Sneaking out, smoking pot, stealing from step-dad’s wallet—Gabi Coatsworth wonders if she should have seen her son’s bipolar diagnosis coming.
He’s running along the L train tracks in Evanston, Illinois, with his best friend, Devin. After a while, they collapse laughing on the side of the tracks and, fumbling in his pocket, Devin hands Jason a crumpled joint. Jason’s the one with the lighter, and he thumbs it to life, puts the joint between his lips, and takes a deep drag. They are both 13. I am at home, asleep, undisturbed. And why not? It’s 2 a.m. As far as I know, my little angel is asleep in his bed.
Was that when it started? Or was it some sort of sign that, had I known about it, I would have picked up on? I knew Jason hadn’t always been happy since we moved from a fairly settled existence in London to Chicago, where my new career consumed most of my attention. When I took him to the pediatrician for a stomach ache that wouldn’t go away, the doctor explained that the problem was psychosomatic. “There’s nothing physically wrong with him,” he told me, peering over his glasses. “He needs to see a psychologist.”
I was British—part of me still is—and the British view psychotherapy as just an excuse to sit and whine for an hour. But I dutifully took Jason along to Dr. R, a wizened pixie of a man, barely taller than Jason. They met once a week, until I married my second husband and we moved from Chicago to Connecticut.
In our wedding photos, we’re standing on the extended deck of the picturesque house we’d found in Fairfield’s backcountry—it’s a dreamy scene—except that Jason and his younger sister, Helenka, are standing to one side of us, scowling. And Jay’s two daughters are on the other side, smiling through clenched teeth. As we’re speaking our final vows, a thunderclap and a flash of lightning announce a pounding rain, and we run for the house. Looking back, I wonder whether I should have taken it as a warning from the Gods.
Jason never settled down with Jay and I. He stole money from Jay’s wallet and even axed his way through a locked closet door to find cash. I blamed myself. If only I’d been a better mother…
He was skipping school, and before long, smoking pot was his preferred occupation. Raiding the liquor cabinet ran a close second—until we put a padlock on it. This is a boy with an IQ of 130-something, an incredible and indelible memory, and a talent for languages, writing, art and music. That was the boy I remembered and wanted to see again.
Jay and I began to take it out on each other. Jay thought I’d brought Jason up too leniently. I fired back, claiming his girls were lacking in street smarts and would break out in rebellion one day. (They didn’t.) We tried taking Jason to a local outpatient facility for teenagers and their long suffering parents. We tried therapists. Finally we took him to an actual psychiatrist for an evaluation.
We assured Jason that everything he said would be in confidence, and we believed it. When the shrink came out to talk to us, he looked almost benign. But his next words were like heavy blows raining down on my head. He told us that Jason had taken so many drugs that he’d altered his brain chemistry. And he couldn’t diagnose Jason unless we admitted him to the Institute for Living in Hartford for immediate rehab. “You’d better do it fast,” the doctor said. “When he turns 17, you won’t have the parental legal power over him.”
What I heard was: Lock up your drug addict (whack) for detox (whack) and throw away the key (whack). Today (whack). I sank into a chair, my mind racing. Drug addict. Detox. Today.
I couldn’t do it. And he wouldn’t go anyway, he told us. When I spoke to his father (an Englishman living in Florida) about the situation, he was not sympathetic. “I’ll sort him out,” he said. “I’ve done enough of these things myself that he won’t be able to get away with anything. Send him down here for a couple of months.”
I was relieved. Maybe this would work? A couple of months turned into several years. Years when Jason kept running: to Spain, Florida, New Haven, and Hartford. He would visit us occasionally, when he felt okay. But there were long periods when he was unreachable, physically and mentally. I would pray that I would hear something about him. “Be careful what you wish for,” a friend said.
I visualized two policemen with grave faces at my door, wondering how to tell me the worst. I stopped praying for anything except that he was still alive somewhere. It would take sixteen years and an arrest in Hartford for marijuana possession before anyone mentioned the words that would explain everything: bipolar. For the first time, at the age of 33, my boy Jason was forced to stop running.
I couldn’t know then that when my sister died, I would inherit her boys—and one of them would also turn out to be bipolar. Or that schizophrenia would rear its ugly head. Or that, bloodied but unbowed, we would survive it all. Bipolar Planet is a column about this psychiatric disorder has impacted my family—and our world.
photo by House of Sims on Flickr