In recognition of May being Mental Health Awareness Month, we are proud to publish Marie G Coleman’s personal essay “Complaint and Prayer.” Coleman’s piece is a raw and earnest account of what it is like to love someone suffering from a mental illness, and the ways to try to manage the challenges and heartbreak. (Please note that some of the names have been changed in this piece to protect the individuals’ identities.)
I bought roses that Friday night, when the sun set so early. I was alone in the house, not sure if my only son, Patrick, was alive or dead. I left the roses in their wrapper. I placed them in the purple vase, the one Patrick’s father, Joe, surprised me with on my twenty-fourth birthday. Patrick was barely four months old then.
That was over thirty years ago. Perhaps back then the many obstacles in that first marriage might have seemed manageable, perhaps I was just young and disillusioned. Clearly I didn’t grasp the whole situation. This is a weakness I still seem to have.
In retrospect Joe’s habit of stabbing potatoes with nails from his tool box, before baking them in the oven, was more than eccentric. I didn’t learn that he was schizophrenic until long after we’d divorced. Joe and I separated when Patrick was two.
It’s a sort of blindness, denial. Failure to see what is right there like erratic behavior, the setting sun, and landmarks as obvious as Boston’s Citgo sign in Kenmore Square.
Even now I close my eyes often. In yoga I do that. I enter into a trance state. I follow my thoughts as they swoop around, despite my body still on the mat. The distractions are less with eyes closed, the rattling inside becomes obvious. I’ve lived with what feels like a moderate sized earthquake since Patrick’s diagnosis was rendered six years ago, bipolar with schizoaffective disorder.
I continue working on being aware that I live in a body. I close my eyes before eating, feel my feet and breathe. I pause in gratitude for the fortune in my life. I close my eyes when I am scared too. If a car comes too close, I shut those peeps as a way to embrace for impact, just the same as when I’m watching a scary movie. Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, closing my eyes to reality.
Perhaps I closed my eyes to Patrick’s condition. Did I not see his actions as a child, making villages out of mashed potatoes, broccoli transformed into trees with a chicken bone as the bridge; as a teen, when he seemed annoyed by any family celebration, even ones in his honor, or as a young man when he flunked out of community college after one semester but never bothered to tell us?
He seemed so lost. I still get lost and I’m over a half a century old. I could handle Patrick’s new identity when he left the Air Force; exercising daily, new girlfriend with talk of marriage plans for the future. I could even accept his job jumping every few months, and then weeks.
However, I was unable to accept how Patrick coped with his mental health diagnosis, especially after he walked out of the Bedford Veterans Hospital, and opted to live as a homeless vet. That’s when Patrick revoked my access to any of his medical information. That was six years ago, and since then I am a walking earthquake.
These thoughts swirled in my head like the leaves scattered along the driveway as I negotiated groceries, flowers, and a variety of belongings out of the car on that Friday, when the sun set so early.
I called my daughter, Ariana. We decided to FaceTime. I showed her the roses I bought. We conveyed our angst that Patrick was on the street again, maybe. We didn’t know anything about his whereabouts. That was the scary part.
My husband, Dan, was away. Our tenants were also away. I found humor in how our two-family house was once filled with so much chaos. On that Friday night in October there was a mere echo.
By Sunday morning I got around to arranging the roses, still on the kitchen counter, still in their wrapper. Dan slept happily, back in his own bed, after celebrating his mom’s 89th birthday in South Carolina.
As I snipped each rose, removed scrawny leaves, climbed up on a chair for another vase, deciding where to place each delicate flower, I wondered about Patrick. Every time I thought he had reached the bottom, and he’d wake up to his condition, I was wrong. He descended lower into an abyss that remained incomprehensible, even as I waded through a terrain of public defenders and a host of police officers. A VA liaison remarked, “No offence, but I’d hate to be in your shoes.”
This was not the life my Patrick, my baby boy, was meant to live. I imagined him attending MIT and becoming an architect. He talked about buying a house and owning a nice car since he was a boy.
How could I make him better? I was helpless. The only role I found myself appearing in was bearing witness to a sink-hole system for loved ones with mental illness.
I’m sick of hearing about HIPPA laws especially when the police dispatcher knows who my son is within fifteen seconds of a call. Might there be some provisions in the law to protect the mentally ill against their own destructive nature?
On Monday, I watered the plants on the first floor, called the floor guy, and the window guy. Then there was all the Patrick stuff. On Tuesday, Dan and I carved pumpkins. I felt gratitude for a husband who adhered to rituals. On Wednesday, Halloween, Patrick had a competency hearing. If the judge didn’t decide to commit him, I would need to deliver a Complaint and Prayer form to the police.
In the state of New Hampshire if one encounters dangerous behavior on the part of an individual, and the latter refuses to seek medical attention, the witness may complete a complaint, stating the actions and requesting, that’s the prayer, what’s known as an involuntary emergency evaluation. Once taken to a hospital a medical team decides if the individual of concern displays dangerous behavior. If the team finds reason to hold one for a mental health concern, then a judge must also find probable cause to hold the individual in the hospital against their will. The petitioner who completes the complaint and prayer must testify in court to the actions that warranted filing this document.
Never had I wanted to do this on behalf of Patrick. He’d already alienated everyone out of his life. He was constantly imagining roommates and landlords were stealing information from him. I felt like I was up against a wall.
He’s not a criminal, but he’d end up in jail if he continued the way he was behaving. He’d been arrested three times in the last six months, and each incident came closer together. He couldn’t return to his apartment because of an assault charge against him.
When Patrick arrived in the courtroom and saw that Dan and I were there, he scowled at us. We had found out his secret, one of many. He exited with the public defender’s assistant, a woman who might easily be mistaken for a backroom store clerk.
The hearing was postponed until December. The logic of this delay boggled my mind, since any person awaiting a competency hearing might not be safe. Postponing a case seemed preposterous especially when an individual had nowhere to live and winter was approaching.
Dan and I left the courtroom that Wednesday. We drove in silence to the police station, and dropped off a Complaint and Prayer form. The day stretched out. I felt like I was betraying my son. Yet, this was my last resort to assure his safety. I was worn out by the trauma drama, as a friend had aptly named it. When I had time to exhale I realized I was lost deep in my head, even with eyes open. I felt unfit to be with people, and yet I knew I needed their words to tether me in time and space.
On Thursday, All Souls Day, grades were due, good thing too. I got to focus on others. The effort of reading student work helped catapult me out of my head. That dreadful feeling of helplessness never left because there was nothing else that I could say or do to assist with Patrick’s health.
I couldn’t be a mother, good or bad, or at least how I knew a mother was meant to behave. I was robbed of doing, and therefore I was forced to navigate the rickety legal system. I stared into oblivion-worst case scenario; more than likely jail or death for my handsome, funny son. Death might bring him peace. That was why he hated me. I could have ended his life in utero. I opted for life.
“Where’d you get those roses?” Dan said on Friday, one week had passed since I’d bought the flowers, yet they remained fresh.
Patrick ended up at a local hospital for a week until a judge found no probable cause. He presented well in front of the judge. I warned any doctor or nurse who would talk to me. The medical staff assured me that they were able to see through Patrick’s façade. I was appalled by the judge’s decision, just as many of the hospital staff seemed to be. On yet another Friday Patrick was discharged against medical advice. Of course, he simply ignored the latter.
I was devastated that Patrick was out of the hospital. The flowers were two weeks old and only beginning to show signs of withering. I kept the flowers, a reminder of how my resolve might also be dying.
I wondered often how I could help this man child of mine to be safe in a world he refused to see. I worried that my son was so much like me, blinded to the truth that he didn’t like. Maybe we are all like that, and yet with mental illness one’s insight remained cloudy.
On Monday of Thanksgiving week, I closed my eyes to Patrick’s phone messages after he was released from the hospital. I needed to muster courage and strength before returning his call.
I talked with him on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. He needed to do laundry. We made plans for Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant. He’d do laundry at our house. His delusions were wild. I didn’t argue with any of his words. Perhaps because he said all the nurses and doctors wanted to take him home and have sex with him, even the married ones. He claimed sleeping outside was the best.
I was numb after the conversation, rattling like an infant’s toy. Only when I rested my forehead on the yoga mat did I notice the reverberations inside my body.
The Thursday of Thanksgiving arrived and Patrick yelled at me over the phone that morning.
“What’s wrong with sleeping outside? It might be nine degrees out, but inside my sleeping bag, I’m warm. They are after me. I am going to kill them.”
After that conversation, I called the mobile crisis unit, and spoke with Tara. She agreed to meet me at the police station. Dan drove. I completed another Complaint and Prayer form with both of them there for moral support.
I never imagined a Thanksgiving Day like this. Patrick imagined forty to fifty people were after his belongings. When he called again he asked for my help.
“Because I’m going to kill them,” he said.
There was no one other than Patrick when we arrived at his storage space.
Dan cried as the police negotiated getting Patrick into a wagon. We were ordered to remain in our car. Three police later and Patrick returned to the hospital. Later Dan said Patrick was fighting the police.
I didn’t even see my son. The wild eyed man, kicking and screaming, could not have been my son. Perhaps there was a mistake. Perhaps none of that was real. Perhaps if I closed my eyes and opened them again, I’d see Patrick before me, dressed and ready for Thanksgiving dinner. If only I could close my eyes right now.
If only there was a way to let this disappear.
Image: “Lost “ by Erich Ferdinand , licensed under CC 2.0