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“Mama, I’m Coming Home”: A Mother’s Journey Through Her Son’s Mental Illness

With son Cole and his younger brother and sister at Mary S. Young Park, West Linn, Oregon

With son Cole and his younger brother and sister at Mary S. Young Park, West Linn, Oregon

“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”
~ Toni Morrison

“It’s come at last,” she thought, “the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache.”
~ Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


aiting for his turn to form a word out of the seven tiny wooden tiles, my son picks at a scab on his face, new since the last time we’d visited him. Putting the letters together in a meaningful way clearly taxes him, and yet his attention is not on the letters in front of him, but on the other family playing “Go Fish” at two small formica tables pushed together in the far corner of the visiting room. A sly, I’m-in-on-your-little-secret smile spreads across my son’s face as he watches the young boy lean in to a slight, slump-shouldered man I assume is the child’s father. All the others around that table are wearing the same red-white-and-blue badge as the little boy, the same badge we all are wearing ~ except for the man, who wears a clip-on photo i.d. same as my son.

I ask Cole what’s making him smile over there, and at first he doesn’t seem to hear me. When I prod him again, he turns, raises his eyebrow in that playful “Who me?” way of his that barely a year ago was such a hit with all the girls, and his eyes quickly flit across mine, widening before looking away, as if to recall who this stranger is sitting across from him. He looks back at me, then chuckles, followed by a long stretch of head-bowed silence as his younger sister and brother look everywhere but at him. Finally he says, “I mean…” then his voice trails off.

It goes like this with slight variations each time the kids and I make this weekly trip up to the Oregon State Hospital: hour-and-a-half-long visits that can either expand or shrink time, depending upon my son’s emotional state and my own fatigue. Some days my goal is merely to keep from being overcome by tears, which upsets my son, but still happens on those occasions when I let my guard down and allow myself to remember when this 20-year-old sitting glassy-eyed in front of me once gave his little brother and sister thrill rides in their Radio Flyer wagon. The same boy who, whenever he and I shared some decadent treat like a goey-rich slice of chocolate cake, would adamantly refuse to take the last bite. “No. Mom, that’s yours,” he would insist every time.

Cole, age one, first visit to the Oregon coast

Cole on his first birthday, and first visit to the Oregon coast

Cole, age 5, Halloween

Cole, age 5, Halloween

But today, as my son watches the other family playing together, someone whispers in his ear.

Cole turns his head away from us. “What?” he asks of the someone only my son can see and hear. Minutes later, his gaze tracks movement visible only to him, as if this someone is now crossing the room in an easy, unhurried stride.

We’ve witnessed far more bizarre behavior from him, of course, since almost a year ago when his illness first became glaringly apparent, including insistence that our town was made up of “red people and blue people, and you have to watch out for the red ones.” Fear for his girlfriend’s safety after convincing himself she had become mixed up in an illegal operation run by “bad cops, so you can’t call the police! We can’t trust any of them, Mom!” Believing that the characters in the tv show he was watching were mocking him. And then there was the time he confided in me that he had been “born with two holes” in his head.

Self-portrait in charcoal | Cole, age 7

Self-portrait in charcoal | Cole, age 7

Of course I understand that the psychosis could have been gradually building for years, and because he’d been living in another city with his girlfriend, and absorbed in creating a life with her, we hadn’t seen the clues, the gradual mental degradation.

The thing is that a year later, my son’s illness is still going untreated. Cole was nineteen when the full-out break occurred, no longer a minor. I have no legal rights to force my child to get treatment if he doesn’t want to. And indeed he refuses. The paranoia that’s part of his illness makes it so my son trusts nothing and no one, least of all something that could alter the workings of his already unsteady and foggy mind.

“What are you really afraid will happen, honey?” I asked him, the first time I brought up getting treatment. We were siting outside where his sister was taking her weekly piano lesson, a rendezvous spot he had negotiated with me, safe from “the men in black coats with big guns” he insisted were ever-watching and trailing him.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” he responded, nervously picking at his lip with fingers that looked as if they hadn’t been washed in days: dirt packed under his nails and skin raw as if from from being constantly gnawed on.

Ironically, the Oregon State hospital’s psych wing made famous by the Jack Nicholson movie about an insane asylum run amok is indeed where my son is now being housed. For how long, nobody yet knows. After his ex-girlfriend called the police and filed a restraining order against him for continuing to come around to try to talk to her once his illness became obvious to all of us, Cole was jailed and found guilty by a jury for criminal trespassing and resisting arrest. He spent three months in solitary confinement before at last being transferred to the state hospital where he now awaits a panel assessment. What happens after this remains a big unknown. If he continues to refuse medication that could diminish his psychosis, the panel will very likely decide to keep him there for another six months, and even another four months after that, not exceeding a total stay of one year. After that, he could be returned to jail, or he could be determined untreatable.

And so my journey through my son’s illness continues. I am still waiting to hear those four precious words: “Mama, I’m coming home.”…

The Red Bowl

My son’s hands work the clay,
pianists’ fingers smoothing out imperfections,
a rhythm of blending course into fine,
meditation of an almost-eleven-year-old’s wish
for something flawless.

But then, what happens:

He leaves it alone to dry,
spring break diversions calling,
a week of prepubescent silliness
not to be passed by.

And in his absence, the clay pulls
back from its form–
and in so doing, the sides


Discovering this, my son
tries to make it soft again.

But it is already broken,
and he is left with only
jagged pieces in his hand.

For a while he just sits.

And then, his young
musician’s fingers, itching to evoke beauty,
grabs a mechanic’s tool, pierces
broken edges,
weaves thick, loopy wires through holes, sometimes pulling hard,
in and out, in and out,
leaving some parts fragile,
others strong.

When he is through, it is not as he originally imagined,

but whole again.

His bowl, beautiful.

~ Deanna Phoenix Selene

Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.

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