Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Jeff's Desperate Odyssey

I was hunting through my photographs and came across this strange one I took up at Tahoe, sometime last year. It was obviously sometime during the winter and I have to think it was as recent as this last winter, because of the pitcher you see in the lower left of the picture which I bought at a thrift store quite recently.

Somehow, my son Jeff was caught peering out of that snowbank. He probably was behind me in the kitchen as I took the picture and his image somehow ended up as you see it. The picture of the penguin above it is one of a set of drawings he did a few years ago which I loved so much I put it on a recent Christmas Card. The penguin is Jeff, it has his sad eyes.

We just celebrated his birthday last weekend and finding this photograph seems appropriate. Coincidentally I also have been reading an excerpt from a book called "The Water Giver" by Joan Ryan. The author talks about having difficulties with her son from an early age and making up all kinds of excuses as to what she felt were her failings in her dealings with him. Then, today, during the last excerpt we learn he suffered a serious head injury falling of his skateboard. I know I'm going to have to buy this book after reading this excerpt. It is that powerful.

At one point, when she's trying to talk to him through a drug-induced coma, she realizes--perhaps for the first time--how much she loves him. That statement had personal resonance with me, for we had a moment, Jeff and I, when life changed and would never go back to how it had been before when I, too, discovered how much I loved him.

My husband and I knew Jeff had some mental health issues but they were manageable. He was a very gifted tennis coach and had a very loyal clientele. Then, one December, perhaps at the end of 1998, he began to gain weight and act strangely--not wanting to answer his phone being the most disturbing. This went on until March of 1999. One day in March I went over and cornered him in his apartment. What I saw and heard disturbed me terribly. He was talking about a young woman he fancied himself loving who was beyond his reach, totally. He told me she had told him to wait patiently and she would come to him. I asked him how long he had been waiting. He said "Forever."

All of this said very coherently but with no ability to look me in the eye, his eyes, instead, ranging far and wide. He also seemed unusually excited. I remember getting home somehow, sitting at our kitchen table and screaming desperately "I need help!"

I called a therapist he had been seeing and told him what I had seen. He said "Don't worry. He's probably fine. I'll see him on Thursday."

The next morning he was gone, driving away in his car. Thus began Jeff's odyssey, the horrors of which I only learned later. I only knew he was gone when I got a call from a mental health facility in Southern California. Jerry and I flew down and brought him back. I remember we went out to dinner that night with his brother, Glenn, and Glenn's girl friend, Wendy. Again, he acted very strangely, frightening us all.

A friend of mine who worked in a mental health facility told me to not leave him alone, whatever we did. The only problem was, someone in Jeff's condition will lie very convincingly. The next morning as I was going upstairs he told me he was heading to the kitchen for some cereal and again he was gone.

It's amazing how someone with a serious mental illness can fool everybody, when they feel they need to. Jeff is extremely bright and personable. He walked to a car rental agency in downtown Berkeley and convinced them to rent him a car. How were we to keep track of him, know where he was going? It seemed impossible to do so, so I called on my niece, who is a medium. Never for a moment did I think she could really help but we were desperate, so we called Sandy, who gets privileged information from an Indian Deity named Babaji, who has been dead thousands of years. Sandy has been known to find dead bodies. She has an amazing talent but a talent I find so strange only desperation would have forced me to call on her.

We thought Jeff was headed for Palm Springs as the particular fantasy he was immersed in--a young South American woman tennis player--was playing there at that particular moment. Sandy said he wasn't headed for Palm Springs, he was headed for Southern California. She also told us that we could keep within a day's reach of him by following his movements via credit card. No details would be there, but the city or town and the nature of the merchant would be, the next day the details would be there. We had given Jeff an American Express Card and given that his card was off our account we were able to track his movements with the help of the son of the friend who had worked in that mental health facility. He worked for American Express in an upper level capacity. We soon found out he had been staying in a motel in Santa Barbara the night before.

Jerry and I got on a plane to Santa Barbara, praying desperately that we would get to Jeff in time, asking through the Stewardess to let us deplane first. We missed him by just hours. Again, he had fooled the authorities. Someone at the motel had thought he was acting strangely and had called the police, to no avail.

I have always thought Jerry was the strong one, but I soon found we needed each other and sometimes I had to be the strong one. Jerry wanted to wait at the motel, thinking Jeff might come back. He had left wet clothes in the shower so it made sense. I insisted we head south, toward Los Angeles, where Sandy had told us to look for him.

The woman who fielded calls in Jerry's office for everyone--a true jack of all trades--became Jeff's savior. As Jerry drove, I took calls from Verna as she talked to a American Express agent over the phone. We found out Jeff had just checked into the Disneyland Hotel. Now, that choice seems terribly poignant to me. Jeff was living a nightmare and he desperately needed to escape so Disneyland became the obvious choice.

We were now right on his trail. He had been acting very strangely from the moment he had checked into the hotel. When someone is obviously in as much trouble as Jeff, hotel managers put an agent on them; the agent then follows them around. We got to the hotel and met with the individuals in charge of him. When they asked if Jeff's trouble had been diagnosed, we told them what the doctors at the first mental health facility had told us: Schizophrenia.

We followed them to Jeff's hotel room. They knocked on the door and Jeff soon answered, seeming at that point quite normal. They asked Jeff if he would like to go home with us. He said yes.

We were exhausted and wanted to stay the night with him but the hotel refused. We got Jeff in a cab and drove to the airport. Jerry ran ahead trying to hold the last plane for San Francisco for us. I followed with Jeff. The progress was slow as every few feet he wanted to be hugged.

Jerry, frantic, had managed to convince them to hold the plane. A few hours later we were in San Francisco. We managed, with an amazing amount of difficulty, to get Jeff into a hospital in Berkeley. Again he was convincing everyone he was perfectly OK. Jerry managed to get a doctor to hold him for the 72 hours allowed by law.

Jeff's odyssey was truly horrendous. The first trip south he had driven nearly all the way to Santa Barbara in his car but at some point the car lost its clutch. He was stopped along the major north south freeway to Los Angeles. Two policemen pulled over to help him and he ran from them across the freeway. They finally managed to catch him in the center divide, where they pepper sprayed him and then got him to the mental health facility.

The second trip south he somehow managed to get all the way to Santa Barbara in the rental car but by now he was so disoriented and frightened he sat in an all night cafe and cried. Again, police were called. He ran from them, through a creek; then fell down an embankment and sprained his ankle. He convinced the policeman to let him go, again convincing him that he was OK.

From Santa Barbara he bought an airline ticket to Los Angeles and then it was a simple cab ride to the Disneyland Hotel where we eventually caught up with him.

It is now ten years later. Jeff lives in a half-way house after a suicide attempt, in one of their apartments. He is doing very much better but I am tired--tired of it all, tired of feeling so sad for my son. I thought perhaps writing all this would help and it has. I want so desperately to care for him without pain.

He is fortunate in that he is a very talented man. He is a gifted artist and photographer and an amazing writer. During the first year after his initial diagnosis he wrote a complete novel and began another and nearly finished it. This novel is my favorite: he calls it "Soul In An Empty Landscape." I wish he could finish it. It is his story.

It is very unusual for a Schizophrenic to complete a novel in a year. During that year he exhibited traits much closer to Bi-Polar Disorder. I thought at one point that would be a better diagnosis. I've since changed my mind as friends of ours with two Bi-Polar sons have had agonies with one of their sons far surpassing ours with Jeff.

How does Jeff feel about his illness? He now accepts it, which is paramount to eventually being able to live a productive life. His therapist at his halfway house asked him once how he felt about being Schizophrenic. He said "I'm angry about what my life has become."

In a few weeks he will begin a course in Philosophy at Stanford University--in a Continuing Education Program. My sister, Carol, who is an artist, has been very supportive and loving toward him, encouraging him with his art and for the last two years he attended an art class in Palo Alto and he is going to take a photography course next semester. Before that, in the halfway house, he drew the marvelous animal you see at the top of this post.

You have to have hope for and love someone who so desperately needs it, but it is hard. It was during those long moments in that airplane terminal in Los Angeles when he reached out for those multitudes of hugs that I realized how much I loved him.


Heidi Yantzi said...


This is so honest and heartfelt. You've gone through so much for him, and I think of what my parents have done for me and what I'd do for mine if they needed me to, and it's almost heartbreaking.

but not, because you saved his life.

He must get his sensitivity and artistic talent from you. It can be very hard to be like that in this big loud world.

He sounds like a treasure of a person, even if his problems make his life (and yours) so very difficult.

Thanks for sharing this.

marsh to the fore said...

Thanks for taking the time out of your crazy life to comment on this. I don't know how Jerry and I did it but I do think we saved his life. He was so alone--you don't realize the extent of the panic until you get a little into his experience during those few terrible days. He was fresh into the panic of a new existence--one he's still trying to adjust to.

And yes--he is a treasure--a very talented treasure. We pray that the leap into the Stanford Extended Education Program will prove good for him.