When my son was young, he was beautiful. He was a perfect child. Oh, I know, every mother thinks that, but he had a smile like a Botticelli angel and the sweetest disposition in the family. He was the child who brought home bouquets of wild flowers for me to put in a jelly jar over the kitchen sink. When I was not feeling well, he often made me cups of herb tea and brought me cinnamon toast. He was never any trouble and he had the best sense of humor. Anything could make him laugh! He would double over in ecstasy over the simplest things--a Laurel and Hardy movie, the neighbor's dog or a corny joke. His face turned red and the veins in his neck stood out. Laughter simply overwhelmed him.
He is the youngest of five children and the only son from my second marriage. After his dad and I divorced, I made every effort to include other men in his life, such as his older brothers and male friends. His life was as normal as I could make it; nevertheless it must have been difficult at times. But he was always a thoughtful, considerate, quiet boy. My daughter called him "the golden child." He was like a happy puppy-everybody loved him. He is still an extremely handsome young man, tall, kind, gentle, and full of ambitions and goals. But a lot of those goals may never be reached due to an insidious, knee-buckling disease called bipolar illness.
Bipolar illness (or manic depression) is a neurobiological, hereditary chemical imbalance of the brain. Thirty percent of all children born to a couple where one parent has the illness also are born bipolar. If both parents suffer from it, there is a sixty percent chance that their children will inherit the illness. These are figures I had to learn the hard way. Let me tell you how it happened.
When I first met Ethan's father, I had just started to recuperate from a difficult twenty-year marriage and a difficult divorce. He was a soul mate. We loved the same things-he liked to cook, we listened to music together, we loved the ocean and camping out. I had no idea that he carried the seed of an illness that would devastate my family and handicap the life of our son forever. We married after a year of dating, and a year later, our son was born.
When Ethan arrived, I was a healthy forty years old. My husband and I were full of joy-life and a second marriage had given us both a second chance. I even made friends with my husband's first wife, who in her kind way tried to warn me:
"He is not what he seems to be," she told me. She had no idea what was wrong.
There must have been signs along the way, but I was so happy I refused to see them. Some of the symptoms that my husband showed included a complete disregard for time. If we were late for some event, he never got upset or angry. He also said to me one time that he could "move the clouds away." It was a rainy day, and I thought he was joking. Apparently, he wasn't. This is called "magical thinking," and he honestly thought that he could. Another symptom, which I believed at first, was that he had met many famous people. I had met some myself when I lived in New York City, so why shouldn't he have?
Other delusions came along about four years after we married and our son was born. These included the belief that he had a lot of money but the government was keeping it from him; that helicopters flying over the beach were taking pictures of us; that the FBI was after him; or that we were being monitored over our CB radio. Later I learned that these were fairly typical of the paranoid delusions suffered by mentally ill people. Without medication, they do not see things as clearly as others. Everything is jumbled helter-skelter and "seen through a glass darkly…..".
When his father had his first all-out manic attack, our son was about three years old.
"They're listening to us!" my husband screamed at me. "I'm going to take the ax and chop up the CB radio!"
I had been thinking of leaving him and taking Ethan, but after weeks of such bizarre behavior, this was the final blow. "I'm taking Ethan and going to stay with my sister," I told him.
"You can go if you want, but you're not taking my son," he said, tugging at the child in my arms. Ethan started to cry. Up until that time I had absolutely no knowledge of just how sick my husband was or what it would mean to us as a family. I stayed with him for three days to be near my son, and then left with Ethan under the pretext of going to the store to get some milk. After that, we stayed with my sister's family for a while.
Soon afterwards, his manic episode escalated. There were threats, separation, and finally a diagnosis of the illness, and a short time of medication where it seemed that Ethan's father was dramatically improving on the lithium treatment. We got back together for about three months. Like over half of manic-depressives, however, he went off his medication when he began to feel better and so the whole thing spiraled into darkness once again.
Finally, in desperation, on the advice of a family friend who was a psychiatrist, and knowing this time that I had to avoid a confrontation, I took Ethan and left for good. My heart was broken; this man had given me so much. He had given me a fine son, put me back together as a person and made me feel like a human being again. I will always be grateful to him for that. Now I had to do it all over again for myself.
Ethan was a healthy, happy child. The great love of his life was and still is fishing. He learned this from his dad and one of his older brothers when he was about two years old. He learned to swim at the Y, went to day-care, played volleyball and baseball, loved animals, and liked to watch Monty Python on TV. He had friends, and they would ride bikes and mess around outside getting dirty like all normal boys. I sent him to summer camp three years in a row until he finally had to beg me to let him stay home one summer, which I did. That summer he took care of our cats and the neighbor's dog, which had twelve puppies. He was very responsible for a twelve-year-old boy. He is still a very responsible young man.
There were no signs during his childhood that he might have inherited his father's illness. As a matter of fact, a pediatrician told me once that if he had not shown any symptoms by the age of five, he probably would not carry the disease. I found out later that this is not true. Sometimes the illness shows up early, with temper tantrums and behavior problems, but more often the symptoms do not show until mid-teens or even later into the early twenties. In a way, I was glad that I did not know, because I might have treated him differently. As it was, he was raised just like any normal, active, bright and funny boy who was such a joy to be around.
I think things started to go wrong when one of our best friends died. This young man was twenty-three years old and a close friend of the family. He and Ethan were buddies, and they did a lot of things together such as fishing, going to movies, etc. He was found in his apartment shot with his own twenty-two. The consensus was suicide though there were no warning signs that led anyone to believe this could happen.
I thought that my son handled this loss very well at the time. Later he was to tell me that this was when he first started feeling depressed. This did not cause his first breakdown, but I have read since that a traumatic event like this often triggers the downward spiral into the depressive side of the illness.
Within a year, I made a move that I would come to regret deeply. I moved from the small college town we had been living in to a seacoast town. I think I did it partly for his sake, though part of it was a selfish move on my part in the hopes of advancing my income. I was getting older and realized that, with only a limited amount of education at my age level, I had a narrowing window of opportunity in the job market.
The move was a disaster. Not only did I hate my job, but the social setup was
drastically different from what we had been used to. No more nice, quiet little
afternoons with small music groups in the park. Everything that happened was at
the beach, which was full of tar, empty beer cans, and drugged-out children. I
am still angry with myself for making such a move, even though I did it with
every good intention of improving both our lives. But we all know what the road
to hell is paved with!
Being a good child, my son tried to conform to the social scene around him. I asked him what his 3,000-student high school was like and he told me, "Well, there are the kids with the Gucci loafers and then there are the rest of us!"
Ethan was around fifteen when a friend first brought him home drunk. At first it seemed almost funny. He even made a weak attempt to try and vacuum the apartment, which he had promised to do that day, and ended up zonked out on his bed to sleep it off. I chalked it up to teenage hi-jinks, and forgot about it. Then, of course, there was the day when I followed him behind the garage and caught him smoking a joint. Now that I look back on it, I wonder that I was not more upset at the time than I was.
I had survived a twenty-year marriage to an alcoholic, with all the verbal abuse that entailed. A little bit of pot seemed almost anticlimactic after that. I had no idea yet that there was anything wrong with my son except youthful experimentation.
Over the next year or so, I received more warnings, this time from other parents whose children were also in trouble. I found it hard to believe that these things were true of this kind, gentle boy. "He's inhaling paint thinner." "He's taking LSD." I refused to believe it. I couldn't admit to being a bad mother, and that's what this meant to me--that I had failed him terribly somewhere along the way. I never realized at that time that there was something much more catastrophic than my personal feelings of failure to be dealt with.
When he came to me at the end of his Junior year and said that he just could not finish school that semester, that he was going to drop out, I went up to the high school with its 3,000 students and its armed guards in the hallways and signed papers for him to become officially through with school. I was heartbroken. He had an IQ of 158; this could not be happening. But things were going to get a whole lot worse!
Ethan's first psychotic breakdown came the evening before his seventeenth birthday. During all this time, he had tried hard to follow house rules, to call me and let me know if he was going to be away from home overnight. I found out later that he had already started "cutting" on himself, a sure symptom of a very serious illness. Then one evening, all of his defenses disintegrated like a house of cards.
"I hate you all!!!" he screamed. "You're a bitch!!!"
I do not remember all the ugly things he screamed at me, or what triggered that first episode; looking back on it now, I am pretty sure it was precipitated by a reaction to some of the drugs he took. I guess that I have blocked out of my memory a lot of the more painful details. They were full of dreadful images; he screamed verbal garbage for what seemed like hours. When he finally fell asleep, exhausted, I called a psychologist I worked with and persuaded her that this was indeed an emergency. Ethan went with us calmly to the hospital the next morning, looking pale and distraught.
This was his first hospitalization in the inpatient psychiatric unit. It would not be his last. His girlfriend baked him a little cake for his birthday that day and put some violets from the yard around the outside. I don't know if he ever got to eat it or not. As I walked away from the unit where my perfect child was locked up, he screamed after me: "You put me in here, you get me out!!!"
Nightmare time for the whole family started at that moment. There were release times when he would come home for a weekend or a week. Friends showed up and sometimes people I had never seen before appeared in our kitchen. This sudden plunge into the world of mental illness was something that I was poorly prepared for. I did not know what to expect, but remembered what one of his father's doctors told me when I asked him about bipolar illness, "Expect the unexpected."
Strange and ominous people showed up at odd hours--things disappeared from our house. Someone stole his new bicycle from our front porch one morning, as I was cooking breakfast. My son and I lamely tried to go on with our lives but nothing lasted very long or appeared real. I was feeling my way in the dark. I was told that he had been given a dual diagnosis of manic depression and substance abuse, which I found out later is not uncommon with this kind of disease.
The first thing that the hospital did for me was to put ME in therapy, which seemed like sending coals to Newcastle. Later I was very grateful for it. I had no idea what we were heading into, but I was scared to death. And one of the things my counselor told me at the time was, "You know, no matter what happens, he can never live at home again with you."
This seemed brutal. My poor, sick son, not live at home where I could take care of him? Later I was to find out that it was one of the kindest things she could have told me. But right then I was heartsick, scared, and determined to prove them wrong. So when they released him with his lithium, I took him home, bought him another bike, and tried to go on with our lives. We moved inland and set up housekeeping. Again.
I can't even imagine what the next three months were like for my son. He is a very courageous person, and somehow he kept trying to appear as normal as ever. But there was increased drug use, branching out from pot to LSD and ecstasy. Hallucinogens seemed to be his choice, and knowing more about the illness now than I did then, it seems logical. They were, after all, mood changers. It is easy now to look back and say that oh, the drugs caused the illness. But I believe that the illness came before the drug use.
Ethan was always a conformist. He wanted to be liked and to do well. He was a hard worker in school-one of his fifth grade teachers said to me once, "I wish I had a whole roomful of Ethans!" And he was always very firm in his convictions of who he was. In other words, when the drug use began, he was self-medicating. I do not think that any of us understood the dangerous situation he was in. I thought that as long as he took his lithium every day, he was going to be OK and everything would be as it was before. I did not understand the nature of the beast.
Mental illness is an insidious trap. Anyone who is faced with it, particularly a sensitive, intelligent child like my son, is pulled into a vortex of distorted images and hideous fears. Nothing appears as it is. Familiar faces become evil and threatening. And the drug use intensifies this.
When he called me at a friend's house one evening and said that he wanted to kill himself, I don't know how I did it but I managed to stay calm. I had been working in a psychiatric hospital with disturbed children, so I asked him if he would promise me that he would not harm himself for twenty minutes. I told him that I would get someone there to the apartment as soon as possible, and that I needed him to promise not to harm himself until then. Then I called the nearest sheriff's department, told them the situation and asked them to send someone over to our apartment.
It took a couple of more phone calls, panic, and a lot of prayer, but finally my son was taken to the nearest hospital and again hospitalized in a complete psychotic breakdown. This time, Haldol was used to subdue him. This is a very common drug, and not everyone reacts well to it. My son was one who did not. From what the doctors told me, he was literally climbing the walls. Manic depression is a very cruel sickness in that many of the treatments seem worse than the disease.
I do not have the complete list of all the different drug treatments that were used on my son over the years. I know what he is taking now, and can remember a few of the things that did NOT work, but that's about it. I have learned to live from day to day and sometimes from week to week. But I guess in the beginning I thought that manic depression was curable. I have learned since that it is controllable, but there is no cure.
Sometime during this second phase of his illness, when he was in and out of local hospitals and trying all these different drugs, both prescribed and street drugs, I went to meet with a lady psychiatrist who, after having examined Ethan while he was still under the Haldol, told me in no uncertain terms that I should "put him in the state hospital and forget about him. He has fried his brain."
I can't imagine telling a parent something like that in those particular words, no matter what the circumstances. I can't help but think that some people do not really belong in a caring profession, and that some become hardened to the pain of their patients to the point where they are no longer effective caregivers. I am very glad of two things-that I did not listen to this person, and that when he became ill my son was a minor and so I had some control over the kind of treatment he received.
But somewhere along this journey it became evident that he was not ever going to get better unless his drug use was controlled. The illness was leading him into trying to find anything that would relieve the terrors, and the drugs he used were increasing the psychosis, and somewhere along the way this would have to be dealt with. And so comes the next part of our story. On the advice of his original doctor, my son went into a rehab program called "Straight, Inc."
Somewhere in the late eighties, someone decided that drug use in adolescents could be scared out of them by intimidation from their peers. "Scared Straight" was the term that was used. It was the time of "Tough Love" and "Straight, Inc." was an offshoot from this attitude. It was also a great moneymaking scheme.
Basically, the theory was that if you take a young person, handcuff him in the back of a "police cruiser" (which I found out later was a fake), drive him in handcuffs to a town three hundred miles away, put him in a locked unit, take all of his possessions away from him including his clothes except the ones he has on his back and put them in a "common room" where they are accessible to all the other inmates, this will somehow scare him into becoming straight and sober. They were treated like criminals. They were shouted at, physically abused, embarrassed, and bullied. I am not exaggerating. There were about six of these programs around the country and CBS did a review of this scam shortly after Ethan's "incarceration."
I thought I was doing the right thing. After all, I wanted him to get "better," didn't I? I still weep over what I put him through "for his own good." You don't punish mentally ill people. They are not to blame for their illness or their genes. It is very lucky that somehow in the core of his being, my son's sense of justice was still extremely strong. He fought back. Literally. They called me one day and said they couldn't control him, and that we would need to come and pick him up. Coincidentally, they also found out that I couldn't afford to pay for any long-term treatment. His lifetime psychiatric medical coverage had run out after three months of a previous hospitalization, and so he was of no use to them any longer.
When we finally got him out, he had bruises all over his back where the other young people had hit him. My sister and I sat in the waiting room of the "hospital" and waited for over six hours, while they tried to recover his clothes and his belongings. Several things never did turn up, including his winter jacket, and while we were sitting there waiting for them to release him, I saw a boy walk through wearing one of Ethan's shirts. We finally had to call the local police in order to get him out of that place. I found out from them later that this was not the first time that something like this had happened.
I have a written copy of the CBS show "Sixty Minutes" about "Straight, Inc." and one of the stories told there was that of the young son of a well-to-do lawyer who was put into the program to "cure" his drug addiction. His older brother and father came to see him one time while he was there, and his brother went in to visit with him and he was committed, also. Eventually all of the "Straight, Inc." programs were closed down for fraud.
We don't talk about this time now. I have a hard time just writing about it. Shortly after he got out of there, my son had another breakdown (not surprisingly) and was committed to the state hospital for one year. I moved back to our old hometown, which was closer to the hospital, and found a job at the university where I used to work. We were in it for the long haul.
One year in the state mental hospital was a time of trials and tribulations. In the beginning, it was like walking in sand with one step forward and two steps backward. On the one hand, I could go on with my life. I knew he was safe there. The knowledge that he had regular meals, some kind of medical care, that he was not out on the street taking drugs and getting hurt at least let me sleep at night. On the other hand, no one really knew when or if he would ever get out.
The mixed salad of drugs he was given did not seem to work at first. Although the hospital was a couple of hours' drive away from my home, I managed to get up to see him as often as possible, often every week. Somewhere in my inner depths I felt that it was important to him that we not abandon him. Many of the young people there did not receive visitors very often. They shuffled down the hallways and couldn't look you in the eye. It felt as if the pain of seeing a loved one was just too great to bear. One Christmas day when Ethan was in the hospital, his stepbrother and I were the only two visitors to the ward. No one else's family had bothered to come.
I sent packages every week or so, and tried to include things I thought might trigger good memories like pictures of our family when he was a child, books, magazines, candy bars, yes, sad to say, cigarettes, videotapes (I sent him a bunch of Charlie Chaplin tapes and Laurel and Hardy, two of his favorite comedy teams). I brought him balloons and some plants, though the hospital wouldn't let him keep them in his room. Being a patient of the state, he did not get a private room, so I assume this was for his own protection as much as anything.
In the long run, I think I sent them for myself as much as for him. But I do believe that when something like this happens, a person needs to try to intervene-to try and communicate with the person who is suffering so much more than they are. It is difficult to comprehend what these people are going through unless you have experienced the same thing yourself. I sent him teddy bears and homemade brownies, gum, and tapes for his Walkman.
He turned eighteen in the state hospital and was immediately moved from the juvenile unit to the adult unit. That was terrifying. It is a lot easier to live with people your own age who stand a fifty-fifty chance of ever getting out of the hospital than it is to move in with a bunch of recidivists who have given up hopes of a future of any kind whatsoever. He was the youngest one on the unit, a very vulnerable, scared, and handsome young man. When he finally got out of the hospital, he slept with all his clothes on for years. I believe that the reason for this was that he was scared to death of homosexual attacks.
I can't thank the people enough who took care of him during these months. I am sure that many of his memories of the hospital are bad, and not everyone was as patient and kind as he would have liked. The visits became somewhat better as a more effective combination of drugs took effect. Along about the last quarter of the year, the mental health people from our area stepped in and began having weekly visits with him, and I kept in close touch with them to monitor his recovery. They were wonderful to him, and helped him get a little part-time job in the store in the hospital.
After a transfer to a smaller hospital at the end of his yearlong stay, he was released with $30 in his pocket and a ticket to wherever he wanted to go. He went back to the seaside town where we had lived before he became ill. I was heartsick, but managed to find him a bed and breakfast where other mental patients had stayed and got him in touch with their mental health program. I asked him later why he ever wanted to go back, and he said to me, "I wanted to go back to where it all fell apart and try to put it back together again." After about six months of floundering, trying to fit into a place where he used to live, he called me one night and asked to come home.
I remembered what the counselor had told me, and got in touch with our local MHMR program again. They helped me find a room for him in a house next door, and he came back home. It would be nice to think that that was the end of it all, and that with proper medication he would be fine. But it's not that easy. There's more to the story.
The local mental health people did not have room for him in their halfway house at that time, so between my checking in with him every day and bringing his meals, and their visiting once a week, my son managed to make it through nine months alone. This is what a lot of mental health programs do, I found out later. They put someone through months or years of rigid programming, and then if they are legally an "adult," they find a nice, quiet hole for them somewhere and let them go. It is a "sink or swim" situation. It did not work for Ethan.
This is in no way a criticism of the mental health people themselves. They are dedicated and overworked, stressed out, and have to learn to survive on a shoestring budget. However, this method did not work with my son. He had been too sick for far too long. His childhood had been interrupted before he was even through high school and he had missed out on all the social skills that he normally would have acquired during those years. There had been no dating except for one girl, no proms, and no ball games. He was robbed of his adolescence.
In the house next door, his life had shrunk down to the size of the one room where he lived. He suffered from side effects from the medications he was taking. These included talking to himself and a terrible trembling of the hands, something he suffers from still only not quite as drastically. Being out in public was frightening, and, when we did go out to eat, I realized that all he could manage was a hamburger because he could pick it up with both hands and it didn't fall off of his fork. After nine months of barely surviving, he went back to the state hospital. This time, however, he signed himself in.
Well, when this happened I thought that this was probably for good. For myself, I think this was the lowest point in my life. Up until then, I believed somehow that perhaps this was a bad dream, and that even with all the hurdles and despair, he would get better eventually. I read everything I could get my hands on, and I worked with the MHMR people. I went to 12-step meetings, and got involved with our local NAMI group (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) here in town. But in my heart, I had started to give up.
I did not bet on the human spirit or my son's good soul. I forgot what a fine person he is, and was ready to quit hoping. But he was not. Somehow in the nine months of so-called freedom, he had gained enough courage to buckle down and get better. Maybe the regular medication also helped. This time he went to his therapy; he attended school there and got good marks. He got his GED in the state hospital. Instead of getting a snarl and a swear word when we went to visit, we got hugs. I never thought it was perfect; it never has been or never will be. But there was hope at last--there was a light at the end of the tunnel. MHMR had assigned a case manager for him, and, when he got out of the hospital, they did the best thing they could have done for him-he went right into their halfway house and spent a year and a half there.
I truly think that without this part of the program, he would never have made it and probably would still be up on the unit smoking his life away. But the halfway house gave him a chance to retrain himself into a community again. The people who lived there took care of their own room; they did the cleaning, the cooking, the laundry…they had chores; and they also had supervision to see that they took their meds at a particular time. It was like a home only with a full-time supervisor, and I give thanks every day for this program.
We were very lucky to have had such good care. In its fervor to "save money," the state we live in took $60,000,000 away from the mental health programs recently and now there is no more halfway house. Support was dropped, along with forty of our MHMR employees and a couple of substance abuse programs. Aftercare is crucial for people with mental illness, because along with the debilitating disease itself, they face social problems that can be insurmountable unless some kind of retraining is provided. When a person has spent years of no interaction in a normal society, it is very difficult to expect him or her to just pick up where they left off. It is like turning them loose in a totally dark forest with no lantern and no map, and expecting them to find their way home. It can't be done.
After a year and a half in the halfway house, we were left to pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and try to make some sense out of what we had been through. The tornado of mental illness had blown through our lives and we had to rebuild from the ground up. When he was released from the halfway house, my dear son went into what they call supervised housing for a while. He lived alone in an apartment, with occasional visits from his MHMR case manager. Since then he has become much more independent. He has had a series of part-time jobs and has accumulated over two years' of college credits in over five years. He found that he could only take two classes a semester at best, and it was a struggle to try and work and go to school. But he persevered. Several times he had to drop a class because he had bitten off more than he could chew. The Disability Office at the university became a great support for him.
It has been fourteen years since he had his first breakdown. He has lived in
several apartments, has had one serious relapse. He had a devastating breakdown,
and, after a terrifying psychotic episode, signed himself into a local hospital
again for a month. Complete recovery that time took over a year, but he did a
lot of that on his own, with the help of a very fine doctor and a better
combination of medications. At the present time he is taking Depakote for the
manic depression, Abilify to control the psychotic episodes, Klonopin to help
him sleep, and Indural to control the tremors.
His life has not been easy nor will it ever be. He has a hard time organizing his time. His apartment is often in chaos. He has memory problems and his concentration is often difficult. Recovery is an ongoing thing for him. He is continually learning what his limitations and his boundaries are. He lives alone in an apartment where he has some of the things he loves, including a cat. He goes fishing often, and works part-time. He can only earn a certain amount every month if he wants to keep his Social Security disability check and his Medicaid, which pays for his four medications he has to take every day. The cost of these would be almost $1,000 a month if he had to pay for them himself. His life is difficult and his future is unpredictable. But he has an excellent doctor whom he trusts, an indomitable spirit, and the present combination of medications seem to be working.
My son has gone back to fishing again. He has a boat he has been working on, and I am sure he gets much pleasure from this. Perhaps some day he will make a living at something he enjoys so much. I hope so. We see each other a couple of times a week, especially when he is broke or wants a meal. We spend some time together and I find a great deal of comfort in knowing that things are better for him now. They will never be perfect, but he has gained a certain amount of control over his life and some satisfaction in everyday things. He has dropped out of school this semester. Right now he is looking for another job.
I am writing this account of his story mainly to help other people who have had to go through the same things that we did. I wanted to let them know that there is hope for people with mental illness; that no matter how bad things get, there is still the core and soul of the person you once loved. Mental illness is treatable. And I wanted to let my son know, too, that I know that neither he nor I have ever given up and neither will the rest of his family. He will always be the golden child that everyone loves.
We will always see in him that small boy who rode his bike through the dusty
side roads and ran through the meadows with the neighbor's dog-who got bubblegum
stuck in his hair and loved to watch "Dr. Who" and "Monty
Python," and who caught the fifty-four-pound amberjack deep-sea fishing
when he was eleven. That boy is still there and he has a strong heart. He is
very much loved. I am sure he was put on this earth for a purpose and that he
has a guardian angel that keeps an eye on him. And I would say to those parents
and families out there who have gone through what we have, hang in there, these
people are precious and you should never give up on them. And to my dear son, I
would say what I overheard a friend of mine say to his daughter once over the
phone--"You are my heart."
Winter, 2003: When I started out writing this narrative, my objective was simply to document as closely as possible the series of events that happened following my son's first breakdown at the age of seventeen.
My son is now thirty-one years old. Much of his improvement is due to his own determination and "true grit." He spent three years after he got out of the mental health halfway house taking Tai Kwon Do lessons, and in spite of the devastating side effects of the meds, he learned to have control over his body and his concentration. He progressed through the different belts to earn a Black Belt, as well as gaining insight into his own limitations and abilities, both emotional and physical.
Ethan has a weight bench. When he first got it, he painted the words "Peace," "Love," "Joy," "Patience," and "Happiness" on the outsides of the weights, so that when he lifted them, he could read these words. This is called "imprinting," and whether anyone told him about this or he thought it up on his own, I never asked. I just thought that it was an extremely resourceful way of using everyday items to create a positive mood.
He stays in touch with friends and makes trips a couple of times a year to the coast, where he fishes and visits with people he knew in high school. He has learned to be a good driver, and this gives him the freedom he needs to work, go to his doctor's in a nearby town, visit friends, go to a movie, or just "hang out" at a nearby coffee house. Ethan is one of the most determined people that I know. Once he sets his mind to something, he does his best to follow through.
Even though I know that this illness is not something he will "get over," and that for the rest of his life he will have to go to bed with it, wake up with it, and take it with him wherever he goes, for the first time in thirteen years I feel that he is beginning to make his peace and get on with his life. I do not feel that I have to be there to pick him up every time he falls. Of course there will be bad times. But there finally may be more good ones than bad ones, at least for a while. I do not obsess over things that "could" happen to him any more. I find myself thinking of the possibilities for him, and the valuable qualities he presents for today and for the future. I feel very lucky not only to be his mother, but also his friend.
*For further information about mental illness, please contact your local Mental Health and Mental Retardation program, or go to the Web page for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill at www.nami.org.