AUTHOR’S NOTE: When a child with mental illness comes of age, from a parent’s point of view, all bets are off. If your now “adult” child is not on board with the idea of getting help when he or she needs it, well, too bad.
Julian’s father and I dreaded the day we would no longer have the legal clout to insist upon healing choices. If Julian experienced another major depressive episode or panic attack, he could choose to do absolutely nothing about it. No therapy. No medication. No dealing with it at all.
What we didn’t know, until shortly before his 18th birthday, is that he had come up with his own solution to everything.
What follows is a creative non-fiction piece about Julian’s 18th birthday.
JULIAN – MY BIRTHDAY MORNING
I woke up early and packed my duffel bag. Just the basics; only what I’d been told to bring. My mother insisted on seeing me before my departure. “It’s your 18th birthday, for crying out loud. I just want to see you and wish you Happy Birthday before you leave. That’s all.” OK, I could do that. She wasn’t asking for much, really. Of course, I knew she was going to take the opportunity to try to talk me out of my brilliant plan. Again.
“Today, according to the law of the land, you are an adult,” I said to the reflection in the mirror. What that meant: I was free to make decisions about my life. Finally. My parents couldn’t tell me what to do anymore. Where to be. Who to be with. I took in a deep breath of that delicious freedom. It was exhilarating. I didn’t have to take my meds any more. I didn’t have to see a therapist any more. I couldn’t be sent to treatment without my permission ever again. This day sure had taken its sweet time getting here.
My hair was long and wavy. Bangs in my eyes, long over the ears; I kept having to flip my hair behind them. It was long in the back too, covering the collars of my shirts. It all had to go. I remembered the tail I’d had as a kid. It was cool at first, but by the time I got to middle school, it made me feel different, and I hated that. What middle schooler wants to stand out in any way? But Mom loved it and I couldn’t bring myself to cut it until high school. By then she understood my need to fit in, or maybe she wasn’t as attached to it anymore either.
I grabbed a pair of scissors and randomly started cutting my hair. Snip. Snip. Snip. Big clumps fell to the bathroom floor. I wasn’t aiming for style; the objective was removal. To cut off as much as possible before resorting to a razor. If I didn’t cut my hair, someone else was going to do it anyway. At this point it was still my choice, I wasn’t yet submitting to someone else’s orders. There was going to be plenty of that for the next three to six years of my life. So yeah, perhaps I was trading in one form of imprisonment for another: the tyranny of parents for the tyranny of the U.S. Army. But this was a form of tyranny I wanted. Therein lay the difference. And in my mind, it made all the difference. “This is my choice.”
The buzz cut was about half an inch long, all over my head. Thank God my ears didn’t stick out too badly. My biggest fear had been looking like a doofus. It turned out I actually liked the shape of my head: long, not too narrow, my eyes seemed bigger when not framed so thickly by a head of hair. I drew my hand over the top of my head. Yeah. Fuzzy. Like a stuffed toy I had as a little boy. I checked out the back with a hand mirror. Not bad. I looked at the bathroom floor and was surprised by how much hair had actually been on my head. Maybe it just looked like a lot spread out on the floor like that. I wanted to vacuum it up, but nobody else in the house was awake yet and the vacuum would be noisy. I swept up most of it and would get the rest with the vacuum after breakfast. I showered, dressed and made my way to the kitchen, grabbing the morning paper from the front door on my way. I heard a toilet flush in the back of the house. Someone else was up.
“Happy Birthday Julian.” Dad hugged me, and we patted each other on the back.
“Thanks Dad. Coffee’s brewing.”
“Thanks.” Their morning conversations were typically pretty minimalist. “Nice hair cut.”
“Still going through with it?”
“Still seeing your mom before you go?”
“I spoke with her last night. She’s probably going to try to talk you out of it again.”
“You’re OK with that?”
“Dad. You’re talking about my mother. Of course, she’s going to try to talk me out of it. What mother doesn’t try to talk her only child out of enlisting in the U.S. Army… when we’re at war? I don’t mind her trying. It would probably hurt my feelings if she didn’t. Plus, she needs to say good-bye in person, and, honestly, I’d like to say good-bye to her too.”
“OK then.” I handed Dad the business section of the paper. I kind of wished he would engage me in deeper conversation about what I was doing, but we didn’t naturally or easily have those deeper conversations. Not that it never happened; it was just rare. A part of me was hungry for a grown man’s advice, but Dad wasn’t the best guy for the job. I wasn’t sure who would have been the best guy. None of my friends had dads with military experience. Dad had offered to introduce me to a retired Army something-or-other (I couldn’t remember the guy’s rank), but I believed the retired guy would be too old and too removed from the military’s current missions and objectives to advise me in a meaningful way. The Army recruiter had been a younger guy, but I knew the recruiter had ulterior motives; I couldn’t necessarily count on the guy to have my best interests and welfare in mind. I had to go with my gut and hope that I was making a good decision for myself. Wasn’t this what being an adult was about?
It made sense to me for a number of reasons. First, I couldn’t keep living with my parents. I felt constantly monitored by both of them, but at Dad’s I actually felt unwelcome. Not all the time, not that I didn’t deserve their lack of trust, but living with that day after day was quickly becoming a total bore. In the Army, I’d have room and board, courtesy of the American taxpayer. Granted, once in the army, the roof over my head might, from time to time, become the enemy’s target, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make. Second, I didn’t really have the money to get a place of my own; I’d have to keep counting on my parents’ financial support to make that happen, and I wasn’t sure they’d be willing to support my home away from home unless I was also enrolled in school. I could start dealing drugs again – the easiest money I’d ever made – but as illogical as it sounded, I preferred the risk of a bomb dropping on my head, over the risk of being shot by some thug or arrested by the cops. Which brought me to, Third: for whatever reason, school was just not happening. I was so damn tired of school, so tired of being a student with a student’s petty anxieties.
I wondered whether it was just a mother/father difference, or a Phil/Celenia difference, or what. Why was my mother so against this, when my father expressed no objection? I wondered whether Dad would just be relieved to get me out of his house, relieved that he wouldn’t have to shell out so much dough for tuition, rent, all the costs involved in being the father of an 18-year old son who can’t quite get his shit together. Perhaps Dad was relieved I was finally focused on a goal and taking concrete steps towards it. Maybe he could relate more to the idea of serving his country in this way, not that he has a military bone in his body. But there was something inherently male about being a warrior. With apologies to all those women in the military, of course. Besides, they’re freaks.
CELENIA – DREADING A BIRTHDAY
Her son’s revelation about wanting to join the Army had arrived without any kind of warning in an email at the beginning of the month. She realized Julian was trying to make his life make sense. She was horrified he’d picked the military as his solution. She’d been in a panic since then, not knowing what to say to her son. What would both keep him alive and not crush this “brilliant” solution he’d come up with all by himself?
She dreaded the arrival of this day, her son’s 18th birthday. It should have been a day of great celebration but instead she felt like she was dragging herself out of bed to attend a funeral. She didn’t understand how her son had come to the conclusion that this was a good idea. His brain was obviously not functioning properly. And how had this practically-Berkeley-bred child of two liberal Democrats been seduced into joining the U.S. Army? This was a nightmare.
She did understand Julian’s need for structure in his life. He had really thrived during his Junior year of high school at a residential treatment center. They put the boys through a boot camp of sorts, and they trained for and competed in triathlons. Julian was in amazing physical shape that year and the regular exercise kept his madly fluctuating moods in check. Plus, it boosted his self-esteem. He felt good about himself, about his body, about what he could accomplish with a plan and discipline. She understood this was part of the allure of the Army.
Her son also needed a tribe. Any social clique would have sufficed. But Julian did not easily fit in, and she knew this tortured him. The effort required to feel like he belonged was exhausting, and quickly led to depression. At UC Davis, he’d found a couple of friends, but something was still missing. She wasn’t sure what had gone wrong exactly – he shared less and less with her, a pulling away that felt right and timely given it was his Freshman year of college. But given his history, it was also alarming. It was so hard to distinguish between his developmentally normal separating from her, and his isolating from others in an unhealthy and dangerous way. He had recently withdrawn from UC Davis after a chaotic first semester, and had been staying at her place and Phil’s, mostly at Phil’s, since.
She understood Julian needed for his life to have some greater meaning…but this? Did he really have to be missile fodder in order to achieve that? Perhaps she was being a histrionic liberal. No. That wasn’t quite it. She was being a mother. He was her only child. She’d almost lost him several times already, and she and Phil had put a lot of effort, time, and money into keeping him interested in staying alive. Only to have him put a giant target on his back, courtesy of the U.S. Army?
A firefighter running into a burning building against the tide of those fleeing the fire made sense to her, but this choice of Julian’s did not. There was genuine heroism in the former; her son’s decision was an act of desperation. He was too young and too high on his sense of idealism to realize it. The bottom line is that he was an adolescent male, his brain and body often flooded by testosterone. A man’s body with a boy’s fantasy of becoming a warrior; what could be more dangerous?
But nothing in his life was working out the way he had planned. The way any of them had planned. He was supposed to stay in college, and become a brilliant whatever-he-wanted-to-be. Not some Army grunt! Ugh, if she wasn’t so worried, she’d be furious with him.
And what could she possibly say to get him to change his mind? She dreaded seeing him later that morning, feeling ill-equipped for the encounter. All she had working for her is that she loved her kid and couldn’t bear the idea of his dying in Iraq or Afghanistan. She couldn’t bear the idea of there being another cross in Lafayette along Deer Hill Road, representing the sacrifice of her son’s life. There were already several thousand crosses with a few Stars of David and Islamic crescents poised mournfully on that hillside. You could see them from BART, and from Route 24. She imagined yet another cross on the hill, for her soon-to-be dead son. Perhaps not a cross, though. What was the symbol for an atheist? It didn’t matter. She did not want her son’s death represented on that hill. Ever.
He was not fit to serve in the Army. Physically? Sure. Mentally? Not by a long shot. He did not have a strong enough will to live. He had an overly developed sense of the heroic. On top of that, the writer in him would seek out experiences just for the sake of being able to write about them! In other words, he’d go looking for trouble. This was a recipe for getting oneself killed in a war zone, and for returning home in a black body bag. She knew he would take absurd risks. As if that weren’t enough, he would be off his meds, because they sure as hell don’t take you into the U.S. Army if you’re on Prozac! He would be depressed and perhaps even become suicidal again.
There was a whole other list of reasons why joining the Army was a bad idea for Julian: he was too independent a thinker. This would not bode well for his interactions with his superiors. He’d think they were stupid and unworthy of his respect (an attitude that repeatedly got him into trouble in school since his Freshman year of high school). He would inevitably butt heads with his commanding officers. She could imagine a dishonorable discharge in his future, if he managed to make it home. He’d be alive – which would be fine – but his self-esteem would have suffered yet another blow. And if he succeeded in keeping his opinions to himself, to subsume his individuality in order to fit into the Army’s mold, then he would have died in another way: she would have lost her son as she now knew him, as she now loved him. Would they have anything in common anymore upon his return? It was a toss up as to which “death” would be worse: an actual dead Julian, or a Julian who was so changed, as if lobotomized, that she could no longer relate to him in any way.
She realized this was totally selfish thinking on her part; actually, all of it was selfish thinking on her part. But who could blame a mother for wanting her son to live a long life? She didn’t have any friends who were in favor of this war, or who had family serving in the military. She didn’t even think she had any friends who were Republicans! None that she knew of, anyway. Family was a different matter. Her cousins had spoken to Julian about their military experiences, but they had served during times of peace, even before Papa Bush’s Desert Storm in Iran. Being at war raised this discussion to a whole other level. She was even willing to shove him into her trunk and drive him over the Canadian border. Anything to keep him from carrying out his plan.
JULIAN & CELENIA – A BIRTHDAY CONVERSATION
“So you’re all packed and ready to go?” She figured the small talk was going to last about two more seconds.
She plunged right in: “I wish I could tell you how proud I am of your choice, that I understand what you’re doing, and that I know you’re going to come home safe. But none of that would be true. And I think the least I can do – being as this may be our last conversation EVER – is be transparent with you. I hope that’s OK.”
“It’s OK, mom. I get it.”
“Do you really? Because I doubt it. I seriously believe that if you “got it” you would not be making this choice. I can believe you want to get it, and I thank you for that, but at the risk of sounding like a mother, you have no fucking idea what you’re doing.” There it was; the hysteria. She was going to have to tone that shit down.
“Mom. This is my choice. And today I’m an adult.”
“Yeah, in the eyes of the law, today you are an adult. But the law is not a mother.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“I don’t even know.” She pulled off her glasses and massaged the top of her nose, eyes shut, like she always did when she was getting stressed. He wasn’t trying to stress her out, but clearly there was no way for them to get through this conversation without his mother freaking out. He would just have to ride this out.
“I’ve done my research,” he offered, hoping this might reassure her and get her to stop rubbing her nose.
“No Julian. You haven’t. You’ve listened to a recruiter tell you whatever lies he has to tell you, and whatever promises he has to make, to get you to sign on the dotted line. And then they own you. The U.S. Army owns your ass. That’s what you’re signing up for, honey. And I’m sorry, but I don’t see the glory and honor in that.”
“I know you don’t. I don’t expect you to.”
“Well, try to explain it to me again. Please. I want to understand your choice. I want to believe in it. Because you coming home in a body bag, without my believing in your reasons for doing this is going to make it a LOT harder.”
“I believe I’ll feel better about myself by doing this. And I’m sick of not feeling good about myself. God Mom; you know that, probably better than anyone.”
“How does putting your life in danger like this make you feel better about yourself?”
“I’m being of service, Mom. I’m using my body and my brains to help others, to keep them safe.”
“But you can do that here and stay alive. And you can avoid the whole moral dilemma of having to follow orders you don’t agree with.”
“How? I can’t even get through a semester of school. The only jobs I qualify for are probably flipping burgers…”
“That’s not true! You are so gifted. Why waste it on the Army? They don’t deserve your gifts. They won’t appreciate you.”
“It feels simpler and more straightforward and like it probably wouldn’t take as long for me to feel like I was doing something useful, something that matters.”
“So this is you taking the ‘easy’ way out?”
“I doubt this is going to be easy, Mom.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I apparently don’t know how to talk you out of this without insulting you. Not going this route seems like such a clear and obvious choice to me. It must be because I love you and I don’t want you to die. I certainly don’t want you to die for the OIL-igarchy’s interests in the Middle East.” They both laughed at the little joke she’d made. God, she loved that her son loved words and loved to play with them as much as she did. “Honey, I think you’re gonna regret this – one way or another. I don’t believe you’re going to get what you’re hoping to get out of this. I…There’s really nothing I can say is there?”
Celenia sighed deeply. “OK, then. Just promise me you won’t take stupid risks. Come home to me. Alive. Please.” She pulled her son to her, her cheek against the beat of his heart in his chest. She crushed her face into him, hoping to quell the tears. When had he become so tall and broad-shouldered? Where had her baby gone? He hugged her tight, which surprised her. His hugs were typically fleeting, almost brusque. This hug almost felt like he wanted to take a part of her with him. They stood apart and she touched the top of his head, rubbed it front to back to front, slowly and gently. “Nice buzz cut.”
“Thanks Mom. I love you too.” She watched her baby, all 5’8” and 145 lbs. of him drive away. Maybe for the last time. She watched until she couldn’t see his car any longer. She saluted in his direction, did an about-face, and marched back into the house. This made her laugh, quickly followed by sobs that came from somewhere deep.
“I’m going to suck at being a military mom. I hate this war. I hate this administration. I hate what America now represents, and now my son is risking his life to fight these assholes’ battles? Do we even know why we’re there? It’s worse than Vietnam. At least during Vietnam, we didn’t know any better. We couldn’t even fathom what liars our nation’s leaders could be. But we’ve just let our government fuck us all up the ass again. He who ignores history is doomed to repeat it. Only this time, my son’s life’s on the line.”
AT PHIL’S – A BIRTHDAY EVENING
When Julian stomped back into the house, and went directly to his room, slamming the door behind him, Phil knew things hadn’t gone as planned. “Now what?” he wondered. When he knocked on his son’s bedroom door, all he got was, “Leave me alone. I don’t want to talk about it.” So Phil left him alone.
He checked in with Celenia, figuring she’d want to get an update. Julian’s unexpected return home combined with his son’s unwillingness to engage in conversation about what had transpired, didn’t feel like a “good” outcome. He needed to impress upon Celenia that there was nothing to celebrate.
“He’s in his room. The door’s locked, and he won’t talk to anyone. Well, he won’t talk to me. Who knows, he could be checking in with his whole network of friends about what happened on his cell phone. But I can’t hear him if he is.”
“So you don’t know what happened?” Celenia asked.
“He came home. I asked him what happened, and he said he didn’t want to talk about it.”
“They must have turned him down.” Celenia paused. “Thank God. I’m so happy I could do cartwheels!”
“Well, I don’t think it’s all good.”
“No. Of course not. You’re right. I just…as self-centered as this may sound, I really didn’t want this to work out for him. But I see your point. Now what?”
“Exactly. So what do we do?”
“I think we give him some breathing room. He has to come up with a completely new answer to ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ He thought he had it all figured out. For the next six years of his life all he had to do was follow orders. Walk a path that was already set out for him. Now he has to create the path, which I honestly think is what he was trying to avoid in the first place.”
They both let that sink in.
“I’ll see if I can get some food in him, and let him get a good night’s sleep. Maybe he’ll want to talk with you or me about it tomorrow. I won’t push it. I do have one concern about tonight though.”
“I’m worried he might be suicidal. He doesn’t handle rejection well. He doesn’t handle things not going his way very well either.”
“If he were at my place, I’d ask him outright if he’s thinking about killing himself. Have that conversation, even if he won’t open the door.”
“And if he says ‘yes’?”
“Then tell him you’re calling 911 if he doesn’t open the door. And then, if he doesn’t open the door, you call 911. You cannot bluff with this kid. Can you handle that? Let me rephrase that: do you want to handle that? I can come over if you think our joining forces will be helpful…”
“No. I can do it. And I don’t mind doing it.”
“Thank you. Keep me posted, please.”
JULIAN – CAN THIS BIRTHDAY PLEASE BE OVER?
When I first met with the recruiter, he suggested I lie about the scars on my wrists, so that’s what I did. Unfortunately for me, the recruiter’s boss turned out to possess a few more working brain cells than the recruiter. ‘Probably why he was the boss. Ultimately, the fact that I’d been in treatment and on mood-altering meds – all of it came to light. The recruiter’s boss basically said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” The implication was that I was too unstable to be in the Army. “Like any of those guys are stable? Give me a break!”
Dad thinks I want to kill myself. Hopefully, he didn’t say anything to my Mom about that. She’s liable to camp out on my bedroom floor. But it’s not like that. I’m disappointed in a major way, but suicide’s not even on my radar. At least, not at this moment.
The big question is, “What do I do now?” I came up with this oh-so-clever solution…to everything: my parents breathing down my neck all the time, my lack of gainful employment, my continuing inability to finish a semester of school without imploding, my lack of purpose and meaning, my…I could go on and on. Joining the Army solved all of that. Now I’m back to square one.
Happy Birthday to me. Someone please remind me why turning 18 is such a big deal. This whole being in charge of my own life isn’t turning out the way I expected. And there’s no telling if it ever will.