My family has just finished a hot, exciting, and very dusty summer. We undertook a massive home renovation that included new windows and floors, raising a sunken living room, and gutting and replacing one of the bathrooms and the kitchen. Exhausting as the whole process has been, it’s also been thrilling to bring our hopelessly out-of-date house into the 21st century, and to do everything to our own taste.
Since work finished last week, all of us, from our youngest child to us parents, have been dancing around and playing with things, crowing about our huge sink or our shiny new hall cabinets. We switch the ceiling fans on and off, play with our dimmer switches, and marvel at the massive improvement our new blue-gray counters are compared to the old orange ones.
Under all those wonderful improvements is another layer of home creation and renovation that we rarely mention. If you come to my house, you might not even notice unless you know what to look for, or you might just think that we’re an unusually security-minded family.
We are an unusually security-minded family, but for us the danger is on the inside. There are key locks on almost every interior door of our house, and double dead bolts on all the exterior doors. There are bars on the windows, a lock on the kitchen knife drawer, and a lock on a large kitchen cabinet. All of these measures (and more) are intended to protect Carter, our youngest son, from himself.
Carter, at age 12, has a long list of diagnoses, most of which result from a prenatal hypoxic brain injury, but the only one that’s life threatening is bipolar 1 with psychotic features. Bipolar disorder causes unusual changes in mood and energy, typically cycling between mania (high energy and feelings of euphoria and/or extreme irritability) and depression (low energy and feelings of despondency). Psychosis is a thought disorder with two features: delusions (irrational beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, or tasting things that are not real).
Carter and all the people who love him are weak in our knees with gratitude that he is quite stable now and has been for several years. The double deadbolts have their keys in them because it’s been a very long time since Carter, in a panic of huge emotion and unable to cope, bolted from the house. The key to the knife drawer is stashed at the back of that same drawer because we trust Carter to use the smallest knife to cut a sandwich or an apple and ask for help to use a bigger knife. He is not reacting dangerously and inexplicably to monsters only he can see. The child-safety locks on my car are disengaged because Carter doesn’t want to die and it’s been a long time since he tried to end his life by throwing himself out of the car onto the freeway.
But all those things and more happened, and we can never assume that Carter’s illness is gone. It is in remission, and we are constantly alert for signs that he is in trouble so we can act fast to help him regain his stability, but the possibility remains that he could be very sick again. I might never use the new locks on that kitchen cabinet, but seeing them there gives me a sad sort of comfort, knowing that even if we can’t guarantee our son will stay healthy, we have measures in place to keep him safe.
Unfortunately, we are fast approaching a time when even our carefully designed internal security may not be enough. Keeping a twelve-year-old child in the house for his safety is very different from trying to keep a 15-year-old at home, and if we were to try to do that with him when he’s over 18, we’d basically be holding him hostage, even if our motives were purely safety.
Part of the reason we have created a house that we can lock down in this way is that the shortage of mental health care services leaves us with few options. If Carter is in danger, that doesn’t necessarily mean he can have a bed in a hospital that is equipped to keep him safe. In the United States, we have a critical shortage of mental health care at every level, from acute inpatient services to day treatment to outpatient services. In New Mexico, where my family lives, the shortages are graver than in most other states.
I try not to think of the implications of those shortages, even as I work to protect my own son and advocate for change. It is too awful, to back up and look at the broad picture and acknowledge that my nation and my government view my child as fundamentally unworthy of the services he (and other people with severe mental illness) requires to live a safe, healthy, productive life. When I see people on the street having animated conversations with people no one but they can see, I am hard-pressed not to see my own son in that terrible situation. When local police shot and killed James Boyd, who had spent his adult life cycling in and out of prison, jail, and the state psychiatric hospital, I wept because this is the country we live in, and this is the “treatment” we offer most people with these kinds of illnesses.
For now, while my son is still young enough to want to do everything Mommy and Daddy ask of him, and afraid enough of his illness to do what is necessary to keep it in remission, and healthy enough to understand all of this, we work to create safeguards. We talk about how to ask for help, and who to talk to, and what he can do if he is ever afraid or in trouble. We helped him build a list of his “safe people,” those people he trusts and love and who he knows understand that even when he isn’t acting like himself, or isn’t able to be very nice, he is still Carter. Still worthy, wonderful, and beloved.
As for me, I’m very happy to have the keys to the knife drawer lying in the drawer, unused. I’m also happy that lock is there should we need it someday.
About the Author
Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the hours just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style.
Find links to almost everything she does on the internet at about.me/AdrienneJones.