In the autumn of 1996, my son was seventeen when he told me one day on the way home from school: “I don’t know what’s happening, I can’t find my old self again.” He’d had a seemingly marvelous summer staying with family in Mexico, fishing and learning to surf. He’d achieved nearly a full scholarship for his junior year at a Boston private school. However, one teacher had observed that, in class, he “sometimes seems to be out of touch and unable to focus his mind.”
Soon after the new term began, I found written on the wall of his room in un-erasable black magic marker: “I am going to die, and the world will be a better place.”
Following a traumatic night and seeing a psychiatrist who specialized in adolescents, Franklin had to be hospitalized. Actually, he requested it. The hospital evaluation stated as “reason for referral: a three week period of … increase in psychotic symptoms, including paranoid thoughts, command hallucinations telling him to hurt himself.” Preliminary MRI results came back essentially normal in terms of any neurological condition. But, with his mother’s and my reluctant consent, he was immediately put on several medications – an antipsychotic, a mood stabilizer, and an antidepressant. When Frank was released a month later, the discharge summary spoke of tests indicating “an acute deterioration in his cognitive functioning, consistent with symptoms associated with the onset of schizophrenia.”
Had he lived in another time, my son told me, he probably would’ve been one of those mad artists like Van Gogh. He wrote in a journal: “Meditation as opposed to medication. Is it the answer or a combination of meditation and counseling? Where does bipolar illness come from, and why do so many people have it? Is it from abuse, is it from intense desire, is it a chemical difference from the norm?”
He knew then that there was another way. His parents did, too. But it would take us a long time to figure it out.
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The private school wouldn’t accept Frank back, but he managed to graduate from another high school designed for young people with similar difficulties. He began seeing a psychiatrist who ultimately prescribed what he called a “last-resort antipsychotic,” Clozaril. Frank hated the way various meds dulled him and caused him to gain weight. Wanting more independence, at nineteen he left home and went on to live in a series of group homes, as well as once for six months in his own apartment until he suddenly decided to go off his medication. For a decade, he went in and out of hospitals, one time for as long as a year.
I’ve never forgotten a hospital physician telling me: “I went through an existentially profound moment with your son.” She’d asked Frank if he realized why he was there, was he mentally ill? Frank said no. Why then? she persisted. She expected a rambling answer but he’d simply replied: “My chief complaint is loneliness. I am lonely.” In that moment, the doctor said, shaking her head, “your son was so sane.”
At his mother’s impetus, we tried vitamin therapy as an adjunct to the medication. But to Frank, it felt like just another round of pills and didn’t last. While I also looked into some alternatives, I then saw no choice but to accept the medical treatment model. When my son refused to take Clozaril because of the required blood draws, Zyprexa became the psychiatrist’s second choice. Within six months, my handsome son had put on close to a hundred pounds and been diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes.
When I read in the New York Times that Zyprexa’s manufacturer, Eli Lilly, knew full well about these side effects but never bothered to inform psychiatrists or patients, I was outraged. I enrolled Frank in a class-action lawsuit against the corporation that eventually brought a compensatory settlement. But I feared the damage was already done.
One morning in spring 2007, from a Boston hospital where he’d agreed to resume taking the Clozaril, I drove my son straight to rural New Jersey – and an alternative treatment center for young adults called Earth House. It wasn’t cheap, and I’d obtained financial help from my brother. A daily schedule of exercise and activities, combined with an organic diet and an orthomolecular physician, resulted in his dropping all the weight that Zyprexa had added. Earth House residents were required to remain on their psychiatric medications, but Frank’s level was able to decrease considerably. It seemed like a miracle, and I’m sure his eighteen months at Earth House saved his life. Eventually, though, the expense proved too great. And his mother and I were faced again with the agonizing question: where does he, where do we, go from here?
From Franklin’s journal:
“If you are trying to cross a river, you take a boat. If you have no boat you either make one or swim. If you can’t swim then grab onto a log. If there are no logs then swing from a vine. If you do not succeed then try again. If you do not succeed a second time then ask your neighbor how you will cross the river. If he does not know then ask someone else. If the whole world doesn’t know how to cross that river then you will either have to give up or invent a new way. You invent because you need. You need because you desire.”
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I was desperate. After Earth House, residing in another group home alongside barely functional older floor mates, Frank sometimes spent days in his room. Then our family pediatrician, who’d grown up in East Africa in the 1940s and made an annual pilgrimage back to witness the wildlife migration on the Serengeti, invited me to bring Frank along on the trip. Overcoming initial trepidation, he really wanted to go. He was 32, I was 64. Frank is also biracial, and I saw this as an opportunity for him to see the continent that his mother’s ancestors came from, and hopefully for the two of us to forge a stronger father-son bond.
I was not wrong about that, though hardly in the way I anticipated. In January 2012, we went through two harrowing nights during our couple of weeks in Tanzania. On the first of these, Frank disappeared at a bush camp. On the second, he was justifiably angry at me for being too controlling. Alone together as darkness fell, he went into a monologue that soared so far into space and deep into time that I didn’t know whether anything could possibly ground him again. I was terrified, including of the truths he voiced about my own psyche.
I was already aware of my son’s psychic nature, his uncanny ability to read my thoughts or offer sudden flashes of prophetic insight. Ever since a therapist friend had advised me to stop correcting what I had considered Frank’s delusions, our relationship had vastly improved. In fact, I’d come to appreciate and enjoy his unique outlook on life.
This night in Africa, however, was unlike anything in my experience. We did come through it together, but only after a role reversal: I became the one suffering the “breakdown,” and suddenly he became the caregiver. I relate the story in a just-published memoir, My Mysterious Son: A Life-Changing Passage Between Schizophrenia and Shamanism, which contains a number of Frank’s writings and artwork.
I consider our experience in Africa the real beginning of a shared quest, beyond my being a parent with a so-called mentally ill child. Frank understands things on a multi-dimensional level that is beyond me, but a great gift. African healer Colin Campbell has written: “People hearing voices for instance or feeling certain things are in touch with other realities, especially the whole mythic realm, that Western society does not have a time or place for. Who is going to give voice to those parts of us?”
That is what I set out to do in writing a book. A year after Africa, when I took Frank to see Malidoma Somé in Jamaica, the shaman described their encounter as akin to “meeting a colleague.” I’d first spent time with Malidoma in California. He is a diviner from West Africa, able to “read” meaning in a pattern of cowrie shells, stones, and other objects spread by a person’s hand. Malidoma spoke of my task as “holding the space” for Frank, and instructed me in a ritual calling upon my Caucasian ancestors to find a place for him at their table. Malidoma said they couldn’t fathom him, and needed to; it was central to his healing.
I would never have embarked on this course, had I not read The Horse Boy (a father’s account of bringing his autistic son to a shaman in Mongolia) and shortly thereafter attended a conference in Maine on “Innovative Solutions to Building Recovery with Alternatives to Psychotropic Medications.” There I listened, with my heart pounding, to Robert Whitaker and other speakers on the dangers of these drugs – and alternative ways to think about and treat “mental illness.” There, too, I met a woman who was studying a shamanic path. And this led me to find Malidoma.
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Frank instantly fell in love with Jamaica. Some years earlier, he’d written in his journal: “The larger the soul the greater the suffering. From suffering comes beauty. Bob Marley preached and taught it when he said ‘One Love, One Heart, Let’s get together and feel alright!’” And feel alright Frank did, as he sat alongside Malidoma doing a series of drawings that reminded the shaman of ancient glyphs. They found one another fascinating.
I left them alone but, as they’d requested, tape-recorded their meeting. Malidoma told my son that the pattern he’d made on the divination cloth spoke of being “in touch with the ancient Mayan, Egyptian, and Native traditions. Here, I even see Dogon cosmology.”
“Oh nice,” Frank replied. “This is an ancient game. From Atlantis or … ?”
“Yeah. The other planet that is called – ”
“Pluto. Neptune,” my son interjected.
“That’s right. All these energies…”
Frank pointed to certain rocks that he’d moved around to form the pattern. “I love these. These are special rocks, old, quite old.”
“Very old indeed … The way you know things is unbelievably calibrated. And so far beyond the normal human consciousness, I mean somebody – ”
“Somebody could walk up to you and be angry at you for that, though,” Frank interrupted.
“That’s right, because you’re so far advanced. This world is borderline, just skimming the surface.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Malidoma told my son that “the sequentiality of time and space only applies to you if you want it to. Otherwise you can find yourself here, and then go far into time, then come back so fast that nobody notices … You process so much data that sometimes you are in multiple places at the same time. And yet, you still look like you are here in body and flesh, sitting in front of me, when in fact it’s everywhere. There is something about that which also makes you, as you sit here, look like you are a sub-space antenna. Picking up messages from so far away.”
Frank laughed and asked Malidoma whether he was from Senegal or Nigeria.
“No, from near Senegal, it’s Burkina.”
“Yeah” – Malidoma laughed now – “you see, you know it.”
“I respect – lot of respect – I’m trying to learn how to be, you know, a nicer person.”
“That’s why – your knowledge of geography, the different places in the world, is just outstanding.”
Frank laughed again and said, “Thank you, or should I say, ‘Dashi.’”
“Dashi! And also the knowledge of language, universal language, it’s just amazing.”
Later I looked up the word “Dashi.” It’s of African origin, a name sometimes given to female babies. The Internet site said: “People with the name Dashi … fight being restricted by rules and conventions.”
Malidoma continued to interpret what he observed in the divination design: “The light that shows here is not of this world. How could that be connected to the body that is sitting in front of me, I have no clue.” Frank continued to draw for him. “Yes, you’ve been there. Through various tunnels. And it has led you to various worlds. And it looks like you’ve left something of yourself in those worlds.”
Hearing this section on the tape, I flashed back. Shortly before his sixteenth birthday, Frank had handed me a typewritten sheet of paper with some trepidation. I read it while he sat across from me in his room. It described “something I saw last night (December 30, 1994) while I was lying in bed. My eyes were closed, but I wasn’t asleep.” He went on to write of going through a square, then a series of circles – one of which turned into a sun – “and as I came closer, all the time I was moving; it became a tunnel. This tunnel was as if it was in space … ” He’d gone through an opening into a beautiful scene with columns and a pyramid and, as he ascended higher, glistening water. Then he saw another tunnel, “like a cave, with dips in the earth … shiny and full of colors….the last thing I remember is going through that tunnel slowly.”
Now Malidoma asked if he could keep Frank’s drawing of a bird, “because this is also a sign that shows how your spirit can fly.” How to explain what the shaman saw? I can’t say, but I believe it concerns a reality far greater than Western medicine’s diagnosis of schizophrenia. Malidoma told Frank that he observed nothing in the divination pattern to indicate that he was sick. “It doesn’t show?” Frank asked. In that case, he added, “Give ‘em a call for me if you could, you know, in the hospital, tell ‘em that. Write a good note for me or something.”
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Above all, I know that being in Malidoma’s presence added immeasurably to Frank’s self-confidence – slowly but surely shattered over the years by the onslaught of doctors and drugs. Both I, and his mother, have continued to seek communication with our ancestors on his behalf, very different and difficult journeys that have made a difference in our own lives as well. My son and I have made a third trip, one outlined in part by Malidoma, to the sacred lands of New Mexico.
Had we been able to discover such alternatives earlier, Frank might long ago have been able to leave medication behind. And he may still, for now at 35 he is more active on both artistic and practical fronts than in years. He’s out and around, every day. He attends music therapy and art therapy classes. He will be resuming a limited class schedule at a technical college that he once attended. He knows I’m there when he needs me, as a supportive but not overbearing fatherly presence. He knows not only that I’m proud of him, but hold deep respect for all he’s been through and who he is.
Long ago now, the day after he was born, a close friend looked in his eyes and said to his parents: “You know, I think Franklin is really your teacher.” And so he has been. And so I am grateful.
“What is behind a situation is a mystery. We are left searching for reasons that things are the way they are… Clarity and cloudy times come and leave. Points are made and life proceeds.”
– from Franklin’s journal.