When my son was 12, he turned violent. Life is just now getting better
As told to Deborah Wang.
My name is Miriah, and I am a stay-at-home mother of three.
My eldest son was diagnosed with autism a month before he turned 5. That’s a late diagnosis, but we lived in a rural area with little access to medical care.
When my son was 7, we moved to Vancouver, Washington, and life was good for a few years. But then something changed. I don’t know if it was puberty, or the new baby, but he turned violent.
He ran away every day. He attempted suicide 43 times. The police were at our house every other day. Once he even hitchhiked to Beaverton, Oregon. He was 12 at the time.
My son turned 13 at the hospital, after another suicide attempt. I walked into his room with a cupcake that day, but he wasn’t there.
A moment later, my phone rang, and the voice at the end of the line said, “This is Fairfax Hospital, and we have your son.”
I said, “I’m sorry, where?”
“This is Fairfax in Kirkland. Your son needs clothing.”
I learned that at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. that morning, my son was put in a taxi for a three-hour drive to Fairfax, a private psychiatric hospital near Seattle, wearing hospital scrubs … and no shoes.
No one at the hospital in southwest Washington told us this was happening because they didn’t have to: At the stroke of midnight, like a flip of a switch, our son gained full control of his mental health care, simply because he was now 13.
My son stayed at Fairfax for five days, and then discharged himself — as was his right — because he didn’t want to share a room with another patient.
We were terrified, because Fairfax had taken him off his medications and started introducing new ones. My son was not thinking clearly.
Please don’t misunderstand: I believe that some children at 13 should be allowed to seek medical care on their own, and specifically gay and lesbian children should be able to reject conversion therapy. But I don’t understand how anyone could believe that a severely mentally ill or developmentally disabled child should be allowed to discharge himself from the hospital.
We have mental health care directives for adults, where you can designate somebody to make your medical care decision when you are incapacitated. But we don’t have that for children.
From the moment Fairfax called me, telling me my son had discharged himself, I had 24 hours to pick him up. I packed up my other kids, including my infant daughter, and drove through a blizzard to Kirkland to bring him home.
Within a day, my son assaulted me and broke my ribs. Bruising lined my jaw. He had started with a pair of shoes, and when I defended myself with a broom, he grabbed, broke it in half, and started beating me with one end.
The police came, and because he was 13, they arrested him for assault. And then he began another spiral:
A night in jail.
Several days in the emergency room because of a suicide attempt.
A return home for a day, before he ran away with our safe deposit box, which he managed to break open. He used the money to buy a phone and a suit at a shopping mall. He took a taxi to … somewhere, we don’t know ... and then landed at a hospital in Oregon, across the state border.
This was chaos, but this was also where progress began. Because while being 13 allowed him to make his own mental health care decisions, his age now carried responsibilities. And tough choices: He could check himself into an in-patient facility in Tacoma, or spend 40 weeks in juvenile jail. He chose treatment.
In Tacoma, the staff took him off his meds safely, and introduced news ones one at a time. They tried him on one medication and within 24 hours, he had horrible facial tics.
He said, “No, I do feel better, I feel like it’s working!” And we were like, “No more here. Your arm is moving involuntarily, and your face is all scrunched up. This is not the med.”
The staff there also taught him to manage his behavior.
The 11 months he spent there seem to have changed his life. My son is 14 now, and mostly stable. He attends three classes a day at the high school, which is huge for us, because the year before, he attended fewer than 60 days of school.
He has not been violent toward anyone at home, although he still blames us for having another baby or for having rules — teenage complaints. But he’s not going to be sitting in jail the rest of his life because he can’t get a grip.
He has been home with us since May. This is going to sound terrible, since he has had three suicide attempts and been arrested once, but it’s going really well. We are slowly starting to trust that he is better.
Produced for the web by Isolde Raftery.