An Irish Mother’s Love and Her Long Journey to Acceptance*
She traced her son’s 20-year struggle with mental illness to family history and genetics
By Beth Wade, Public Relations Specialist, MHANJ in Atlantic County
Carried in the bi g and broken heart of this Irish mother are memories of her firstborn son who was exceptionally pretty with blue eyes and curly blonde hair. As a boy, he loved Pokémon. She fondly recalls Danny’s good nature – sweet, helpful, generous and kind. And, over the years, he revealed a variety of gifts, self-taught at piano and able to build his own computer.
One part of his childhood stands out, though, and sometimes nags her. It’s the memory of a school field trip when a Catholic third grade teacher suggested that Danny be “checked.”
The suggestion went no further than that. Ellen can’t turn back time and see what would have happened if she had pursued testing. That’s a fact that she’s accepted, along with who he is now – a “thirty-something” man living with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, well known to police and the mental health system, in particular the hospital crisis unit.
Looking back, she says, “I always knew something was there. I didn’t know what it was.”
His struggle with mental health ramped up in high school with fits of teenage rage. She arranged for a therapist to work with him. Working full time and raising Danny and his sister by herself after a divorce was hard. Danny was using marijuana and skipping school regularly – eventually he dropped out.
At home his relationship with his mother and sister suffered, in great part due to hallucinations and paranoia. One night he banged on his sister’s door, accusing her of being in the room with a boy. Regular and escalating rage was so scary for Ellen’s daughter that she’d often ask her mother to put him out. Ellen resisted for a long time until one incident shook her very deeply.
“He texted his dad he’d killed me,” she remembers.
After that, she saw no other choice. At a homeless teen shelter in Atlantic City, he did well for about 3 years, then he was kicked out for fighting with peers and arguing with staff.
He stayed with his father and stepmother for a short time, which abruptly ended when he and his friends damaged the apartment following a night of partying.
Danny held a job for more than 10 years as a gas attendant. He liked the job, the stability and consistency. That changed on one particularly bad day. She recalls he’d gone to the police station about a dozen times with complaints unknown to her. Police arrived at home to pick him up with members of the hospital crisis unit, but he’d gone to work.
When police arrived at his job, Danny was agitated and threw an empty soda can at law enforcement. Though police were aware of his mental illness, one officer chose to file charges. She worries that the charges against him will prevent him from getting another job, cause him to be arrested, or jailed.
The ensuing one-month hospitalization led his employer to replace him. In her mind, he might have kept his long-time job had that day gone differently.
“I wish they hadn’t gone to his job,” she said. “The charges make a bigger headache – paperwork, fear, fines.” she said. “It all seems unnecessary.”
For the most part, Danny has been stable when he takes his medication regularly. Sometimes he does, other times he doesn’t. In a perfect world, she thinks a court-ordered requirement for Danny to take his medicine might have helped.
His fascination and near addiction to the Internet often causes him agitation to the point of obsession. At times, he stays awake all night, occasionally for days. He’s called local police, state police, Coast Guard, and FBI with complaints of wild conspiracy theories including drones and black cars that follow him, the electric grid that delivers shocks to him, and a microphone that he believes was implanted during oral surgery. Though she can’t be sure, she believes this torment caused him to damage several of his own teeth.
In all, she estimates the police have been to her house around 30 times over the years. There were many hospitalizations (nearly a dozen) and some helpful supports, with the exception of one. An acute psychiatric care hospital discharged him to a hotel in Camden, which is two hours away from home and completely unfamiliar to him. His case manager called Ellen to bring him clothes and shoes. After that week, he called family saying he was homeless on the streets.
Though he was ultimately relocated to Atlantic County, his housing in a dangerous neighborhood troubled him and his family. At that point, relatives took him in. The agreement: he could stay on the couch for a little while if he took his medicine faithfully. This short-term plan turned into years, explained Ellen. They live in the unit below Ellen, so she sees him regularly.
Ellen thinks that supported housing – such as a setting with a group of male peers – would have been ideal for Danny. He did well in a sober living arrangement at one time, but he was required to go to AA meetings where he felt he didn’t fit in. Other housing arrangements failed because he smoked marijuana and couldn’t pass a drug test.
“This is where I think the system is broken – when he comes home. He’s an adult with mental illness and needs medication. He promises [he’ll take it], but we can’t make him. We need more help,” she said.
Sometimes the younger, helpful and kind Danny that she remembers does surface and shine despite his illnesses. There’s a bit of heartbreak in her voice as she tells a story of a recent Christmas when he unexpectedly reached out to his estranged sister through his mother with a thoughtful gift.
“She smiled when I gave it to her, but she’s still afraid of him,” said Ellen. “She visits me only when he’s in the hospital and she’s sure he’s not here.
The pattern of ill family members, mainly males, can be traced to his father’s side of the family back to several generations – uncles struggled, a niece, and a cousin who tragically completed suicide at age 28.
“After I had a son like this, I can see it in others,” she said. “I think it’s hereditary. I believe it.”
One study claims that some people with Irish heritage are actually at a higher risk for two specific illnesses. Researchers found a genetic mutation among some Irish people that increases the risk of developing schizophrenia or bipolar disorder more than ten-fold. (The study was published in an international peer-reviewed journal, Human Molecular Genetic.)
Though she knows of no correlation to her Irish lineage, she is sure that something is in his genes.
On Ellen’s side, alcohol abuse runs in the family. Ellen overcame her addiction to alcohol, a habit she tried hard to hide from her son and daughter for many years.
Ellen’s suffering and worrying went on for years until she attended a speaking engagement held by a church that hosted Patrick Kennedy, an advocate for those with mental health and substance use disorders.
On that day, she first learned about NAMI. Through that organization, she took a 12-week course called Family-to-Family which helped her understand Danny’s illness and healthier, helpful ways to respond to him.
“I always thought I was the only one, but I met other parents who were going through the same thing,” she recalls.
Through NAMI, she later learned about the Intensive Family Support Services program (offered here at MHA Atlantic).
“Linda [Bastedo] has really helped me. She makes sure I’m taking care of myself, and I’ve learned ways to cope with my son. I appreciate her call every week because I can get depressed,” she said.
Ellen says she reads a copy of the Serenity Prayer often and that’s a great source of comfort. She prays for Danny regularly – mostly that he gets the help he needs.
She finds peace of mind in knowing that family members ensure Danny stay safe. He has at least one good friend in the neighborhood who plays music with him. He’s had girlfriends, she recalls. The most serious one left him for his best friend. Ellen says she’s saddened at times that he may never marry or know the joy of being a father.
“I’ve had a lot of time to accept things,” she said. “This has been going on for 20 years. Acceptance makes it easier for me. It took me a while to get here, but I did.”
*Please Note: The names in this story have been changed to protect their privacy. If you or someone you know would like more information about our Intensive Family Support Services program, please call 609-517-8614 for Atlantic County and 973-571-4100, ext. 118 for Atlantic County. Throughout the year, we will share stories of families and consumers in order to shine a light on their journey towards recovery. We will rejoice in the celebration of their successes. We’ll also reveal the challenges that exist for those families trying to access care for a loved one who does not recognize they have a mental health or substance use disorder, and how the current mental health system of care responds in these situations. We hope this series increases awareness, fosters compassion and improves outcomes.