Afterwords: Reflections on losing a child to mental illness and drugs

PicMonkey Collage©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart   1600 words

I do not know if I should be attempting this again—don’t know if it’s wise or useful to attempt honesty, especially in prose, on a matter so profoundly life-altering as the death of a child. I have tried many times, sometimes in short memorial pieces, mostly in laboring poetry, to come to terms with my adult son’s death from mental illness and drug abuse in 2013. So why try again? After all, Dillon’s isn’t a new or even infrequently told story.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the U.S. is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose deaths, a 137 percent increase since 2000—including a 200 percent increase in deaths involving opioids. Contributing to these sobering statistics is the fact that nearly 50 percent of those who suffer from mental illness also have substance abuse problems.

My son was one in tens-of-thousands. Maybe even millions.

Dillon was schizophrenic and a chronic self-medicator—his drugs of choice, alcohol and opioids. Often in combination. By the time of his death, Dillon had a long tally of counseling, rehab, recovery, and relapse on account. He had also in late adolescence paid dearly in psychological terms during the dissolution of his parents’ twenty-year marriage, a bond broken owing to his father’s inability—that would be my inability—to deny and suppress a long latent homosexuality.

The bill for all of these troubles came due for Dillon, as I’ve indicated, in 2013. In the early hours of July 28th, Dill overdosed.

Stripped clean of identification, money, and most of his personal possessions in a Seattle park frequented by drug dealers, the homeless, and the mentally ill, Dillon lay unconscious and unattended for nearly half an hour. By the time emergency crews arrived, most of Dillon’s brain activity had ceased. He was admitted to Harbor View Hospital under the alias, “Joe Garcia.” Two days passed before a staff member recognized Dillon from a previous stay (one of several) in the hospital’s psych ward.

His mother, my ex-wife, and I were subsequently notified; we flew in from out-of-state to join our daughter, with whom Dillon had been living, to sit vigil at Dill’s bedside. The end came a day later.

Removed from life support, Dillon passed in the early hours of August 2, 2013. He was thirty-four years old. It was the worst day of my life—or so I thought at the time.

What I’ve learned since is that there is no such thing as a single worst day. Not for a parent who has lost a child; and certainly not when the child’s mental illness has introduced a whole world of “if only’s” and “why didn’t I’s” into the grief-guilt-anger-personal-culpability aftermath. Indeed, what I’ve discovered is that the bad days just keep coming, cropping up on the slightest provocation: a dream, an old photograph, one of Dill’s favorite tunes on the radio; the sight of another man at lunch with his son. Any one of a thousand ordinary everyday events can overwhelm this benighted father in a tsunami-like wave of fresh grief. It is two and a half years since Dillon’s passing, and still the tidal waves of regret and guilt keep coming.

I use the word guilt on purpose, because that is what I feel—as if I could have and should have done more to save my son. Something more than arranging for therapy or supplying occasional supplementary funds; more meaningful than editing his resumé or helping him find affordable housing. Couldn’t I have undertaken something more hands-on than long-distance telephone pep-rallies, something more stabilizing and/or interventional than an Internet search for appropriate services? And most acutely: couldn’t I have denied myself, delayed my ‘coming out’ for my children’s sake, remained closeted and heterosexually coupled in the service of their emotional and psychological health at least a while longer?

Even barring that possibility, shouldn’t I have taken Dillon under my roof once I’d forged out on my own to build a new life? Perhaps even taken control of his mental health treatment by legal means?

Over and over, my daily reflections remind me that I chose not to do these things, chose not to pull my son closer.

So, why didn’t I? It’s not as if the options weren’t clear to me.

I remember, for example, a long distance telephone conversation with a representative at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Greater Seattle, shortly after Dillon moved there to join his sister in 2009. Already my daughter was reporting a resurgence of Dillon’s old patterns: the precipitous ups-and-downs, the recalcitrance about his meds, the bouts of paranoia accompanied by self-destructive behaviors with alcohol and drugs. I remember discussing with the NAMI representative the various services, treatments, and support systems available to Dill in Seattle if he could only be persuaded to access them. And I remember that we explored intervention options too—the various legal complications and difficulties associated with attempting to gain guardianship of my son and/or effect his involuntary commitment. I remember (tellingly?) experiencing a feeling close to relief when I learned that since Dillon had several times demonstrated enough self-awareness of his illness to pursue voluntary commitment programs, it might prove difficult to establish the preponderance of evidence necessary to gain control over my son’s mental health care via the courts. Even so, the NAMI representative provided me with information and legal contacts for exploring a court action. But as I’ve indicated, I didn’t pursue that route.

Instead, I convinced myself that the least traumatic, least shaming course of action for Dillon was to encourage him to be proactive in maintaining his mental health—i.e., staying on his meds, continuing regular sessions with his psychiatrist, and even pursuing voluntary commitment treatments when necessary.

For my part, I would provide advice and financial assistance to supplement Dill’s disability income; I would do my best to smooth over his legal and housing difficulties via long distance. And I would keep reminding him that the voices that sometimes commandeered his consciousness weren’t real, weren’t the result of a sinister N.S.A. experiment designed to beam self-destructive commands at him via microwave.

It was easier to pursue this route—easier because Dill sometimes experienced several weeks of normalcy at a stretch—no dramas, nothing more bothersome than the housekeeping challenges his messy ways occasioned for his fastidious sister and housemate.

But the rationale for my choices was not entirely rooted in parental altruism or even the belief that a milder form of tough love might do Dillon good—not that those didn’t factor into my actions. Rather, the naked Full Monte of my reasoning included much that was not admirable.

Seventeen years of running damage control in close quarters during Dillon’s youth, I thought, was enough. I wanted my own new life as a homosexual man to be as uncluttered as possible. And besides, Dillon had repeatedly proven himself a bridge burner, disappointing us all—his mother, sister, myself—multiple times. How much dishonesty, verbal abuse, and even theft was one expected to endure? Hadn’t I put in my time? So when my adult son forged out into his own space, I was determined to keep him there—at a distance. I was able to pull this off by compartmentalizing in a backroom of consciousness (well away from the shaming light of day) the less commendable reasons for my actions.

But as the saying goes, you can be sure the truth will out. And in the aftermath of Dill’s passing, with all my emotional doors flung wide open, the truth has been stepping into the klieg lights, strutting its ugly self in a manner guaranteed to commandeer my attention, my regret. And my guilt.

There are reasons, I know, that should mitigate these feelings, this shame. After all, one of the tenets of supporting a family member who suffers from mental illness and/or substance abuse is not to do for them what they can do for themselves. And certainly not to intervene in their lives in a manner that keeps them from the consequences of their actions.

These are pretty words, and not untrue. But they are afterwords now, and their comfort has been icy cold in the aftermath of Dillon’s death.

More helpful has been support from my spouse, my loved ones.

As a dear friend recently counseled,  I must discover how to forgive myself, forgive Dillon, and forgive the universe for casting us both in this drama. And then maybe make something good happen in my son’s memory. Which is, I suppose what I’m attempting here—the ostensible purpose of this post.

That I’m finding it beyond difficult, is, I expect patently obvious.

But I am trying.

One of the things that makes the process so difficult is that while there’s no denying my parental shortcomings and insensitivities, I really do love my children; I have always loved them. That was the one thing I wanted them never to doubt. So I told them so at every opportunity: “I love you bushels and pecks,” I told them when they were children. And then later on, “Whatever happens, wherever you go and whatever you do, I love you today, tomorrow, and for always.”

I thought that knowing how deeply and unconditionally they were loved would help my children weather any challenge. How naïve of me not to have foreseen that discovering otherwise would break all our hearts. Especially Dillon’s, whose wounded psyche was so fragile.

“I love you both to death,” I told my children repeatedly.

But I always meant my death.

Atoning for that failure with Dillon will be, I suspect, a lifelong challenge.

 

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Hindsight, a prose poem

Dream Thelma
©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart

“I can see you,” she says
sweeping airily by,
flash of Sunday-school dotted swiss,
patent leather rat-a-tat heels,
whiff of Skin So Soft.
“Time to rise and shine!”
Her voice is soprano sharp
and bellwether clear,
the vibrato not yet crackled with age.
“Mama seeees you very well.”
And how eagerly, happily you rouse,
clutch at the bed sheets,
a child again to your mother’s skirts.
“And I can see you,” you answer back.
But, that truth is fading fast,
like the epiphanies of slumber,
another vision glimpsed much too late.
And come the hindsight of day,
subject to wavering revision.

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Not on Your Life: a prose poem

©2016 by Jack A. UrquhartNot on Your Life-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We said our farewells in Seattle;
You, heading off to the library in a misting rain,
I, preoccupied with transit arrangements, flight delays.
But I remember the smoky scent of your body
and how thin your shoulders
in our last shivering embrace.

Don’t look back, I told myself, as I walked away—
not on your life, or be stricken helpless,
all steely resolve reduced to salt and tears.
Don’t look back if you can help it.

But, of course, I couldn’t. Not on your life.

You were standing at the top of the hill, the first time I turned,
your shoulders stooped, trousers drooping in denim pools.
My glasses had fogged, but I saw that you’d turned as well,
and how graceful your mittened hands in flight—
like mourning doves—when you waved goodbye.

I wish you could know how beautiful I thought you then—
like a watercolor come to life; a wonder wrought by an artist,
a being more deserving of your existence than I;
and yet, even at that distance, there it was—
the echo of my face cast back at me from yours.

It couldn’t have been more than seconds
before I turned the second time.
But you were already gone, lost in the Seattle mists.

Was it negligent of me—so eager to be on my way—
not to have recognized it then: a matter of life and death?
Was it unforgivable not to have fathomed the truth:
that I had only that one opening—to call you back,
that last chance to call you home?
Is that too much to ask, I wonder?
Too much to stand, perhaps,
of one poor benighted father?

Probably not.

Not on your life.

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Sunday Morning Run (prose poem)

EarlymorningRun-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart

Come Sunday morning,
he runs the streets,
pants and puffs past houses
familiar since kindergarten,
the former homes
of former friends.
Instead of Sunday School,
he attends the alleyways,
side-steps puddles behind the VFW,
its parking lot redolent
of the last Supper:
barbecue and corn on the cob,
stale beer, soured potato salad.
Come the Sabbath,
instead of hosannas,
he raises a dust,
sprints the bricked streets,
those WPA relics
of his Grandfather’s time,
moldy as Methuselah.
In lieu of Jee-suz,
he follows a sweaty pace,
celebrates human sacrifice
in his own slogging way,
conscious that every year
makes him slower,
every stride closer
to the finish line.
And yet…
from now until then,
there are watercolor sunrises
and Cinderella moons,
silver-slippered
on the steps of dawn;
there are humid mornings
dank as high school locker rooms,
and cocks and crows in the city park.
All this, even if there is no point,
nor hope of understanding,
nothing that can decode
the mystery of a beating heart,
or what spins stars, planets
and human beings ad infinitum
into the vastness of space.
Nevertheless…
Come Sunday morning,
he runs the streets,
senses tuned to the divine
against the off-chance
of a sudden revelation.

 

 

 

 

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Shelter

raindrops on wire-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart
(for Raymond)

Purple thunder heralds the storm.
At dusk, the rains begin.
Outside my window a necklace of liquid pearls—
strung from telephone line—
captures the last iridescence of day.
I hear a mourning dove fluster and take flight;
her cry is heathery, a fluttering gray.
At my desk, I search for words.
Is there a better likeness of longing?
In the next room, I hear you speak.
Once, then again softly
you call my name
and I rise
To seek shelter

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Recollections

BluePurse-3A

©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart
(for Mom)

Big blue Buick lies wrecked
by the road—plate glass, framed steel
fragile as October leaves—
as fleeting as flesh and bone;

Still a blue leather purse
left behind at the scene
calls back its mistress
from perfume scented seams.

 

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Space (a prose poem)

Son and Earth-2


©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart
(for Dillon from Dad)

I dreamt of us again last night:
You, sullen and scowling,
opting for deep space;
Me, drawn to your furtive luster,
wondering how, from where we began,
we’d opened this gravity-bound distance—
supernal son and earth-bound father,
lovelorn and locked
in opposing orbits,
forever pushing and pulling,
pushing and pulling each other.
Never breaking apart.
Never making contact.

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