Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Chemically Unbalanced Brain

Over the years I have tried to maintain a stance of patient understanding when it comes to the children who have become part of our life through the gift of adoption. Early on, especially, with their social histories fresh in mind, it was easier for me to understand their aggressive, antisocial, negative, nonconnecting behaviors. When, for example, our oldest son (now 20, arrived at 11) would threaten us verbally or refuse to comply with parental guidelines, it was fairly easy for me to get past it. "One day," I would reason with myself, "he will understand this if I just put in the parental time he requires." The report now after nearly ten years is that, yes, there are many evidences of maturity, respect and success. He will be a senior in a private college this fall, his grades are above average to excellent and he has chosen (with some parental prodding, I must confess) to lead a tidy moral life.

His birth brother, who is now eighteen, and who now sits in our county's law enforcement center awaiting trial, is in a much different place in his life. I do not believe it is fair to make comparisons between children, but there are some stark contrasts between the ways Kyle's life and Mike's life are turning out at this stage. They both share the same gene pool, very similar early childhood experiences, and the painful fracture that was termination of parental rights when they were ten and seven years of age.

But the biggest difference is that Kyle has a healthy, normally functioning brain. Kyle has been developmentally on target in most every way since his adoption, a textbook case for each stage of adolescent and young adult development. Although he still has emotional "work" (as the experts call it) to do as a result of his early life's experiences, Kyle has been able to find the advantages of an adoptive family and find success. He is not a perfect child, but neither as we perfect parents. With Kyle and Claudia and I we just do the best we can, apologize when necessary and continue navigating the changing terrain of parent-young adult relationships.

Mike, on the other hand, has a decided disadvantage. His brain is not organically like everyone else's brain. He wears the facial features of FASD, although he has a high IQ, which means that most people see right past his invisible disability. People expect him to be able to understand, process, and think like everyone else. Therapists have urged Mike to make responsible decisions. Social workers have reinforced the need to think about consequences. Probation officers have told him "if you do the crime, you'll do the time." But it doesn't work that way for Mike. He has a chemically unbalanced brain that makes him an unlikely candidate for responsible behavior. And now that he's legally an adult, he is held to be as responsible as the next person who is 18.

But it really isn't fair, and it really isn't just. It would be like saying to an indvidual born without sight injured in a car-pedestrian encounter, "You should have known better than to walk out in front of that line of traffic. Cars drive on streets. Don't you know that? Didn't you realize you could be hit by being in the wrong place at the wrong time?" But we don't treat people with visual impairment in that callous manner. Nor should we treat those with invisible disabiliies in that way.

The rub, of course, is that in society we still need to have laws that protect the general public. In no way do I condone the antisocial, illegal activities is accused of committing. In no way should he be held less responsible for actions that society deems illegal. But, it does seem to me that we need to have better ways of dealing with individuals whose thinking processes are askew than jail or prison time. The sad truth is that there are few resources available. And I am convinced based upon my interactions with others who have been in trouble with the law, that it isn't only our son whose FASD haunts his ability to make appropriate decisions. The face of FASD is very present in your local jail or state prison. Take a look.

What I'm wanting to get at in this blog, though, is that I'm beginning to understand, although only partially, what it is like to suffer from a chemically unbalanced brain. A couple of months ago I was diagnosed with diabetes (type 2, adult onset). For a long time I had felt tired, emotionally stressed and physically drained. I thought it was due to our recent (11 months ago) move to a new community, new ministry position and assorted familiy issues. But my doctor confirmed that much of my physical and mental sense of unease was due to my inactive pancreas. Two months ago my glucose level was identified as 263 (which is significantly higher than healthy or productive readings should be). My average goal now is to maintain a level of 140, nearly half of the previous number.

As I lower my carbohydrate intake, increase my exercise and take an oral medication to help this process, I have seen my numbers drop often to 140 or lower. While the diagnosis itself was difficult and stressful to process, I can testify to just how much better I feel and how much more mentally alert and balanced I feel. The sense of disequilibrium and weariness is nearly gone now, and I feel like a new person. I have new energy, a new sense of balance and feeling of security.

My unbalanced brain was caused by an abundance of carboydrates, too little exercise, and too little naturally produced insulin. Today I feel like a new man. But for our son, Mike, the opportunity to discover this new freedom will not be accessible through a change in lifestyle or even in medication. The constitution of his brain has placed him in a different place, and while there are some things that can help him, I really doubt that jail time is the answer.


Mike said...

Hi Bart! This is perfectly said. Bravo. I read your last post on Mike. Is it actually possible that he get five years? Is there any chance that bringing his disability into the trial will either reduce the sentence or make him eligible for another form of jail, like a mental health ward instead of general population? Have you spoken to his lawyer yet?

Mike B

Bart said...

It is unlikely that he will get five years, although his juvenile record could be considered since he did not successfully fulfill probationn as a 17-year-old. He was, of course, warned about that at the time.

And since Mike is 18 he does not have to let us talk with his attorney. He claims he does not know who his attorney is and has indicated he doesn't want us to talk with that person.

He also denies that he has any diagnosis, so unless he releases his attorney to talk with us or unless the attorney has access to his juvenile files, the diagnosis issue may not come up in trial.

And I'm not sure in Minnesota how many options there are for serving time, especially with a significant offense like this one.

Karaya said...

I read your post, and it really touched me because I'm seeing that with a child I work with. I've realized how there are no consideration for kids/teens/adults with mental disabilities unless they are linked to obvious physical disabilities. I am a mentor to a child that was in foster care, he is now 17 years of age. He is currently sitting in a juvenile detention center for robbery. He ran away from his foster home, who's father was going to adopt but had a unstable home life and still accepted him. During his running he was off his meds, he continued drug, alcohol use and also engaged in some violent behavior that the police did not find, but he admitted to me. The police did find that he broke into 6 homes, to support his habit. My mentee has a 2nd/3rd grade reading level but is incredibly street smart, and very gifted with electronics, building, and just great with tools.
None of the labels that they tagged him with, past factors are being taken into consideration. He told me at our last visit that the meds give him a few moments to think before he makes a decision. If he is released after 18, he will no longer have foster care/adoption support from the county, nor will he be adopted. But his entire family was taken away, his younger brothers were all adopted, far away, his mother lost, and father died when he was a baby. He has no one to turn to other then his friends from the streets.
It's sad to see the system keeps feeding itself, with victims and truly offers no end to the cycle. Definitely will be keeping your son in my prayers as well, and I can sympathize your pain.