Finding Out Your Son Is Bipolar, the Hard Way

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Bipolar disorder can be an exhausting, nerve-wracking condition for patients and their families alike. In an excerpt from This Fragile Life, two parents learn of their son's illness. The book will be available in bookstores June 1.

Exactly one week later, returning home after dinner with friends, we found a voicemail message from my father in Washington, DC.

"Charlotte, where are you? I think Mark is in trouble," he said. "You need to call me." His voice sounded urgent. I called immediately. My father was not an alarmist; I knew he was worried. Mark had called my father when he could not reach us, and they had talked for almost an hour.

"I couldn't get him to stop talking," my father reported. "When I tried to ask him questions, he didn't seem to understand. I . . . I don't know, honey. He sounded really strange. He wanted to talk to you; he explicitly said, 'I do not want to talk to my father.' You need to call him. Here's the number."

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I stopped shivering and calmed myself enough to dial. Houston sat nearby for support. Could Mark be in trouble? We had no idea what it all meant.

When Mark answered at the unfamiliar phone number, I asked immediately, "Mark, where are you? Why are you using this strange number?"

"It's a phone booth in Westwood Village," he told me.

I knew the area well since UCLA is in Westwood. "You're not near home at all. What's going on out there?" I prodded, trying to keep my voice steady.

When he answered instantly, "I don't know, Mom," I thought perhaps he had been in an automobile accident and someone was badly hurt. Perhaps the accident was his fault, and he was upset and confused. Mark continued, "They're watching me, Mom. I can't see them, but I know they're watching me. I don't know what to do. What should I do? Help me, Mom."

I was mystified and stunned into silence. I dared to ask, "Who's watching you, Mark?" He simply repeated, "I know they're watching, Mom. Help me. I don't know what to do." I heard his panic. It leapt the miles between us. The tone of his voice frightened me. I slid to the floor still holding the telephone. It was my lifeline to Mark. He began to gasp for breath, his words rushing one into another. Helplessly, I looked at Houston and wrote, He's crying!

I kept repeating slowly, "It's going to be all right. It's OK, Mark. Sh-sh-sh. We'll think of something. It's OK. We're here," like a lullaby. I had no idea what to do. If only I could touch him, I thought.

"Mark, why don't you go home? Isn't Lisa at home?" I asked.

My words startled him, and he shouted, "Oh no! I can't go home. It's not safe there. I can't trust her!" I heard the panic again. I decided I had to slow down the conversation. "Mark, I need to tell your father what's going on. I know he can help us," I tried to explain. "No, no, no!" he said emphatically. "Don't tell Dad. He doesn't understand these things."

"What things are you talking about, Mark?" I asked, puzzled.

"You know, the extraterrestrials," he said, waiting for my response.

I nearly dropped the telephone. Mark and I had always had fun talking about and debating the issue of life on other planets. We enjoyed television programs that featured people who claimed to have seen flying saucers. Houston would always say to us, jokingly, "I'm out of here. That's your stuff."

I recovered quickly and said, "It's OK, Mark. Your father has changed his mind about those things. It's safe to tell him now. I think you should talk to your Dad."

When Mark became quiet, I knew he had accepted my feeble explanation. Houston spoke to his son. "I'm here with you, Mark," he said. "What do you want me to do?" Houston and I frantically wrote notes as he talked to Mark. We tried to figure out what action to take and how to give Mark the support he needed. Whatever he was afraid of was real to him. Speeding through my mind were the words, Is this a nervous breakdown?

"Mark, do you want me to come get you?" Houston asked.

Mark sighed as he answered, "Yes . . . I want to come home. Please . . . I'm scared." Our son's life had tripped over itself. It was August 1996. Within hours, Houston was on a flight to Los Angeles.

Armed with his own brand of courage, an extra airline ticket, and a small bag with a change of clothes for our son, Houston rushed to L.A. with promises of love and safety. Houston left Philadelphia with a mask of bravado. He kissed me good-bye, assuring me he would bring Mark home. I knew he was frightened of what he would find.

We gave Mark the name of a university friend and colleague who lived in L.A. We would ask her to meet him in Westwood Village. Houston and I needed help urgently, and Vera Jackson's name came to both of us as someone reliable in a crisis. I assured Mark, "Vera is a safe person; she understands. You don't know her, but she knows all about you. We've talked so much about you over the years. She will keep you safe until your father gets to L.A." Mark responded positively to the word "safe."

When I called Vera in Los Angeles, she was surprised to hear my voice after such a long period without contact. I was not sure I could ask her for the extraordinary favor of watching our son until Houston got to L.A. We were professional colleagues, not friends with a history of growing up together. When I explained Mark's situation and our need, Vera never hesitated. I was touched by her willingness to help us.

"I'm just so glad I didn't go away this weekend," she said. She went on to explain, "I'd thought about going to a conference in Texas, but then, for no good reason, decided not to go. I guess I was supposed to be here."

After asking for Mark's physical description, she agreed to meet him at a Starbucks in Westwood Village and drive him to her home about an hour away. She ended the conversation with, "I'll just keep him comfortable until Houston gets here."

I remained home in Philadelphia. My task was to prepare for Mark's return. He would need a check-up with our family doctor, I guessed. He obviously needed rest and a change of pace. Mark had never been seriously ill growing up. I was sure his condition was a result of overwork and that he would respond to my care at home, a bit of pampering. I prepared his old room for his arrival and bought groceries. Houston called home when he landed in Los Angeles. I paced and waited for the next call telling me my son was OK. Houston did not call again until morning. The drive to Vera's house, in the dark with sketchy directions, had taken him more time than he had expected. Fearing the worst, I slept little.

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Charlotte Pierce-Baker is an award-winning professor of women’s and gender studies at Vanderbilt University, a board member of the George West Mental Health Foundation/Skyland Trail in Atlanta, and the author of Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape. She resides in Nashville with her husband.

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