Dr. Wendy Walsh: Watching Joran van der Sloot's mother, Anita, on "Good Morning America" today, I was struck by both her openness and her avoidance.
She apologized to the family of Stephany Flores and expressed sadness about that family's loss, yet she also demonstrated the kind of flat emotion common to people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). No doubt the woman has been subjected to some serious traumatic stress -- her husband died suddenly in February, and four months later, her eldest son was arrested and confessed to murder in Peru. Not a good year for any mother.
One of the most common reactions to acute emotional pain is a kind of shutting down of emotional processes. It's nature's way of protecting the brain from deep psychic pain that could lead to dangerous behavior. And this phenomenon is evident here. When Joran's mother was asked how she had felt when she first heard the news that a dead woman had been found in her son's hotel room, her response was classic: "I was just complete ... shut. Complete shut. Numb. No feelings. Numb," she said.
Most illustrative of her need to avoid more pain right now was her admission that she will not visit her son in prison. "I'm not going to visit Joran in Peru," she said. "I don't have any feeling that it can add up to anything. I want to keep distance. I think it will bring emotions up that I'm not ready for right now. I'm not a police officer. I'm a mom."
Then she goes on to imply that her son is suffering from a mental illness, suggesting that he has bipolar disorder. Critics may say that she is helping to set up a legal defense based on insanity, but I see a mother who is at wit's end. It makes me think of other mothers who have been unable to get mental-health services for their children, either because they can't afford it or because the children are over 18 and decline help.
Here in America, we place so much emphasis on individual rights and freedoms that we do not forcibly hospitalize or medicate people unless they are an immediate threat to themselves or someone else. The problem with this liberal and well-intentioned law is that many mentally ill people do not have the capacity to make these decisions for themselves. The mother of a mentally ill young adult often has to watch in horror as the child she has loved and nurtured for eighteen years becomes lost on the streets and homeless because he or she has refused medication.
Joran van der Sloot had the financial wherewithal to get lost on the streets of the world and let his mental illness run the show. My heart grieves for this mother. She's dealing with two losses in four months -- and the public shame that comes from those who make motherhood a pathology.