This Mother’s Day, I will be reflecting on my journey as a mother, with gratitude for my four children but also with great sadness for mothers I know who have lost a young adult child.
On Sept. 16, 1979, I gave birth to my third child, a son. I was excited because I wanted another son. He was adorable. I couldn’t stop gazing at him in wonder. I had no idea then what the future had in store for my son.
I was raised in a very loving family. Some of my family members have struggled with mood disorders, but none of them had had a co-occurring drug problem. I had heard talk about the war on drugs, and I felt confident it could not affect me or any of my family members. I had no idea what horror awaited my family, or what the impact would be on my life.
As my son became a teenager, I noticed a change in his behavior. He had been a humorous, loving, caring child full of laughter and enthusiasm. He was very well liked and had many friends. He used to love to cook; he would tell everyone he would make something for each and every one, and said that he wanted to become a chef. But during his last years of high school, he couldn’t do the things he once loved to do anymore.
First his school work suffered, then I noticed he wasn’t sleeping at night. He was sad because his father was no longer in his life. Sometimes he seemed anxious and agitated, even paranoid at times. He began to ask his sister and me whether we had called out his name when we hadn’t. Then he started to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. I thought, “What’s happened to my son? He’s hearing voices! This is not the son I knew!”
I tried reaching out for help, yet no one really knew where to direct me. I called agency after agency in town, but no one was able to help us. Several times I was given phone numbers that were no longer in service. As a single mom I was at wits end. One night when my son was raising his voice at me, I called 9-1-1 to see if an officer could talk with him.
I was fortunate to have an officer respond to the call who talked with my son and advised me to just let my son go for a walk and cool down because once he got into “the system” he would never get out of it. He turned out to be right. If I knew then what I know now, I would have never called the police, because my son began to be considered a criminal instead of being treated as a young man who was suffering from a mental health disorder.
My son’s mood swings got worse. He began to get very depressed and withdrawn, and sometimes frustrated and belligerent. Eventually one evening he got booked into jail. Unfortunately, when he was released his nightmare continued. He would walk the street all night long, hearing voices and talking to himself until his feet were covered with blisters, and he would tap on my window begging for food.
He attempted suicide at 22 and was hospitalized briefly but released with no follow-up. He was caught in the “revolving door” — in and out of jail, a series of too-short hospitalizations and no real recovery.
Our country spends $15 billion a year on the so-called “Drug War,” but the funding for treating mental health disorders and dual diagnosis has been slashed. I found out the hard way that Santa Barbara has but a handful of residential treatment beds. Finally, after almost 10 years of this nightmare, my son had to be sent to one out of town to have any chance of recovery.
Some of my friends’ sons and daughters were not so lucky, however, and lost their lives to suicide and overdose. My heart goes out to their moms on this Mother’s Day.