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March 09, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 09, 2005

On Deadline: An outpouring of shared grief, support and stories On Deadline: An outpouring of shared grief, support and stories (March 09, 2005)

by Jay Thorwaldson

An overwhelming outpouring of more than 100 e-mails, plus many handwritten notes and dozens of phone calls has been the response to my column last week (Weekly, March 2) on my loss of my son Josh to bipolar condition, drug and alcohol addiction and recent, probable long-term jailing.

They messages are still coming in.

An editor pointed out the need for a follow-up, and a sharing -- names removed -- of the reactions, unprecedented by a factor of 20 or 30 times in my four decades in journalism.

The responses range from short notes from longtime friends and acquaintances to lengthy sharing of people's own stories -- which I find as riveting and touching as they found Josh's story. Many said they were brought to tears: One father said he "didn't realize there was more water in me to shed as tears," after his loss of a son to suicide.

I heard from people from 25 and 35 years ago -- including a man who as a child spent his first sleepover at our house in Menlo Park at a birthday party for Josh. He reminded me that I stayed up with him when he got homesick and wanted to go home.

And I heard from many complete strangers or passing acquaintances, opening their hearts and memories, many of them secret and hidden.

But let them speak for themselves:

"My first wife was not bi-polar, but did end up getting into drugs, which, in part, ruined my first marriage and greatly affected our three kids' lives after that (although all of us learned to cope)," one Palo Alto civic leader wrote.

"My mother is mentally ill, likely bipolar (though she was diagnosed as something else), and has been on numerous occasions 'a danger to self and others,'" another local resident confided. "Not just for this reason, there is something of a constant prayer in the back of my mind, 'Just let them (my kids) grow up safe and well.' (Hope you remind yourself, about your son, that it wasn't for any lack of love that it happened.)"

"Your article about losing a child was wonderful and heartbreaking. All parents can relate, no matter what the circumstances. I sent it to my 'best friend' from childhood because we have often discussed the fact that she may have to let her son go because of drugs and assorted issues," wrote the head of a local nonprofit agency.

"Your story is important not only for your family and others who have family members with mental illnesses, but for everyone, so we can better understand the humans around us, and those who are in jails and prisons because of their illnesses," wrote another reader. "I have a dear friend, an older woman, who is bipolar. She told me yesterday that she'd gone off her medication (again), and I immediately got a lump in my throat."

"Thank you for writing that article about your son. It makes us feel so not alone. We have a similar story of a son about the same age ...," another shared about her son's imprisonment, at special risk due to diabetes (a risk Josh also faces).

"It was interesting that my husband showed me your article, which he would usually avoid reading because it was too painful," she added. "This has helped us release some of our emotions of all this stuff. It isn't something you discuss with other parents of boys with families and degrees and the like. We have four sons and three are doing well, but it still hurts that we have one who is so unhappy and can't ever turn back the clock."

"Right now, three families (all close friends of ours) are dealing with adult children with bipolar disorders and are experiencing the pain you describe so well. It is a shocking disgrace that our mental health system is failing each and every one of you," a longtime Palo Altan wrote.

A former colleague at the Weekly wrote of mental illness: "There is a stigma of sorts unlike any other disease that I know of and a pain threshold that does not have a normal gauge before (one is) almost destroyed by this loved one. ... The point I feel like sharing with you is my own mother committed suicide over 30 years ago and to this day she remains a part of my almost daily thoughts."

Several other journalists, from the Weekly, its sister papers and even two competing papers responded. A former colleague from the long-ago Palo Alto Times wrote: "It so reminded me of my brother's life, which had many of the same sad turns due to alcoholism. (Once in the Times' newsroom I heard his description on the police radio and hoped no one else could hear.) I felt sad when he died in a Veterans Home in Washington state a year ago and I realized I had never had a brother, just someone who saw me as a possible source of a few bucks."

One writer mentioned programs of the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI), which has local meetings and a support program to help people "deal with the nightmare that has stolen a loved one's life."

Another touched the heart of the matter: "We have such shame about our imperfections, mental illness, abortions, addictions, clutter, academic struggles, financial problems," she wrote.

"People try to keep these things secret from one another and we end up isolated and not able to learn from one another or benefit from one another's love and experience. We also then can't organize to find solutions that would address the underlying causes or meet communal needs."

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com. A more extensive collection of responses, also anonymous unless people ask to have their names included, is posted on www.PaloAltoOnline.com -- additional comments are invited.

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