Losing a Child to Mental Illness

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“Our love doesn’t stop. It grows around the pain ….”

I had an idea when I started this blog nearly two years ago that I would be brave enough to take some readers on a journey with me to find my homeless son. And I did write it, I suppose courageously, up to a point. I found Sean, but encountered an utterly changed child–delusional, paranoid and ravaged by mental illness and a life on the streets.

In my last contiguous chronicle, I had succeeded in getting intervention by a mobile crisis unit and watched as Sean was shackled in People’s Park and loaded into an ambulance bound for a psychiatric hospital. There my posts ended. At the very beginning.

In the ensuing months, Sean has cycled through operatically horrific episodes of hospitalizations, incarcerations and homelessness. He walked into traffic and was hit by a car and spent 5 months in hospitals only to release himself Against Medial Advice. He is now in a wheelchair, nearly catatonic, refusing help of any kind. He is also in one of the best psychiatric hospitals in the Bay Area, where he is being “stabilized” after his recent admittance. He was picked up in an alley, sitting in his own waste, convulsing.

I couldn’t write about any of this. I just held my breath and blundered through. But I want to now. Maybe not so much the outward journey of negotiating the nefarious mental health system, but what it feels like as a mother to grieve a living child. I have discovered there are so many of us, often sitting alone in our own pain. Mothers whose children are lost to drugs. Or to husbands, or courts, or through anger. Children get lost through our own failings and for no reason at all.

Our love doesn’t stop. It grows around the pain, misshapen, and even strengthened.

Schizophrenia has stolen my son. But I will not let him go.

I found him in the gutter

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My beautiful boy.

I know I shouldn’t be surprised by my growing aversion to write about my experiences searching the streets of Berkeley for my sweet, homeless son. Because this was the thick of it. The day I found him, literally, sleeping in the gutter–looking just as the very first street person I had encountered described him (“There’s a nice schizophrenic kid who sleeps under a blue blanket by People’s Park.”) And how I set up vigil across the street in that park, watching as a man emerged from his townhouse to stab the sidewalk around my son with a trash picking pole. And how I placed a paper bag of food by his covered head: all his favorites. Plain buttered bagels. Orangina. Smoked almonds. Even with jackhammers working the street, he did not rouse until the noontime sun had blazed the dew off the grass.

I watched him hungrily, trying to go unnoticed but unwilling to let him slip out of my sight as he had the day before. He quickly spotted me. He glowered a menacing, terrible look at me and I looked down, submissive as a dog. Furtive glances thereafter–from my knitting to him–as he slowly, mechanically ate the almonds and drank the water. He rose. He stuffed a blue blanket, his only possession, into a red plastic bag and slung it over he shoulder. Shooting me one last, forbidding look, he ambled barefoot down the sidewalk toward Telegraph Ave.

I kept space between us but I dogged him. At first I stayed on the sidewalk behind him half a block. But after he turned and blazed hostilely a few times, I began hiding behind things. I was ridiculous, like a Road Runner cartoon: I drew myself up skinny behind telephone poles. I slunk between car bumpers and slipped into door wells. He wasn’t fooled by any of it–not even my brilliant strategy of ducking into a bus stop with smoked-glass windows to view him unseen. That same thing that had told me where to find him — across 3,000 miles — let him know exactly where I was.

Sean picked cigarette butts off the sidewalk and smoked them. Once he sat for a long while on a wall and ate his bagel. I used that time to jump into a suitcase store on Shattuck Ave and hurriedly buy him a backpack. When he crossed the street, I did so too, and dipped into Walgreens to buy him some Marlboros. I don’t remember how I got the courage to approach him … or if I just got lucky and he started walking toward my bus stop “duck blind,” but I suddenly found myself beside him.

“I got you a backpack honey,” I said, handing it out to him. He stared into the street as if I weren’t there. “And some cigarettes,” I said hopefully. “I don’t want them,” he said, “and if you continue to harass me I’m calling the police.” There was a woman waiting for the bus who was standing between us and I could feel her unease.

“But it’s a backpack honey,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“I don’t know who you are,” he said, “but if you don’t stop harassing me I’m calling the police.”

“I’m your mother, Sean. I love you sweetheart,” I said. “Please. Please.”

He turned to the lady at the bus stop and said very politely: “Excuse me miss, do you think I could borrow your phone to call the police. This lady is bothering me.”

She mumbled something and moved away quickly.

“You can use my phone,” I said almost cheerfully. I held it out to him. He turned again to the street, with that stony, stoic look. He was against the wall, I knew, and didn’t know how to save face. Eventually, he just walked away.

During all of this–even before he woke up–I had been on the phone trying desperately to make contact with the Berkeley Mobile Crisis Unit and Berkeley Police for backup. I had learned the previous day that this mobile unit was designed for just these kinds of situations and had mental health workers who could evaluate him, and if needed, connect him to treatment and services. They kept promising me a unit would be there, but as the morning wore into afternoon they didn’t show up and I became more hysterical.

I began to realize the difficulty of coordinating this capture of my beloved quarry. It would require Sean to stay put for a while, which he eventually did. There’s an afternoon “feeding” in People’s Park every day by a homeless support group and Sean made his way there. I found a really fat tree to hide behind and started making another round of calls. “He’s here! He’s in People’s Park. This is what he looks like. Please please please come help me.”

First the Mobile Crisis lady showed up. She and I talked behind the tree and I pointed out Sean, describing his dazed and hostile condition, his destitution, how unrecognizable he was from the son I had left not three months earlier. Then the cops showed up. I stood in a tight knot behind the tree–the crisis lady had instructed me to stay as invisible as possible–terrified that Sean would spot the fuzz and make a run for it.

They converged on him and led him to a bench to talk. It all looked so civilized. I became terrified that they would be fooled by his politesse and do nothing. Please take him. Please take him. Please take him. My face was on the tree bark; I rocked my forehead back and forth as I cried and prayed.

The longer they were at it the more I feared the outcome. So I inched my way out to join the conversation if I could. I walked sideways in a crablike, unctuous manner–as if that would somehow make me less obtrusive. I pressed my hands together in actual prayer and mouthed the words please please to his interrogators. The mobile crisis lady stopped me as she saw me coming and motioned me to return to my tree.

A while later she came to me and reported that Sean seemed to be paranoid and delusional. She also said he claimed I was a child abuser. At that point, I only cared about one thing: Are you going to take him?

“Yes,”she said. “We’ll transport him to John George Psychiatric Pavilion and they will do a psychiatric assessment. I have to tell you, though,” she added. “You shouldn’t expect too much. He’s a sweet kid but I’ve seen a lot of this. He may have to cycle in and out for a long time. Even years. But he may come out of it okay eventually.”

What kind of fucking help was that supposed to be?

And so I hid behind my tree watching as my son, in handcuffs, climbed into an ambulance and sped away.