It’s my senior year in college and I’m driving by the Wells Fargo ATM where I consistently deposit my paychecks from Hallmark, yet overdraw the account at least once a week. I’m rounding a corner and to my right I see it, out of the corner of my eye: a pawn shop advertising gun sales in the front window. Every single time I drive this stretch of road I have to turn my head and study it.
I’m a 21-year-old educated white woman in Iowa with no criminal history and a bright, bubbly demeanor. It would be so easy to go in there and buy a gun. Waiting a couple of days for a background check wouldn’t be a big deal. It’s a minor setback. I’d get a simple revolver and a box of bullets, then go back to my dorm room, down a bottle of premixed margaritas, and shoot myself in the head. Easy peasy.
All of a sudden I realize that if there’s no afterlife, when you die there’s just nothing. It comes out of nowhere, like someone has flipped a switch in my brain, and the thought consumes me. I’m 25, have two masters degrees, live with my parents, and substitute teach at my old high school while I try to find a “real job.”
I don’t eat for a week. Me, the fat girl diagnosed with compulsive overeating disorder, stops eating. I lose 10 pounds in a week because my mom insists I get out of the house and go to the women’s only gym I’ve joined for the summer in my eternal quest for thinness. The movement helps clear my mind for a little bit, but as soon as I stop moving the thoughts about death come back.
I sleep a lot so I don’t have to think. I lie on my grandmother’s couch and cry while she promises me that after she dies, she’ll come back to assure me there’s something beyond this life. I cry until I fall asleep. I wake up and cry and think about death and how I should just end it all now because in the end none of it matters anyway. My dad has guns, but they’re all in a gun safe. I’m too tired to figure out the combination.
For the first time in my life I’m so devastated that all I can do is sink to the floor. I've gone into my email only to find that my very best friend, someone I trusted without exception, has broken my heart. It takes about ten minutes for the tears to come, but once they start they don’t stop until I realize that my son will be home any minute.
It takes a massive force of will, but I stop crying and stand up. My face is swollen and will be for several hours, but I will not cry in front of my son. I’m 33 and everything I thought I knew about love has been ripped away from me in the span of five minutes.
In a moment of clarity, I make my husband hide my Ambien and dole it out to me one pill at a time because I know I’ll swallow the entire bottle if it’s in front of me.
I don’t feel like myself. Everything about me has changed, from my opinions to my moral code. For more than six months I do and say things that are completely out of character for me. I hurt people and feel no guilt. In fact, I feel almost nothing except for the occasional violent thoughts that bubble to the surface. My emotions are an act. If it wasn’t for my son, I’d just shoot myself and be done.
I hate dealing in superlatives and generalizations. Life has so many gray areas. However, on this particular topic I feel passionate enough to state that I should not be allowed to own a firearm. Ever. There is no reason for me to have access to an object whose only purpose is to injure or kill. You don’t want me to own a gun. And honestly, if you suffer from mental illness the way I do, I don’t want you to be able to own a gun either.
If you’ve got a clean record and can get your hands on some cash, it’s not hard to get a gun. (Actually, if you’re determined, most of the time all you need is the cash.) And while I always seem to turn my emotions inward to hurt myself, it’s just as likely for someone with mental illness to turn their emotions outward to hurt others. Elliott Rodger bought his firearms completely legally.
Yet the problem isn’t just gun control. It’s the fact that as a nation we’d rather sweep our mentally ill under the rug and forget about them until one makes the headlines. Thankfully, except for my short period of unemployment after graduate school, I’ve always had health insurance. Even with my insurance it hasn’t been easy for me to afford mental health care. When it was recommended that I see a counselor weekly, I had to settle for a monthly appointment because the $200 a month in co-pays was more than I could afford. Not only that, but my insurance company limited the amount of appointments I could have in a year.
I cannot imagine trying to deal with mental illness without insurance. While the Affordable Care Act will increase access, it’s still difficult to find doctors and counselors with adequate mental health knowledge and a willingness to spend the necessary time to find accurate diagnoses and effective treatment. It has taken a decade and a half to find treatment that works for me, but I’ll never be “cured.”
I’m not suggesting that we take a Sharpie and strike out the name of everyone who has ever had a depressive episode or panic attack from a list of potential gun owners. There are no easy answers here, and there are plenty of entities at which to point the finger of blame. But it’s clear we need to rethink the way that mental health, firearm ownership, and firearm access are approached in this country.
Until we are willing to at least have a national conversation about mental illness and firearms nothing will change. We’ll still be horrified every time there’s a Elliot Rodger or a James Holmes or a Jared Lee Loughner, but once the press finds another story to latch onto we’ll go back binge-watching Mad Men on Netflix and move on -- until the next time it happens. Something has to give.