What do you do when your son ends up in jail, 1000 miles away?
My bipolar son, Jason, had had enough of life in the Northeast.
“It’s too cold and too expensive,” he said. “Plus, in Florida, I can play music with my friends.” He was right. But there was a major subtext, of course. What he didn’t say was:
“If I’m in Florida, you won’t be able to put me in the hospital whenever you feel like it. I’ll be able to live on next to nothing, and have money to buy drugs.”
As his mother, I’d learned enough, by now, to know that I wouldn’t be able to make him stay in Connecticut. He left on an overcast day in February. I visited him a couple of months later, when I was staying with a friend in Palm Beach. Arriving at the trailer park he was living in, I found him, scruffy, but reasonably okay, strumming a guitar outside the trailer. I took him out for dinner, but not to anywhere fancy, which would’ve just embarrassed him—or maybe me. I had no idea what he lived off, but he’d lost some weight and it suited him. As I left, I gave him $100 and prayed he’d be safe.
It was July when Jason’s stepmother, who lived in Fort Lauderdale, called. She and I had always been on good terms. She was English like me, and we had the same sense of humor. We were going to need it. She’d phoned me a couple of weeks before to say she thought Jason was behaving oddly.
“I’ve arranged to meet him at Paolo’s restaurant,” she’d said. “Maybe I can persuade him to get help.”
I thanked her, sincerely. Judith had married Jason’s father when Jason was only 5 years old. They’d never had children, and she’d always treated Jason and his sister as though they were her own. She called me later that evening.
“No go,” she said. “Jason’s talking nineteen to the dozen, the way he does, saying he’s got 80 people working for him, and that Jay’s the head of the CIA.”
Jay, my husband, head of a marketing company, became, in Jason’s mind, someone all-powerful who could rescue him from anyone trying to get him into the hospital.
“I called the police,” she went on, “Hoping they’d take him in for treatment. But he managed to pull himself together and fake being sane. Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” I said. “You’ve done everything right. He’ll just have to get worse before he gets help.”
This was the hardest part of having a bipolar son—knowing that if Jason got help now, he stood a chance of recovery, and knowing that he couldn’t or wouldn’t. I had to wait it out and hope that his mania wouldn’t lead him to any kind of physical danger.
Two days later, Judith called again.
“Jason’s been arrested for trespassing,” she said. “He’s in the Palm Beach Jail and looking for bail money.”
I felt unnaturally calm. “Arrested? For trespassing? Surely that doesn’t need bail?”
I knew Judith couldn’t post bail. Jason’s father had died a few months before, from complications of diabetes, exacerbated by heavy drinking. Judith was working, but she had no money to spare.
“Well,” Judith said, sounding almost reluctant, “it involved breaking and entering, and carrying burglary tools. I don’t know any more than that, but the hearing’s tomorrow.”
I couldn’t even begin to take this in. Jason had never committed a felony before. This couldn’t be true. I pulled my wandering thoughts together.
“Could you possibly go to court tomorrow, and find out what’s going on?”
“Of course,” said Judith.
Every time the phone rang I jumped. Finally, I heard Judith’s voice.
“How did it go?” I asked.
“Well, Jason looked terrible. They’d taken his belt and shoelaces away. Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. It was obvious he wasn’t well.”
I could visualize him now, disheveled and unshaven. I shook my head to get rid of the image.
“It’s okay, though,” she continued. “They’ve given him a continuance for 30 days so he can find a lawyer.”
“You mean he has to stay in jail?”
“Yes, unless we bail him out. But you know, Gabi, I don’t think we should. He’s in a psychiatric wing, and I think they’re making sure he takes his meds.”
A flood of something very like relief flooded over me. My son was in jail. In a psychiatric wing. I didn’t even know they existed. I asked about visiting. I could come down for a few days.
“Don’t,” said Judith. “He’s only allowed visitors on Sundays. I’ll go and see him every week and I’ll report back. Don’t worry.”
A month later I was flying down to Palm Beach. I had spoken to a lawyer and, after I’d paid him $3000, he seemed confident that Jason wouldn’t have to stay in jail. At least that was something.
Jason’s story proved more complex than it seemed, and less heinous, too. In the early stages of mania, he’d been chatting up a girl. No doubt he appeared energetic and talkative. He’s a handsome guy, and she’d agreed to see him. But when Jason had shown up at her house, he was very manic indeed, and only became worse when her brother called the police. They, in turn, found a spanner in Jason’s pocket. Now he stood there, in prison orange, handcuffed. I was fighting tears as I asked to take him home.
The judge agreed to release Jason into my custody, provided I guaranteed his return to court in four weeks time.
The case was dismissed. Our lawyer did a good job of representing the facts and explaining Jason’s mental state. He’d been worth the money, after all. Judith and I expected to leave the court with Jason, but we were told to collect him at the jail later in the day. We spent the day kicking our heels, and at 5 p.m., the appointed hour, we arrived at the jail. I’d never been inside a correctional facility before. The shabby waiting room was full of people waiting to see their prisoners. Every so often, someone would be called to go through the steel doors into the bowels of the jail. A glance through the small glass window in the door revealed only a long, dimly lit corridor. Three hours later, Jason was finally let out. He seemed subdued but grateful.
We spent the next day looking for Jason’s car, which had disappeared on the night he was arrested. Enquiries at the state police told us that the car was in a pound somewhere on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale. Only a month before, I had spent $2500 making it roadworthy. Now it was going to cost another few hundred to get it out of the pound. I shut my eyes and signed the credit card slip. Jason’s car was almost unrecognizable. Even the covering of pale white dust couldn’t conceal the smashed window behind the driver’s seat, but there was no time to get it fixed.
We packed as much as we could into his car. I was taking him back to Connecticut. Someone had to keep an eye on him until he could fend for himself, and that was going to take a while.