“Hi Dad,” my 34-year-old son said, “why don’t you come down for a visit and bring me some food?”
The cause of my astonishment was that I hadn’t heard from him in over two years. The reason: while I’ve been in the Philippines, he’s been confined to a locked mental health facility in San Diego County, USA.
Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to Andrew’s difficulties. In his late teens, they manifested themselves in several suicide attempts and a fondness for addictive drugs. Later the hostility turned outward as, obeying random ethereal voices nobody else could hear, he began assaulting those around him. Eventually that led to a diagnosis of grave paranoid schizophrenia with bipolar disorder. And finally, after years of unrelenting intervention, my former wife and I got him conserved, I.e. assigned to a professional court-appointed protector authorized to confine him to institutions like the one he’s in now.
None of it has been easy. We, like many parents, have agonized over the state of our son and whether we were doing the right thing. In the end, though, we felt satisfied that ours was the safest solution, not only for Andrew but for anyone he might encounter. And, of course, we were happy to resume our lives knowing that he was in expert hands.
Two recently released films have forced me to reconsider.
The first, called Framing Britney Spears, documents how the famous singer got placed under a conservatorship controlled by her father following a mental breakdown in 2007-8. Since then, according to the Hulu documentary produced by the New York Times, Spears and her dad have had a relationship tumultuous enough to raise questions regarding whether the conservatorship is really needed. So many of her fans think it isn’t, in fact, that some have formed a movement under the banner of Free Britney.
The second movie, called I Care a Lot, depicts a fictional conservator who makes an excellent living preying on unsuspecting elders living alone. Partnering with a dishonest doctor, she persuades the court to declare them incompetent, becomes their conservator, and helps herself to their hard-earned cash.
The movie—on Netflix—reminded me of someone I once knew. She was a long-time friend, a woman with whom I’d gone to high school, and the daughter of a famous journalist who’d become my mentor. Years later, long after he’d died, she called me with an amazing story. An unscrupulous conservator, she said, had sent her elderly mom to a nursing home while he plundered the family fortune. And adding insult to injury, my friend complained, the court had barred her from even visiting.
“It’s a huge conspiracy,” she insisted, addressing me in the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times where I was then a staff writer. “It involves the courts, the cops and the county.”
But I had my doubts and opted not to write the story she so desperately wanted. The last time I heard from her was in another call, this one from somewhere in Mexico to which she said she’d retreated. “I’ve written a book,” my erstwhile friend informed me, a bit too gleefully I thought, “and guess what—you’re in it!”
Suffice it to say that she didn’t treat me kindly.
Ah, but now I’d seen those movies and the self-doubt had risen like lava in my gut. Had I been too harsh in my judgement, too blind to recognize the truth? Had I subjected my own flesh-and-blood to something false and crippling?
Feeling guilty, I recently arranged for some virtual face time with my lost and long-suffering son. An actual visit, I’d been told, was impossible because of the ongoing pandemic. “Is he ready?” I eagerly asked the nursing attendant on the day of our scheduled meeting.
“Mr. Haldane,” she announced, without even rising from the distant desk at which she sat. “Andrew says he doesn’t want to see you.”
But a few days later he called his mom. “Hey,” he informed her in the slightly off-kilter tone we’ve come to expect during episodes of delusion. “Dad killed someone; you’d better check it out.”
Part of me prays that it isn’t true.
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David Haldane’s latest book, a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street” is available on Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines..
Published Originally in Mindanao Gold Star Daily