There is a Taoist story about a wise, old farmer. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said. ”Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. ”Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by…
Four years ago next month, I was locked on the psych ward at Abbott Northwestern Hospital for two days.
This came after a random pile-up of events. The economy was tanking. My writing was going badly and I couldn’t find work. We had just moved into a condo and immediately realized it was a mistake. John lost his job. We had a massive (costly) plumbing leak in our building three days after we moved in. Three neighbors burst through our door immediately after John left, backed me against a wall, and demanded full payment for the plumber’s bill.
All of this was minor, the stressful detritus of a normal life. Problem was, it was playing out against the worst thing that had ever happened—the worst thing that could ever happen. Andrew, my oldest child, had gone crazy. But I couldn’t let him go there alone. The only option I had at the time was to go crazy, too.
He was 20 years old and autistic. But as I’ve said in previous writings, autistic isn’t crazy. It’s quirky and odd and sometimes difficult to navigate. It’s not a tragedy. This was.
It had started when he was 16 and he seemed to become depressed; his OCD symptoms (part of the territory with autism) were getting worse. So I took him to a child psychiatrist who put him on antidepressants. And from that moment on, it was as if we were on some horrible carnival slide. Andrew went from mopey to obsessive, devious, even a little creepy. He gained about 100 pounds. My ex and I took him to a “better” psychiatrist who told us Andrew was schizophrenic and put him on anti-psychotics. Now, my son became catatonic: frozen like a statue for hours at a time. Then he would blink and come out of his trance and move through our house like a minotaur. He ate compulsively and knocked people aside and quit speaking. Often he would disappear in the middle of the night and be picked up by the police, barefoot, drinking coffee at a 24-hour convenience store.
When he was 18, he spent five months at the Mayo Clinic, receiving electro-convulsive therapy on and off. The problem, it turned out, was the medication he’d been receiving for two years—drugs that completely fuck up the autistic brain. ECT was the only way to rouse him from catatonia and to control his newest pathology: compulsive water drinking. The doctors told us he was so unstoppable, he might drink until he drowned.
Andrew went from there to a group home he wanted only to leave. He stowed away on a plane to Los Angeles and was intercepted only moments before takeoff (note: We know no one in Los Angeles). Then he stole a car (mine) that he drove west for 100 miles and left abandoned by the road and then he spent some time in jail. Eventually, a judge steered by an abusive social worker sentenced Andrew to live in a warehouse for the disabled up north. It was an evil, soul-killing place where the staff used headlocks to control the residents. And there, after four years of being misdiagnosed and mistreated and shuffled from holding cell to asylum, my son went completely and truly insane.
He became, for the first and only time in his life, violent. He wrecked everything we gave him. He submerged his computer and cell phone in water and urinated on his new clothes. His punishments got more and more severe until he was in the mental health equivalent of solitary. My son was trapped in a very real version of Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest. But no matter what I did or how hard I fought, I could not get him out.
I’ve chronicled all these events in a story called “The Monster Inside My Son.” My own stint in the psych ward actually came at the beginning of this period. I couldn’t stop picturing the soft, sweet-smelling baby who kicked his frog legs … the curly-haired four-year-old who held his brother’s hand as they slept … the junior high chess champ who once played a speed game against a hustler in Harvard Square. And one night—about 12 hours after our neighbors attacked (the on-call psychologist called it my “trigger episode”)—I took a handful of pills and washed them down with a lot of alcohol and lay down and waited for the screaming in my head to stop.
It was a terrible, stupid, selfish thing to do and I deeply regret it. After I’d been medically salvaged and queried and my shoelaces taken away, I was ushered into a room where my parents sat looking at me with terrified eyes. In trying to escape my own pain, I’d only passed it on to them: two 70-year-olds watching their once-promising daughter slumped in a hospital gown, a danger to herself.
I was allowed to leave and we trudged through a very dark fall. My marriage nearly broke under the strain of … well, everything. The only thing that kept me going was my teenage daughter. She needed me, the therapist at the hospital had said. I must never lose sight of that again.
Then, in January, after yet another brutal encounter at his group home, Andrew was shipped off to our county hospital where he was locked in the most inner sanctum—a place so dangerous I was not allowed in without an armed guard. We celebrated his 21st birthday inside that chamber and it was, newly, the worst night of my life. I recall looking around at the concrete block walls and burly nurses and thinking this was a nightmare with no end. There had been too much damage. This was our hell, Andrew’s and mine, forever and ever.
And that’s when things started to turn around.
It was on that ward, where psychopaths drew with crayons, that we met the doctor who would save my son’s soul. He sorted through the pharmacopeia of drugs that Andrew had been given and edited them carefully. He removed all the wrong diagnoses and quickly moved Andrew to a brighter, more cheerful, less restrictive ward. A man of about my height, he woke my six-foot-four inch son every morning, pulling him from his bed and calling him Sleeping Beauty. He insisted on talk therapy and prodded Andrew to attend the weekly “dance” down the hall.
Then, like an angel descending, a fine, funny, educated Southern gentleman showed up at the hospital; he had heard about our situation and wanted to help. He visited with Andrew, asking low private questions and speaking of the future. “I love his sense of humor,” the guardian said to me as he left their first encounter. “It would be my privilege to work with your son.”
There was a brief detour to an outstate hospital where Andrew was kept so the county could be sure he was cured. Both men, the doctor and the guardian, visited him regularly—often driving together and stopping midway for lunch. They reported back that my son was doing well: Off the drugs, in a healthy environment, he was returning to what they imagined was his old self. “Did you know he could play chess?” one of them asked. I actually laughed.
Last night, four years after I gave in to the belief that my son was gone and my own life was over, John and I rode the motorcycle to Andrew’s home. We found him playing basketball in the driveway with one of his housemates. Inside, the other two were watching Criminal Minds while their caregiver joked with them about which FBI agent they liked best. We talked about tattoos and karate tournaments and one of the guys told us about his new job. Then Andrew took out his math books and he and John studied for a while.
“Andrew’s the smart one; he’s going to college,” Jason—one of the housemates—said. Then he winked at me and he nodded, three times.
And as we rode home through the chilly evening, I thought about the Taoist story a friend told me back when things looked so bleak. What I saw as the worst thing ever to befall my son turned out to be one of the best. My moment of complete hopelessness occurred in the exact spot where goodness was collecting.
“Maybe,” I whispered inside my helmet. And the word floated back, lost in the rushing wind.