The young man standing before me was both familiar and foreign, his presence equally comforting and shocking. His eyes seemed wild, his appearance somewhat dirty and disheveled, and his emotions totally out of control. He repeatedly cycled between tears and laughter, anger and compassion, supreme confidence and overwhelming helplessness, frantic urgency and resigned complacency. His words spewed out machine-gun-like, the messages they communicated having little to do with reality, at least as everyone else saw it. Certainly there was a degree of truth in the thought pulsing through my brain, “I don’t know this person!” Yet, my heart turned cold and my whole world came crashing down with the words that he spoke as his eyes fell upon me, “Hi, Dad.”
I recall that instant as if it were only yesterday. I have relived it scores, if not hundreds, of times in my own mind. It is the moment that mental illness first touched our family in the person of our third child (our second son) after his freshman year of college. In hindsight, the signs of what would ultimately be diagnosed had been clearly present since his return home—extreme optimism, inflated self-esteem, rapid speech, somewhat aggressive behavior, agitation or irritability with any perceived disagreement, increased physical activity, decreased need for sleep, impulsive behavior, etc. However, having no prior experience with mental illness, my wife and I attributed his behavior to the arrogance and overconfidence of a know-it-all college student after his first year at a prestigious university—Georgetown.
Due to our ignorance and oversight, we were not in the United States when our son’s initial psychotic break occurred, with extended family and our Christian community to lend support, but in Tarapoto, Peru, located on a high jungle plateau and serving as a gateway into the Amazon rainforest. We were there to work with the local church and set up a shelter (sort of a Ronald McDonald house) for patients from the regional hospital. Instead, we found ourselves in a police station taking custody of our eighteen-year-old son who had wandered off the day before. Located mid-morning by the local police, he was clearly suffering from some sort of mental breakdown and experiencing delusions of grandeur. Three weeks of hospitalization followed under the treatment of the only psychiatrist in the area. He was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 Disorder (severe mania with delusions) and finally stabilized to the point that we were able to return home.
Once back in the U. S. we found a good psychiatrist who prescribed medications that had not been available in Peru and, within a few weeks, our son’s psychosis was beginning to diminish. He was not able to return to Georgetown in the fall, but he immediately began making plans to return in the spring semester. His medical leave for mental illness carried some very strict requirements for re-admittance: the approval of his attending psychiatrist, work a full-time job and receive an unconditional reference from his supervisor, and weekly sessions with a therapist and his/her endorsement.
To our dismay our son met each of the requirements and was re-admitted to Georgetown for the spring semester. We quickly found ourselves in the unenviable position of making preparations to drive our son more than one thousand miles from home and leave him on his own. Although we had already done this once before, the fear and concern that welled up within us was unlike anything we had ever experienced. After we had dropped him off our emotions overwhelmed us, causing tears to flow freely and frequently for much of our drive home.
I wish I could say that our fears were unfounded, but the months of that first semester back at Georgetown were filled with the challenge of finding the right combination and dosage of medicines, a variety of side-effects, many late-night calls, and several crises moments. It was our strong Christian faith that gave us hope and kept us from jumping in the car to bring our son home. On some level we realized we were not in control no matter how close we wanted to keep him. His mental illness was not going to disappear, and he had to learn to deal with it on his own.
Each successive semester was a little bit easier. It wasn’t that the issues that plagued us that first semester back suddenly vanished. Instead, we learned to anticipate crises moments and deal with them with greater effectiveness. Much of this success was due to the development of a trusted support system, including several of our son’s close friends, his university dean, his psychiatrist, and several Christian friends, who provided constant care and encouragement.
Ultimately, our son graduated from Georgetown and now holds a full-time, professional position. Through his enduring determination and God’s amazing grace our son has learned to thrive. Of course, the journey of living with a mental illness continues for our son, our family, and our faith community. Ours is a journey of hope.