My Sunshine: A Mother’s Painful Journey with Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System
by Christy Smith
I was mesmerized by precious, tiny toes and long, skinny fingers. While kissing every toe and finger from the day my son was born, I, like most mothers, rocked my fragile bundle of joy to sleep singing nursery rhymes — dreaming of a beautiful future with so much hope and love. I never envisioned anything different.
While cherishing every snuggle as my little boy began to grow, the song, "You are my Sunshine," became our favorite. I never imagined how the words would begin to hit my heart differently. By the time my son was eight years old, my voice would begin to crack with emotion when I sang it. I had no idea how much the song lyrics would resonate with me. My son would ask me what was wrong, and all I could tell him was, "I love you more than you will ever know.”
His life (and mental health) began to change quite rapidly. My child began calling himself the hulk. He was easier to manage when he was smaller, but one day my little guy grew too big for my arms. Calm voices and holding him close were no longer possible. As his distress and harmful behaviors escalated, I thought back to those song lyrics. The song that I had sung to my baby every night before bed brought to mind my innocent-minded child who had no understanding of what his future held.
At one point, I begged him to please stop, to just listen to me. My heart hurt so bad. I had no understanding of what was happening or how to help my son. It was almost as if I thought he could understand my pleas and fix himself. I felt hopeless, and I didn't have the tools to help him. I was alone.
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey. You'll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my sunshine away. The other night, dear. While I lay sleeping. I dreamt I held you in my arms. When I awoke, dear. I was mistaken. So, I hung my head and cried."
My son fell into the clutches of the modern-day era mental health system — which, far too often, is synonymous with the criminal justice system. When he was only 10 years old, our family began living with officers in our home frequently, five inpatient hospitalizations and three battery charges. My son’s suicidal and homicidal ideation escalated. From the mouth of my baby, "I'm going to kill you in your sleep" sent chills down my spine. On his 11th birthday, he was cuffed and taken away from home in fear.
Tragically, our current system leaves the police department to manage and make decisions during a mental health crisis. Because of the shortage of appropriate emergency response for mental illness, children are falling through the cracks until they have already established a learned behavior, developed disrespect distrust of the system, been robbed of childhood innocence and battled the resulting low self-esteem and anger. Unsurprisingly, then, they can become revengeful and full of hate. And juvenile detention is how we help them? It hurt my heart to see how we are treating children as tiny criminals; therefore, we are creating criminals.
My son’s daily challenges began spewing out everywhere — not just at home. The labels "bad kid" and "ticking time bomb" began floating off the tongue of others so easily. Deep down, I knew my son's disorders began consuming everything I loved about my baby. The lyrics of our song became even more painful. Simply put, children need to stop being criminalized for mental health crises.
Christy Smith is a blogger and parent advocate. You can follow her on Facebook.