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The broad middle distance of parenting has no end. A friend and I were talking last week about how, in our late 50s, parenting adult children is sometimes more challenging than when our kids were young, living under our roofs, and dependent upon us for their every need.
At least back then, most days we knew whether or not they were OK. Now, when our adult children face adult-sized difficulties, and we are being careful not to hover too closely, we’re often left to guess about their well-being. We know how tough it can be out here in the world of grown-ups, and we have to let our kids learn it for themselves.
Imagine then, the struggles of a parent whose adult son begins to develop severe mental illness just when his adult life is about to take off, say, senior year in college. That’s the situation former Washington Post reporter Pete Earley and his son, Mike, confronted in 2005. Mike’s first symptom was that he couldn’t eat. Earley took him to a doctor who said: “If you’re lucky he has a drug problem; if you’re unlucky, he has mental illness.” Mike took medication for six weeks, then quit, and a year later, experienced a psychotic break that got him arrested and enmeshed in the legal system, a rapid cycle that too many mentally ill young adults fall into, from hospital to courthouse to jail. Confounded and alarmed by what he calls “America’s mental health madness,” Earley wrote a book, Crazy, that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Since then, he has crossed the country tirelessly, advocating for better treatment and broader public understanding of the problems the mentally ill and their families face. This week, Earley visited Colorado Springs on behalf of the local chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“You picture your kid will do what you did — finish college, get a job, get married, have a family, then suddenly you have a stranger there, someone you don’t even know,” Earley said, describing Mike’s first psychotic break. He would experience two more over the next few years until finally stabilizing with good housing and case management, and a job in a peer-to-peer program, counseling others in crisis.
“Look, people with mental illness want the same thing everyone wants,” Earley said. “A safe place to live, someone to make them feel loved, and a job that makes them feel useful.”
In his book and in his lectures, Earley frequently focuses on the difficulty of getting an adult child hospitalized when he’s in crisis, because of legalities such as proving to a judge that he is in danger of harming himself or someone else.
“I lied to a crisis-trained policeman and told him my son threatened to kill me, just to get him placed in a hospital,” Earley said. “That’s not something you expect a good parent to have to do.” This father and son, like many others in similar situations, became adversaries living under the same roof when Mike returned home from the hospital, a result of the minefield of the legal system, the labyrinthine path to treatment, and that breech of trust. Had Mike been a child, it would have been difficult to find proper treatment, but because he was an adult, it was near impossible for Earley to get it for him.
“It’s tough to deal with serious mental illness at this stage in life,” says Earley. “You have to admit something’s not working right in your brain, and that’s no good, and then you have other people telling you what to do.”
What’s needed, he says, is the same opportunity for effective treatment for someone in a mental health crisis as someone needing treatment for an acute physical problem. But for that to happen, awareness at every level needs to be raised, from the legal system to the mental health care system to the neighbor next door.
“Listen, I get away with what I do, talking to people about this, for two reasons. One, my son’s crime wasn’t violent and didn’t hurt anybody.” Mike, he explains, broke into someone’s house, who wasn’t at home, to take a bubble bath.
“And two, because I look like I do — I worked for the Washington Post. I’m a suburbanite. People look at me and ask, ‘How did this happen to him?’ It’s the perfect way to make the point: this can happen to anybody.”
In the great middle distance of parenting, Earley finds himself stepping back and letting Mike live his life, but like the rest of us, he’s always looking over his shoulder, watching carefully.
— For more information on the Colorado Springs chapter of NAMI, visit www.namicoloradosprings.org or call 473-8477
— To read more from Pete Earley, visit his blog at www.peteearley.com
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.