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What I Told My Son About the Random Screaming Woman

Photograph by Twenty20

This past month, my son and I have encountered a number of "crazy" moments that I found hard to explain. Because, you see, when dealing with the mentally ill, it's not right to use the word crazy. Even if the situation is crazy, we don't want to teach our children to just write off other human beings who behave differently than others as "crazy."

We do, however, want to give our children the tools to handle what can be uncomfortable and sometimes scary situations.

Our first experience happened in the grocery store. We were checking out and, all of the sudden, a woman in the next aisle began screaming at the top of her lungs in a gruff scary voice. She was unintelligible, but I could make out the word "coupons" and a few expletives thrown in there.

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I noticed a mother with a little girl my son's age react to this situation by putting her hands over her daughter's ears and usher her quickly out of the grocery store. As I didn't feel we were in any particular danger, and a store clerk was on his way to help the woman out, I decided to take a different tactic.

"Whoa," my son said, "this is crazy."

"Well," I responded, surprising myself at my calm voice, "Here's the deal. You know how there are people in this world with physical handicaps? Like they only have half an arm or they have a leg that doesn't work so they walk in a different way?"

"Yes," he said.

"This is the same thing. The woman who is yelling over there? Her brain isn't working right. She doesn't know how to act and probably can't help it. So if you are ever in a situation like this, don't stare, just keep about your business. And if you feel scared, it's OK to walk away."

"Is she going to do something to us?" he asked me.

"No, because I am here with you and you are safe," I reassured him.

I felt like it had been a great teaching moment and, as our week continued, I was more aware of the many mentally handicapped people in Los Angeles, adults not acting exactly right. Like the woman outside the pharmacy talking to herself animatedly or the man running across Hollywood Blvd., shirtless, making noises like a monkey.

"He's pretending to be an ape!" my son says. "Weird."

"Yeah, but remember what we talked about. His brain probably isn't working right."

It seemed as if my son's comprehension of mental illness was well on it's way to understanding. And I felt proud that I hadn't shielded him like the other mom in the grocery store did. It's better to know these things than to sweep them under the rug.

Well, a week later, Roan came to see a rehearsal of my latest show at the Groundlings. I am a sketch comedian and improviser, and my performances range from somewhat grounded and sarcastic or pointed to flat out, well ... crazy? He's at the age where I like to share with him the stuff that's age appropriate. I mean, experts say it's very good for kids to see their parents at work, particularly if their parents love their work. It's healthy for them to see their parent loving something in addition to being a parent.

On this particular rehearsal, Roan witnessed me dressing up in a huge ridiculous wig speaking kindly, but weirdly, to her pet lizard. I was playing a crazy person.

"OK mom, that was funny. But were you making fun of a person with a mental handicap?" Roan was taking me to task.

"Ummmm," I stammered. "No. No! Never! You see, in my work, we try to find the eccentric ..."

"Eccentric?"

"Eccentric, I mean, it means, OK, well, it means crazy. But grounded like crazy. Like, I'm not crazy crazy, I'm fun crazy. Like a fun weird person. That's what actors do," I say.

"If I saw that person in the grocery store, I would not think she was fun and weird. But you do what you want," my son says.

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Life imitating art or art imitating life. Either way, I guess my son can say his mom taught him about crazy. In more than one way.

As we continued our week I noticed that, if you're looking for it, there are a lot of mentally handicapped people. Especially in a big city like Los Angeles.

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