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Sharing the struggle of mental illness

Posted February 25

BOISE, Idaho — Teenager Eric Walton says his battle with mental illness short-changed his childhood. Now at 17 years old, he's speaking out about the experience and his hope to change the future for others.

Walton was the anonymous, "out of control" son in a viral post his mother wrote, titled, "I am Adam Lanza's Mother." She wrote the post four years ago, right after 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot 26 students and staff members at Sandy Hook elementary.

Now the mother and son call themselves "accidental advocates" in the fight against the stigma of mental illness.

Walton described growing up with the disease as feeling trapped and having no control over his body. He said, "I was treated with a level of fear and also a bit of hatred." His outbursts were unpredictable and random. Someone just saying the wrong thing could set him off.

"I remember after one of his very long tantrums, he was just cuddled up against me and crying and he said, 'Mom I just want to be a zero. I don't want to be anymore,'" said his mom Liza Long.

He was 4 years old and didn't want to live. For years the family struggled to find him the right diagnosis and treatment. Before the age of 13, Walton found himself inside of a psychiatric hospital four times and juvenile detention four times.

"It destroyed what little hope I really had left," said Walton. He said the juvenile detention made him feel like a 'caged and contaminated freak. That wasn't me.'"

After Long's 750-word blog went viral, an East-Coast doctor who specializes in pediatric mental illness contacted the family in Boise, Idaho. Dr. Demitri Papolos, said he knew what was wrong with her son. The family flew out to Connecticut to meet with him and shortly after Papolos diagnosed Walton with bi-polar disorder. He's now on the correct medication and hasn't had an episode in four years.

Walton owns his diagnosis, but it doesn't control or define him. He said, "I have friends now. I'm successful in school and I don't have to be afraid of hurting people any more." He's also now planning to go to college, writing a novel and composing music.

He's also now speaking publicly about his experience. This past summer he gave a 16 minute Boise TED X talk. His message was one of hope and education. "Mental illness should be treated with respect and kindness not fear and stigma," said Walton.

His mother wants to call it something else. Long said, "Stigma is kind of a fluffy word, it really doesn't mean anything and the word I prefer is discrimination. That's the word that gets attention." So, she's drumming up attention across the country, in an attempt to bring mental illness out of the shadows.

"These are very life altering, very life changing conditions. People can learn to manage them. They can absolutely live successfully in the community," said Long. One of the keys, said Long is decriminalizing mental illness. "We have to get over that idea that people with mental illness are somehow bad or that they are somehow choosing that illness," said Long.

Although, Walton looks and acts like your typical teenager now, he said he doesn't consider himself a success story. He said, "I would consider myself a current success, but my life is far from over. I'm still a teenager."

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