When your child calls you, do you experience a moment of panic before you pick up? Even though your love knows no bounds? If your child has ever called you for help – the car won’t start, he is lost, her boyfriend broke up with her – you know the feeling. If your child has a mental illness, you come to expect it – sometimes even when things are going well. Your comments are welcome.
Now. A text from Ben. It almost always reads, “call me when you get this please” – and I become aware of an involuntary tightening in my chest. Will that knee-jerk reaction ever go away? These days, he often has good news to share: a theatre class he enjoyed, a good AA or NA group. But years and years of crisis calls leave their mark. Even in the recent years of recovery, there have been close calls, where only quick action had prevented a new hospitalization.
In the confusing years before the diagnosis – even before the calls began to come in from the police, my neighbors, or hospital Emergency Rooms – there were phone conversations with Ben like this one:
Then, 2001: (Excerpt from No Casseroles for Schizophrenia: Family Lessons on the Journey to Acceptance and Hope, previous draft of Ben Behind his Voices)
Now it was March, and he was on the phone again, long distance (and collect) from Idaho. “Hi, Mom. How are you?” Ben had been calling me occasionally ever since he’d been kicked out of Waterfalls at the end of October. Sometimes he called every day; sometimes a few weeks went by before I heard from him. Recently we’d been speaking every few days. I never knew what to expect, what he would say.
“I’m fine honey. How are you?”
“I’m great, Mom.”
“That’s good.” Silence. Where do go from here?
”Do you know what a psychic vampire is?”
I stand very still and close my eyes to make this go away, like a child who doesn’t want to see the milk she spilled. “A what?”
“A psychic vampire. ‘Cause they have them here.”
This was something I hadn’t heard from him before. What is he talking about? Then: What kind of drugs is he on? Then: Stay calm. “No, Ben. What is a psychic vampire?”
His voice took on that tone of superiority, and yet there was panic in it too.“They steal all your energy. It’s really scary. And there are psychic vampires here, I swear.”
I had no idea what to say to that. I think I assured him that you could prevent these vampires from stealing your energy if you wanted to. If he was on some drug, he probably wouldn’t remember this conversation anyway. But I certainly would. I added this conversation to the list of behaviors that were becoming weirder, and more frequent.
At first, after Ben left the program, he had called to ask for money, or to tell me which friend’s couch he was sleeping on. He reported looking for work, getting jobs, losing jobs within days. He called to tell me he loved me. He called to tell me that he was hungry and it was all my fault. Then, the weird calls had begun:
“Mom, I’m doing great! I spent all afternoon yesterday, walking by the side of the highway, and screaming. I feel so much better now. It’s good to get your feelings out.”
“I’m good, Mom, but I spent the night sitting on the roof and looking at the stars. They are awesome! Oh, and I sang to myself all night. It helps me concentrate.”
“Steve kicked me out, Mom. His Dad said I couldn’t live there since I l owe him so much money. But I think there’s a homeless shelter that will take me in. Then I’ll get a job while I’m living there and save some money and come home.”
And now, psychic vampires. What are the drugs doing to his brain? I was back to thinking that this was just a problem of substance abuse, that Ben had to learn from natural consequences. To do that, he’d have to hit bottom. Good and hard.
And yet, another thought kept growing: the theory that Ben might, after all, be truly ill. What if he hits bottom and is so impaired he doesn’t even know it? What if Ben had some kind of mental illness? So many people had talked me out of that idea in the past. “No, I’m sure he just needs therapy. Sobriety. Structure, discipline. To get closure with his father.” On and on went the theories, on and on went my hopes that this was anything but a real mental illness. Please let it not be true.
If only I could have willed it to be true, loved his symptoms away, I would have. But evidence had continued to pile up, even though I wanted to believe anyone who told be it didn’t, couldn’t, add up to something as serious as mental illness.
(for more information on this book and presentation, please visit https://randyekaye.com/)