My Son, in Prison

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.

—Photo thart2009/Flickr

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About Gabi Coatsworth

Gabi Coatsworth is a British-born writer who has spent half her life living in the United States. She lives in New Hampshire and Connecticut, with her husband, three sons, and a dog. The dog is sane.

Comments

  1. hi Gabi
    thanks for this piece – it’s an insight for me as to what goes on in the parent’s mind, and a reminder that mental health issues attack the person who lives with them as well as those around the person who care for them.
    take care
    Geoff

  2. As always, a very moving and suspenseful piece that goes so far to illuminate the scary parts of having a family member with mental illness. Thank goodness you have Judith to stick with you through this. Nice being married to the head of the CIA, I imagine!

  3. A heartbreaking uncertain journey, Gabi. Familiar to so many, I’m afraid. You tell it well. Thank you.

  4. Tom Matlack says:

    Great piece Gabi. I am constantly reminded of the challenge as a parent of letting go of the parents of your child you cannot fix and loving them unconditionally despite that face. Your grace is amazing.

  5. Tedesco McLean says:

    Thank you, Gabi, for you sensitive and insightful piece. As a psychiatric nurse of many years of experience I applaud the love and support you have for your son. So many are not so lucky. I’ve seen countless families start strong and with time and many, many hospitalizations grow unable to cope and they and their loved ones drift apart. Every person afflicted with mental illness deserves better care and support than is available; but your son is one of the lucky ones. He has you. Bless you.

  6. Peace to you & your son, & thanks for sharing this . The truth is that we have become a nation that is supporting a prison-jail solution to mental-emotional health issues. Most people locked up & most using drugs & alcohol in an abusive way are suffering from a disconnect from self, family, love, God, society, they are the canaries in the mine shaft, they are signaling that we are a dying culture. Nothing makes sense when we are a country that tortures, bombs, has 25% of our children living in poverty, obesity & suicide are common 20+% of our adults on some kind of prescribed medication for depression & we pretend that this is all NORMAL. Blessings to you & your son, insanity is running our politics & our country, being totally sane in a world as insane as this one is its own type of insanity. There is great book by Gabor Mate’, ”In the Realm of the Hungary Ghosts”, you may find beneficial. Peace.

  7. My 14-year-old son is at a wilderness camp now andI am making myself crazy with “what-if-I’d done-x-y-z” obsessive loops in my head…your piece reminded me to accept what is, do what I can to help, and detach from the outcome.

  8. Lois Smith says:

    This story is similar to my sisters.
    She was bright with a genius IQ.
    At 19 she made audio tapes on Phobias.
    At 22 she was a published poet………At 22 she died.
    She was in one State Hospital (Napa) where her Psychiatrist began an affair with her.
    She was an original Beatnick in the 50’s and as a 13 year old I remember the police coming to the house to take her away. She told them to sit down until she was finished eating, They did.
    I asked my mother once what she had done when at 16 she was locked up in Ventura School for Girls.
    My mother ‘s comment “You don’t want to know” .
    I never did know.

    • I hope things are better now. One reason I write these posts is to try and bring bipolar disorder out of the closet. It’s a scary disease, especially for the people who have it, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it, despise it, or take advantage of people who have it.

  9. Excellent piece, intimate yet non-blaming, to all the people involved. Perhaps your son could write a follow-up piece from his perspective? Best wishes.

  10. Geraldine Aldridge says:

    Every time I’m struck by your quiet uncomplaining bravery, Gabi. I do hope you have a spell of comaritive calm for a while now.

  11. Your wonderful voice…your ability to keep your sense of humor in the face of a terrible illness is just amazing. This is a wonderful and totally compelling piece.

  12. One common threat that most children receive when they are younger is “If you end up in jail, you had better get comfortable because you will be spending the night there.” This threat is generally given by a concerned parent who does not want his or her child to break the law. Most of the time, they don’t actually believe the child will do something bad enough that it warrants an arrest, but they give the warning nonetheless, in order to scare their child into acting sensibly and making smart decisions. But, what if your child actually did get arrested? Is it important to maintain the validity of the threat and leave the individual in jail for the night?

  13. “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.”

    Called Police because you wanted to control him.

    “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”

    Called the Police for chatting up a girl?
    (wanted to control him)

    I would say the women did a fine job of making this fellow crazy,or crazier,than he was on his own.

    Why not just let the guy alone?
    What gives you the right to lock him up for what YOU consider to be marginal behavior?

    The fact that the Police fall into lockstep indicates how misandric the law is these days.

    I don’t see any crime here at all,yet the Police where called twice!

    This arrogance has to end.
    How would you like it if someone tried to micromanage and control your life in such a manner?

    Oh, you would not stand for it.
    But then again, you have the required indoor plumbing.(free pass legally)

    I hope this young man sees whom is gaslighting him and goes-no contact.
    That’s the only way to deal with BPD women like you.

    • Firstly, I was thinking on the same lines, but would not put it that way.

      Secondly, I have been suicidal to the point of making plans and starting to carry them out. (If the police had found me like that I would have been held in a mental hospital until I was no-longer suicidal)

      ***

      If you had done nothing…

      – Your son would have been in psycatric wing
      – He would have gotten a free lawyer (In all European countries it works like this, I don’t know about the states)
      – Free lawyers are competent, this case is clear cut, and he would have been released.
      – Then he would have had to sort his life out himself, such as taking responsibility for his meds ect…

      You weren’t needed, and your presence meant that he didn’t have to deal with the full extent of his illness. You are acting as an enabler, in the same way that many parents and partners protect their loved ones from drug and alcohol addictions. They think they are helping, but in reality they making it worse, and causing a co-dependant cycle. This could have been a “Fuck this is real!” moment, instead he was rescued, and didn’t need to take charge of his life.

      ***

      Fortunately when I was about to commit suicide I realised something was wrong. Then took a series of steps to get help. If I had been in a mental hospital, held against my will, I don’t know if I would have the same determination to take charge of my recovery in the same way that I have done since. I would have had the safety to behave self destructively with no consequences.

      ***

      It can be hard letting someone who is a danger to themselves out into the world. However most of his psychotic episodes will be harmless, running around a trailer park thinking he’s god, phone calls to dad asking him to call in the agents, ect… Occasionally he’ll get arrested, or he could get hit by a car and seriously hurt himself.

      However life is not safe, normal people die all of the time, and most importantly, it is his life and his choice. If he wants to live in a trailer park and spend all his money on drugs it is his choice. He understands the risks, and has a right to take them.

      ***

      He is a grown man who can deal with his own shit.

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  2. [...] on Good Men Project. My friend Gabi Coatsworth, for instance, has written a great story about visiting her son in prison. Related Posts:Good Men Project: It’s Not Just for MenGabi Coatsworth’s Blogger SpaceHow [...]

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