Friday, August 07, 2009

But for the Grace

A dozen squad cars and three news trucks surrounded Mom and Dad's neighborhood yesterday afternoon and a helicopter hovered overhead. The air crackled with the static of walkie-talkies and police-band radios in a mobile command center. SWAT teams prowled the streets and barricaded both entrances to the neighborhood.

For four hours, negotiators tried to coax a man from his parents' house. The man was armed and threatening suicide. He also threatened to murder his parents, but they escaped and sought shelter at a nearby convenience store. It's the third time this has happened this year.

The man is in his 50s; his parents in their 70s. After the first incident, he was hospitalized for 30 days and released. He had nowhere to go, so his parents took him in again. The neighborhood erupted in angry gossip and HOA meetings, but nothing came of it.

The second incident was smaller--6 or 8 squad cars, but no SWAT teams or helicopters. Yesterday's incident was the biggest yet.

Eventually, the police led the man from the house in handcuffs. Who knows whether or how long he will receive treatment this time. The neighborhood is sure to go crazy again: People don't want this man living among them.

My heart bleeds for the parents. God alone knows how long they've struggled to find help. And God alone knows how frightened and embarrassed they must be.

If you've never faced such a situation, it's easy to imagine a safety net exists, that it's possible to find doctors or hospitals to help someone with significant mental health issues. If you've been there, you know that no matter where you turn or how you try, no one is willing to help until you need squad cars and helicopters.

When Evan was 13, he spiraled out of control for many months. At one point, he scratched his arms with a wire hanger and wrote threats in blood on his bedroom walls, then jumped from a third-story window. He was not hurt physically, but the mental and emotional pain was unbearable. We admitted him to a mental hospital for evaluation, and they kept him 7 days. After that time, they released him to me with the advice that I call 911 if he became a danger to himself or others.

I sought help in every possible way but there was none. Doctors, hospitals, the school, the county, the state--they all gave me the same answer: "If he becomes a danger to himself or others, call 911." The phrase still makes me feel vaguely ill.

At my request, the local police sent a community liason officer to the house--I wanted to have a plan in place. The officer was very kind but firm as he told me not to count on the police to keep us safe. With three officers to cover I-don't-remember-how-many square miles, it simply wasn't feasible.

A few days after his release from the hospital, Evan had a meltdown. He was in the street, banging his head on the pavement, screaming, "Help me. Help me. Help me." My mom and dad, who had come to stay for a few days, helped me carry him to his bedroom. We dug the gravel out of his forehead and put cool cloths on his head. I sang to him until he finally fell asleep, then I called the hospital to tell them I'd be bringing him to the emergency room as soon as he woke up.

The nurse flatly told me not to bother, they would not admit him. "If you can transport him yourself," she said, "it's not an emergency."

"But he was screaming and crying and smashing his head on the street," I repeated.

"Then you should have called the police," she answered. "We cannot admit him unless he presents an immediate danger to himself or others."

That moment was the lowest, the most helpless of my life. My son was in terrible pain and I had nothing to offer him but my love, which clearly was not enough. I was afraid for him and of him, and no one would help either of us. It took months of concentrated effort from me and everyone I knew, but we eventually found a therapeutic boarding school that saved Evan's life. I was lucky to find it and lucky to have the resources to pay for it.

It's been 14 years since that day, but the flashing lights and the riot gear and the rifles with scopes swept me back down that fearful rabbit hole. We did not end up with squad cars on our street and SWAT teams in our yard. Our neighbors did not hold secret meetings to drive us from our home. We did not see ourselves on the evening news. But we could have.

I recognize the danger of the situation, but all I can feel for these folks is compassion. They're old and they've got to be frightened and desperate. The question shouldn't be "How can we get them out of the neighborhood?" but "How can we help?"

After all, there, but for the grace of God, goes each of us.


Mercurious said...

What a scary afternoon.

It must have indeed ignited old memories for you.

I"m glad they didn't kill the fellow. Mentally ill people dying in police confrontations is all too common.

Carrie Wilson Link said...

So well said, thank you.

Anonymous said...

The empathy that eminates from your writing is so apparent. The world needs more people like you.

The Grace of God, indeed. We should never forget that phrase.

mamatulip said...

Every time I read your blog, I learn something more about you. And every time I learn something more about you, I am more and more amazed at the kind of person you are.

Amber said...

Oh Jerri.

I can't tell you here how much I feel for you and your boy, and for these poor people and theirs. It isn't right.

Police were at our house so many times. And I was on the phone so many, many times, begging for help for my mom. And for my sister...And always the same as you say. Always. And now my sister is dead...It is only some strange grace that my mom isn't.

It isn't right.

These people will be in my prayers tonight.


kario said...

Unfortunately the "safety net" comes with gaping holes. There is so much red tape that has to do with protecting the police and healthcare workers against lawsuits and so little support for them to find long-term help for these individuals that the system is terribly skewed.

I firmly believe that the solution lies in community. Instead of worrying about ourselves (which is terrifically difficult to stop doing), we need to reach out and plug those gaps with hands held tightly together in support of our neighbors and their families.

Thanks for sharing this, Jerri. It is so important to keep in our consciousness.

BONNIE K said...

I have also been there, with a son who was out of control. I remember seeing my 11 year old kid escorted to a police car in handcuffs. I remember calling 911 countless times. We had extreme violence in our home. This kind of experience shapes you and makes you a different person than you would have become had you had an easier life. When I hear stories like you describe, I just feel so sorry for those parents.

Anonymous said...

I hope you find a way to share these thoughts with the family in question. I'm sure it would be such a relief for them to know that even one person understands.

Nancy said...

Wow Jerri. This story is familiar to me from many different angles. Compassion is the key ingredient that is missing in many of our communities. Those of us who have had experiences like these find it readily, but so many people turn away. Thank you for sharing this.

Tzeitel (Stacy) said...

All of us indeed. This is so sad and scary. Love-