I have two relationships with my son. One is the “normal,” mother and son relationship. That’s the one where we discuss what happened at school, whether 10 cups of popcorn is an appropriate after school snack, and what he wants for his birthday. That’s the relationship where he hugs me goodnight and we giggle after singing karaoke in the family room. That’s the relationship where I cheer on his basketball team and congratulate him on his latest fishing achievements. That’s the relationship where I have hope for his future. Then there is the other relationship; the one with his illness. That’s the one where I try and reason my way through his paranoia. That’s the one where I fear for his safety and, sometimes, mine. That’s the one where there is no future because the jury is out on whether we can even make it through today.
I had just gotten into my car at the airport after returning from a two day business trip to Buffalo when Tom called. “Tim’s in an ambulance on his way to the hospital,” he said. I stopped breathing and my brain automatically calculated the amount of time Tim has been out of residential care; just shy of 10 months. When I resumed drawing breath I posed a question I knew intellectually was stupid but emotionally I needed to ask. “Why?” Details were limited, but Tom relayed the ones shared by his teacher at school. Tim wouldn’t get in his car to come home. He expressed he did not feel he could be safe and needed to go to the hospital. An ambulance had come to retrieve him from school and his teacher was following behind in her car. Tom was on his way as well, across the county to meet Tim at the ER.
What followed was the clumsy dance of having him seen in the ER, explaining to a stranger that Tim has schizophrenia, getting his psychiatrist on the phone with the ER doctor, and getting him transferred by ambulance and admitted to the psychiatric hospital where his doctor has privileges. It’s an exhausting spectacle in three acts that could have been much, much worse had it not been for the miracles of a psychiatrist that answered his page in 10 minutes flat and did the pre-admission work to get Tim a bed at the psychiatric hospital, and a psychiatric hospital that actually had a bed available when Tim needed it.
I met Tom and Tim at the psychiatric hospital and when I saw my son, I didn’t see him; I saw the illness. He was riding the psychiatric symptom jackpot of mania, disorganized speech, delusions, paranoia, and aural hallucinations. “I couldn’t go home, Mom. My sister is bugging the crap out of me – I don’t know why she has it out for me. I’m not sure why all the cars are yellow. I’ve just got so much stuff going on. She’s being a total brat. Shut up! What is all this stuff flying around? I couldn’t be safe, Mom. I told my teacher.” He kept spitting out these words at a pace that could only be measured in double-digit miles per hour. I congratulated him on being aware enough to know he needed help. “Yeah,” he said, accented with an extended hand, a gesture akin to what one might expect to see from Jay-Z on stage as he punctuates a rap lyric. I asked Tim if his voices were telling him anything and he didn’t respond; he looked upwards, eyes darting to and fro. I know that look. That is the look of the hallucinations, commanding him not to give up their secrets. My heart sank. At that moment I knew he would not be coming home that night. The illness had him, again.
Tim has spent 7,134 days on this planet. Nearly 1,600 of those days have been in inpatient or residential treatment, including the last three. I am angry that I have had to relinquish more than 20% of his life to doctors and therapists and caseworkers. I hate that 1 day out of every five of his life he has spent away from us because of this disease. This bifurcated relationship isn’t fair. I wish we knew how to splice off the relationship with the illness. Conventional wisdom might suggest we need to learn how to integrate the two relationships into a single shared experience. But I’m not willing to do that. To integrate the two is to accept that the illness is an integral part of our relationship. I know that’s not true. Our relationship is shared silliness and singing to P!nk in the car. Our relationship is making pasta from scratch and swimming in Kangaroo Lake. Our relationship is goodnight hugs and eggs over easy on Saturday mornings. I refuse to surrender our relationship to the beast of schizophrenia. It will always be an unwelcome house guest we put up with when necessary, and then turn out into the street once again when we find our center.