Taking Refuge in the Appearance of Life

img_4194The snow is only fluttering now. It is large as goose down and I can follow a single flake from its appearance outside my attic window as it tumbles down to the slushy street. Cat asleep on daybed. Knitting project put aside momentarily. Within this small room, my study, a picture of contentment.

For this moment I take refuge in the appearance of life. Trying to believe that I, the inhabitant of this picture, am really here, am really a human being on earth. Because my soul knows better–it understands that I am a ghost. As is my son Sean in his far-off psych hospital bed who is still puzzling over the wrinkled reality that shot him to another planet.

My life tore on the day that my son in his paranoid delusion denied me as his mother, but it didn’t disappear. I had Sean to fight for and I did so ferociously. But time is time, and when wrestling with mental illness time slows down. My fight has slowed, my hope subdued. Each milestone I yearn toward opens up new pain.

A year ago, I fought to get Sean into a shelter only to have him refuse treatment and end up on the streets worse than before. I sent his father to find him and what he discovered was so wretched it nearly cost my son’s life. The LPS state conservatorship that we won was miraculous, and yet, the ensuing months of locked care have yielded few results. Sean lives a drugged, lonely life in a suspended state of what I can only imagine is merely adequate psychiatric warehousing. While it is so, and while he refuses all contact with me, I can never come home to myself. Part of me will always be whisped around him, embodying his disjointed sense of self with my own. It’s exhausting.

In two weeks I am planning to fly out to visit his treatment team and to try to make contact with Sean. My first time in California since my intervention two and half years ago. I fear for myself, what it will do to me to come face-to-face with his shabby surroundings and the inadequacies of this care. I remind myself there are good people there: His conservator is a beautifully attuned woman with a solid spiritual wellspring; his program manager downloads music for him and talks art and books. A man from FERC, an incredible Bay-area resource for families dealing with a loved one with mental illness, will meet me for support.

And Sean has lucky invisibles: The person who helps him wash. And brings him pills. And tries to lure him to attend groups. And serves him meals. And delivers the books I send under the guise of “county donations.” I pray they are kind to him.

I pray I will find kindness too.

 

Save

Save

Conserved!

Why do I skip over the biggest events here? Not for lack of courage I don’t think. Possibly because they have so many threads that are important to write about that I’d rather not begin until I can commit myself fully.

As the writer Anthony Walton once told me, “You can’t tell any story without telling the whole story.”

But yes! and yes! and my god yes! Sean was conserved. For every time “the system” has failed him, and us, and thousands of other families begging to get even a scrap of the help they deserve in caring for a loved one with profound mental illness, they got it right one time.

Of course, it helped that Sean didn’t even get out of bed to attend his conservatorship hearing. But I don’t expect that was what could be termed an active choice, more likely the unfathomability of putting on actual clothing, leaving the hospital and going into a courtroom to defend his life.

We don’t really know what a conservatorship will look like — will it play out in years of Cuckoo’s Nest warehousing? Will his mind actually begin to quiet and find some kind of healing? Will he ever allow his family into the picture? For every problem it solves, it answers no questions.

But he will not be living on the street.

Commit Him or Dismiss Him?

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“At the precipice of all that I’ve worked for, I no longer know what I’m waiting for.”

There are so many kinds of waiting that come with mental illness. Waiting for understanding. Waiting for help. Waiting for forgiveness, for signs of improvement. For doctors and caseworkers who slam the phone down. Waiting for a child who won’t let you see him. For the person you loved to emerge, unscathed, from the one who now hates you.

But there are worse kinds of anticipation. Especially from 3,000 miles away. Waiting for phone calls from policemen who have found Sean, or not. Waiting for hospital clerks to give you scraps of information before nurses HIPPA-up and hang up. Leaning into the bureaucratic silence as shelter workers and jailers and coroners search their list of names for the one that will make your heart stop.

Hardest of all, in many ways, is waiting for peace. It’s not so much that peace is fleeting; it’s just impossible. But that doesn’t stop me from deluding myself that I’ll nestle into it someday. I think it is what drives me to push ahead through cosmically absurd impediments to try to get my son help. It’s the closest thing I have to hope: the idea that through long-term psychiatric care Sean will have some kind of healing and that the collective family nervous system can begin to unwind.

This week the thing I’ve been waiting for is finally come. Through a Perfect Storm of intervention by shrinks and crisis units and conservators and hospitals (not to mention my ex-husband–yes! the bad one, who performed the greatest act of bravery I’ve ever witnessed in rescuing Sean from the street. Read future post!), Sean is going to mental health court for a conservatorship hearing.

Quite unlike the small victories of those 72-hour, or 14- or 30-day holds, this will determine whether he is judged sick enough to become a ward of the state for up to a year, and possibly more. Finally, finally a chance for Sean to get real psychiatric treatment instead of the Fun House of jails and shelters and sidewalks he’s been treated to thus far.

There’s one catch though, and it’s almost unfathomable. California’s General Conservatorship law states that if a judge determines his condition doesn’t warrant Sean  being a ward of the state, he will simply be released. RIGHT THEN. Commit or dismiss. No gray area, no resumption of month-to-month treatment. Just a “Vamoose baby, don’t let the door hit your wheelchair.”

At the precipice of all that I’ve worked for I no longer know what I’m waiting for. Justice? Mercy? Destruction? Shock? Oh, these days are long.

 

 

 

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.