How does a good mom become the mother that kills her child and herself? With just a little research into the question, you find that mothers killing their non-infant children and themselves are a rarity. The reason why it happens is usually attributed to a severe mental illness (depression), guilt, and a desire to "save their child" from something.
There has been a lot said about the Kelli/Issy Stapleton case (if you haven’t heard about it, a married with three children, mid-forties mom attempted to kill herself and her 14 year old autistic daughter last week) but since I can’t shake my feelings about it, I have to write it out of me.
At first I really couldn’t sort out my own thoughts while being barraged with judgements and opinions on the situation... a system failure, a monster mother who should rot in prison, a child with disabilities who is perfect, a special ed teacher who "wrecked the plan", a child with acute autism who was violent and horrible to live with, a mother who was always fighting for her daughter.
Very few people have walked in Kelli Stapleton’s shoes (yet most people insist they don’t need to in order to judge her) but the majority of those who are walking in her shoes do not decide to kill themselves and their child. I think we can all agree that in her shoes or out of them, Kelli made the wrong choice, but I wonder... why did she come to believe it was the best choice?
What makes someone in Kelli’s situation turn to death as the solution? Death for her beloved child and death for herself.
My first thought would be the lack of a psychological and emotional support system. Yeah, she was a blogger, but who did she have in her inner circle that she could talk to about her deepest, scariest thoughts? Without someone to talk to, a suffering mother has only her own heartbreaking narrative in her head. People say she should have reached out for "help" but the truth is that is not possible. Had Kelli told anyone that she was thinking about killing herself and Issy, she would have been reported and admitted. She would have been judged and she might have lost all her children. Surely in her mind, that would have only made the situation worse. But that is what she needed most, someone to talk to about how bad she was feeling without the fear of her honesty being used against her.
My next thought was corrosion. Two constant forces ate away at Kelli’s ability to maintain a healthy view of the situation. Day after day, week after week... for about 12 years she worked with and against the system to try to help her child. Navigating the system is a roller coaster ride and as the main project manager, Kelli clearly was suffering from battle fatigue... in fact those are her own words. People have pointed out that she had finally gotten what the family needed for Issy... a personal care aide and six months of in-patient therapy but those things weren’t a cure-all for this family and sadly they were interventions that came too late. While Kelli was likely feeling a high from securing those wins, having her daughter rejected from school and being told she should home school her was certainly a burst to her hopes that life was going to get easier.
The second force was Issy herself. Kelli and her younger daughter were the main targets of Issy’s aggression. I’d like to say that I cannot imagine a child that difficult, but I kinda can. I have a littler, adorable version of Issy. My daughter is still manageable size-wise but she is well on her way to tearing up our family. For example, when Kimani is angry she seeks out Autumn so that she can pull her hair. When she is frustrated, she screams continuously until everyone around her is shaken up. What will it be like, I wonder, when I cannot just scoop her up and put her in a safe quiet place to chill her out? Will she still target Autumn when they are teenagers? Will she rip her hair out, bite her, kick her, punch her, throw her to the ground? What I don’t know is how it must feel to be attacked by a teenager every single day. Kelli said that Issy was a member of the "hard to love club" and I can see that. I can understand how over time having such a dysfunctional parent/child or sibling/sibling relationship could erode one’s ability to cope.
How could those forces have been ameliorated to avoid this trainwreck? For starters there should have been a whole-family behavior therapy plan with supports made available to this family back when it was first clear that their child was extremely aggressive and capable of great violence. There also should be a system coordinator available to a family that needs services of any sort, but particularly when the needs are this high. Long ago Kelli needed someone who was an expert at service coordination to help her through the paperwork and to show her what kinds of supports are out there. Don’t tell me she had that because I will tell you that’s bullshit. We have the Medicaid waiver for Kimani and a wonderful Medicaid service coordinator but I am still the one who has to do the majority of the workload finding what is available and running around/completing paperwork to get on lists to make it happen. And as for in-home behavior management help? Not all states have it, and even where they do the lists are so long that getting it is almost impossible. I know this because we are still waiting.
Am I blaming the victim here? No, no. Issy did not deserve to be hurt as a response to her disability. I am simply trying to understand how a caregiver’s perception of what is right can get skewed. Who knows what went on between mother and daughter in the couple of days between Issy’s discharge from the treatment center and Kelli’s attempted murder/suicide. But what we do know is that a horrible idea visited Kelli, probably not for the first time, and she bought into it.
Am I saying that what I wrote here is how the breakdown happened for Kelli? Again, no. I don’t know her. I am just working out in my head how a good mom to a child with severe aggression issues falls down through the years and loses her sanity concerning what is right for her and her loved ones.
So what am I saying then? That I get it. I am walking in shoes very much like the ones Kelli had on nine years ago. I can see how any person who loves someone like Issy or Kimani could over time deteriorate without good supports. I can see how someone could develop a very altered view of what is right, what is best. I can see how monsters are made. I wish that Kelli could have seen it too.
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