Invisible Illness

When my son was only 5 years old, he had his first in-patient psychiatric hospital stay. I was told at the time that he was one of, if not the youngest patient they had ever had. Many people condemned and criticized my decision to seek medical help. I needed help, my son needed help, and hospitalization was the best option for us at the time. His very first diagnosis was PDD-NOS. I was told at the time, that for my son, PDD-NOS was a ‘generic’ diagnosis. They could tell that there was something going on, but they weren’t sure what. That diagnosis stuck only until the next service came along.

Over the next 11 years, we used every mental health service available. He received a different diagnosis with each new service. Over the years, his diagnoses included mood/conduct disorder, ODD, intermittent explosive disorder, bi-polar disorder, depression, he was tested for Asperger syndrome. I’m sure there were others. We never did get a definitive diagnosis. I knew there was something different about him from the time he was very small. I tried to get help for him his entire life.

We used outpatient counseling, family intervention services, family based counseling, MST services, partial hospitalization, RTF stays, therapeutic foster care, there were many, many in-patient hospitalizations, and many other services.

Much of the difficulty in getting an accurate diagnosis was my son’s concern over the stigma attached to ANY psychiatric diagnosis. He didn’t always cooperate with therapists or give honest answers. He became very skilled at knowing what behaviors the professionals were looking for, so that he could be discharged from service. As he got older, he started to refuse his medication. I think that somewhere in his head, he believed that any diagnosis translated to ‘crazy’. That belief was shared (maybe instilled?) by his father. I was accused outright of being crazy, simply for suggesting that our son might have a problem. (Dad left the picture when my son was 7, and only maintained sporadic contact – another story for another day) I always stressed to my son that there was never anything ‘wrong’ with him, just that he needed extra help in areas that not everybody else needs help with.

Despite all of these struggles and aggressive behaviors, my son also had a sweet, kind, compassionate and creative side that he often tried (unsuccessfully) to hide. He loved his youth group at church, he loved helping others. He wrote countless letters and songs about love. He touched so many lives in such a positive way in his short 16 years. During a Sunday sermon following my son’s memorial service, the pastor commented on the vast age range of people that attended the memorial. My son was loved by everyone, young and old, and everyone in between.

Around midnight on January 10, 2015, I got a call that no parent ever wants to receive. It was the hospital saying that my son was brought in, in critical condition. Could I get to the hospital, right now? I lived an hour away.

He had been attacked, and was without oxygen for an extended period before the paramedics got to him. He remained on life support until January 13, when he was declared brain dead. He died from an anoxic brain injury and his death was ruled a homicide. He was removed from life support on January 14. I was with him when his heart beat its final beat. He was only 16 years old.

This case is still working through the courts, so there are few details that I can share. His attackers are currently in custody. There were witnesses to the attack. I know there are many other families that have lost a loved one to violence and may never see justice. They may never have closure. We are fortunate that there will be a trial, and we know, without a doubt who did this to my son.

By sharing this story, I hope to reach others that are navigating the mental health system, or have lost a child to violence, to let them know that they are not alone.

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