How did I get from standing on the bimah for my son’s bar mitzvah three years ago to visiting my son at the adolescent wing of a psych ward? Raphael is here on a 72-hour hold, a “5150.” This is where a social worker from the Psychiatric Emergency Team (PET) evaluates a person under 18 to see if he is at risk to himself or others. This is the first time my son has been put on such a hold related to his escalating drug use. I drive somewhere down the 605 towards Santa Ana to a hospital with an adolescent psych unit. I am buzzed into a locked unit. I enter and sign in, looking eagerly around for Raphael. The large room where the visits take place has posters on the wall. Some are informational—rules—others are friendly with pleasant scenes and inspirational quotes, but it doesn’t take away from the stark, institutional look. This will not be one of Raphael’s favorite places for a psych hold. Subsequent adolescent wards and treatment centers we pass through will have bright murals, and I will not remember where this one was, that it was only a waystation to the next step that I had hoped would arrest the downward slide. But the physicality, the geographic location, of this first 72-hour hold he goes on, will mostly be a giant blank in my memory. I’ve been told that trauma can do this, above and beyond the normal menopausal memory loss.
I decided to retrace the days leading up to this moment. I began with Raphael’s returning from his high school trip to Ireland and Scotland eight days ago, the Saturday before yesterday. He seemed happy and showed me pictures: a lot of time sitting in cafes. Very green, lush vistas. I noticed what looked like a beer here and there, but he moved fast over those images. He’s supposed to be “sober.” We spent about a year going to an outpatient substance abuse program, one that also required me, the custodial parent, to abstain from using alcohol and non-prescription drugs—something I wasn’t altogether happy about, having become accustomed to the nightly glass of wine creating the “happy hour” illusion of a buffer between the demands of work and the demands of home. “Come on, honey, we’re out of here; we don’t need this,” I wanted to say when they first told us that rule. Hell, my dad had just died less than a week before, the day before Father’s Day, and it’s practically a custom to drink wine or liquor, the so-called post-funeral schnapps, sipping with the old Jewish men who are still alive. We were practically still sitting Shiva. But I complied with the rule, even when Raphael told me, “Go on, I won’t tell.”
Raphael has had various “relapses” over the last year and a half and has moved from using marijuana to trying various other pills and synthetic marijuana, labeled as “bath salts” and/or “incense” and sold in Chinatown. We’ve looked at Internet accounts of psychotic reactions to synthetic marijuana and read about someone biting someone’s ear off after using. I remember the night I saw the foil package in the bathroom, which I first thought was a condom wrapper. I would have been relieved at this point. Instead, it was labeled “not for human consumption” and the crazy redness and movement of Raphael’s eyes showed that it wasn’t sex or rock ‘n’ roll.
By the time the Kaiser therapist suggested that he wasn’t really getting much out of the outpatient substance abuse treatment program anymore (after about a year in), we were both ready to stop going to weekly family group sessions. I was ready to start drinking my glass of wine when I got home. The school knew about his drug treatment program, and it didn’t occur to me to tell them not to allow him to drink alcohol or use drugs on the trip overseas. Looking back, I am outraged; that seemed a no-brainer. But I had never been a 16-year-old in Ireland or Scotland, where there seemed to be a lot of leeway for young adults drinking.
The day after he returned from his overseas school trip, he was up early. “Make me breakfast, Mom!” he demanded at 6:30 AM on Sunday, and I did. I thought that ten days apart was good for both of us. He promised to study for a make-up test he missed last quarter and as he walked out of the house with his backpack a couple hours after breakfast, he said he was going to the library. As I was straightening up, I looked at the dining room table and noticed that his computer was there. It was on, and as I walked by, I thought I saw something suspect. On an impulse, I decided to look at his searches: “What’s the best way to take Xanax—snort or shoot up?” I sat down and decided to go further. I’d never wanted to be a private investigator or drug tester or probation officer type of parent to my son. But I could no longer assume what I didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, and my role had changed over the year. I opened up his Facebook and began to look at his messages and saw a path of drug-related searches: “Hey, can I get bars?” Answer: “I’ve got ten…” and so on. All this was taking place before he went to Ireland and then again last night and this morning. I decided to look for him at the local library, but before I left, I suddenly felt stupid. It was a national holiday. It was unlikely he’d be there, but for some reason I decided to go over there anyway. The library was closed.
I walked back and began calling and texting him, and when I got home I also sent a message to one friend via his Facebook. I began to cry. I phoned my older sister and together we looked up what these bars were and found out on Urban Dictionary:
Xanax bar (Urban Dictionary)
2mg, long, skinny pills prescribed for anxiety, the highest mg xanax, comes as white and yellow, the yellow is time released, (yellow school buses, white ladders)
I got xanax bars for sale at 6 dollars a pop
My sister said, “I’ll call him and tell him that if he doesn’t call you right away, you’ll call the police.” I called my girlfriend, who told me, “Stay there. I’m coming over.” She arrived about an hour later.
And then the phone rang. I demanded, “Where are you?” I couldn’t understand what he was saying, and at that moment I didn’t feel like I was really talking to my son. I’d never yet heard him slur his words or sound so unlike himself. “Acchhh, donn’t know, didn’t like that libbbrary”
“Raphael, where are you? What are you doing? What have you taken?” I said.
“No, no drugs, naah,” he said, and somewhere in his mushy speech I caught the name of a park.
“Wait, we’re coming for you, don’t leave.” I said. The phone clicked. Disconnected. My girlfriend and I drove to the park while I sobbed and tried to call him again. He answered after the second call, but his speech was no longer translatable. “You are at the Memorial Park Metro station? Wait, we’re coming over.” I said. Again, the phone call ended. But by then, we were almost there.
When we arrived, it was afternoon, already getting darker earlier as it was November. Raphael was stumbling around like one of the junkies that inhabited the large tree-lined, graffiti-streaked park, his backpack missing. I couldn’t believe that I was looking at my 16-year-old. He looked so tall, handsome, and sophisticated the day before when he got off the plane. When he was explaining the decades-old conflict in Ireland and why he liked Scotland the best of the places they visited.
On the way home from the park, I called the Kaiser consulting nurse from the car while my girlfriend drove. They told me that I should probably bring him into the ER, but I didn’t. I remembered my son’s pediatrician warning me about the poor conditions of Kaiser’s ER: “Only go there if you are really dying.” So I decided to wait until the next morning, thinking I could take him straight to the outpatient youth addiction program. I was certain that they would take action—refer him to something more intensive, inpatient, something that responded to the urgency I felt.
We arrived home, and Raphael said that he was starved. My girlfriend made him something to eat. Steak. It was impossible for him to cut his own meat. He could barely keep his head up, and he didn’t want to listen to my questions while I cut up his steak for him. He took a couple bites and then stumbled into his bedroom. Within a few minutes he was in a deep sleep, passed out but still alive. So I decided to take my sister’s suggestion and rummaged through his pants pockets.
I felt something right away and found a bag with pills of varying sizes—white, round ones and blue cylinders. Plus, little clumps of very ripe-smelling weed in a plastic cylinder. It didn’t look or smell like the marijuana I remembered from my youth. I wondered what he had taken and realized that the blue cylinders were the bars of Xanax we saw in the picture I’d looked up.
I listened to his breath again and shoved him a bit. He didn’t wake up. “Raphael,” I whispered urgently. I wasn’t sure how much jet lag contributed to this comatose state. But my girlfriend confirmed that he was breathing, and I let him sleep.
In the morning he got up and climbed into my bed and under the covers. I was prepared to drive us into the outpatient rehab program. “I’ll call the police” is what I said when he began to protest. “Don’t— please don’t start lying to me. You owe me that respect,” I said.
I had it all—the pills, the pot, the computer search “inject or snort Xanax,” and the Facebook messages, all thoroughly documenting his madcap search for drugs to take with him on his school trip to Ireland, to use when he got back, and to use throughout his so-called sober year of rehab. He stopped arguing and curled up against me.
“You should watch the DVD of your Bar Mitzvah. Remember who you are, the poetry you wrote, what you are capable of,” I told him in a tone halfway between demanding and desperate pleading. For his Bar Mitzvah, he read poetry, talked about trust and vulnerability, Bernie Madoff and teen prostitutes. The Jews trusted Bernie Madoff just because he was Jewish, and he betrayed their trust in a big way. The teen prostitutes had probably trusted their parents when they were younger, the adults in their lives, and were probably abused or abandoned by those people they depended upon, he told the congregation in his sermon. The large crowd of his African-American and Latino classmates said to him afterwards, “I want a ‘bro-mitzvah’,” and a reporter for La Opinion left to write his column about “The Real L.A.” describing Raphael’s Bar Mitzvah. When I watched him speaking and chanting his Torah portion up on the podium, I had breathed a sigh of relief, believing this young man, he’s going to be okay.
“I was smoking crack cocaine then… with Joey,” he announced.
I got a chill and asked desperately, “When you were thirteen? Where would you buy it? You’re kidding me.” I begged him to cop to the unfunny joke.
He looked utterly serious, not the deadpan “fooled you, hahaha” look. “No, really, I was. We got it from the old Black man in the wheelchair on Fair Oaks and Woodbury,” he said.
I froze. I asked him again. “Nah, not really, we just snort cocaine,” he said.
My chest was tight and painful as he curled into me, his dark tight curls brushed against my face. Cuddly like when he was sick as a baby, he was warm with musty boy smell. But he was not one or two or even eight. He was 16, and the night before he was stumbling around the Memorial Park Bus Station, slurring his speech into the incoherent sound bites of an addict.
Then, as his body curled into mine, I wanted to weep, remembering the times we sat cuddled up like this when he was a warm, sweaty baby boy, hot with fever, nursing or just sitting close. Back then, I existed in “mommy time,” forced to slow down by a high fever, flu, severe croup turned to asthma, or week-long stomach flu.
I saved his life once, long ago, taking him to the ER after calling over and over again, saying his breathing just wasn’t right, his fever climbing up again to 105. I nursed him for days inside a tent in the hospital while he worked on breathing on his own. He was already almost two years old, but I nursed him so much I was engorged and leaky like a new mom.
I wonder now if I can save him. It is more complicated. Back then it was easier to help a two-year-old with few words, no poetry, just barely able to say, “Mama, ese, ese?” asking about the all the hospital machinery, lines going in and out of him, the beeping yellow monitor. His main language was still Spanish at that point. We’d been living with his babysitter from El Salvador and her son.
Now he is 16, and his language is a cross-section of teenage boy, post-modern Ebonics, and hip-hop lines, mannish utterances of bravado, denial, denial, and denial until I shut him down with my successful drug scavenger hunt. Even marijuana seems different now, though I don’t know because I haven’t tried the new breed. And at his age, I’d already slowed down with the smoking pot and never really had anything too strong. We had picked Psilocybin mushrooms in the cow pastures across from my high school. But I was already on my way to graduating early, taking extra credits at the school for dropouts in addition to my regular high school.
And the other drugs—“bars” of Xanax and the round ones I couldn’t identify? When I was a kid we turned our noses up at stealing our mom’s prescription drugs—“Mother’s Little Helpers.” That seemed so… ”Stepford Wives” to us. We were cooler than that, trying LSD or mushrooms. Prescription drugs are an epidemic for kids now —Vicodin, Ativan, Xanax, and all the drugs for ADD. But I hadn’t yet acknowledged my own tendency to turn to a pill or alcohol when I was feeling severely anxious or stressed out.
There is a Martin Luther King picture on my son’s bedroom door saying, “MLK lifted us all up,” showing a father lifting up a child. This was the door that his dad busted into when Raphael was sleeping the next day. I had taken Raphael to the Kaiser addiction medicine department where we had met with an outpatient therapist. Raphael wasn’t ready to go into inpatient, and they proposed a program of counseling and AA meetings. I had gone there intending to leave without Raphael—sure that he’d go straight into some kind of inpatient care that would speak to the urgency of his condition—near overdose—still high and bleary-eyed from the night before. Instead, he came home with me and immediately went into his room and went to sleep. Later that day, his dad arrived. I had called him to tell him what had happened. Though Raphael had lived with me full-time up until then and didn’t have a consistent visitation schedule with his dad, Larry had talked about “trying him out”— having Raphael live with them for a few weeks.
Raphael’s dad seemed to arrive seething with anger, but he sat at a desk in my living room, his girlfriend on the fainting couch. Raphael was still in his room. Larry looked at his e-mail on his phone and saw an e-mail he didn’t like; he erupted. The e-mail was from my sister, urging Larry and his girlfriend to work together with us on supporting Raphael. In several “family meetings” I’d called over the last year with Raphael’s aunts and uncles, his dad and his girlfriend, I tried to get us all to operate as a united family. We weren’t that. Larry and his girlfriend often talked about what I could have and should have done differently to “manage” Raphael. This no longer sat well with my siblings or me since I was doing the best I could.
Furious with what he was reading in his e-mail, Larry burst into Raphael’s room with the MLK poster on the outside urging nonviolence. He screamed at Raphael, “I’m going to beat your ass!” I heard scuffling, crashing noises. Larry’s girlfriend, (who happened to be trained as a social worker), looked at me and said, “Just wait.” I didn’t. In a split second I was yelling, “Stop, let me in!” and banging on Raphael’s bedroom door. Later I would ask her, “Would you have waited while someone threatened to kick your daughter’s ass?” And she would admit that this did give her pause; she probably wouldn’t have waited.
Raphael is tall and normally in better shape than his dad, but his dad is a big man. When he rages, his dad appears even more enormous to me. That day, Raphael didn’t seem in any shape to fight back after his near overdose, and when I pushed the door open, he was looking at his dad with a strange quizzical expression. He has had this look before, and I have leapt between them before. Sometimes Raphael told me—as he would later about this time—that he deserved to get his butt kicked. But even if you believed in the occasional spanking, which I didn’t, this is not what happened with his dad. His was coming from a place of uncontrolled and unrestrained rage—an adrenaline rush he seemed to embrace when it came over him.
I pushed my way into Raphael’s room, and his dad knocked me down. It was not an accidental fall as his girlfriend, the police, and our son would want me to believe. He was out of control. He pushed me hard, knocked me down, and slammed the door shut again with him inside the bedroom with Raphael. I picked myself up, sped past Larry’s girlfriend who still sat passively, helplessly, it seemed, on the fainting couch, and ran downstairs to my neighbor crying, “Call the police.”
His dad said to Raphael, “I’m done with you.” That he never wanted to see him again. Raphael ran after him. This was what Larry’s girlfriend told me happened when she went to my neighbor’s where I was and pleaded “Please, it’s all a terrible mistake. Raphael is with his dad now. It just got out of control. No one is hurt.” She didn’t ask me if I was hurt or how I felt.
Two policemen came into the neighbor’s apartment and asked me to go upstairs; Raphael was now upstairs too. They asked what happened, and as I tried to explain, they began to holler at Raphael, “You see what you’ve done? You made your parents angry, caused fighting between them…”
I interrupted the policemen to tell them that the anger, the arguments, the violence started before Raphael was even born. They turned to me and asked me over and over again, “What happened? Did he push you down on purpose or maybe accidentally to just try to get out of the way?” I didn’t know how to answer. I used to work in domestic violence many years ago. When I was in a healthy relationship with Henry, my Filipino boyfriend. It appeared that some 20 years later, the handling of “these kinds of cases” hadn’t progressed.
Then they asked, “Do you want to press charges?”
I said no, I didn’t. So they got Larry and asked him to sit down at the dining room table and asked Raphael to sit down. “Look, man, we’ve been through this. We get it. We were raised like you. But these days you can’t hit your wife when you get mad, you can’t hit your kid when he acts out. It’s against the law. You gotta work together on this,” they said to Larry.
Larry looked up and said, “Well, we just think this happens every time she lets him go on a trip. She…” as he pointed at me, the mother.
Before I could say anything, Raphael spoke up. “No,” he said quietly. “No, Dad. It’s not because she let me go on the school trip. It would’ve happened anyway, I take drugs. I’m an addict.”
Larry stopped talking. He looked stunned, staring, his anger temporarily abated by shock. I, too, was stopped by Raphael’s honesty, his willingness to say this. Later, I would see this as the first moment where Raphael might have considered or acknowledged that his drug and alcohol use was more than normal teenage experimentation. The first time his dad was really forced to see the significance of the problem. When I first put Raphael in the outpatient program at Kaiser, I got the distinct feeling that Larry, his girlfriend, perhaps even my family, initially, thought I was overreacting to some casual drug use. My experience with Raphael was that he was struggling with organization, focus, and school already, without drugs. Like so many of the young men in the program at Kaiser, he too had already begun to have the school interventions and problems related to attention, disorganization, and other challenges. The drug use sometimes—often—seemed like a coping mechanism for these boys to get through an inhospitable environment—school. A form of self-medication. And even when some of them (including Raphael) might try out the ADD medication, that too became something they would abuse, not improving the school situation.
I looked at his dad and said, “Please, please, can we work together?” as I had pleaded so many times before. The police looked at him and said, “Hey, man. So, can you work together to help your son?”
Suddenly they had become impromptu social workers—imperfect, but I was ready to credit them for effort. Today, so many years later, I can’t remember what Raphael’s dad said or if there was a barely perceptible nod of agreement.
We bumbled our way through the next day, as if in a slowed-down sluggish kind of nightmare. The inverse, the paradoxical, of the dreamy sensation of joyful “mommy time” with a newborn when everything slows down. Where I had felt utterly in the present, no place I’d rather be, now I was inhabiting territory I’d never wanted to visit. A stranger called, a young woman who said she found Raphael’s backpack somewhere, and I went to retrieve it, finding more drug paraphernalia that even I could recognize—a pipe, lighters, a few loose unidentified pills, his notepad, phone, random crushed school papers were all there. When I drove to pick it up, and the girl answered the door and handed me the backpack, I imagined that she looked at me with a mixture of pity, curiosity, and relief that she could get rid of the toxic relic of teenage free-fall.
A day later, Raphael was with his aunt, my sister. I was working late, and she called to suggest that he stay overnight. They had just returned from a Temple event. “He’s been so great tonight; everyone at Temple stopped to say how handsome and respectful he is. He wanted to cook fish for me, and it was delicious.” She described shopping and cooking with him and told me that he was in the bath at the moment. Then I heard, “Wait, I have to go… I smell pot!”
My sister called back. Raphael was already asleep and denied smoking marijuana, but the bathroom clearly smelled of weed and sulfur from the matches, she said. Then I knew he’d gone over the edge—he would never have been so brazen at his aunt’s house if he hadn’t.
Before Raphael was conceived, my sister gave blood to me, even though she hated having blood taken. I’d had more than four miscarriages already, and they were trying a treatment that involved something like taking her red blood cells and mixing them with mine like some medieval potion. They then put the mixture into me as a subcutaneous injection, which felt like a cigarette put out on my arm, causing a flu-like reaction for several days. “You’ve got a piece of me in you,” she always told her nephew, Raphael. She felt close to him. But that night she felt betrayed.
That Saturday my sister agreed to attend an Al-Anon meeting with me. I dropped Raphael off at his therapist’s office. My sister was trying to understand what was happening to Raphael, and the concept of “detach with love” sounded a lot like giving up to her. “Detach with love” means not doing for someone else what they can do for themselves, as that allows them the dignity to take responsibility for themselves. The first instinct when a teenager is this out of control—almost dies from an overdose—is to lock them up with you and hold on tight 24 hours a day. And yet the parents in the rehab program who did just that, never allowing their children ever to do overnights anywhere, their kids still managed to get ahold of drugs and use them frequently. And there were parents out there whose children had died even as they tried to hold on tight and save them.
When we left the Al-Anon meeting, I saw a message from Raphael’s therapist. He had gotten Raphael to agree to go to the Kaiser ER for an evaluation to be considered for a psych hold. Raphael had left his office and was supposedly on his way home.
I got in the car and drove over to my house, found Raphael, and we headed over to the Kaiser ER. Later, the social worker spoke to us both and decided that Raphael should be put on a 5150 hold, as a potential danger to himself. A police officer was then stationed outside the room Raphael was in. Standard practice, as I would learn.
It’s now two days later, and as I drive up to the hospital psych ward, I am asking myself how I arrived here, only three years after I stood on the bimah with Raphael at his bar mitzvah. The adolescent psych ward is not a part of the HMO where Raphael regularly goes for care; it’s about 45 minutes away, and I walk in cautiously, not knowing what to expect. I leave my phone and valuables in the car, as requested, and sign in. Raphael is here on a 72-hour hold. It seems that he is not intentionally suicidal, but his actions are “spiraling out of control” and could result in death.
I am late arriving for the 90-minute visiting hour, but Raphael is done before it is over. “I’m tired; I want to sleep,” he tells me. “Wait,” I say to him. I want to hang on to him.
Other families sit huddled together, talking softly, and a few teens sit alone without their parents. I see a mom braiding her daughter’s hair, another parent comforting a weeping child. Who comforts the parents?
A good friend once told me that from the moment you even consider having a baby, you are vulnerable to the worst kind of loss. After more than five miscarriages, that was clear, but when the pregnancy with Raphael stayed put, I felt happier than I ever had in my life.
I remember my sister telling me when I was pregnant, “It turns out that they are so much safer in the womb.”
“Im kein lamah zeh anochi.” If this is so, why am I? I am handed these Hebrew words early this morning at the Jewish meditation group I sometimes attend. If “this” is my son landing in an adolescent psych ward because his drug use could kill him, then the “why am I?” is a question I cannot answer. I only know that Raphael is safe for two more days.