Psychosis, Mens Rea, and Criminal Conviction: Part Two Of A Five-Part Series

My lived experience with mental illness is a long story that began in my early childhood.  It is a story of fear, sleeplessness, and confusion.  Originally diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder at age 7, I sat in a psychiatrist’s office wondering what was happening to me.  It is a story of pain, grief, and anguish.  Misdiagnosed as bipolar at age 21, I was avoided and abandoned by many dear friends and family.  Yet it is also a story about grace, perseverance, and recovery.  Now 27, I have accepted my odd fears, worked with an incredible psychiatrist to remove inaccurate diagnoses and medications, overcome what turned into an addiction, and am recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder. An old saying has long been a source of motivation for me: “A just man falls seven times (meaning, perpetually), but every time, he gets back up.”

For the purposes of this series, however, I will only be discussing one strange night in 2014 and its aftermath.  Though I do not have schizophrenia or a schizoaffective disorder, I have experienced psychosis.  A prescription for ADHD, a pharmaceutical whirlwind that threw my body off sync (from the bipolar misdiagnosis), and six months of severe sleep and food deprivation led me to the front door of psychosis on New Year’s Eve of 2014.

A symptom that many people living with schizoaffective disorders suffer from is called alogia, or trouble finding the right words. Since stigmatization always arises from a lack of empathetic understanding, let me try to help you understand what psychosis is like.  My hope in this post is that you may come to see some people in a new, compassionate, and empathetic light.

At Psychosis’s Front Door

Imagine having no idea what day it is, no idea what time it is, and no idea who you are.  A few weeks ago, you thought you were Jesus; earlier you thought you were John the Baptist; and as of now, you’re just nobody.  You find yourself waking up in the woods, and you see two massive, blue, translucent pyramids in the distance.  A giant fence with beautiful plants lining the top reaches to the sky right in front of you, and it separates you from the pyramids.  You have no idea what’s going on.

Because of your studying in life, you’ve come to associate pyramids with ancient Egypt, and ancient Egypt with slavery; so you run. As you run, each house you pass has black, tall, shadowy figures with pointy horns staring at you.  Because of your experiences in life, you’ve come to associate black, shadowy figures with dead spirits (at best), and dead spirits with the land of the dead.  You are sure that you are in “Sheol,” the land of the dead.  But wait – you don’t belong in Sheol…why are you here? You keep running because you don’t belong in the land of the dead.  You must break out; you must find a way to safety.

Also associated with the idea of shadows, in your mind, is a place from an old C.S. Lewis novel called “the Shadowlands.”  Is Aslan here?  Are you actually in Narnia?  You reach out for Aslan, and when you believe he’s with you, you gain courage.  But courage for what?  Where are you, and where are you going?  What were those pyramids?  Who are these shadowy figures?  You get angry and punch something, which happens to be an expensive car window. Not good.

Not long after, you see bright lights in the distance and you hear someone yelling.  Your contacts aren’t in, so you can’t see who they are.  When anyone with a vision problem is in a state of vulnerability to hallucinations, hallucinations will fill in the missing vision.  For just a brief moment, you see someone pointing a weapon at you, so you throw your hands up, and say, “Oh, wait,” and laugh uncomfortably.  For just a split second, you realize something’s not right.  But it’s too late.  You see a string flying at you, and it turns out to be packed with electricity. Your suspicions are confirmed by the pain: “This is hell, the land of the dead; and I’m going to break out.”

You pull one string out because, frankly, it hurts. Then you get tackled, and you punch whoever is tackling you.  The hallucinations fill in the gaps of confusion, and you believe these are Nazis attacking you.  You resist, even though you believe losing is inevitable since you’re surrounded.  Clench after clench of electricity seizes your body, causing every muscle in your body to simultaneously spasm and go paralyzed. Lying on your stomach, you can’t see, you can’t breathe, and you can hardly move because you’re paralyzed by the gripping vice of whatever is surging through your body.  You still can’t figure out what’s going on because your brain has simply been overloaded with confusion.  After hurling a few insults at the supposed Nazis, and after hopelessly calling Aslan for help, you blackout.

The Aftermath

As you may be able to tell from that story, people experiencing psychosis are not overwhelmed by their own evil emotions; they’re overwhelmed by confusion, and it’s frustrating.  To have had someone come up to me that night and speak some truth into me, grounding me in reality, and comforting my erratic brain would have prevented what would follow.  Unfortunately, I wound up charged with felony assault on an officer, resisting arrest, and damage to property.  The hallucination I had punched was, in reality, a police officer, and the electricity was seven tases that put me in the hospital for a month. When my kidneys started working again and I was allowed to leave the hospital, it was off to court to be tried for assaulting a police officer.

Wait, charged for assault?  A criminal?  Evil? How was I now these things?  After having no idea who I was for several weeks, I was now seeing myself as evil, a criminal, and a danger to society. Earlier that year, I had been in a small group at church every week, playing in the church band, and enjoying night after night at my friends’ houses as we discussed our faith and our favorite writers.  What happened?  I left reality as somewhat of a good person and came back like a criminal.  I was, again, confused.

Did I mean to punch a police officer that night? No; but that’s what my future employers will see.  Am I evil and a threat to society?  No; but that’s how I viewed myself for almost five years.  Was I totally innocent in breaking that car window?  No; but we made reparations outside of court.  I did not mean to do what I was charged with doing that night; but future employers, friends, and a potential spouse will believe I did unless I find the favor to give a Socratic apology.

I am immensely grateful that the District Attorney and the Judge undoubtedly took my state of mind and mental health into account during the trial.  My felony charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, I was put on supervised probation for 18 months, and I wasn’t even asked to do community service.  They simply asked me to see a psychiatrist and stay out of trouble – which I have done impeccably since, and much to the benefit of my mental health.  Jail diversion programs and mental health courts are an existing, yet widely unknown of, way to prevent what happened to me from happening to someone else.

What Can You Do?

As I mentioned in my last post, Mens Rea standards require a criminal prosecution to prove that a person not only committed a given act but that the person also intended to commit the same act.  Last year, the General Assembly passed HB 379: An Act to Assist the Criminal Law Recodification Working Group, which was an encouraging first step towards a more equitable penal code.  At the direction of HB 379, Senators and Representatives are now reviewing our existing penal code and, among other things, implementing a Mens Rea requirement in some places.  If your representatives are on the Joint Legislative Committee on Justice and Public Safety, where penal codes are currently being reviewed, you have the opportunity to request a consideration of mental health conditions as reforms are made.  The implementation of a mens rea requirement can prevent people living with schizoaffective disorders from facing the legal, mental, and social troubles which I experienced.

Considering the intent and desire of persons who experience psychosis preserves their dignity as human beings and can prevent unwarranted trauma after an already traumatizing event.  People who suffer from hallucinations and delusions should not have to live in the paralyzing fear of being prosecuted for a mental health-related accident.  Just ask yourself: How would you feel seeing your son standing in a courtroom, charged with assault, after surviving both psychosis and near-death by taser?

Written by: Jordan Parks, NAMI NC Intern