A Son’s Journey to Mental Health

image for Martti Peeples article Mental Illness

I will never forget my son telling me at age 6 that he wanted to die. When he said this to me, I didn’t know what to think. I kind of shrugged it off as an only child trying to seek some attention. I couldn’t allow myself to take this remark seriously.  How many mothers hear their child say something like this?

My son was born smiling. And as a young person, he smiled all the time. He was a happy baby and happy young person. Everyone who encountered William felt he was someone special and so well behaved. By age 10, William was starting to get in trouble at school. His behavior started to change dramatically—he didn’t want to sit in class and started having social issues with his peers. I thought this came from him being a little sheltered and not being around many young people. Maybe also because the street we lived on in Detroit had changed so much. I wouldn’t let him go outside much because if someone wasn’t harmed by gunshots, they were run over by cars or hurt in other acts of violence. So I made a decision to send him to my mother in Warren until I could finish closing on the sale of my home.

By the fall of 2005, William was enrolled in middle school and we were looking for a fresh start: new job, different city, and, prayerfully, a different atmosphere. But this would soon be the start of a nightmare. William started middle school, and for the first two months, he did well. But by November, I was getting calls from his teacher. He was refusing to go in the classroom. One day she would say, “William is a sweet young man,” and then the next day, he was an uncontrollable person who seemed to crave attention, making up strange stories about myself and his grandmother. Next William would leave school at the end of the day and walk to the hospital and make claims he was being beaten by myself and or his grandmother, or he would find ways to fall and hurt himself. The social workers didn’t believe his stories about abuse but protective services had to be called. William went as far a writing a note which said “HELP ME!” and stood in my mother’s window with it. Her neighbor came over and asked if everything was okay. My mother didn’t understand why until the neighbor explained what she saw.

Then in December of 2005, William went to school and claimed to have swallowed some rubbing alcohol. His teacher called me to say he was being taken to the hospital. When I arrived, I was so frustrated that my son would pull this stunt just to get attention. This was my thought. Then the social worker came in and said she needed to talk to him. She asked if he felt like hurting himself and if he wanted to hurt others. Had he made attempts to hurt others? The answers were baffling. I couldn’t believe my son was making the statements I was hearing. For a moment, I didn’t know who he was. But I also felt the social worker was leading the questions. Next, the social worker pulled me into another room and said that based on the answers my son gave, she was required to admit him into a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Someone please wake me up! The social worker left and made some calls. I sat in the room staring at my son, not knowing what to say or do. A couple of hours went by and the social worker came in, saying they had a room for him. Now we had to wait for an ambulance. By the time we made it to the hospital out in New Baltimore, it was 3 a.m.; I was tired. I felt so bad for my mother; she was taking this harder than me. We went through the same routine at the hospital; same questions and the same answers. I was praying William was about to say, “Just joking.” But he didn’t. Next thing I am doing is signing a whole bunch of papers. Then the nurse came and took my baby away. I called off from work the next day. I called my best friend and just cried into the phone. The doctor from the hospital called and asked me some questions over the phone. Then the therapist called and asked if they could start William on Abilify and some other drugs. I said no, if he is to get the help he needs, he needed to have a clear mind. They said William was acting in a self-harm way and the only way they could start any treatment is to medicate him. I didn’t know what to do, so I said go ahead. After this, she scheduled us for our first therapy season. I asked my mother to come with me. When we arrived, William was already in the room. We walked in and he had this smirk on his face. I asked how he was doing and he said “alright, but there is something I have to say to you.” I told him to go ahead and say it. He said “You are a bitch! A life sucking bitch!” My soul left my body and floated around the room as if it was making sure I could knock the hell out of him.  This was just the beginning of a seven-year odyssey through the mental health system for the both of us.

The next event happened four days later when they released him to come home. The next morning, we were to report to outpatient therapy; instead, I again was shaken. The phone rings and I answer “Hello.”

“Is this Ms. Peeples?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know where you son is?”

“Yes. He’s asleep.”

“No! Ms. Peeples, your son is here at the hospital in the E.R. He ran out into oncoming traffic and managed to get hit by a car.”

I jumped up, got dressed, and called my mother, who stayed across the court, and she came with me to the hospital again. When I saw William, all sorts of feeling overwhelmed me. I wanted to hit him, I wanted to scream at him, I wanted to hug him, I wanted to shake him back into normalcy, whatever that was.

The same procedure again, except they were sending him to a different hospital. From January 2007 to December 2007, my son went through four different hospitals. He was diagnosed with everything: ADHD, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, PTSD. He was put on dozens of medications, all intended for adults, but with the severity of his conditions, I was told they were needed.

Now, what do I tell my employer, the people who had to know the truth, which cut me in so many ways? People stared back like it was all my fault. To my co-workers, William was recovering from a car accident with left him with severe neurological damage. I told this story for so long I started believing it. The whole time he was away, I felt like I was in prison. I didn’t go out, just to work and back home. I sat in an empty apartment. When he was transferred to another facility, I was able to bring him home for visits. Clothes shopping even took on a new form. I now had to put his name in permanent marker on everything I bought for him. I couldn’t talk to my family. When I tried to talk to my best friend, she would listen, but you could tell she really didn’t know what to say. I slowly stopped talking. People would ask me about William, and which story I would tell depended on who asked the question.

Mental-health problems are still taboo in the African-American community. All I wanted was for my son to come home and everything to be normal. When I would go visit, you could tell when his medication change was affecting him; his weight would either go up rapidly or go down rapidly. Our visits were getting better and therapy was improving things.

By December 2007, my son was ready to come home. He had outpatient therapy and Macomb County had him enrolled in every service. For a year and a half, everything went well. He managed to stay home. Then he started having behavior problems at school. Then he started leaving the apartment again. Warren police became too familiar with us. Now we were going to different hospitals, with different diagnoses and new medications again. The nightmare had returned. This child I didn’t know. He looked like my son, but he wasn’t my son. It was like the child I gave birth to, whose first introduction was with a smile, had died, and this new child was in his place. The new guy didn’t want you to love him or feel anything for him.

I moved again, thinking a change in environment and school would help. We moved closer to his cousins. But once again, what started off good would soon end, as always, with him going back to the hospital. The medication he had been prescribed had caused him to develop gynecomastia, a condition where men develop female breasts. Now he was in a new school being bullied because of his body. My son was called “shim,” “fag,” and many other names. This happened in Warren as well, but it seemed to get worse when we were around more people who resembled us. Once again, the behavior started at school. I would ask the home-based services to admit him, but they would tell me no. He didn’t present the need. So William would get worse, finally attempting to take his life again. This time he would be brought into my employer’s E.R. Now I really had to work to conceal what was happening, then call the schools and report he was away again. Back to sitting in the psychiatric hospital waiting rooms, filling out the paperwork, waiting for them to explain the routine all over. I just wanted my son, the one I gave birth to. The one who laughed with me and smiled every day.  The one who gave me hugs and kisses before going to bed, who said “I love you” every day, multiple times. But it would take some time and more attempts to get this person back. Until then, I was stuck with the new guy who looked like my son but who wasn’t my son.

(To be continued  in the November December 2014 Issue)