Unmoored by a Psychotic Break

I shiver in this damp afterthought of a room, but not from the concrete floor under my bare feet. I’m a Londoner with a tolerance for winter. It’s nerves that have me shaking. I am scared of my own child.

My partner is in San Francisco, and we are in Los Angeles. There is no national health system here. We are unmoored, just my boy and me above a twinkling metropolis of strangers.

He takes his notebook and a marker pen from his rucksack to spell it out for me in silence. As he zips his bag back up, I see the tip of our large serrated kitchen knife, the one that went missing a few days ago.

“We can’t trust anybody,” he writes. “Our computers and phones are bugged. Listen, hear that?” I shake my head, unable to detect anything. “It’s a helicopter spying on us.”

When it sinks in that this is not a delirium that can be eased with Advil and a good night’s sleep, and when I stop denying that my son is armed, I take him to the closest psychiatric hospital, where he is involuntarily held for 72 hours, considered a danger to himself or others. His symptomology is examined and classified as if he is some rare and delicate butterfly, and he emerges with a label: schizoaffective disorder.

It is a complex condition with traits of both schizophrenia (a thought disorder) and bipolar (a mood disorder). Basically, my son had a psychotic break. That’s what they call it when someone disintegrates from his psyche.

When we drive home, I look at him in my rearview mirror to see where he splintered. He looks whole to me.

I slow down under the Cahuenga overpass and notice the growing encampment of homeless. There are canvas tents and sturdy couches, and I smell sausages cooking on a camp stove. We snake around Runyon Canyon in time to witness “the screamer” (as locals call him) hiking up to the Mulholland overlook, yelling obscenities at people that only he seems to see.

I tell myself that my son won’t ever be homeless or scream in the street. He is clever like John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician. He will get better, and we won’t have to mention this chapter in history to anyone. Ever.

It won’t be the first time that my family has buried something in our ancestral hall of shame. I never met my grandmother, who spent 40 years living behind impenetrable gothic walls at Banstead Mental Hospital in England.

I open the car windows to let out some of the stifling melancholy.

When night comes, I sleep fitfully, burdened with self-reproach. If something I have done or said is causing my son’s brain to short-circuit, flood with dopamine, lose cognitive function and short-term memory, then surely a change on my part will suffice to bring about a cure.

My boy is restless too. I hear the pull and push of the refrigerator door as he feeds through the dark hours like a fruit bat. Then he is here on the threshold of my bedroom. He may have been crying, but I…

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