'I Am Adam Lanza's Mother' Author Helped Son Get The Right Treatment For Mental Illness : Shots - Health News Eric Walton was 13 when the Sandy Hook massacre happened. His mother feared he might grow up to be another Adam Lanza. Now Walton and his mother tell of finding the right diagnosis and treatment.
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How Talking Openly Against Stigma Helped A Mother And Son Cope With Bipolar Disorder

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How Talking Openly Against Stigma Helped A Mother And Son Cope With Bipolar Disorder

How Talking Openly Against Stigma Helped A Mother And Son Cope With Bipolar Disorder

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is For The Record.

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MARTIN: It was December 14, 2012 - Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn. When the shooting was over, 20 children and six adults were dead. After the shock and the initial grief, there were all the questions about how it could have happened and why.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Adam Lanza may have had some form of mental illness. Experts have suspected similar conditions in other mass murderer suspects like...

MARTIN: The day it happened, happen, a woman named Liza Long wrote a blog post. It was titled "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother." She wasn't, but she was raising a child with a mental disorder. Her 13-year-old son had violent rages on a regular basis. He was in and out of juvenile detention. He had threatened to kill her. She detailed all this in a blog post that exploded online. Now, four years later, her son is speaking out, too. For The Record today - a mother, a son and life on the edge of bipolar disorder.

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MARTIN: Eric Walton was 13 years old when his mom wrote that online essay. He's 16 now, a sophomore in high school in Boise, Idaho.

ERIC WALTON: I am into science fiction, books, fencing, swordplay, Legos.

MARTIN: I asked him what he knew about his condition when he was younger.

WALTON: I knew that there were times when I would have rages, didn't like them. I knew that I wanted them to stop.

MARTIN: What did they look like? What happened?

WALTON: Kind of like a blackout-type thing. I would start getting angry, and then it's like being trapped inside a box inside your own head. And there's, like, a television on the wall that shows you what you're seeing. You can feel everything, but you no longer have the video game controller to control your own body.

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LIZA LONG: We'd had so many diagnoses. It started at - with autism spectrum and ADHD...

MARTIN: This is Liza Long, Eric's mom.

LONG: ...Oppositional defiant disorder and intermittent explosive disorder. And when Eric would get into those states, he would express a lot of suicidal thoughts. And hearing him just say I want to die - I just want to end it.

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MARTIN: On December 12, 2012, two days before the Newtown shooting, Eric had another episode.

WALTON: That was a pretty eventful day, even for my rages. I'd woken up that morning, and I had slipped on a pair of navy blue sweatpants. But my school has this policy that you have to be wearing black pants. So my mom and I got into an argument over whether navy blue was actually black.

MARTIN: The fight got bad, and it escalated, as it often did. Eric threatened to kill himself. He threatened to kill his mom.

WALTON: At that point, we were almost to my school. But Mom decided to take me to Intermountain instead.

MARTIN: Intermountain Hospital, a mental health facility in Boise.

WALTON: And it took, I think, three or four of the nurses to hold me down. And they shoved a needle into my arm full of some kind of tranquilizer. And I woke up the next day in Intermountain.

LONG: I really felt like a failure on that day. You know, here - I'd had this child. He had seen multiple doctors, multiple specialists, numerous medications - nothing had helped my child. He had been in juvenile detention four times at that point, every time for a behavioral symptom of a brain disease. And on that day, when I had to take him to the hospital again, I just felt completely hopeless.

MARTIN: And then two days later...

LONG: When I heard the news out of Newtown, I just put my head on my desk and started to cry. And I just had this overwhelming, I guess, sense of empathy for Nancy Lanza. I know, at that point, people were already blaming her. But instead, I could just see in my mind this little boy who probably had needed help. It just overwhelmed me that day. Something in me snapped.

MARTIN: And she started writing - about everything - how tough it was to be the single mother of four kids, one of them a middle schooler struggling with mental illness - a kid who could violently rage one hour and then turn back into a calm, sweet boy the next. She posted the essay on her anonymous blog. Days later, after millions of shares, The Huffington Post picked it up, and then it was everywhere.

WALTON: I read it when she came to visit me at the hospital. So that would've been about three days after she wrote it.

MARTIN: Did - she brought you, like, a paper copy?

WALTON: She brought her phone, and I read it off of her phone.

MARTIN: And what did you think?

WALTON: It was a very powerful piece. I had seen it as only from my point of view. But until that day, I hadn't considered what it was like for someone outside looking in.

MARTIN: Liza got messages of support, but she also got criticism. People laid into her for comparing her son to a mass murderer, violating his privacy. And some suggested that she was somehow responsible for her son's condition. It stung. But for the most part, Liza pushed it away.

LONG: Mother-blaming is as old as Eve, though (laughter). Right? It's really easy for us to blame mothers. And that was exactly the point I was trying to make. Families are suffering in shame and silence. I was suffering in shame and silence, so was my child. But when we don't share our stories, there's no chance that we're going to make change.

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MARTIN: And that could've been the end of this story. But that blog post ended up changing everything for Liza and Eric.

LONG: I was very inundated. Right? You know, I think something 29,000 emails or something and one person was very persistent. And she kept saying I know someone who can help.

MARTIN: It was a research assistant who worked for this man.

DEMITRI PAPOLOS: I'm Dr. Demitri Papolos, director of research for the Juvenile Bipolar Research Foundation.

MARTIN: After meeting and talking with Eric and his mother, Dr. Papolos understood Eric's symptoms. And to him, it looked like a particular strain of bipolar disorder.

PAPOLOS: The symptoms that occur within the manic domain are hyperactivity, agitation, racing thoughts...

WALTON: Mania feels really, really good. But it's also not...

PAPOLOS: In the bipolar form, you typically see lethargy, fatigue, oversleeping...

WALTON: I go through three or four days of almost complete inactivity. I'm kind of depressed and lethargic, and I don't even want to get out...

PAPOLOS: They are overwhelmed with fear, and they misperceive things as threatening when they're not.

WALTON: Anytime I felt attacked, it was, like, a good defense mechanism-type thing.

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MARTIN: After Dr. Papolos diagnosed Eric with childhood bipolar disorder, everything got better.

WALTON: I got the correct diagnosis. I got put on the right medication. And I haven't had a rage, I think, since that day. It's funny. I don't even keep track anymore.

MARTIN: So what is your message to parents out there who might be hearing this and thinking to themselves - that sounds like my child.

PAPOLOS: I hear that - I hear that all the time, unfortunately, because the problem is that we are still, I would say, relatively in our infancy in terms of an understanding the nature of psychiatric diagnosis, particularly in children.

MARTIN: Parents just have to find a lot of second opinions?

PAPOLOS: I would say yes. I think - I think they have to do a lot of homework on their own and that - I wish I had another answer for you. But I - you know, it's the way things are currently.

MARTIN: Today, Eric owns his diagnosis.

WALTON: Bipolar disorder, although I choose to think of it as my superpower.

MARTIN: (Laughter) What superpowers does it give you?

WALTON: I'm really, really creative. I'm very empathetic. I have a lot of skills that teenagers don't normally have like conflict resolution, mindfulness - just things that I've have to pick up over the years because it kind of helped control myself before the right diagnosis.

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WALTON: First of all, I would like to thank TEDx for giving me this opportunity.

MARTIN: His TED Talk in Boise last month was the first time he outed himself public as the boy in that essay. And he used it to deliver a broader message.

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WALTON: Mental illness should be treated with respect and kindness, not fear and - stigma because I'm a human being. People with mental illness are all human beings, and they deserve the same respect as anyone else. Thank you.

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LONG: A few years ago when I wrote that blog post, I was really concerned that my son's fate was prison or worse. And now we are talking every day about college, about what he'd like to major in. I don't think there any right or wrong answers for Eric. There are just a lot of great opportunities for Eric.

MARTIN: Isn't it crazy when you look back at that time and that blog post and that horrible day when you dropped Eric off? But it has given you a platform I imagine is hard for you to even comprehend today.

LONG: I have a tremendous sense of gratitude honestly, mostly for all the - sorry. It makes me cry a little. I still hear from families every day, some who've just found that blog post for the first time. And to be able to connect people with resources, to be able to say look, there is hope for you. Don't give up on your kid. That's been really powerful for me.

MARTIN: For The Record today, Liza Long and her son Eric Walton of Boise, Idaho. We also heard from Demitri Papolos of the Juvenile Bipolar Research Foundation in New York.

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