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The message was simple, but it took me by surprise. “I love you, Dad. I just called to tell you that.”
The voice at the other end of the line belonged to my 30-year-old son, Drew. The last time I’d seen him was a few days earlier at the Alpine Special Treatment Center, a facility near San Diego that, according to its website, provides “rehabilitative and transitional care to adults suffering from serious mental illness….”
It was not unlike the places in which my son has spent much of his adult life, and as happens too often, the visit wasn’t pleasant. Drew – suffering from what those unschooled in the fineries of clinical politeness call “paranoid schizophrenia” – had seemed almost catatonic. While we tried to make conversation, he avoided eye contact and said very little. And as soon as he’d eaten the chicken nuggets we’d brought as peace offerings, he grunted “Ok gotta go,” and was gone. That was fine, though; at least he hadn’t cussed us out as had occurred on other occasions.
Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to Drew’s ups and downs. In his late teens, they manifested themselves in several suicide attempts. Later the hostility turned outward as, randomly and without warning, he began exhibiting threatening behavior towards others. And, finally, through years of unrelenting intervention by his mother – to whom I am no longer married – and myself, we were able to get him conserved, i.e. assigned to a protector in the county Office of the Public Guardian with legal authority to confine him in institutions such as Alpine.
None of it has been easy. We, like many parents, have agonized over the state of our son and wondered whether we were doing the right thing. In the end, though, we felt satisfied that ours was the safest solution not only for Drew but for those he might encounter. And, of course, we were happy to resume our lives knowing that he was in good hands.
Contrast that to the way such things are handled in the Philippines. The difference struck me like a stray bullet during a recent discussion with Ivy, my Filipino wife. She has an aunt, she tells me, much like Drew; with a history of grave mental illness. There are, to be sure, major differences between the two; my wife’s aunt is older, female and has never shown an inclination towards violence. But there are similarities as well; she admits to hearing voices and has been known to wander naked on the beach.
And yet, she – unlike my son – has also been able to marry and beget several children. And, though she has, in the past, been briefly incarcerated in locked mental health institutions, she has spent most of her life basking in the company of relatives and friends.
What is the major difference between the two situations? In a word, I believe, it’s family. Back in the States, mine is emotionally distant and geographically dispersed. And even on the rare occasions that they occupy adjacent spaces, there is very little of the kind of melding of identities that I see among Filipinos.
Ivy’s family, on the other hand, is more like a tribe. It is everywhere, and yet pervasive in the same little island town. When one is broke, the others lend. When one needs help, the others pitch in. And when one is sick, the others take care.
In the auntie’s case, the family has housed, fed and educated her children as well as taken her in when the need was there. Ivy tells the story of how, when her aunt is feeling desperate and out-of-control, she begs relatives to tie her down. And, on more than one occasion, Ivy herself has sent funds to provide the vital medications that substitute for handcuffs.
The bottom line: a few years ago, when Hillary Clinton wrote a book called “It Takes a Village” she could have been talking about the provincial Philippines.
Back in America, we take solace when we can. A loving phone call from Drew, we have come to realize, is a small gift often quickly withdrawn. A few days after that first call, I got a second. “Dad,” he said, “I don’t want you to visit me anymore. I don’t need you and I don’t need chicken nuggets.”
Ahh, but experience tells me that one day his hunger will resume.