'We get it wrong when we say the point is to be happy.' A mother reflects after her son dies
Jerri and Matt Clark weren’t sure what awaited them at their son Calvin’s apartment on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.
Calvin had died earlier in the week. He had killed himself on a trip to St. Louis. He was 23.
On a sunny spring day four days later, the Clarks drove up to Seattle from their home in Vancouver, Washington. They brought boxes and packing material to collect his possessions.
When they opened his door, they saw a package on the floor. It was filled with Calvin’s medications — two weeks' worth — to treat his severe bipolar disorder. He was supposed to have taken them with him on his trip.
As they suspected, Calvin was off his meds when he died.
One of Calvin's health care providers was there as well. When she saw the meds on the floor, she burst into tears.
The tiny basement studio was in good order. Prayer flags and a colorful poster of the chakras were hanging on the wall. Family photos that Calvin had recently collected were posted on the refrigerator.
But the subtle signs of Calvin’s struggles with mental illness were obvious to his parents.
When Calvin was manic, for example, he called himself “Cal.” His parents found a box of dark brown name cards printed only with the words “Cal Clark” in large capital letters.
They also found a large volume of handwritten material, another sign that he was in a manic phase.
“He was really sick, he was really ill,” Jerri said. “And he was in recovery, but there were just a lot of layers of illness that were really, really, really deep.”
[Reporter Deborah Wang is spending the year doing stories on adolescents and mental health as part of a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship. If you have a story you would like to share with Deborah, please email email@example.com.]
uicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Washington state, 1,297 people died by suicide in 2017.
Many factors can increase a person's risk, including mental illness and incarceration.
Calvin’s death impacted not just family and friends, but also a larger group of people who had learned of his story.
When Calvin became ill, his mother Jerri started writing letters to legislators and state officials, furious about the lack of treatment options in Washington state.
She quickly became a prominent face in the mental health advocacy community, founding a group called MOMI, or Mothers of the Mentally Ill, and then appearing with Governor Jay Inslee last fall when he announced his mental health agenda.
She was the rare parent who spoke openly and in detail about her family’s mental health struggles.
Many people knew of Calvin’s story and rooted for him to succeed.
The news of his suicide arrived in Olympia just as testimony was being heard on a bill that MOMI supported.
“I want you to know that Calvin’s name will live on, both in respect to this bill and in respect to all the work that this legislature does in the future," said Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma in a message to Jerri and her family.
Jerri is calm as she sorts through her son’s belongings.
She laughs when she sees a shopping list taped to his refrigerator. It has only one thing on it: dill pickles.
She also laughs when she finds a jar of cheap peanut butter in his kitchen, which she had bought to help Calvin trap mice.
But her laughter sounds forced, and brittle.
“I do okay during the day when I am busy,” she said.
At night, she has been waking between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. in a state of panic.
“That’s when I have my private grieving time,” she said. She cries, drinks tea. Reading messages of support on social media brings some comfort.
Jerri was in a meeting at a Starbucks when she got the phone call from a hospital in St. Louis. A doctor told her clearly and plainly that her son was dead. Her first response was, no, no, no, that can’t be. Then she became nauseous and thought she might pass out.
“The last 4 ½ years just went flashing through my head,” Jerri said.
In remembering Calvin, Jerri said he was brilliant, even as a little kid. He could do three-digit addition problems in preschool. By kindergarten, he was reading Harry Potter.
He was an honors student and a state debate champ in high school.
But Jerri now understands that Calvin probably had mental health challenges from an early age. He suffered from sensory issues; his clothes and socks never felt right. He developed vocal tics in middle school which his doctor diagnosed as Tourette’s Syndrome. He experienced night terrors.
Calvin was diagnosed with a severe form of bipolar disorder when he was a freshman in college. Jerri tried to find a psychiatrist to treat him. Their private insurer gave them a list of about 30 psychiatrists within a 30-mile radius of their home. She called them all. No one would treat him—their practices were full, or they didn’t serve that age range or diagnosis, or they didn’t call back.
“When he was first sick, he wanted help," Jerri said. "He wanted to get his life back on track, and the system told him, that is not going to work out, you are not going to have the life that you wanted, so buckle up, because this is going to be rough.”
t’s hard to follow the details of Calvin’s illness.
There were multiple hospitalizations, including a stay in Western State Hospital. There were arrests and jail time. Protections orders. Suicide attempts. Homelessness.
Calvin also suffered from anosognosia, which means he didn’t understand how sick he was. He was eventually prescribed medications for his disorder. But when he felt better, he stopped taking them.
Still, things had begun to look up over the previous eight months.
A social worker in the King County Office of the Public Defender found him a studio apartment in Bruksos House, which is run by Pioneer Human Services. It's housing for people who are impacted by either mental illness or incarceration.
Calvin was also enrolled in the Program for Assertive Community Treatment, or PACT, a King County program which offers wraparound outpatient psychiatric services.
He volunteered at a non-profit called Seattle Clubhouse, which provides social, educational and work opportunities for people with severe mental illnesses.
Calvin’s dad Matt said he was hopeful that Calvin was on a path to recovery.
“He was definitely on a good upswing, and becoming more stable, making plans for the future, and envisioning for himself, ‘oh, yeah here is what I can do,’” Matt said.
Which is why Calvin’s suicide came as a shock.
“Like anyone else in this situation, you wonder-- what could I have done to prevent this?" Matt said. "Was he feeling very alone or struggling in the last couple of weeks and we didn’t know it? I don’t know."
Matt described his emotions as “raw and numb.” He said he vacillates between waves of crying and anger.
“It’s just hard to imagine that moving forward, we are not going to see him, we are not going to come up here and help him with something again. It’s hard to imagine, okay, what the future will be like, or, what now? It hasn’t quite sunk in.”
Calvin’s illness had strained his relationships with his family, Matt said. At one point, Matt and Jerri realized they couldn’t live with their son and that they had to get him outside help.
The last time Matt saw his son was positive. They went to Chicago to see relatives over Christmas. Matt remembers how they said goodbye.
“We hugged. I told him I loved him and I was proud of him, and he said, I love you too Dad. I guess that’s as good of a last interaction as you could have with your son.”
amilies with loved ones who suffer from serious mental illnesses often seek each other out for guidance and support.
That’s what Jerri did when Calvin became ill. She found a website for a program called Chad’s Legacy Project. It was started by Todd and Laura Crooks after their son Chad died by suicide at the age of 21. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The project aims to support innovations in mental health treatment and reduce stigma around mental illnesses.
Todd Crooks drove to Calvin’s apartment to meet the Clarks and help them pack. He brought a trailer attached to his SUV so he could take some of Calvin's things to be donated to Seattle Clubhouse.
“I knew you would be my rock,” Jerri told him as she welcomed him.
So what do you say to a family going through this kind of loss?
“There is not a lot you can say to comfort someone,” Todd Crooks said. “All you can do is be receptive to hugs and look them in the eye and have them know you are feeling what they feel and that you are with them.”
In any given year, about 4 percent of the U.S. population is diagnosed with a serious mental illness, like major depressive disorder or schizophrenia. That affects about 70,000 people in the state of Washington alone.
Crooks said his son convinced himself early on in his disease that his life was not worth living. He killed himself less than six months after receiving his diagnosis, not long enough to really know how the disease would play out, or to find the right treatment.
Todd Crooks' and Laura’s mission now is to show people who are suffering that there is always hope, even if it’s not obvious to them.
“With severe mental illness especially, we haven’t figured out how to show quick positive change," Crooks said. "We haven’t gotten really good at instilling hope in somebody who is battling the disease just yet."
alvin didn't leave a suicide note. But on top of his dresser, the Clarks found a notebook.
In it was a poem called “I hope I die on a Monday.”
He had written the same poem in multiple versions over the course of years.
Jerri read the latest one aloud, her voice shaking.
I hope I die on a Monday
So I can go to Church on Sunday
And spend my week between Heaven and Earth of course playing God....
From there, the poem starts making less sense.
“Watching a mind moving from brilliance to chaos is a very strange thing to watch,” said Jerri. “A lot of the written material came out of that chaos, because when he had mania he was prolific.”
Jerri said because of the severity of his illness, she always believed it would be terminal. Still, she wasn’t prepared for his death. She still had a lot of things she wanted for him, and for herself.
“Calvin and I had a connection and a plan that I don’t get to do," she said. "He was joining me on this advocacy work. We talked about writing a book together. And we will, when I dig into those writings, we will be writing a book together. But I wanted to be doing it side by side.”
Jerri said she is grateful to have had Calvin in her life. “I think we get it wrong when we say the point is to be happy," she said. "I think the point is to explore all of life’s complexity, and Calvin’s very complicated life gave me layers of complexity that I couldn’t possibly have had without him.”
s the afternoon draws to a close, there are mundane decisions to be made—what to do with Calvin’s clothes, the backgammon set that is missing two pieces, a box full of stuffed animals, including a bunny he had with him during a period of homelessness.
The things Matt and Jerri want to keep—including a painting by Calvin’s grandfather, and all of Calvin’s writings—are packed into six boxes and placed into the back of their car.
“A few precious things are more precious than too many precious things," Jerri said.
As they prepare to leave the apartment and begin closing the door, Jerri breaks down. She pushes the door open and walks back into the darkened apartment.
“Things were supposed to work out,” she said, sobbing, standing by the empty closet. “This was his place to get better.”
She regains her composure. She says okay to her husband. They lock the door and carry away the last of Calvin’s things.