A son's mental illness divides a family

October 25, 2011

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(Flickr/Publik15)

The Smiths are a family of four: Helen, her husband, and their two adopted children, Lisa and Peter.

Helen and 16-year-old Lisa just visited Lisa’s biological family in New Mexico. It was just the two of them; Dad and Peter stayed home.

While speaking about the trip, 13-year-old Peter ran in, furious. “You ruined my bow; it’s completely ruined!” Peter yelled as he kicked a box of wooden toys. “I’m SO annoyed. I’m NOT in a good mood right now.”

Peter’s bow wasn’t shooting arrows right. He bought this toy on a separate trip he took with his mom. The Smiths take separate vacations. And because of incidents like today, they don’t celebrate birthdays together, either.

Peter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was six years old. Scenes like these happen frequently at the Smith home, where the family has to work around Peter’s outbursts. You won’t hear from Peter’s father, who said he didn’t want to reveal family details.

But Helen does, and she does many things to keep the peace. For one, she still puts her 13-year-old son to bed. “Okay, so where did we leave off? I know you must be tired cause last night you stayed up way past your bedtime,” she said to her son. “You’ll feel better in the morning. Scratch or rub?”

She scratches Peter’s back until he falls asleep. Then she curls up next to him. When he’s left alone, he screams until his mom or dad joins him.

And for the past five years, Helen has shared a twin bed with her son.

“It avoids outbursts, fighting and yelling,” Helen explained. “I guess it’s been hard to accept this disability. We weren’t the kind of people who could accommodate a disabled child and we said we wouldn’t accept one and now it turns out we have one.”

Lisa, Peter’s sister, has made her own adjustments. She’s independent, funny, animated, and attracts lots of friends.

Those friends used to come over, before Peter hit some of them. Now she keeps them away. She tends to keep her own distance from Peter as well.

“I’m not really close to him,” Lisa said. “I don’t think I can. I talk to him and build legos with him but it’s hard cause he’s so moody. I can’t really tell when he’s going to blow up. And it’ll be the end of sibling bonding. And I just say, okay, I have to leave the room now.”

Peter has hit his sister and his mom. He once hit Helen in the face with a wooden stick. This kind of violence prevents Peter from having many friends.

Helen explained that his actions also made it hard for him to get through mainstream school. “There were so many incidents of my son hitting other children, attacking teachers, hitting teachers,” Helen recalled through tears. “I would go to the school and be in tears and there my son would be sitting waiting for me. School personnel would all be frowning at me. It’s really hard when your child is not welcome. And people make it really clear that they don’t want your kid around. That they would prefer to never see your kid again.”

Peter was suspended from school almost every week.

Helen and her husband spent nearly $10,000 in attorneys and doctors’ fees to get Peter an aide, a special-ed classroom and, finally, a therapeutic day school.

The school helped, but not enough. Last year, they applied for a state grant to send Peter to a residential care center.

Two weeks after Peter moved into the care center late in the summer, Helen and her husband visited him at his new home. At the residential center, they’re equipped to deal with Peter’s bipolar disorder. It’s a two hour drive.

Visits like this are tough on everyone. On one trip, Peter and Lisa got into a fight in the backseat. Peter’s bipolar disorder means he’s sensitive to sound, and Lisa was listening to her iPod. When he told her to turn it down, things between them became violent. After Dad had to swerve to avoid hitting a car, Lisa told Peter she was only driving him to the residential center because she wanted to drop him off and be done with him.

While Peter’s gone, Lisa revels in the peace at home.

She’s into a form of performance art called Emazing, which involves dancing with gloves with lighted fingertips. Her hands dance along to Dubstep music. It’s easier to practice now that Peter’s gone. “It’s just been really, really, really calm,” Lisa said. “Usually we’re walking on eggshells trying to not be loud and play music that he doesn’t like. And now I can listen to whatever I want. [He’s] not going to go all hulk on everyone and break stuff.”

For a while it wasn’t clear whether things were working out for Peter. The family heard mixed reviews from the residential care center.

Helen and her husband talk over options: Maybe Peter should stay at the residential facility for a year or two? Or maybe just come home?

Lisa tells her mom that if Peter returns soon, she’ll leave. “He’s doing better there, he should just stay there,” she said.

After a few months, Helen and her husband made a decision: Peter will stay away from home, but this time in a new residential center just down the road from their home.

Helen thinks it’s the best solution for Peter and for Lisa, at least for now. “If we bring him home, we’re all going to be in the same situation again,” Helen predicted. “His behavior was really affecting [Lisa] and then we have to see her hurt. So, we hope that getting him into residential care, we’ll be saving two kids. She needs help, too. She needs respite from her brother’s behavior.”

Peter’s stay at the residential facility stops the fighting at home, but it leaves a big question unanswered. Will Lisa accept Peter and reconcile?

Helen certainly hopes they will. She says it’s important for the whole family to stick together. Peter needs his parents now, but one day he might depend on his sister. “I certainly think that our relationships with our siblings as children can carry over,” said Helen. “But many people say, hey, we used to fight like cats and dogs and now we’re really close. It depends on how hard you work to create a bridge. I hope she’ll do that, I hope they’ll both do that.”

But Lisa’s not sure what kind of relationship she wants with her brother. “I mean, sure I don’t want to be really distant and talk to him once a year but then again, I think talking to him every day is just a little too much for me,” she said.

Lisa doesn’t have much time to practice acting like an adult with her brother Peter. She’s 16 now, and Peter could be at his new residential facility for a year a half.

By then, Lisa will be getting ready to go to college in New Mexico--far from Peter. 

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