In this installment of ‘Bipolar Planet,’ Gabi Coatsworth’s son, Jason, struggles to stay on the path to recovery.
I paid extra attention to the road as I peered through the windshield, which was slowly icing up. I was giving Jason a lift back to the homeless shelter in Westport, where he’d been living for the past few months. He’d come home for a Sunday family dinner.
“It doesn’t feel right,” he said, suddenly.
“What doesn’t?” At least half my mind was on the road.
“When I’m at your house—it doesn’t seem like the real world at all.”
That summed things up pretty well. Jason had grown up, at least until he was a teenager, in our world of middle-class affluence, with log fires, roast dinners, and cozy evenings spent together. Now he felt most at home on the streets. At night, when my mind wouldn’t let me rest, I pictured him alone, wandering alone until it was time to check in at the homeless shelter again.
“So, what does feel real?” I asked.
“What, with Dad?” He’d spent several years living with his alcoholic father in Fort Lauderdale, trying, and failing, to earn his approval.
“God, no. That was the worst. No, when I lived with my friends and we played music all the time.”
And did drugs all day, I thought.
“Well,” I said, terrified that this might actually happen, “once you get on your feet, you’ll be able to go back there if you want.” I knew that if he was 1,500 miles away, the chances of his managing his bipolar condition would be infinitesimal, but I didn’t want to have a row about it at that moment. I braked to avoid a opossum creeping across a patch of ice in the road. My grip on the steering wheel tightened, and a sweat broke out all over as I fought to bring the car back under control.
“I hate the winters up here,” he said.
I had bought him a heavy workman’s jacket and boots to keep him warm, and he wore them, although he preferred to dress in the Brooks Bros. and Barney’s castoffs that appeared regularly as donations at the homeless shelter. He rode a bicycle around town, or, when the weather was too bad, he waited for the bus. His car was long gone—given away, maybe, or traded for drugs. He couldn’t remember; he’d been manic at the time.
His social worker had helped him find a job, so now he was working at the local CVS, developing photos. My friends, most unaware of his condition, would stop by to see him, and told me how nice he was, how efficient, too. Things seemed to be going well. I began to relax a little.
Since he’d been working for almost a year, the homeless shelter had moved him into a halfway house, also in Westport. It was a small cottage, with room for four, on the Post Road near McDonalds; I’d passed it a million times without ever noticing it.
All Jason had to do was follow the rules. They were designed to keep the occupants on the right track, so although they were numerous, they weren’t exactly draconian. You had to go to work, clean up after yourself, keep taking your meds, go to outpatient services, and attend a weekly house meeting. No overnight guests.
I was ecstatic. Now that Jason had a home, a job, and some structure, I knew he was well on his way to full recovery.
Then the calls started coming. They came to me, since Jason had no cell phone. First CVS. Jason hadn’t turned up for work, again. Then the social worker; he hadn’t been attending weekly meetings. She’d heard he had had a woman in the house overnight. That was forbidden.
I raced to the halfway house, determined to find out what was going on. No one answered the door when I rang the bell. After several rings, and after throwing some stones at the bedroom window, Jason appeared at the door, his long hair tangled on his shoulders, a grubby sheet clutched around his waist. His eyes looked puffy. It was early afternoon and he was still sleeping.
I followed him up to his bedroom and paused in the doorway. It was almost impossible to navigate the floor, covered as it was with a jumble of guitar catalogs, unopened mail, and clothes. His guitar was propped precariously against the bedside table, where a full ashtray threatened to fall off at any moment. The bed, of course, was unmade, and Jimi Hendrix stared down from the poster on the wall with a stoner’s weary eyes.
“Have you got any clean clothes?” I asked. For my own sake, I needed to inject a note of normality into the situation.
“What for?” Jason mumbled.
“Because you’re going to work. If you don’t, you’ll lose your job, and they’ll throw you out of here.” I was keeping my voice steady, aided by the cold fist that had my gut in its grip. Why the hell wasn’t he trying?
“What time is it?” he asked. “I’m not working until the evening shift.”
I hesitated. Maybe he was right? But CVS had definitely said that he was supposed to be at work. Maybe they’d changed the shift and Jason had forgotten?
“Well, they want you there right now.”
Jason groaned as I began sorting through the shirts on the floor. I gave them a cursory sniff, and picked the least offensive one. “Here,” I said and handed him the shirt and a pair of passable jeans. Jason reached for the hairbrush that was under the bed.
CVS took him back, but it didn’t last. When he lost that job, he had to leave the halfway house.
“No problem,” he said. “I was planning on moving in with Jessica anyway.”
Jessica was his girlfriend, the first in a long time. She lived in Norwalk, which would be nearer to the outpatient center, but farther away from us. She was a nice girl, but had serious problems of her own. That was exactly what attracted Jason.
“I can give her advice on how to deal with her problems. She’s adopted, and hates her parents, and they’ve thrown her out, but I know I can help her.”
I helped Jason move into Jessica’s one-bedroom apartment on the upper floor of a small house behind the local porn store. The yard was paved with cracked concrete; it stored a variety of rusty artifacts that should have been at the dump. Eventually, Jason found a job selling vacuum cleaners. Make Up to $3,000 a Week, the ads had said.
“I have to train for two weeks, then they give me a list of people they’ve contacted by phone, and I go around and sell them one.”
My husband, Jay, and I knew this wasn’t going to be as simple as it sounded, but it was a job.
“They want me to do a couple of sample sales to friends or relatives to show I can do it,” he said. “Do you think you and Jay could be one of them?”
Jason came round with his sample vacuum, and showed us how it worked. It weighed a ton, and it cost $1,500, but Jay wanted to be supportive, so he bought two. Three years later, I was still paying them off.
After I’d driven Jason to a couple of sales calls some 20 miles away, we bought him a used Hyundai, but he never made another sale, and the pressure on him to produce was too much. Soon he was without a job again. Then the car had its rear window smashed in. Jason couldn’t afford to fix it.
Jay insisted that I needed a break, and truthfully, I was happy to get away when he suggested we go to England, my home country. Just for a couple of weeks, I wouldn’t have to worry about what Jason was doing. So I didn’t. Until one day, as I was relaxing over a cappuccino, my daughter, Jason’s sister, phoned.
“Mom,” she said, her voice giving way, “Jason’s disappeared.”
Find previous installments of “Bipolar Planet” here.
—Janet McKnight photo