by Ilana Kramer

Our Violent Children

The very worst thing he ever did was pull a knife on me. I would never have had a gun in the house. I called the cops and he ended up going to the E.R. and having a psychiatric evaluation. I didn’t bring criminal charges, but he got the message that if you exhibit violence, you’re in trouble. Another time, the cops put him in straight jacket. That traumatized him. Another time he punched in the wall. I recognized that his behavior was extremely dangerous. I agonized over the idea of involuntary commitment, and I didn’t do it. With hindsight, I should’ve done it.

He managed to make friends in elementary school that he’s still very close with. Thank God he was able to have a peer group. I think his ability to form a close circle of friends saved him from acting out beyond the confines of our home. If he’d had only the taunting from others for his special needs, then we might have, God forbid, a kid who went beyond. While we were lucky that no one was injured from my son’s rages, I felt that we just weren’t getting adequate help. Our story is not simply about a mother or parents who didn’t make the right decisions. I was well aware of the limitations of the mental health system. I often received conflicting advice. There were many occasions when the school did not implement his IEP because they lacked the resources or did not have people capable of doing what needed to be done.

And I never would have gone to the Jewish community — because of my sense of being judged. In the worst of it, I did go to the rabbi at our temple, and he was very responsive; he even came to the house, and did not make me feel ashamed. On an individual basis, the rabbi was appropriate and caring. But the Jewish community was different. I was very involved in local Jewish organizations and in a professional community as an attorney, and I wanted to hide, hide, hide. All the things that the Jewish community values… I couldn’t rest on my children’s laurels. I was very aware of that. The values and standards held by the Jewish community isolated me, because my children couldn’t meet them.

In Judaism, there is this notion of tikkun olam that each of us has an obligation to repair the world, individually and systemically in the community. Practically, I rolled up my sleeves, consulted with experts, researched the problem, wrote about my own experiences, and that Jewish value of problem solving and learning offset some of the feelings of powerlessness, despair, and shame.

“He’s an adult now, and I decided to walk away from him”

Ellie Shapiro*

I like to think I was a good mother, but my son told the psychologist that I didn’t love him. Growing up in Israel, he didn’t want me kissing or hugging him. It was hard to get around him — if I put him in his room, he said he liked it in there. When he was a teenager we credited the behavior to puberty — you know, “difficult teenage years,” but two incidents stood out as extremely severe, and then everything backfired.

When our son was 16, he failed his driving test, and was so upset that he stopped going to school. He stopped eating — at least with us. He would go through the food in the fridge with his fingers in the middle of the night, and we’d see the signs in the morning. He would barricade himself in his room whenever he was home. It was the most unusual thing I’d ever seen. We had the school principal and the psychiatrist come to our home. Nothing worked. Then after two and a half months of this, he walks into the living room and asks to borrow the car. Well, he had passed his test, unbeknownst to us. It was the first time we saw danger. He asked for my car as if nothing had happened. That was a red light.

The second warning sign came when I left the country to be with my dying father. After one month, I sold my part of the family business. When my son found out, there was a lot of verbal abuse. He said, “How could you? That was my money.” The week of shiva, I was devastated, and my son shoved me across the room. I’ll never forget that. It was the illness manifesting itself.

At age 25, while visiting relatives in another city, he assaulted a policeman and was taken to jail. It’s heartbreaking to see your soft-spoken boy in such a marginal society. We flew to him to jail with a letter testifying that he had a personality disorder. We told him he could come back to us, but only on condition he went to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist called it “schizophrenia simplex,” not full-blown schizophrenia. But my son refused to go consistently. My son was unable to act in the society as you and I can act. 

Soon after he moved home, he attacked my husband, and I remember being so scared I wet my pants. We bought him his own apartment, and he met his wife, who was a godsend to us, but he wasn’t going to the psychiatrist anymore, and the situation just deteriorated. He had delusions and was violent. Last year, he attempted to murder his wife, and when I helped her go to the police and he learned the full story during court proceedings, he left threatening phone calls, blaming me for contacting the police.

Last summer, I had a heart attack, and because of that I decided to walk away from my son and his schizophrenia. I cannot help him. Only he can help himself. He is capable of making decisions. For 18 years my husband and I tried everything, and he always came back to square one because he refuses to take medication. As long as he refuses to go for help or take medication, I realize there is nothing I am able to do.

The way I got help for myself was to talk — a support group is vitally important. I used good friends when I needed to cry. There is no shame — I have a sick son, and that’s the bottom line. It’s very sad for us. But there is no blame, only wonder: Did I cause it? It doesn’t matter, it’s what we have today.

“We drove to the yeshiva, and I told him, ‘You hit me once, and it’s once too many.’”

Rivkah Miller*

I read that “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” piece and thought, I could’ve written that. I left my son’s father when the boy was four years old, and his father was back in his life at seven. That’s when my son became suicidal. Even before that, he didn’t know what to do with his emotions, and I could see he was struggling with them, so I started him in therapy at five and half. When he became suicidal, he used to go to the roof and threaten to jump. I told him it was my job as his mom to keep him safe, and if he kept doing this, I’d have to take him to the hospital.

When he was eight, we went to a friend’s house for Shabbos. This family lived on the 15th floor and he threatened to jump, and I realized I couldn’t control him. It was on Yom Tov, a religious holiday, but I looked at my friend and said, “You take my other two kids.” I picked him up, took my car keys and wallet, and I said, “We’re going, I’m taking you to the hospital.” I pressed the elevator button, and he watched me break every law — holding money, using the elevator, driving the car — just to keep him safe. That was the last time he threatened suicide.

But by age nine, my son’s rage turned outward toward me and sometimes toward his siblings. The only reason he could turn his anger outward, and not hurt himself, was because of his therapist. That summer I found him a Jewish sleepaway Boy Scout camp that I thought he would really enjoy. They called me after a week and said, ‘You have to come pick him up.” The next day on the phone, he was calm as anything and very loving. He told me, “Nothing happened, Mommy. All I did was swore.” But he goes into insanity. At camp, he had threatened, “I’m going to hurt you guys, I’m going to run away.”

Eleven was the breaking point. the year he became more violent. He hit me, and my first reaction was to hit him back, but I stopped myself. My own therapist said to get him out of the house. I asked my neighbor, “Can my son sleep over tonight?” I told him, “Right now I’m too angry at you and I’m going to hurt you, so you need to leave.” He went to the neighbors, and the next day to school. That’s when I called the police. The police said they could write it up, and that was the hardest thing I had to do, to open a police file on my son. We drove to the yeshiva, and I called him out of class. I told him, “You hit me once, and it’s once too many.”

When he was 13, he went into one of his fits. We never knew what would trigger him. He’s an outdoorsy boy, and had an outdoor knife. He started walking around the house with the knife. I told him, “You have to put your knife away,” and he took the plate of food one of my other children had prepared for Mother’s Day and threw it across the floor. I told my two other kids to leave the house, and I called the cops. My neighbors went crazy that I called the cops. But the cops have people trained in domestic violence. One said to me, “We usually come in when blood is gushing, and that could’ve happened here.” He asked me what made me call early, before the bloodshed. I knew it would only get worse. He could never use that knife again. I threw it out. The police told my son the potential consequences. My son thought I was crazy, but it was the last time he was ever, ever violent. I took him out of his Jewish day school in sixth grade and I ended up finding a Jewish program with a lot of exercise for 7th and 8th grade kids at risk for being at risk.

* Names with an asterisk are pseudonyms.


Our Violent Children

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