Perhaps the hardest part is that her son once was such a normal boy, a Mount Pleasant kid with loving parents, extended family and a life full of friends and dreams.
But at 17, Jack Youngs’ thoughts turned down a disturbing new path.
He began to rub his hands together anxiously. He hung his head at the table and avoided friends.
The boy who once swam on the neighborhood team and rode his scooter along its tree-lined streets now hid in the safety of his bedroom as he plunged deeper down that lonely turn in his mind.
He had entered what his mother, Liz Youngs, now knows is called the prodromal phase, when early signs foreshadow a psychotic illness about to descend.
Suddenly, everyone was making fun of him. The house was bugged with hidden cameras. People were filming him and putting it on TV.
Jack didn’t believe anything was wrong with him.
Neither did his parents.
Liz, so full of a mother’s hopes for her only child, figured that any day he would wake up, come out of his room and get back to normal life.
But he didn’t.
For 27 days, Jack refused to come out of his bedroom. He wouldn’t shower, and he asked for food through his door.
He said things like, “I’m the one.”
Liz and her husband lost hope. It was 2009 when they called Mobile Crisis, an emergency psychiatric team, to have Jack involuntarily committed to a hospital.
Liz didn’t think much beyond that phone call, beyond just getting Jack help, terrified and confused as she was for her son.
She certainly didn’t think of gun background checks or that one day there might be registries of the involuntarily committed, ones that will include people like Jack.
The Youngses told Jack that some people were coming to see him. Which was true.
They just didn’t expect the eight or so cars that pulled up on their quiet street bringing police, a psychiatrist, a medical doctor and others.
“He needs help,” the psychiatrist said two hours later.
After filling out the so-called “white papers” that begin the commitment process, an officer handcuffed Jack and walked the docile teen out of their front door toward a squad car, trying to hide the cuffs with a jacket.
It humiliated Liz, with their neighbors watching, with Jack looking like a criminal as he left their home.
“That was horrible, and he didn’t know what was happening,” she recalled.
She followed the police car to MUSC’s emergency room.
A deputy stood at Jack’s bed. A nurse took blood. A psychiatrist interviewed him.
Jack, they agreed, could be a risk to himself and needed emergency inpatient care.
With Jack lying handcuffed in a bed amid the ER’s ceaseless clamor, they waited. And waited.
The hours ticked through the afternoon and evening and into the night as they waited for an available psychiatric bed somewhere in town.
Through it all, Jack had done whatever people asked.
But after 12 hours, he grew impatient.
“What am I doing here?” he asked several times. “Why are you here Mom?”
At a weary 2 a.m., the staff found him a bed at Palmetto Behavioral Health System. Down silent streets toward North Charleston, Liz followed her son, once again handcuffed in a police car.
She checked him in and said goodbye. Then she cried the entire dark drive home.
“I thought I’d entered the Twilight Zone,” she recalled.
She figured they would go see Jack the next day to comfort him and meet with his doctors.
Instead, for five days his medical team said they would let her know when they had a diagnosis.
“It was very frightening and very frustrating — awful, frankly,” Liz said. “We were completely unaware of what was happening.”
Instead, each day she drove to the hospital and sat in her car, just to glimpse Jack walking to and from the cafeteria.
By the time they saw Jack in person again, he was clearly medicated. The hospital staff had cut his long, dirty hair because he wouldn’t bathe.
“He was himself — but not really,” Liz recalled.
Then came the diagnosis: schizophrenia.
“I didn’t believe it,” she said.
At home, wandering around Jack’s bedroom, looking at his trophies and yearbooks and posters, the doubts settled in. They needled into her certainty that Jack had needed help.
Her beautiful, smart, outgoing son couldn’t have schizophrenia.
“You second-guess everything,” she said. “Then you beat yourself up.”
Alone and terrified as she felt, her family’s experience is remarkably normal for mental illness like schizophrenia.
Unlike most disabling diseases, mental illnesses tend to appear early in life. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression in particular often strike first in the teens and 20s.
But all Liz knew then was that Jack had been a normal kid. And suddenly, he wasn’t.
During his hospitalization, the Youngses received a letter. They were to meet Jack at the Charleston County probate courtroom where commitment hearings are held.
Strangers filled the waiting room.
Two court-appointed mental health professionals interviewed Jack alone first.
Then they all entered the sterile courtroom. Liz sat 20 feet away from Jack, longing to take her child and go home.
Jack was coming home, right?
But the mental health experts determined that he needed further care. The judge agreed.
Liz and her husband drove home, once again without their son.
Jack stayed in the hospital for 30 days. Since then, his parents have committed him two more times, most recently last year, each time for his own safety.
They now find great relief in the treatment he has received.
“Now, I’m extremely grateful,” Liz said. “Calling Mobile Crisis was the best thing we ever did.”
His diagnosis has been modified to schizoaffective disorder with bipolar disorder, and the family is learning to live with its challenges. Liz has found huge support at the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ local chapter, which offers classes for families like hers.
Jack is 24 now and lives at home. His parents are trying to help him become more independent.
But each day is a struggle.
Jack wanders their neighborhood. He walks down Mount Pleasant’s traffic-choked Highway 17 and has been picked up by police for his own safety. He likes to go downtown and wants to hang out with friends again.
Yet he’s too trusting, and his money has been stolen several times. Besides, his friends don’t call anymore.
Instead, a helpful Mount Pleasant police officer stops by to see how he’s doing.
“He’s just lonely and wants friends. He’s harmless, but people are afraid of him,” Liz said. “Nobody comes to visit, nobody offers to hang out. Everyone just keeps their distance. It’s so isolating.”
Most of Jack’s old friends have gone off to college and are moving into their careers anyway. Soon, they’ll get married and start their own families.
Liz is happy for them. But it’s hard.
“It breaks my heart every day to know my son most likely will never achieve the normal things in life,” Liz said. “So I’m just going to save him as long as possible.”
Jack and his parents like to watch movies together, go out to eat and go shopping. Jack especially loves the beach. It calms his mind and brings him some peace.
And that peace is what Liz dreams of most for her son today.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.