Oh, My Heart

“I’m certain my cause of death will be suicide.” He said it calmly in the course of a conversation about a church service he was preparing on mental health awareness. It was just part of the conversation.

This is my life. These things can pop up at any time. My grown son lives with mental illness so I do too. Right now, today, everything is pretty good. I have to believe that this will be the case tomorrow or I don’t sleep, but in the back of my mind I’m always ready for something to happen.

The illness in our home is schizoaffective disorder – schizophrenia with an accompanying mood disorder. I have done my research but I won’t bore you with the medical details. What it means in our home is periods of extreme depression, self-loathing, auditory hallucinations (hearing voices), the inability to think or function rationally, over-the-top anxiety, suicidal thoughts and, sometimes, hospitalization. It can mean a phone call from a son who is in a panic at the bus stop because something has set off an anxiety attack. It can mean weeks of him sinking further into depression and anger.

He lives with me in my 790-square-foot home because he is on disability, and has not been able to live on his own. He has two therapy rabbits because they help him focus and stay calm. My son is a college graduate, reads avidly, and speaks fluent German. He loves to bake, and can translate almost any recipe into gluten-free. He has always been very intelligent and caring.

After he moved back home in November of 2015, it took several months for us to access Medicaid and find services. We have been lucky. We found great services that have really helped him to this current good place. Yes, he had to be forced to go to appointments and day services many times. He has been hospitalized once since he has been home. There was a very tense period where someone had to be with him 24/7 so he wouldn’t harm himself. This was at a time when he refused hospitalization. I had to lock up everything in the house that he might use to cause himself harm. We frequently argued because he believed someone with severe depression should have the right to choose an end to life, the same way someone with a terminal illness should.

These debates continue even when he isn’t in these very dark places. He still believes that people with severe depression should be able to end their lives without interference. That they should even be given assistance to end that life gracefully in order to end the pain. I still disagree.

And so, we come back to our conversation of a few days ago. This illness is not “cured.” It does not go away. My son knows that and I know that. It is a sneaky, pernicious bastard that can overtake him at any time. It can tell him that he doesn’t need his medications or therapy or family. It can tell him that his family or his therapy or his other support systems are against him. It tries to tell him that he is not good, or that he needs to do something to harm himself.

He is probably right. His cause of death probably will be suicide – because he always has that in the back of his mind as the solution. But it breaks my heart to hear him say it in such a calm, nonchalant way. He accepts it. I fight it. He may be almost 30 years old, but he is my child. I don’t want him to hurt, but I also believe that this is only a terminal illness if it is left untreated. It IS a chronic illness, and a chronic illness requires constant maintenance and treatment.

Some days I feel I’m being selfish, when he’s deep in the hurt. Shouldn’t I just let him leave his suffering? He argues well. Doctors tell me that it is his illness talking. I don’t know about that, but I do know that he cycles out of those times as long as he does push through and get treatment. I do know that suicide is a permanent solution for a cycle that has not yet been permanent. I will continue to fight for him and even with him if necessary.

Why do I share this? Because we all have our fights. Mental illness is in our homes, in our families. It is a part of our lives. We live with it. I’m not ashamed of my son. He has an illness. He doesn’t hide it. I don’t hide it. Maybe, by sharing, we can help someone understand. We can help someone cope. We can help someone reach out. We can help.

Disclaimer: My son is a firm believer in educating people about mental illness. He has given his full permission for me to use his story and our experiences in this blog, and for it to be shared.