by Joseph Merlin Bowers
People who have known me a long time and/or have read my book know that I have come close to committing violent acts while in the throes of psychosis. At seventeen I carried a loaded shotgun up to my Grandmother’s bedroom intending to kill her. More than twenty years later I seriously debated killing my wife. I did not actually psychically harm my grandmother or my wife as it turned out.
So I have often been asked a question that I long wondered about myself: Is there a fundamental difference between someone like me and a Jerad Loughner, James Holmes, John Hinckley or Mark David Chapman? Events of the past year and a half have provided me with a clear, unequivocal answer: no. While I have never met any of the above named individuals, I have gotten to know well people who have taken innocent lives while psychotic.
Roughly a year and a half ago, my wife and I were able to sell our house in Wyoming and move to another town in another state. This town turns out to be the location of the main mental hospital of our new state. It also has a drop-in and resource center for people with mental illnesses where I have been volunteering. There I have become good friends with two people who have killed while psychotic.
At their trials they were found not guilty by reason of insanity. They have been in the hospital undergoing treatment for some years. Because they have responded well to treatment and are doing very well, they are allowed some limited time out of the hospital into the community. They both spend much of that time working at the drop-in center trying to help others with mental illnesses. They both have extensive training and are very good. They have entrusted me with their stories and we have become dear friends.
These individuals are very intelligent, highly motivated, competent, compassionate and caring. When they eventually get more freedom to rejoin society they will make a positive contribution to our community and our society. Of that I have no doubt. I would be proud to think of myself as as good a person as either of these and am very proud to call them friends. Why did I not act while they did? Circumstance and good fortune for me.
When I reached my grandmother’s bedroom with my loaded shotgun, she was kneeling by her bedside in prayer. Just the same, I went in believing her possessed by Satan. I intended to kill her and thereby decisively decide the age old battle of good versus evil. But enough doubt had been planted in my delusional, psychotic brain that when I stood there pointing the gun at her with the hammer back and my finger on the trigger, I just wasn’t sure enough to squeeze.
Twenty some years later I sat in my mobile home bedroom trying to decide whether or not to kill my wife. Now I had more than twenty years experience with episodal psychosis and was developing some awareness. So I decided to go tell my wife that I needed to sign myself into a psych ward in a hospital.
There is no doubt in my mind that had I not found my grandmother kneeling in prayer and had my disease had me contemplating killing my wife in a much earlier episode, things could have gone much differently.
The lesson in all of this is very clear to me: When you hear of a violent act carried out by someone experiencing psychosis, don’t vilify or condemn the person. Vilify and condemn the disease. It was the disease that killed just as surely as if it had been cancer or a heart attack.