This week James Holmes was sentenced to a prison cell for the rest of his life instead of receiving the death penalty. On July 20th 2012, he opened fire inside a theater in Aurora Colorado, leaving a dozen dead and 70 wounded. Now he has been convicted and sentenced.
As the trial went on, 2 sides began to emerge. On one side were those who wanted to see Mr. Holmes punished for his crimes. After the deaths of 12 people, this side argued that Holmes had to pay for all the pain and suffering that came at his hand. They wanted justice, meaning punishing Mr. Holmes to the maximum extent of the law. On the other side were advocates, who asked for mercy because of the mental condition that plagued Mr. Holmes’ mind. Was he sane when he committed the crime? Was he aware of his actions? Was this because of James Holmes or because of mental illness? They argued for mercy on behalf of Holmes’ mental illness.
As a man with bipolar disorder, both sides of this argument sting. The 12 people killed in the theater shootings will never come back. This Thanksgiving, the families will celebrate their 3rd thanksgiving with empty chairs that used to be filed with life and laughter. This Christmas will mark the 3rd time a stocking hung on the mantle to remember the life of a loved one who will never see what is inside. Whether James Holmes was guilty or not because of his mental state, nothing will ever bring any of these people back. His actions, regardless of his mental state, left empty chairs, empty stockings, and shattered people’s lives. I have never killed anyone, fired a weapon in the direction of another person, or committed a violent crime. But this trial has asked me one very important question: what am I responsible for when I’m not stable?
Before I was stable, I never tried to hurt anyone, but I said immensely hurtful things to my family and friends. My words sliced the people I care about to pieces. I was angry, spiteful, and cruel at times. Am I responsible for that? It was the bipolar, right? Regardless of whether or not I meant to cut my family and friends down, they were cut down. The James Holmes case reminds me that regardless of whether or not I felt like I was in control of my actions, they happened, and what happened hurt people.
James Holmes was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Whether you view that as right or wrong, the ruling tells all people with mental illness one thing: get help now.
I never want to sit in court and hear about the things I did and have to reckon how I could have done them. I never want to hear about how badly I hurt my wife. I never want to sit alone because I wounded all of my friends, and they left. Regardless of whether or not these things are legally my fault, I never want them to happen.
My dad always said to leave the world a better place than it was when you came into it. Over the last number of years I have learned I am a valuable person because of the love of God. I have learned a depth of love for other people that I had never known before because I can freely give and receive love like I never could before. I know my life matters and impacts the people around me. When I think of the end of my life, I don’t want it to end with a verdict based on an insanity plea. I want it to end with the conviction that my life left a fingerprint of love on the people around me. That they knew, even for a moment, that they were valuable, because I think they are.
This last week reminded me of all the ways I have hurt people, but also reminded me of the ways that I have experienced healing and hope. It also reminded me that it is not too late to get help.
If you are scared to be diagnosed with something, because it might make you into a monster, I can tell you that a diagnosis does not make you a monster. It does not make make you less than anyone else. It does not mean that you are going to do terrible things. It means that you have the opportunity to work on healing. It does not have to hurt those around you.
If you have already hurt the people around you, and you feel ashamed of what you have done, I understand. I have walked through that too. But you are not defective, broken, or useless, and your life is not over. I have seen more healing in my own soul, and in my own relationships than I ever would have hoped for. You can get better, there is a future, and it is worth all of the pain you feel now. I know it does not feel like it, but from experience, I know it is.
If you know someone who is going through mental anguish, they do not need you to fix them, but they may need to know that when all of this clears, regardless of how badly they hurt you, you hope to be standing with them. They may need help getting the resources they need, they may need a ride to a therapist of appointment, they may need a reminder that they are worth the pain, and they may need your help to remember their meds. But more than anything, they need a friend who believes they are worth fighting for. And if you feel like they do not appreciate it, they might not, but someday they will understand exactly what it is that you gave them.
In light of the James Holmes case, the verdict more than anything tells us to get the help we need now. Instead of looking back at everything that has happened and feeling guilty, I hope you can look back in the years to come at the decisions you’ve made, and even though it was hard and painful, you can look back and be thankful for the decisions you made, about the person you became, and about how your mental illness may have been an obstacle, but it did not rule your life.