For families in crisis, a Boise mom urges speaking out

Liza Long is being honored for working to end stigma of mental illness.

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comSeptember 17, 2013 

liza long, eric long, lanza, mental illness, bipolar,

Liza Long’s writings after the school massacre last December in Connecticut put her in the spotlight, with both positive and negative reactions to a blog posting about violence and mental illness.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

  • GET INVOLVED

    NAMI Walk, Saturday, Sept. 28: National Alliance on Mental Illness-Boise will hold its 7th annual walk (1K, 3K and 5K). Check-in at 9 a.m., walk starts at 10 a.m., 250 E. Parkcenter Blvd., Albertson's headquarters. Liza Long will be walking with the Bring Change to Mind team. More info: Adrienne.nami@gmail.com or 208-503-6264.

    2013 Advocacy Awards, Saturday, Sept. 28: Idaho Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health will hold its annual awards banquet; keynote address by Rebecca Divittorio, executive director at Optum Idaho. The eight honorees are Dr. John Hanks, Liza Long and son, Jennifer Griffs, Ginger Kreiter, Amanda Wester, Judge John Varin and State Rep. Sue Chew. Registration: idahofederation.org

Liza Long has been going almost nonstop since Dec. 14, when overnight she became one of the most sought-after bloggers on the Internet.

After the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, the world clamored to hear more from the 41-year-old Boise mom, who wrote candidly about caring for a mentally ill son who has sudden, violent rampages.

“In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns,” Long wrote in a blog widely re-published under the headline “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” “But it’s time to talk about mental illness.”

Since then, she’s done national television interviews, appeared in the PBS “NOVA” special, testified before Congress, recorded a StoryCorps conversation with her son, participated on regional mental health committees and written a book for Penguin’s Hudson Street Press. She’s now preparing a talk for a TEDx conference in San Antonio, Texas, on Oct. 12.

The theme of the TEDx event is “Minds Wide Open,” and Long’s talk will be on the stigma associated with mental illness.

For efforts to end the stigma associated with mental illness, Long and her 13-year-old son will receive an award this month from the Idaho Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health. It’s the first time the organization has given out a team award for “outstanding family advocacy,” said Director Stephen Graci.

Graci said he’s known Long for about a year.

“It’s been great to work with her because she’s a real go-getter,” he said. “She walks the extra mile. She’s trying to do what she can to help people.”

He said the stigma associated with mental illness is so strong that many fear they will lose friends, jobs and future opportunities if they speak publicly. He and Long worked to find local families willing to be part of television documentary, but none of five families that expressed interest went through with it.

“It’s incredibly hard to do what she’s doing — to be public,” Graci said.

Long didn’t intend to become a national advocate for families confronting mental illness, but she’s embraced it.

“The sense of isolation I felt is so common,” she said.

SCREAM INTO INTERNET ABYSS GOES VIRAL

Long, who earned a master’s degree in classics from UCLA, is a writer and editor. She edited the book “Little White Dress” and was editor of Eagle magazine for several years. She teaches English and works in student services at Carrington College.

After getting divorced in 2008, the mother of four began writing anonymously on her blog, The Anarchist Soccer Mom. She calls it a typical “mommy blog.”

“It was a place to vent,” she said. “I blogged a lot about my kiddos’ issues.”

A few of Long’s friends follow her blog. One of those friends is Nathaniel Hoffman, editor of Boise State University’s Web journal, The Blue Review.

Hoffman saw Long’s post-Newton blog entry, which she titled “Thinking the Unthinkable.” He asked her if he could re-publish it in the Blue Review with her byline and the new headline (pulled directly from the blog). She agreed.

“The reaction was much more than either of us expected,” Hoffman said. It crashed the website.

The Stranger in Seattle asked to re-publish it, too. So did the Huffington Post.

Some of her professional contacts — including Elaine Ambrose, owner of Mill Creek Publishing — were bombarded with phone calls from media outlets across the country.

“I started getting calls at 6 a.m. on Sunday after her blog came out,” Ambrose said. “I had 60 calls in four hours. It was unreal. They said, ‘I need to talk to her now.’ ”

Ambrose has known Long for about five years and is a close friend. She said she had no idea Long’s son is ill and has pulled a knife on her more than once during violent rages.

“She was carrying a huge burden that she didn’t talk about,” said Ambrose, a mother of two and grandmother of five. “That’s why I’m an advocate for writing. Sometimes we write for ourselves. In this case, she wrote for the world.

“It’s shocking when somebody you know has to deal silently with an issue like that.”

WHAT ABOUT CHILD’S RIGHT TO PRIVACY?

Long has been widely praised, but she has critics.

Some feel that Long’s son was unfairly thrust into the national spotlight — outed as having mental illness and discussed in the same breath as Adam Lanza and others who committed rampage killings. Could that brand him for life, preventing future jobs, relationships and prospects for a normal life?

“So far the children’s rights movement has focused on protecting children from neglect and abuse, but maybe it’s time to add a subcategory protecting them from libel, by their own parents,” Slate’s Hanna Rosin wrote in a scathing response to Long’s post.

In writing about her son, Long used an alias (Michael), not his real name. She published a photo of him as a young child that remains on the Web.

Michael’s father, Long’s ex-husband, lives in the Treasure Valley. Long said he’s opposed to his son’s illness being discussed publicly. He declined to comment for this story and asked that his name not be used.

“I think his concerns about privacy are legitimate. I do,” Long said. “I just think it turns into a tautology. If no one ever speaks about this, it’s not going to get the momentum it needs for change.”

THE BEST ADVOCATE

Her TEDx talk in San Antonio is being promoted on the website this way: “If she had blogged about her child having cancer, would she have had so much negative feedback?”

Long believes her son may be his own best advocate. He’s a bright, articulate boy and a gifted student.

Earlier this year, he spoke to Miles O’Brien for PBS’ NOVA special “Mind of a Rampage Killer.” (Long abhors the show’s title and said she complained to PBS.)

O’Brien asked Michael what it is like for him when he has a rage. The boy talked about his mind going blank and likened it to being a werewolf.

“When a werewolf turns into a werewolf, it doesn’t know who he is, it doesn’t know where he is, it just wants to hurt and fight people,” he said.

In a conversation with his mother recorded by StoryCorps, he says he sometimes feels like there’s an “extraterrestrial being taking control of me and making me do all these crazy things.”

“I feel powerful, like I have control. And yet I don’t,” he said.

He lists his diagnoses: bipolar, intermittent explosive disorder, ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder.

At the end of the two-minute clip, he says reading and writing make him happy. He’s writing a book that’s a mix between sci-fi and mythology.

IN A GOOD PLACE

Long said her son started a new treatment after a rage episode in May that required weeklong hospitalization. He’s doing well on the new medicine and hasn’t had any incidents since.

On Monday, she sent off the last chapter of her book, which broadly explores the stigma of mental illness and where the country is in supporting families. It includes everything from health care to schools to prisons. The book is expected to be out in September 2014.

Long has become a high-profile advocate, but she has no plans to quit her day job. She hopes other parents will join the cause.

“If there’s a message that I want to make clear, we absolutely have to talk about our children with mental illness. It’s one in five kids,” she said. “We have to be able to support each other.”

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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