My son came home from four years of teaching in the Czech Republic and Russia in terrible shape. He was very moody and intolerant of my materialistic and wasteful ways. He couldn’t sleep in a bed but resorted to the hard floor. He claimed the Russians were inside our house, tormenting him and refusing to leave. So he paced back and forth in front of our house or went for long walks.
To explain his behavior, our son shared a letter about his last months in Moscow. He lived in a broken-down high-rise apartment with a tiny balcony. That’s where he believed that the Russians had started to persecute him. They followed him everywhere, pulling up next to him in their cars and watching his every move. They’d gotten into his apartment and installed a system to gas him every night. Escaping the gas, my son would slip out onto the balcony every night, wrap himself in blankets, and sleep in sub-zero temperatures.
My son was convinced the Russians had caught up to him in Los Alamos. He could smell the gas in our house. I bought a very large, high-efficiency air purifier for his bedroom that hummed day and night. But that wasn’t enough. He could still smell the gas. One night we drove to Santa Fe to stay at a motel where the Russians couldn’t find him.
My son was slipping away. What was wrong? We finally found a highly-recommended psychiatrist. He resisted. He could not be forced to see a doctor. I resorted to cajoling him. It was the first time I ever had to lie to him. Breaking that bond of trust was awful. That was one of many bonds I’ve had to break. Finally he agreed to just one visit.
The doctor and my son hit it off. Each appointment was followed by another. He took numerous medications but was no better. The exotic drugs just turned him into a Zombie. We never heard from the psychiatrist. We just got the bills. We had no idea what was wrong. We searched the internet for clues. We tired of reading the possibilities: Depression, schizophrenia, paranoia, bi-polar disorder. He wasn’t this. He wasn’t that. He was all of them. He was suffering so! Please, what is happening?
Looking back, there were early signs of my son’s illness. He was an exceptional student and an excellent swimmer. But he was uncomfortable around people. He often withdrew and read books, lots of books, deep dark books. He recoiled when receiving praise for his achievements. Concerned, we sought professional counseling.
That was the beginning of a fifteen-year journey. What’s most confusing to me is expecting psychiatry to be a science. It’s not. It’s an art. It is slow in diagnosing mental illness, figuring out the prognosis, and arriving at effective treatment. We were told that whatever my son was suffering from will either get better or worse as he grew older. Thanks! I was stunned but told to be patient. Time will tell. Well, OK. But that didn’t seem right. I felt troubled and powerless.
The hardest thing has been letting go and watching my son flail out of control.
One night we met my son for dinner. He arrived unsettled, his voice strained, and conversation forced. His complexion turned dark red. His hair was twisted and pulled. His eyes turned dark and withdrew deep into their sockets. There was no joy in his face. Then he bolted from the restaurant. Heading up the street, he ranted about wanting to be left alone. He paced back and forth trying to avoid us. We chased close behind, clinging to his presence. He declared no one could help him. For “they” would not leave him alone. My wife Rose grabbed the cell, calling a counselor and begging for help. What should we do? Would he be safe?
That night we saw a side of our son we didn’t want to know. We drove him to his apartment. Then, reluctantly, we had to leave him to face his demons all alone.
This disease cruelly interrupted my son’s life. Once he’d dreamed of becoming an architect and he decided now was the time to do it. Fighting to regain control of his mind, he registered at UNM. We kept in constant touch. Every time we sensed he was struggling, we rushed to Albuquerque. We bought everything that might make his life easier. Sometimes he was glad to see us. Sometimes he was abrupt and rude. In his quiet moments, though, he expressed appreciation for our loving attention. He admitted he wasn’t always able to behave nicely.
We hadn’t heard from him in a while. Our calls went unanswered and our fears began to swell. Finally, he called and said he was hospitalized but OK. He couldn’t talk long. The staff had taken his cell phone away. In the confusion, we didn’t find out where he was. We rushed to Albuquerque and scurried from hospital to hospital. He was either not there or they wouldn’t tell us if he was. We crawled back home, terrified by what might have happened.
Slowly we learned his painful story. My son was very down and lost. He wandered the streets, finally entering a hospital because he had nowhere to turn. They gave him a quick diagnosis, heavily medicated him, and put him to bed.
Then trouble began. My son is very sensitive to medication. His vital signs wavered and his body began to shut down. Through his fog, he realized he had a serious problem and drug himself to the nurse station. They rushed him to another medical facility, which scrambled to pull him back from the edge. They flushed out the medications that were draining the life from his body. Slowly he rebounded.
Hearing from him again, we found the hospital. The staff were not interested in talking to us. Even the doctor wouldn’t talk to us. After all, they had to protect his privacy. Protect him? He almost died!
One day an angel walked into my son’s life, a lovely girl he briefly met in Moscow. This encounter ignited a small flame that never went out. The angel appeared in Albuquerque. My son warned her about his bouts of depression. He hospitalized himself several more times. But his angel endured.
With the right treatment, my son has improved steadily, but slowly, as his medications were gradually refined. Things are not perfect now and we know he will never be his old self. But in some ways he’s better than he used to be. He has genuine interest in others and has softened his expectations of me. His face now reflects peace in his soul, kindness in his heart, and smiles of joy. For this, I’m so happy. There will still be shadows to come but he now has his future back.