A Certain Signal

Suzanne Books, Faith, Family, Writing

This thoughtful and relevant guest post is written by my friend, Faith T. McDonald. She’s just started a blog, A Certain Signal, and is oh-so-close to receiving her first contract for a book about her family’s experience with a son who has suffered from debilitating anxiety and depression. Suffered…and come out of the tunnel to the other side. 

In the aftermath of the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, I have a few questions.

by Faith T. McDonald

Two weeks to the day before the January 6 shooting in the Fort Lauderdale airport, my 23-year-old daughter spent a four-hour-layover in that airport.

Four weeks before that, in the span of ten days, I spent two long layovers there. The TSA agents who herded me through security were grumpy and the wifi was weak and intermittent.

Since the shooting, my thoughts keep returning to our visits to that space. On one layover, I bought coffee with cream, an orange and a banana nut muffin, settled in a secluded chair by a woman’s restroom and tried to grade student papers. Due to the lackluster wifi signal, I couldn’t access the assignment-filled online dropbox. With my work impeded, I felt almost as grumpy as the TSA agents acted.

But today, I wonder, what if, while I sat there, nibbling on my muffin, balancing my coffee and my laptop, the alarming phrase “active shooter” had rippled through the terminal?

What would I have done? Hidden in the bathroom? Attached myself to a group of people? Hoped the TSA agents would herd me to safety?

What if during her layover, my daughter, instead of texting, “Send me your Netflix password so I can watch a movie” had texted, “Mom, there’s an active shooter in the airport.”

I’ve talked to friends who frequent airports and found I’m not the only one who wonders about the what-ifs.

I work on a college campus and every time national news reports a story about a shooting on school grounds, I ask that what-if-here question. A few years ago, I taught a disgruntled student who behaved erratically in my classroom. One day, in an angry fit, he stomped out of class and the next class session, he talked loudly, so I could hear, about guns and how they should be allowed on campus. I was worried enough about him having a violent outburst that I planned my exit route and imagined how I’d direct the students to safety–just in case. But I didn’t know if my worries were warranted or baseless.

I think we consider more often than we reveal: what if it was me against a shooter?

When I hear news reports of these types of violent situations, another question that always comes to my mind is what if the shooter was my family member? My child? What if it was me for the shooter?

What if I had noticed over the months, the deteriorating, erratic behavior of my loved one and tried to get help, but failed? This morning, I watched the heartbreaking video interview of the brother of the alleged airport gunman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-eFG27Rw2E He says that he told his brother to get help for mental illness and his brother tried to get help, but the help was insufficient.

Here’s what I know: most mental illness does not lead to catastrophic violence, but mental illness does lead to difficulties finding help. It’s hard to find help for all kinds of reasons: we don’t recognize mental illness. We’re afraid. We stigmatize mental illness, so people don’t feel comfortable speaking about symptoms.

My husband and I are educated people who live in a community of educated people and when our son suffered from depression and anxiety so severe that it interfered with him living a productive life, we didn’t know where to go. Finding the right help took us years. Eight years.

So what if this alleged gunman’s brother’s frustrating experience and frank comments compelled us to talk about how to help people with mental illness more effectively?

A few years back, our son was going through a really rough time. He was overwhelmed with frequent panic attacks. I suggested that he and I find some peace and enjoyment by spending an afternoon cross-country skiing in a State Park. Halfway through the afternoon, we took separate trails that we thought would join. But at dusk, when I returned to the car, my son was not there. I watched for him in the fading light. He didn’t show. The park was empty and no cell-service was available.

In the cold, I stood by the car and wondered if my son was lost in the woods in a panic. I didn’t know if I should take the car and leave the park to get cell service and help—what would happen if he skied to our meeting spot and the car was gone?

I decided to wait. But what if he had fallen on the trail and hurt himself and needed help now?

I waited a long 15 minutes. The stars sparkled in the sky and the snow sparkled on the ground. If I didn’t have this wrenching worry, I’d be admiring the vast beauty, I thought.

Eventually, I saw the headlights of another car coming towards me. I flagged it down. I explained to the occupants—a man and a woman–that my severely anxious son had not returned from skiing to our designated meeting place. That he was somewhere in the vast, shadowy woods. Maybe lost. Or hurt. The woman said, “We have children. We know how if feels when one of them is in trouble. We’ll help you find him.”

Her intensity made me feel like I should explain fully, “Well, he is 27.” I felt sheepish. Maybe my worry was unfounded. I thought they might drive on and leave me to my wait.

Instead, the woman declared, “We’re not going home until you find your son.”

While I drove to cell service, returned and waited by the car, the couple strapped on their skies and headed down the trail. They found, led my very panicked son to the car, and left before I could thank them.

To this day, their level of commitment to a stranger, their declaration: we’re not going home until you find your son— nourishes and inspires me.

And it prompts today’s most important what-if: Understanding that finding help is challenging for people with mental illness, what if we all committed to helping one person find help? To finding one person who struggles with depression, or anxiety, or post traumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia or suicidal thoughts and stating, “Help is available and I’m going to stay by your side until you get the help you need.”

See, this challenge that mentally ill people face isn’t mine because my daughter recently spent a few hours in an airport or because my loved son struggled with depression and anxiety, it’s our problem. Millions of Americans face the challenge of mental health problems. In the past few years, educators describe the number of college students who struggle with anxiety as an epidemic. You can see some numbers here: http://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers
Let’s start talking about helping people get the help they need and deserve.

 

Faith T. McDonald is a lecturer at Penn State University and a remarkably gifted writer and well, all around thinker. Please pop over to her blog (click here) and leave an encouraging comment for her.