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Broken minds, broken lives

"Broken minds, broken lives" Continued...

Issue: "Getting paid not aid," Feb. 22, 2014

One night Sylvia heard something in the house and got up. She found her son sprawled on the floor, crawling on his elbows. “Mom!” he hissed at her. “Get down, get down! The FBI’s outside, people are shooting on us, spying on us. Get down, get down!”

Sylvia dropped onto her knees next to him with a sense of doom: “Oh my God. Something is wrong with him.” She told him to stay still, then ran to her husband. “Help! Call the police! Something’s wrong with Jason!” By the time they got him to the emergency room at a nearby hospital, Jason believed he was the president. The clinic they entered was familiar with psychosis but didn’t have a psychiatric ward, so doctors sent Jason to a county psychiatric unit. 

Within those two years, Jason has been hospitalized 33 times, and his parents petitioned for court-ordered treatment nine times. Each time he was sent home after a short stint in the clinic. Sylvia is now 63, too old to be her son’s keeper. And with her small frame, it’s dangerous for her to be with her son alone, especially at night when the mania typically heightens. “Each day was hell,” Sylvia said. 

She remembers waking up one day to face a Teddy bear hanging from a noose. She and her husband searched Jason’s room and found knives under his mattress. One time he shoved her out while she was driving because he suddenly realized she was taking him to the hospital. He left her in the dark streets, dumped her purse out into the bushes, and sped away toward California until the car ran out of gas. Another time he cornered Sylvia in the hallway and was just about to punch her when his father happened to walk by and pull him away. That was the day the Charters decided Jason couldn’t stay home anymore.

Now Jason sleeps in an apartment with another mentally ill man for a roommate. They live in a 300-unit complex, with 12 units set aside for individuals with serious mental illness. Some of these outpatients have families who visit. Most don’t. Either way, they are given a room with a bare mattress and asked to take care of themselves. Arizona Behavioral Health Services staffers monitor the mental illness units: Their primary duties involve knocking on doors, asking “Did you take your pills today?”—and checking off a form that they did. Many of the residents lie because of anosognosia, and no one looks further. This is a common model of treatment pushed by community mental health centers: Let the patients feel “hope” and “empowerment” as they drive their own recovery.

And here’s the result: Sylvia once found her son unshaved and rumpled in three-days-old clothes. He clearly wasn’t taking his pills. His bathroom was so disgusting that he refused to use it. Sylvia complained to the nurse, complained to his psychiatrist, complained to anybody she could. They gave noncommittal responses. “They just saw me as another whining mommy,” Sylvia said. 

Now Sylvia picks up Jason in the morning, feeds him breakfast, takes him to the clinic to pick up his medicine, and makes sure he takes it. He then feels sleepy and dozes in the afternoon. When he wakes up, Sylvia feeds him dinner, then drops him off at the apartment. She knows her situation is ridiculous, but says, “Every state document says these three words: Strong family support, strong family support. … He doesn’t get any help because they shove those words on us. That’s not right. He’s an adult. They should be grooming him for independence. We’re older now. Who’s going to take care of him?”

Later I met Jason. He came out of his room blurry from his afternoon nap, perspiring from the day’s sizzling temperature. Though he was reluctant to talk, he sat next to me on the couch and placidly let the dog lick him all over. “I’m not getting no help,” he told me. “My future? I don’t see a future.” At least he now has some insight regarding his illness, and has been taking his medications daily because he knows he needs them. But now that he’s gained some awareness, Jason is also able to realize despair, loneliness, and loss. Medicine has freed him from paranoia and delusions, only to enslave him within a rational sense of fear and pain.

Sylvia said she’s deeply disappointed by the lack of help churches have given her: “You go to a church because you’re broken, and this is just another brokenness. We are parents going through a grieving, and there’s no one there for us.” After Saddleback Church’s Rick Warren’s son killed himself due to clinical depression, Sylvia went to her church leaders and asked them to create a support group for mental illness awareness and assistance. They said they leave mental illness to the professionals. She asked two other big churches for help. They also said no. She wants Jason to have “a male mentor, someone who will push him in baby steps.” She hasn’t found one.

—Part 2 of a two-part series on mental illness (see “Saving Seth,” Feb. 8)

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