Can I Divorce My Child? : How Schizophrenia Splits Families Apart

how – and when – do you let go?

Another hospitalization for Ben, another crisis.

Another round of uncovering the truths behind the life he’d sworn he was managing well (“it’s none of your business, Mom”). In the five weeks since this latest breakdown, I’ve been unraveling and trying to piece together the strands of the web he’d woven, and all that was caught in it: the mess, the mounting debt, his addiction to marijuana, the car damage, the shopping sprees, the lies.

I am not legally responsible for any of this, but of course I am a mother and each day includes hours of work to talk with Social Security, Medicare, debt collectors, lawyers, banks. I am doing what I can to prevent the final collapse of the life he’d struggled – with adolescent (at best) decision making, to create, the nine years he has lived with us (no rent) and complied with our requirement that he take his meds.

Our nest was supposed to be blissfully empty by now. My husband and I have more than earned it. But this is my child…the baby I birthed and nursed, the child who was always so impatient to give you a present, the big brother who was such a role model and friend to his sister, the student who was a John Hopkins scholar in eighth grade.   

How much do you let go before the guilt chokes you? I think I know now. Ben cannot live with us anymore, if he ever gets back to the “almost normal” he had before he took himself off meds. I must turn him over, once again, to “the system” – because I can’t endanger the rest of my family, or my own sanity, anymore.

But how can I divorce my child? Can any parent do that?

Another day, another new book about the toll when schizophrenia strikes the child you love so much. This one is called Fix What You Can: Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son; I will read and review in a later post, but for now let me say that the reviews are stellar, and the twist is that the author Mindy Greiling is also a former legislator in Minnesota whose advocacy has taken the form of changing mental health laws in that state.

I am always a little bit jealous when a new book is released.  Mine continues to sell, but still I envy the excitement of a new memoir – the attention, the possibility, the initial sales. It’s a bit like the feeling when your friend welcomes a new baby – this child could grow up to be a Nobel Prize winner! A famous movie star! The President! – before the messiness of actual life comes in and the blank pages of that child’s life get filled in with actual reality.

But my jealousy right now is more about motherhood than authorship. According to the StarTribune in Minnesota, the author’s son, Jim Greiling,

“ … has passed his 40th birthday because his parents and older sister have been steadfastly behind him, providing emotional, physical and financial support through crisis after crisis. Through suicide attempts, incarceration, chemical dependency relapses, debilitating pharmacological side effects and more, Jim was never alone.”

That was my Ben, too –my 38-year-old son who was working full-time, managing much of his own life (but not his medication), and living with his family – until August 29th of this year.

That’s when it all came tumbling down. Ben was hospitalized for the ninth time – and he is still there.  I shared this story in an earlier post, but the update is:

  • He has been court ordered to take meds but is still finding ways to “cheek” them and still talks only to his voices in the hospital (unless he needs toilet paper or something)
  • He doesn’t want to see me because he is suspicious of me, and not even sure I am his mother.
  • The secrets he kept, the lies he told, the damage and debt he covered up, the evidence of drug use…it all keeps adding up, beyond stress, to the dangerousness of his living with us anymore – no matter how much I love him.

What will happen to him next? How will he feel when/if he finally returns to “reality” to find that he has lost his credit rating, his car, his work (well, Covid-19 was to blame for that) – and, now, the security of living in a nice house in the suburbs with the family that loves him?

Back to a state-run (if we can even manage that) group home? This man who, before Covid economy, was working full time as a restaurant server, earning positive yelp reviews for his service and charm?

He worked so hard. But his main goal in life now is to NOT TAKE MEDS. And that breaks my heart. I am powerless to help him.

How can I divorce my child? Do I endanger myself and the rest of the family to keep a roof over the head of someone who hates me, who undermines me, who might possibly start a fire in the house when using the blow torch we found in his room?

Guilt, shame, reality, hope, love, helplessness, grief…I feel it all, for him and for all of us – my family, all the families who face this in a never-ending cycle of confusion and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Mindy Grelling’s’ advocacy work took the form of legislation. Mine takes the form of education (I teach, and train others to teach, NAMI’s Family-to-Family class; I do public speaking share our story and advocate for change). We both are authors, and we both are devoted mothers.

But that delicate balance…stepping in vs. letting go. That is the hardest part.

For now, I’ll call my decision a legal separation from Ben. We never lose hope. But boundaries must be set, for there are many in our family whose emotional and physical safety  must be considered.

I hate schizophrenia so much.




Guilt, shame, reality, hope, love, helplessness, grief…I feel it all, for him and for all of us – my family, all the families who face this in a never-ending cycle of confusion and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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