John's Story: Post-1960s, Parents Struggle to Hospitalize Mentally Ill Children

When word came that Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard shooter, was severely mentally ill, my heart fell. I'd had nothing but anger in my heart for Alexis before that, but revelations that he was hearing voices and had sought help left me desolate in a way which is hard to describe.

You see, that could have been my son.

Every time word of another deranged person opening fire makes its way through the media, I fear that could be my boy. My youngest son, I'll call him "John," is severely mentally ill. The ordeal began a few years before I came into his (and my wife's) life. John was diagnosed at the very young age of five with Bipolar Disorder I and ADHD. He would run away from home at 18 months, once making his way across the street to a nursing home, only to be brought home by a resident. He would stand in the street with a car coming right at him and laugh, and have to be rescued.

When I came into his life in early 2000, John was 6 years old and was already on heavy doses of Dexedrine. We tried everything. When he was manic, which was often, John was uncontrollable. He would giggle in a way that was anything but cute -- it was frightening. He would hear voices, frogs would talk to him, he would see angels -- "but not nice ones, mommy" -- and they would fly into his mouth. He would lie to his teachers, causing more than one uncomfortable phone call.

Every year, we would face the same uphill battle with the school, trying to get them to see that John needed help. That we needed help. The doctors prescribed more and more medication. At one point he was on six different drugs, including heavy doses of the antipsychotic Zyprexa.

He threatened his elder brother with a knife.

We entered him into an after-school and summer program for students like him with behavioral issues. We used behavior modification plans at home, and got him an IEP and into special ed.

In junior high, we had a teacher call to complain that he was drooling in class. His temper was volcanic. He broke things. We know now those are called "bipolar rages," and they're terrifying. Fortunately, we had a new doctor whose response to new behaviors was not to add medication. He got John off much of the medication he was on, bringing him down to just two. John's focus improved.

But his behavior got worse.

As he entered high school he began sneaking out of the house. Our control over him was slipping. His therapist told us to call the police on him if he became violent or ran away. We threatened him with that, but -- unfortunately -- didn't do it. Instead we lived on eggshells, blaming our other children for "winding him up" instead of taking action against John. He was sick, you see, and wasn't completely in control of himself. With his mental issues had come developmental delays. Despite the body of a teenager, he had the mind of a child. He needed understanding, we told ourselves.

The night before my grandmother's funeral, he sneaked out of the house. I called the police. He was nearly 18.

They cuffed and stuffed him in his own living room and took him to the department. I was given the option of having him declared a child in need of care and entered into the foster care system, or taking him home. My wife was out of town, and I didn't want her to come home to an empty house. So instead of doing what we'd been told to do, and agreed to do, I chewed his ass for a little while and took him home.

I blame myself for what happened next. John became increasingly hard to control, particularly after he turned 18. He ran away repeatedly. He was smoking, drinking, and running with the sorts of people you don't want your children to even know. We're pretty sure he was doing drugs.

He'd move in with friends for a while. The second time he did this and found himself living in a pop-up camper in the middle of a brutal winter, he wanted to come home. We said: "Only if you go into the hospital and get some help." He agreed.

He was there fewer than three days.

A doctor who had never seen him before and had never worked his case diagnosed him as having "impulse control disorder" -- not the diagnosis every doctor he'd seen since he was five had given him. Moreover, the doctor told him -- based on what John had said -- that I had ADHD, not John, and that his mother had obsessive-compulsive disorder, despite never having seen either of us.

A few months later, John was cursing his mother and informing her we would live by his rules. She kicked him out. Over the last couple of years he's returned home a few times, only to leave either of his own accord or because we've had to ask him to leave.

The last time he came home, we talked him into going back into therapy. You see he'd gotten his now ex-girlfriend pregnant, and she was not fit to raise a child. He wanted his son. But he was seeing things and hearing things again.

He was rediagnosed, by one of the same doctors who treated him as a boy. He's got schizoaffective disorder -- and it will likely kill him someday.

John does not have his son. He disappeared again. We have an idea of where he's living and what he's doing, but the child is in foster care. My wife and I are trying to get custody.

John -- like Aaron Alexis -- was failed by the system. My son needs long-term hospitalization. He's unlikely to ever get it.

Ever since John F. Kennedy proposed a new program in which the federal government would fund community mental health centers to replace state mental hospitals, it has become more and more difficult to obtain the long-term care people like my son need. As a result, the severely ill flood the nation's emergency rooms -- and our prisons.

Nearly two-thirds of inmates have some form of mental illness.

What's the solution? I don't know if there is a good one. Increased funding for state mental hospitals is a good place to start. Gun control is certainly not a solution. Alexis had been unable to get help even though he called the police and asked for it, and with no diagnosis, and no order from a judge, he was not legally barred from owning one.

Had the police taken him to a psych ward -- even on a simple 72-hour hold -- 13 people would still be alive, including Alexis.

I don't blame the cops, as they have to act within the law and the law tied their hands.

There were multiple warning signs and they were all ignored.

I do know that until we find a better way, parents like myself  will hold our breath every time there is an incident, praying it's not our child.

And parents like Aaron Alexis's mother will mourn not just their child, but the horrible legacy he left behind.