On vacation in England, Gabi Coatsworth receives an unnerving call: Jason, her manic-depressive son, has taken off to Florida with a drug-pushing girl who’s half his age.
“It’s Jason.” I could hear my daughter Helenka’s voice from the USA, faint but clearly distressed. “He’s disappeared. He said he was going to leave and now he’s gone and I don’t know where he is, and why do I have to take care of this?”
I had squelched my sense of foreboding when I’d left my bipolar son, Jason, and his problems behind for a week or two, and taken my first vacation in quite a while. I was in England, drinking in a little history, a little cappuccino, and the odd glass of wine, all of which were reducing my stress levels considerably. My husband, Jay, had taken our other two boys out to explore, and I was sitting, immersed in a Jane Austen novel, in the tiny garden of our rented apartment when my daughter called.
“Take a deep breath, darling,” I said, the way I used to when she was agitated over some tragedy as a teenager. I could picture her, twisting a strand of her long, dark hair around her finger. She was in her early 30s now, a middle-school teacher, and expecting her first child. No wonder she felt stressed. She really didn’t need Jason’s problems to deal with. I heard her breathe out, and I tried to do the same.
“Now, tell me,” I said. “What happened, exactly?”
“You know those people he’s been hanging out with in Norwalk?”
“Uh-huh,” I said. I knew a little about them, but had never met any of them, except for Jessica, the girl Jason was living with at the time. Jason liked to keep his life and mine separate, for the most part.
“He’s gone off with a 16-year-old girl who was scoring drugs for him,” Helenka continued.
This wasn’t good at all. Sixteen may be the age of consent, but Jason was over 30, and her family must have been worried and angry.
“Yes.” Helenka was sounding impatient. “It’s all Jessica’s fault, though. Apparently she and Jason had a fight and she called the police—I guess they were both high.”
I wondered what Jason could have done. He’d never shown any signs of violence before. Maybe Jessica called the police because Jason, when manic, can be unpredictable, and therefore scary.
The English sparrows continued to chirp in the sunny garden.
“So if you call the police it’s an automatic domestic, and that means a court appearance,” Helenka continued. I wondered how on earth my daughter knew about things like this. “Anyway,” she went on, “he left with this 16-year-old. She had money and a VW Jetta. He said they were driving to Florida.”
Florida was the place where Jason had always felt that he’d been free. He’d gone to live there when I’d given him an ultimatum about quitting marijuana. He’d been 17 then, and he’d lived there on and off for about five years before coming back to Connecticut.
“Why was he calling you, then?” I asked. I knew Helenka and Jason weren’t really close.
“He probably tried your cell and couldn’t get through. He only calls me when he’s nuts.”
Shit. I forgot. Jason didn’t have my international cell number. Thank God Helenka remembered it.
“He was demanding we wire him some money,” she went on. “I guess they’ve run out of cash.”
“OK,” I said, racking my brains for a way of finding Jason and getting him some help. “Look, next time he calls, see if he can tell you where he is so you can wire him the money. That way, we’ll have a way to find him.”
“I’ve already done that. He said he’d find a Western Union place and call back. But, Ma, he sounds completely crazy. He’s talking nonstop, and telling me these weird things about the sum of everything being one, and that’s the secret of the universe. I don’t like it.”
I was familiar with this line of thinking. Jason seemed desperate to make sense of his world when he was manic, and one way he did it was to come up with a pseudo-scientific theory which would explain it all. His equation—”0 = 1 = the universe = everything is one”—was a theme that recurred at times like this. I’d seen him fill whole notebooks with the same equation on each page, when he’d been manic before. It seemed to me that some distant part of his mind was aware that things weren’t right.
“We’re going to get him some help,” I said, with more confidence than I felt. “For now, just try and leave the phone lines free, and let me know if he contacts you again.”
I felt powerless again, as I did so frequently when dealing with Jason’s disease. The sunny day had clouded over, and was threatening rain, as I waited for news.
It was five the next morning before Helenka rang back.
“They’ve got him.” She sounded relieved. “He called me from a strip mall in Virginia, so I called the police and they’ve got him.”
“He told me he was in Virginia, and would I send him some money. I said I needed the address of the Western Union store, so I could send it. He didn’t know the address but he told me it was a Winn-Dixie store off the highway somewhere.”
“OK,” I interrupted, “but how did the police manage to find him?”
“I called 911 from the landline, while I was talking to Jason, and they patched me through to the police in Virginia. They were super nice and asked me if he had a weapon; I said no. ‘Was he a danger to others?’ I said I wasn’t sure, but I told them he might be suicidal.”
My stomach clenched. “Did Jason say he was suicidal?” I was trying to sound calm, but I knew this was a real possibility with bipolar people. My research had shown that two out of 10 bipolar people attempt suicide, and half of those succeed. I managed to forget this most of the time, but at times like this it was at the forefront of my mind.
“No, Mom, but you know they won’t do anything otherwise.” Right, right. If Jason wasn’t causing a disturbance or breaking the law, there was no way to get him help without claiming he was a danger to himself or to others.
“Helenka,” I told her, “you’re terrific. I know you hate doing this, but you may have saved his life. Look, I’ll be back in three days. Is there a number for the police so I can call and find out where he is?”
She gave it to me, and I called. They’d taken him to the local psychiatric hospital and checked him in for his own protection.
So far, so good. The second I touched down at JFK three days later, I called the hospital again and spoke to Jason. He still sounded crazy to me, so I was shocked when the doctors told me they would be letting him go within the next two or three days.
“But he’s still sick,” I said. “I can’t come and fetch him until next week.”
I was stalling for time, hoping they’d keep Jason there a few days longer. But they were adamant.
“He doesn’t have any insurance and we only keep psychiatric cases here for seven days without insurance,” Helenka said. “We’ll give him a bus ticket to New York.”
I knew that the chances of Jason showing up in New York if he was still sick and taking a bus were slim. There were too many places between Virginia and New York where he could get off the bus and disappear.
“Don’t do that,” I begged. “I’ll send him an airline ticket.” I checked my credit cards for the one with enough credit to buy Jason a one-way ticket.
And as I did so, I wondered what the hell I would do with a sick son when he finally came home.
Earlier: Reading Between the Silences
—Photo Jérôme Briot/Flickr