I’m going to break with my traditional format for a moment. I usually write about erudite technical things and do my best to avoid my personal feelings. I share my experiences, but only through the lens of science on those rare occasions when experience really does equal evidence. Today, though, in the midst of the media storm surrounding the tragic Connecticut school shooting, I find myself remembering a time in my life when I could easily have become the shooter, Adam Lanza.
Despite having been born quite some time apart in very different worlds, I still look at Adam Lanza and see pieces of myself. We were both bright kids, years ahead of our peers in academic pursuits but physically and socially awkward. We were both bullied, teased and tormented every day of school… and we both had anger issues.
I’ve grown into a fairly even-tempered adult and put my intellect to good use in what I consider to be a fairly successful career as a programmer and a similarly successful side-job as a journalist and author. I play musical instruments, I’m something of an amateur chef and I have friends and family who love me, including my wonderful wife. What separates Adam and I is that I got help early on.
Part of why I’m writing this article is because I’m upset at the poor ex post facto analysis of Adam that’s being spewed all over the media. I’m upset that people think he was twisted by violent video games, or that he had a poor home life. It makes me both sad and angry that after the most potent act of self expression he ever gave, people still think he was driven by a lust for fame or infamy. These people don’t want to get to the bottom of the problem, they want a scapegoat, something to make them feel like they’re in control of a world that’s slipped through their grasp – they want a simple answer with an easy solution and frankly there isn’t one. If you really want to understand what drove Adam Lanza’s actions, put yourself in his shoes – easy for me since I’ve already been there.
I can’t speak to Adam’s specific circumstances or mindset, I didn’t know the kid personally, but from all I’ve heard he’s a lot like me as a kid, so I’ll tell you what that was like.
I was always a bright kid, got skipped ahead a few grades here and there too. This resulted in a diminutive 13 year old with poor social skills becoming a high school freshman, surrounded by people bigger than me who were equal parts scared, stupid and resentful – y’know, kids. I blew curves, memorized textbooks and was generally a massive nuisance to rooms full of people twice my size and this of course resulted in a tremendous amount of bullying. I was too young and naive to really prevent it – like many bright young people I had poor social skills and often made conflicts worse in my attempts at resolution. I got beaten up a lot.
But there’s a huge psychological drain on clever kids too. If you’ve ever spent time around someone with a learning disability you know there’s a special kind of frustration that eats at you. On one hand you find yourself frustrated by their diminished intellect and then immediately thereafter feel guilty about your frustration – it’s not their fault, you shouldn’t be mad at them for something they can’t control, but you still are. The pessimist would say that “every silver lining has a dark cloud” and this is the “dark cloud” of genius: it’s incredibly frustrating to be surrounded by idiots and then you feel bad for thinking of them as idiots. Now imagine those idiots are beating the tar out of you on a biweekly basis.
As if this weren’t all damning enough, combine it with the overwhelming depth of a child’s emotional experience: when liking a girl was “love” and being mad at your former best friend was “hate” how deeply do you experience pain and fear? Later in life when you look back on your childish notions of emotions like love you recognize that your feeling of the depth was off by a lot, you view those feelings differently through the lens of experience – trust me when I say that at 13 or 30 the fear and pain of getting punched in the face are NOT the same.
Fear and pain are primal, they strike straight to your core and invoke the most extreme of reactions – they aren’t the kind of thing kids deal well with. I’m not proud to admit that I thought a lot about vengeance in those days, about making sure that what those bullies did to me ended with me. I would imagine them in their 30s beating their wives and children or as corrupt cops committing atrocities – all sorts of violent angry stereotypes. I didn’t recognize yet that I was becoming a violent angry stereotype of my own.
Thankfully, the people in my life saw my pain and had the resources to get me help. I got martial arts training to stop the beatings and therapy to deal with the adult emotions I wasn’t ready for yet. I’m happy to say that both worked and even had unexpected synergy in a few places. I learned from both to recognize when my fuse was lit and how to put it out. I learned how to overcome the rage and pain and fear and choose my own destiny. I got help and importantly got it early, before I was too far gone.
Why, though, did I get help so early while others got none at all? The knee-jerk reaction is to blame the parents, but that’s not fair either. The only reason I got help so quickly is because I was a bad liar. My parents, through no magical abilities of their own, could instantly tell when I was hiding something from them because I was just terrible at lying and keeping secrets. When my thoughts started down a dark path they found me out quickly because of a quirk in my personality – other parents may not be so lucky.
Schoolyard massacres are truly horrid things and my heart goes out to the families of all the victims as well as the survivors. In no way is my intent to lessen the sense of tragedy surrounding this event – all I ask is that we learn from tragedy instead of hunt for scapegoats. Every pundit blaming the media for making infamy attractive or violent video games for desensitizing our youth is a slap in the face to every parent, every victim and indeed to every kid like me who almost let the pain steer them off-course and I, for one, cannot sit idly by and watch that happen any more.
As I write these words, I worry about how they’ll be received and by whom. I worry that somewhere out there is a potential employer who may now think of me as “Crazy Dave” who was full of bile and rage as a kid. I worry about the people in my life who may take it the wrong way. I worry that kids like me are feeling the same way right now. See, we’re the smart ones, remember? We’re not dumb, we know something is wrong, we know we’re not supposed to feel this way and we’re scared to come forward. I still am. If you want something you can do to prevent another Adam Lanza, stop stigmatizing our pain. Mental health issues are deadly serious and I stand as a testament to what can happen if they’re handled properly. I’m now a well-adjusted adult who no longer has any of these issues. We’ll never get to find out if Adam could have been. Don’t make the next Adam Lanza afraid to come forward and get help.