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East Valley Tribune
Mary K. Reinhart, Tribune
Pam Kazmaier’s skin was crawling. For the first time in 12 years, she was without psychiatric medication.
After a few days at a Mesa hospital recovering from an intentional drug overdose, she was taken by ambulance to a locked ward of St. Luke’s Behavioral Health Center in Phoenix, arriving barefoot in her hospital gown.
Her 12-year-old son, Zack, who had tried to OD with his mom, was in the same place, on the pediatric ward. He’d been suicidal since he was 4, but his mom always stopped him. This time, however, while her husband and older son, Mike, were at church, Pam went along with their double-suicide plan and was being investigated by Mesa detectives. She’d already refused a police interview and her husband had hired an attorney.
Suicide seemed like a good idea at the time, since both struggled mightily with bipolar disorder. Zack had been deteriorating drastically in recent weeks and Pam was deeply depressed. Now she was locked up, cold, paranoid, facing child abuse charges and frantically worried about her son.
Zack was doing fine. Better than ever, in fact. His doctors at St. Luke’s were weaning him off the antidepressants that had made him want to die. For the first time since anyone in his family could remember, Zack seemed to be looking forward to the future.
When he was admitted on Oct. 1, 2003, he told the staff at St. Luke’s, “I would like to go home.”
“At times, I feel sad that I did not die and sometimes I feel happy that I am back with my family,” Zack told a psychiatric nurse.
But he was eating and sleeping and even making friends in the children’s unit. The staff there noted that Zack was making good progress during his stay.
They worried, however, that “he seems to share a belief system with his mother which seems somewhat unhealthy at this point.”
Indeed, as they shared a diagnosis, mother and son had melded in other ways, too. It was sometimes hard to tell where Zack ended and Pam began.
A former nurse, Pam had become obsessed with Zack’s care, meticulously charting his progress, sometimes hour by hour, in a 5-inch tab-organized binder. Zack’s school issues.
Zack’s medication management. Photos, report cards, medical records, drawings and her own daily reflections, with headlines like: “Anxiety and fears,” “Psychomotor agitation, hyperactivity” and “Excessive risk taking, reckless, impulsivity.”
She included quotes from teachers, doctors and Zack “I want to strangle myself slowly” and even recorded lists of reading scores and books he’d read.
While they were at St. Luke’s, one of Zack’s therapists visited Pam and told her how well he was getting along. He’d be released and be back at Field Elementary School in a few days. It was time for Pam to focus on her own recovery.
During two weeks of group therapy, with lessons on anxiety and anger and self-awareness, Pam learned many things about herself.
She learned she was obsessive compulsive.
She learned she had become enmeshed with Zack, beginning with his difficult birth, and, because of her mental illness, her nurse’s training, her maternal guilt and the daily grind of caring for everybody, she’d been unable to break free.
She learned she had lost herself so completely buried under the weight of Mormon Church requirements, cleaning up after three messy macho males, obsessively focused on Zack’s every move that she didn’t know how to get back.
Now, in addition to being a failure as a mother and wife, she was looking at more than 30 years in prison. Not that she cared. Her self-esteem was ground down so low that Pam probably would have willingly done the time.
“Dr. Holland grabbed me: ‘You’re going to be arrested at discharge.’” she wrote during her stay at St. Luke’s. “I feel so sorry for Kevin. Fitting justice for me though.”
Kevin was her husband, a Mesa police lieutenant and commander of the department’s bomb squad. In addition to juggling Zack and Pam’s attempted suicide and hospitalization, and looking after their 14-year-old son Mike, he was waiting for his colleagues to arrest his wife.
“The social worker called me a ‘mother-murderer.’” Pam wrote. “At the time, I thought I was helping Zack, Mike and Kevin. I had a real break from reality when I gave Zack his pills.”
During her two-week hospitalization, Pam wrote furiously on loose-leaf paper, in the margins of pamphlets, on the backs of handouts. She began making her recovery plan. She would exercise, get her hair cut and colored, drink herbal tea, take 15 minutes of sun every day, pray, do her nails, erase computer “research files” on Zack and get a new therapist, “just for me.”
While the staff at St. Luke’s worked on Pam’s self-esteem and she repeated a daily affirmation, “I am not their servant,” investigators were building their child abuse case.
Suicide notes found during a search of the Kazmaier home, Zack’s statement the morning after and a pediatrician’s opinion that he could have died from the pills provided probable cause to arrest Pam and, 10 days later, found sufficient to get a grand jury indictment.
Later testimony would indicate Zack had taken his regular night medication, four pills, for his bipolar disorder, hyperactivity and sleep problems and was never in any real danger. Still, she faced 30 years in prison.
Word of her pending arrest reached her longtime Mesa psychiatrist, Dr. John Jarvis, who wrote a letter on her behalf.
“This alarms me, since the dynamics of that behavior were more reflective of her compassion for her son, while nevertheless reflecting a moment of a serious lack of judgment at that point,” he wrote.
Her treating psychiatrist at St. Luke’s, Dr. Donald Holland, added his opinion: “Due to her psychiatric illness, it is my opinion that incarceration would be detrimental to her continued mental health care.”
During group therapy a few days before she was released, Pam scrawled on the handout: “I WANT TO STAY HERE.”
She was discharged from St. Luke’s Oct. 14 to police, who took her to East Mesa Justice Court and booked her on child abuse charges. Kevin picked her up and took her home.
Remarkably, the family was holding together.
Zack was shaky, but rebounding. Kevin and Mike were angry, but careful.
Pam still wasn’t sure if she wanted to live. She feared going back to the life they had. So many things had to change.
ABOUT AM’S STORY:
Information contained in these stories comes from court records and hearings, hospital and medical records, police reports, school records and interviews with the family and others involved in Pam Kazmaier’s case and her life.
Excerpt from Part 1:
Zack had been spiraling out of control for weeks, but no hospital would take him. Years of psychiatric medications and advancing puberty were buffeting his mind and body. He was manic, attacking brother Mike with a paper-towel rod and threatening to kill himself at every turn.
Sixth grade at Field Elementary School began with such promise, but now his teachers were saying they just couldn’t handle him.
His longtime psychiatrist adjusted Zack’s medications three times in September, then told Pam and Kevin Kazmaier to get used to their son’s bizarre behaviors. The family would learn later she was battling her own demons.
Pam was spiraling, too, but in the opposite direction. Her bipolar disorder, undiagnosed for most of her life, was banking dangerously low…
A little mania would have come in handy now. But it had abandoned her, leaving only the black hole of depression. She looked up as Zack walked into the bedroom.
“Mom, let’s kill ourselves,” he suggested, grinning from ear to ear.
He had tried so many times before. In fact, the boy had been trying to end his life for most of it. He’d put ropes around his neck, cut himself with knives, leaped from moving cars and nearly threw himself off the roof of a parking garage at Fiesta Mall.
His mother kept a blue suit handy for his funeral, fully expecting him to one day succeed, like his 14-year-old cousin before him, just a few months earlier. He shot himself with a gun that Pam and Kevin had given to his father.
Now, as she considered the burly, brown-eyed boy, it seemed like the only choice they had left.
“OK,” she said.
Together in death, Pam thought, they would be free.
No more of Zack’s outbursts at their Mormon Church ward and at Boy Scout meetings.
Pam was too tired to bother with killing herself. But the boy was bent on it, and she couldn’t let him go alone. In her psychosis, she reasoned she needed to protect her son on his journey to the other side, like a loving mother holds her child’s hand while crossing a busy street.
They would take their medicine — more than they should — and then drift off to sleep together. Zack gathered his pills. Pam collected her own, and began swallowing handfuls.
She didn’t need to help Zack take his; he’d been doing it four times a day for years.
Zack taped a note to the master bedroom door: “We are taking a nap.” They locked the door and pushed an antique oak dresser in front of it.
They wrote their goodbyes to Kevin and Mike and slipped the paper inside one of the pillow cases.
“Mike and dad we love you!” Zack wrote. “life iss to hard”
“Mike — Kevin — Your life will be better (without) us. Charlie — we’ll be seeing you!” Pam wrote. Charlie was her nephew, Zack’s cousin, who had killed himself.
“Do not take us to the hospital. Let us go,” read another note, tucked inside the Book of Mormon. “We can’t live in your world. Zack said give all my swords to Quentin. Mikey we love you with all our heart.”
Pam took a picture of Jesus off the wall and placed it between them on the quilt as she lay down on the bed next to Zack. They held hands. The room swirled, then went black.