Last summer, I caught myself telling a friend that my teenage son James went crazy—as if crazy were a place. It might be easier if that were the case because, believe me, if I knew where crazy was, I would go there. I would find my son and bring him home.
The last time I saw the James I knew was on a Tuesday, a lovely, sunny day. If I had gazed up from the book I was reading to really look at him, I’d have seen for the last time the son I had raised for eighteen years—my beautiful boy whose eyes once lit up in wonder in the library when he asked me, “Mom, can you really read all of these books?”
That summer evening, someone who looked like James burst into the house and found me in my room.
“Mom,” he said, “I’ve got the answer!”
What was the question?
“A car salesman,” he said. “I’m going to be a car salesman.”
Why did he want to be a car salesman? I still don’t know.
The next day in the backyard beneath the late afternoon sun, my son, who had never fought with anyone, punched one of his best friends. I broke apart the fight. Afterwards, he didn’t sleep for three days; didn’t eat; didn’t stop talking. I called the doctor who, the year before, prescribed anti-anxiety pills when James’ stomach hurt too much in the mornings to get up for school.
“Something is different,” I told the doctor. “You need to see him.”
He didn’t have any openings until Monday. “If he gets worse over the weekend,” he said, “bring him to the ER.”
He got worse.
“I’m the only human who has ever made it back alive from the fourth dimension,” James told me, holding his hand up to the sky as if he were measuring some distant galaxy between his fingers. “I’ve talked with Carl Jung.” He leaned toward me. His jaw was clenched; he was grinning. “I’ve talked with Mother Earth,” he said. He looked back at the sky. “I translated the Bible from binary, Mom. I can do anything. Anything.”
To escort us to the emergency room the next morning, the doctor provided us with a security guard whose girth pressed against the buttons of his standard issue white shirt, and hung over the buckle of his leather belt. The guard was taller than all of us—James, my former husband, my current husband, and me. Too quickly, he pressed his authority, and on the way to the emergency room, James punched him. There was a scuffle. The guard wrestled James to the ground and handcuffed him. Both my former and current husband held James’ head so he wouldn’t have to rest his cheek on the concrete. They spoke quietly to him until he calmed down.
After the handcuffs were removed, after James had eaten the peanut butter and crackers and juice, after the interview with the intake physician, James apologized to the guard standing at attention in the hallway, but every few minutes James rubbed his knuckles, felt the torn skin, and asked what happened.
“You punched that guy. Remember?”
“Me?” he’d ask. “What was I thinking?”
In the psychiatric ward, he argued with the psychiatrist. When she asked if he felt any guilt or regret, he sat up straighter and taller in his chair.
“See,” he said, “I don’t feel those things anymore.” In a rant of pressured speech that sounded as if he’d been shot off into orbit and couldn’t find his way down, James explained that he was above feeling regret for anything he’d done.
The psychiatrist took me aside. “We’re committing him,” she said.
I tried to explain that it would only be for a few days, but he fell from his chair, crying, screaming for me not to leave him. Somehow I managed to stumble past the heavy metal door held open by the social worker. I staggered toward a wall, and leaned into it, sobbing. She assured me I’d done the right thing.
Three days passed, and I finally got to see my son. I brought him pizza, cheeseburgers, chocolate. He ate the food at a table with me in the visiting room, and said he wanted to see the sun.
When James was discharged a week later, he was a pale zombie with eyes at half-mast—on meds that slowed everything down so he could cruise at the same speed as the rest of us. But that was too slow, and he stopped taking the medicine. That was when the kid who looked like my son disappeared altogether. His father convinced him to take his medicine. Around 3 a.m. one night, he finally gave in, and by morning, voices were telling him to leave, to find a car dealership. James slipped out of the house, thumbed a ride, and was seen circling near a car parked on a city street with a pipe in his hand. The cops found him hours later, stuffed into a car and beaten by three men
There’s a new clinic in California where the doctors are going to look into his brain to see what’s wrong. Maybe they’ll find a boy in there, my boy, and he’ll wave back to the camera and cup his hands over his mouth and yell, “Tell my mom hello!” And maybe he’ll be ready to come home.
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