Hard Lessons: What I’ve Learned As The Father Of An Adult Son With Mental Illness Who Is Well Today

(8-21-19) From My Files Friday.  It’s August, which means I will be taking a short, but much needed vacation with my family, and also finishing my new novel, entitled SHAKEDOWN. Please enjoy this blog, one from the 1,250 that I’ve posted since 2006. 

Helping Someone Who Has A Mental Illness: Lessons I’ve Learned

It’s difficult helping someone with a mental illness.

My relationship with my son,  Kevin, has not always been easy. Those of you who have read my book know that I was forced to lie about him threatening me in order to get him taken into a hospital rather than put in jail. During a later break, I called the police and my son was shot twice with a Taser. These events hurt parent-son relationships.

So what have I learned?

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An All Too Familiar Story: A Family’s Painful Struggle To Help Seriously Ill Son

Happier times: Marti, daughter Sophia, and John at Sophia’s graduation in 2010.

(7-29-19) Thank you Marti for sharing your family’s story.


By Marti Cockrell

John was not a criminal.

John should have never been in the criminal justice system. He never did anything deliberately criminal.

When he was young, he was mischievous and fun-loving, and got involved with some friends who together got into different kinds of trouble, but nothing serious.

When John was in school, he started smoking cigarettes and using some street drugs, pretty early in his teens, but the counselors in school told me they didn’t have time to help John, because they were overloaded with kids who were on ‘hard drugs’. We live in Tarrant County, Texas.

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Advocate Helps Distraught Woman In Crisis On Flight: Avoiding Arrest Or Worse

(7-26-19) From My Files Friday: In this blog, first posted in May 2015, my friend, fellow author and mental health advocate, Gabe Howard, describes how he encountered a person in crisis during an airline flight. What happened to the passenger could have been a tragedy, as all of us know. Arrest or worse. Instead, it turned out to be an example to what can happen when someone manages to de-escalate a volatile situation with patience, understanding and compassion.

Mental Illness Crisis at 35,000 Feet

By Gabe Howard

When I saw the young woman reach for the cockpit door on a recent cross-country flight, I knew there was going to be trouble.

 A few moments earlier, I had watched her come down the aisle to use the lavatory at the rear of the aircraft near where I was sitting. She tried to open its door but couldn’t. She tried again.

 A flight attendant noticed and told her the bathroom was occupied and that she would need to wait her turn.

 The woman insisted the door was just stuck and kept struggling with it.

 I was sitting close enough to see the woman’s eyes and what I saw troubled me.  Total anxiety. The fear and confusion radiating off her was as clear as day to me because I had experienced panic and anxiety attacks.

 The flight attendant suggested she try the rest room in the front of the aircraft. The woman started to cry, gasp for air, and whimper unintelligibly, as she returned up the aisle.

Mental Illness can cause confusion.  This confusion, coupled with desperation and fear, can lead to frightening outcomes. When she reached the front, she started to grab various handles in an attempt to gain entry to the bathroom. One of those handles was the cockpit door.

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Class Reunion Sparks Memories Of My Teenage Years and Death of My Sister




Visiting my sister’s and parents’ graves in Colorado last week

(7-22-19) Patti and I were in Colorado last week attending my high school reunion. It was great to reconnect with friends, most of whom, I’d not seen for many years. Although I only lived in Fowler for five years, I have strong connections to this rural community with less than a thousand residents. As this story that I wrote in 1986 while a reporter at The Washington Post demonstrates. 

MISSING ALICE: The Story of My Sister, Her Death, and My Search for Answers

Midway across Ohio, the man beside me on the DC-10 asked where I was going.

“Fowler, Colorado. A little town of about a thousand people near Pueblo.”

“Why would anyone go to Foouuller?” he asked, grinning as he exaggerated the name.

“A death. My sister.”

“Sorry,” he mumbled and turned away.

I was relieved. I didn’t have to explain that my sister had been dead 19 years. Alice was killed when I was 14. She was two years older and we had been inseparable as children.

I couldn’t talk about her death at first. My voice would deepen, my eyes would fill with tears. My parents would cry at the mention of her name, and we rarely spoke of her. Then it seemed too late.

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3 1/2 Years Demanding Treatment In Hospital, Rather Than Prison. A Chance For Redemption

(7-16-19) This is part two of Elena Broslovsky’s courageous telling of her family’s struggle to help Gabriel whose serious mental illness led to him being incarcerated for a violent attack that happened when he was psychotic.

Of Dragons, Magic Pills, And A Nine Word Incantation (Part Two)

Guest blog by Elena Broslovsky, author, blogger, advocate and mother.

My husband and I were on a Ferry boat sliding through Alaska’s Inside Passage.  It was my Birthday.  My phone rang.  We were told there was no cell service and I thought I had turned it off.   The call was from the 707 area code.  I almost didn’t answer as I block most calls from places not in my contacts.

“Hello, I am in Napa,” a breathless and excited voice exclaimed

“Who is this?”

“It’s your Son!  Happy Birthday!  They transferred me to Napa, I thought I was going to Atascadero but …”

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A Son’s Schizophrenia – Violence & Incarceration – A Parents’ Endless Efforts To Help Gabriel

(7-15-19) Not wanting to stigmatize individuals with mental illnesses, the majority of whom are not dangerous, few families openly discuss violence in their homes. Families, especially parents, are the most vulnerable when a seriously mentally ill loved one becomes dangerous. Here is the first of a two-part guest blog written by Elena Broslovsky who chronicles her son’s ongoing struggles with schizophrenia that lead to violence, his imprisonment and, ultimately a return to sanity.

Of Dragons, Magic Pills, And A Nine Word Incantation (Part 1 of 2)

Guest blog by Elena Broslovsky, author, blogger, advocate and mother.

On Mother’s day, I realized it might have been me lying cold and bleeding on the floor with my spleen kicked in.

I could have been airlifted to the emergency room, one eye battered closed, barely conscious.  It was Dove, who took the beating.  In shock, I fervently prayed he would live, while wishing I could die along with this nightmare.

Our son had slipped through time again into the grasping dragons of mental illness and addiction.  The memory of my nose buried in gold silk wisps at the soft spot of his newborn crown, always returns.  In my dreams and in broad daylight, the long ago intoxicating powdery sweet smell and recollection of that perfect peace, haunts.  The ability to stop his cries and fill his needs with gentle rocking and Mother’s milk are long gone.

As he grew, so did our pride in his accomplishments and hopes for his future.

He graduated with both academic and athletic honors at 16 and was accepted at UC Santa Cruz.  After his second semester, we began losing him in bewildering painful increments.  We fought demons with conflicting theories and advice.  Our love and good intentions were ineffective weapons.  He would partially recover with just enough of himself intact to give hope he might be restored and redeemed.

Each recovery left fewer fragments of our once brilliant, happy child.

There were magic pills to ‘fix’ him but he did not believe he needed fixing.

After a dozen years in-and-out of hospitals and on-and-off meds, he chose to live on the street even though he had a comfortable home.  He was almost thirty when he slashed the throat of an attacker in broad day light on Pacific Avenue.  It was deemed self defense.  All he had to do to stay out of prison was take the pills that made him stable.

But they also made his hands tremble and caused weight gain on his once taut athletic frame.  He refused meds and was locked up for almost six years till he was finally convinced the meds and freedom might be a better alternative.  He was influenced, he told us, by a lengthy stay in the SHU, aka Special Housing Unit, aka Solitary Confinement.  He was told he would not get out till he took his meds.

Released, he fought his way back slowly with the help of Twelve Step programs, a sponsor, and his practice of Zen Buddhism.  Dove, a soft spoken, pale, brown robed priest mentored him.  He was a teacher at a Zen Community when he first met our Gabriel, then a 16 year old, before his Twin Dragons struck.  We were so grateful that such a kind, intelligent, generous and peaceful man befriended our son. He taught him as a young University student and later when he was released from prison.

Dove helped Gabriel secure a small cottage on the grounds of the Zen Community.

For the next five years Gabriel battled his mental illness, gambling and substance addictions.

He was so drastically different from the child we once knew that he seemed to be our Second Son.  As he struggled to rebuild a remnant of a stable life, we walked on eggshells in his presence.  He had a volatile temper and lashed out at us.  He often seemed irrational and sometimes withdrew completely.  It was a difficult dance to be supportive but not tolerate abusive behavior.  We were guided by our local NAMI chapter, on-line support groups, classes, and oceans of books from other bewildered family members and mental health professionals. There was lots of support but also conflicting information and suggestions.

Most friends and family subtly and often blatantly blamed us, sometimes while bragging of their own child’s accomplishments.

Gabriel was often hostile and mistrustful, blaming us for his difficulties and insisting there was nothing wrong with him. We were the problem.  He would not sign a release form so we could communicate with those providing health care.   I sent past health records and a written history of the changes we noted  but could never confirm they were received.

We were shut out of assisting a treatment team.

We jumped at the sporadic chances to connect when he was open and loving and willing to include us in his life.  We had intermittent glimpses of the charming, sweet person he could be.  We lived on a Ranch in the Central Valley that I loved but I decided to move to Santa Cruz to be closer to him.

Eventually he took his Precepts in a Zen Buddhist ceremony and ironically was given the Zen name Mysterious Dragon of Constant Virtue.  His head was shaved.  He studied Compassion, Harmony and Buddha nature.  He served at ceremonies and meditations lighting incense and ringing bells.  He helped make meals for the homeless.  He had a part time delivery job.

When he completed his parole, he was no longer required to go to 12 step meetings.

The Twin Dragons that slumbered in his brain had been held at bay.  Now they stirred, awoke, and breathed their fetid fire.  He withdrew from activities, commitments, and community.   He stopped his meds and quit his job.  He stopped feeding the fish he had loved and nurtured and let them slowly die in the tank his best friend had given him.

 One bright February day, he tossed his phone and computer in a dumpster, and vanished.

After an exhaustive three weeks search I found him in a deteriorated state.  Although he recognized me, he wasn’t speaking.  He was dazed.  His cottage was still open and available but he would not consider returning to it.  I left money in an account for him at his favorite market.  The compassionate store clerk’s brother also battled schizophrenia.  She emailed updates and a warning.  The owner, her boss did not want him around the store.

Dove was deeply concerned and we both sought help from the police pleading for 5150 (involuntary psychiatric hold), to get him off the street and into care.

Gabriel had learned the magic words.  His hair was matted knots, his eyes were wild and his clothes filthy, wreaking rags.  A former clean cut, athletic, honor student was living on wild mushrooms in the wooded area surrounding the park where he sometimes slept.  Even though the police knew he had a schizoaffective diagnosis, and a prison record for a violent act…

“He is not,” I was coldly informed, “breaking the law.”

When approached he had incanted the nine magic words:

“I am not a danger to myself or others.”

He then melted back, out of reach, into the woods.

Days later, gaunt and wildly hallucinating, he slammed a complete stranger in the back of the head in a coffee shop.  Next he broke into Dove’s home through the bathroom window.  A fight ensued, leaving Dove battered so badly he was airlifted to Stanford and eventually lost his spleen and needed facial reconstruction.

They arrested our son sitting naked on a picnic table at the same market where Dove and I had pleaded with him to come home.  He told the police that Dove had been ‘replaced’ by a Nazi and he was trying to save him and others.  A much younger man, with a Dragon Tattoo had inhabited Dove’s body and replaced him.

He ranged from raving and incoherent to entirely mute.

Unable to assist in his own defense, he was sent to a state hospital to become ‘trial ready,’  by the court.  He came back stabilized on the meds he was forced to take there.  Now with the fog cleared he stated he knew it was Dove at the time.  Which according to those who evaluated him, meant he was sane at the time of the offense.   Not factoring his altered mental state on-and-off meds.

Gabriel stayed in the county jail for three-and-a-half years ranging from psychotic, to catatonic to barely stable.

In spite of a 27-year history with a diagnosed serious mental illness, and the knowledge that he had been off his much needed medication over 3 months, when he attacked the man who had mentored him since he was sixteen and shown him only deep concern and kindness, it was concluded that he was sane of the attack.   With a strike for a previous conviction he faced a 33 year sentence.  Once he was properly medicated he realized what he had done and became confused and racked with guilt.  He wanted to be punished.  I believe he would have rather been a felon in prison than a “loony in the loony bin.”

No one wants to create stigma against someone they love.  It is painful to accept that untreated and off meds our son can be a danger to himself and others, even though he can say the nine magic words.

“I am not a danger to myself or others.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elena and her husband Attorney Allen Broslovsky live in Aptos CA where they advocate for families dealing with SMI Serious Mental Illness.  They are members of the local NAMI chapter https://www.namiscc.org/ where Elena is part of the Helpline team and a Family Support Group facilitator.   They are also members of the amazing NAMI Family Support Group that meets at NAPA State Hospital and is supported by the NSH Staff. You can read more of her blog posts here.

(Tomorrow: PART TWO – Prison, stability and undying love.)