these acts. My main message was that, like many who have a mentally ill family member, one of my first reactions upon hearing his story was a tendril of compassion for his parents. Until we learn otherwise, I consider them victims as well.

  • Jeff Baily

    Again Katherine. James Holmes’ situation and the topic of mental illness should not be appearing simultaneously in these discussions at this point. You continue to allude to this same theme of “this Aurora massacre leads me to feel compassion for those families afflicted with mental health.” There is absolutelty no correlation at this point. If you substitute the words ‘bipolar’ for the words “Tea party’ in this article, you wouldv’e been swept up in the recent shunning of reporters of whom made an incorrect Tea Party correlation–and your career as a journalist would have been stained. But because it’s bipolar disorder that you pair in your article, you unfortunatley get away with it.

    • Rachel

      Jeff – your claim that James Holmes and Bipolar Disorder should’t appear in the same discussion is ABSURD. A HUGE chunk of major news sources are speculating about Holmes potentially having an illness. Not to mention that he is without a doubt going to be evaluated.

      Also, it seems like you didn’t really read this well – as the story focuses less on illness, but more on family dynamics and sympathy for individuals dealing with an “uncontrollable” member of their family.

      You seem to be accusing the author of fabricating news – which is entirely stupid. The fact of the matter is: this is an opinion piece, and the relationship between Holmes and mental illness is certainly not coming out of left-field.

      Your comment:

      “You continue to allude to this same theme of ‘this Aurora massacre leads me to feel compassion for those families afflicted with mental health.’ There is absolutelty no correlation at this point.”

      is completely false. The parallel she is drawing is not between mental illness and Holmes – it is sympathy for individuals coping with an otherwise “uncontrollable” member of their family. Watching a mentally family member turn into someone ‘you don’t know’ is the issue at hand – whether Holmes has a mental illness is irrelevant.

      Without a doubt, as written by the author:

      “What we do know is that no parent envisions his or her child growing up to be a mass murderer, a “monster” as some have called him.”

      • Jeff Baily

        @ Rachel. Re-read what you wrote in your very first sentence:

        “A HUGE chunk of major news sources are speculating about Holmes potentially having an illness.”

        That’s exactly what frustrates me. That this is all mere speculation by media at this point. From the information we have at this point on James Holmes it’s quite the contrary…it looks like at this point that he DOESN’T have a mental illness. What’s making it look like that he does is all the irresponsible, premature speculation floating around.

        What we do know about him is that meticulously planned an act of violence over the course of two months without any reported claims of erratic behavior.

        That does not fit the profile of mental illness. (at this point) and who knows..maybe more information will surface that gives clues that he might have a mental illness, but at this point there’s none. Premature speculation by the media only enhances the stigma of mental illness.

        And you’re right. I recognize that Katherine does not come out and say that she thinks James has a mental illness. I have independently concluded that her pairing bipolar and the Aurora Massacre in the same article is not random, it’s sugesstive, it’s her inferring such.

        Katherine has since come out and denied my claim. I subsequently responded that I am still skeptical. But she’s said her peace and I’ve said mine.

        What’s sad is that this could be as simple as James Holmes pleading guilty. Saying “yup, you caught me red-handed in the theatre parking-lot, guilty as charged” But unfortunatly our justice system favors long drawn out insanity pleas. A byproduct of this is that people who have mental illnesses become misrepresented. And the victimization continues.

  • Aaron Busby

    I agree with Jeff. There is a lot of unfair speculation out there that he could have a mental health illness. But nothing at this point indicates that he does. It could be anything. It could be drug-use. It could be politically motivated. It could be religious zeal. WE DON’t KNOW.

    But unfortunatly the Defense Team’s best chance of getting him off is having him plead insanity. Thus the first move is a mental evaluation. Not a drug test. Not implementing a questionnaire about his political views or his religious views. But they are searching for signs of mental illness. Because that’s their best weapon and so they do a mental evaluation and look for signs of mental illness.

    This is unfortunate characteristic of our justice system and in turn it stigmatizes innocent people who suffer from mental illnesses.

    So it would be helpful if the media wouldn’t jump the gun on the mental illness possibility. Katherine says she didn’t mean to cause confusion, so we’ll have to take her word for it.

    Katherine, some of the confusion may have stemmed from your writing. You say in the first paragraph: “But he also had bipolar disorder”

    I had to re-read that to sort out the context, and the use of the word ‘also’ Maybe that sentence could have been better phrased.

  • Janis

    Although the murders and violence committed by him were horrible and in no way do I excuse his behavior, I do understand the reaction the author had to seeing pictures of him in court. As I watched, I was hit with a dejavu because I’ve seen that exact look before, a year ago, when my husband went into psychosis during a manic episode (bipolar 1). It took two months for him to melt down far enough to finally get help from the local police, and a three week stay at a psychiatric hospital, and meds, for him to finally come out of the mania. During the mania he was very focused on one thing, saving the world’s children from abusers. He truly believed he was the ONE and only one, hand-picked from God, to do so. He also made many purchases on materials designed to sharpen his psychic abilities. If I hadn’t had his passport locked away, I have no doubt he’d have flown off to “save the 12 brothers in Switzerland.” I will not be surprised if it is revealed that Holmes suffered from psychosis, regardless of what led to it. I’m also not surprised that he would be able to plan something while psychotic. Seeing someone go through psychosis has changed a part of me. Before I saw it first hand I’d have been the first to advocate for the death penalty. Now I question everything because there’s a lot going on that we will just never understand.

  • http://BostonDaily Margaret Tharpe

    To Jeff Baily:

    You state categorically that his behavior is not consistent with mental illness. By what authority do you say this? My experience with mental illness in a family member, as a teacher of such people, and much training in this area, leads me to believe that such perverse planning is totally consistent with mental illness. Being mentally ill does not remove a person’s ability to plan. Research the topic of paranoia. . . or please tell us your basis for claiming that his behavior is inconsistent with mental illness. Further, why do you continually equate mental illness with bipolar? Bipolar disorder is merely one type of mental illness with sub-types. When other people say “mental illness,” they are not necessarily meaning “bipolar.” In fact, they may have in mind an entirely different variety of mental illness. Psychosis has numerous causes.