Several weeks ago, my 26-year old son announced he’d bought a one-way ticket to Missouri and was
leaving at the end of the summer. Now, news like that can be taken in a variety of ways, depending
on the situation. Many parents dream about a day like this; their adult offspring is finally leaving
home and becoming independent. A one-way ticket to another state might be more dramatic than
most of us have in mind, but still, it shows progress.
For me, the announcement was an escalation in an on-going game of chicken. My son and I have
been on a collision course for several years, always managing to avoid a head-on catastrophe at the
last minute by remembering that we really do love each other. Moving out of state was his way of
testing our commitment to take care of him or let him go. My son lives in a residential treatment
center for adults with psychological disorders. He carries a dual diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome
and bi-polar disorder. Over the years, he has been hospitalized several times for suicide attempts,
depression, and psychosis. He has been in day treatment, an alternative high school, intensive
therapy and medication management. Our goal from the day he was diagnosed has been for him to
be a fully functioning, independent adult. The road has been rocky, to say the least.
The crisis point that resulted in his move to the treatment center happed last June. My husband and I
went on a vacation to the Pacific Northwest, and left Eric at home to look after the house and the
dog. On the fourth day of our trip, we arrived in Vancouver and checked into our hotel. My cell
phone rang, it was Eric on the line.
“I’m concerned about the dog, she’s home alone”
“Why is the dog home alone?”
“Well, I’m kind of in the hospital and can’t take care of her right now”
“Why are you in the hospital?”
“I was hearing voices a few nights ago, so I decided I needed a break”
“Are you there voluntarily?”
“Okay, what happened?”
“Well, the police picked me up and brought me here”
“Picked you up where?”
“At the shopping center. They said they would return my bike and my clothes, but I’m worried
about the dog”
“Yeah, I left them with my bike. I hope they find my backpack.”
“What was in your backpack?”
“My wallet and ID are in there. Oh, and so are the house keys. I’m not sure if they’re gonna press
“Charges? For what?”
“Well, they said I assaulted a deliveryman at Starbucks, but I don’t really remember that”
“Eric, is this for real, or is this a practical joke?”
It wasn’t a joke. We hurriedly checked out of the hotel, stuffed everything back into the car and
started the long drive back to California. I called my brother-in-law and asked him to get the dog.
When he arrived at our house, he found all the doors unlocked and windows open, although the dog
After this episode, we decided we could no longer manage our son’s illness by ourselves. After a lot of
research, we found a treatment facility about an hour from our home. Although the program was
very expensive and our medical insurance refused to cover it, we decided we really had no choice and
would do what had to be done. My husband had retired earlier in the year from his job as a city
worker, and I had “informally” retired, doing contract paralegal work from home. The trip to
Vancouver had been only our second “retirement” trip, but we had many more planned. When all of
this happened, I decided I had to go back to work full time to pay for the treatment center.
We made a one-year commitment to the residential program, hoping Eric would be able to live on his
own after that. We received very mixed reports on his progress, depending on who we talked to. Eric
claimed they weren’t helping him at all, he wasn’t making any friends and this was all a waste of
time. The facility told us he fit right in, was participating in sessions and making progress. However,
as the one-year mark approached, Eric’s behavior began to deteriorate and he became much less
cooperative. We asked for a meeting to discuss this and when they thought he would be able to live
successfully on his own.
The meeting lasted for three hours, but felt more like days. Essentially, the therapists explained Eric
was very high functioning, just not around us. His greatest fear was getting well enough that we
would stop supporting him. They even questioned if he was truly bi-polar and suggested he was
instead “crisis addicted”. They believed he created many of the “crises” in the past to focus attention
on himself. Looking back, many of his hospitalizations did coincide with planned vacations that had
to be cancelled or cut short. There were numerous family events that were interrupted by his
behavior, leaving everyone worried about how he was doing.
Mentally filtering these events with this new information, I felt angry and manipulated. I reasoned
that if Eric’s therapists were right, he had no intentions of “getting well” as long as we were taking
care of him. He was content to play the patient while his father and I gave up our retirement to care
for him. After discussing his capabilities with the facility, the game of chicken began with an
ultimatum. Either Eric “gets with the program” and starts benefiting from what they had to offer, or
he had to leave. He could not live with us again, so if he left; he needed to make plans on where to go
and how to survive.
It was shortly after that discussion that he announced he was moving to Missouri. Someone he knew
from High School was living there, going to a “New Age” school. Eric had talked about this school
several times over the years, and we had always talked him out of it, considering the idea unrealistic
and one of his many obsessions. This time, I was almost relieved – I wasn’t going to stop him. Maybe
he would be motivated enough to make it work. Everything we had tried to do had met with such
resistance it was doomed to fail. This time, it would be his choice, and success or failure would rest
with him. If it didn’t work, he would finally understand what skills he needed to survive in the world,
and would be more receptive to treatment.
That was before I contacted CultWatch, just to be sure this school was not on their list. They
responded that while the program was not on their list, they offered many worrisome claims. They
directed me to a chat room on another site, where current and former students were debating if this
school was a cult or not. Frankly, the discussions back and forth scared the hell out me. We called a
friend, a former Moonie, who now does cult deprogramming. After reviewing the chat room and the
school’s web site, she agreed to meet with Eric to discuss what we had found out.
That Sunday, she spent over three hours with him, sitting in our back yard. Looking out the window
at them, I found the contrast almost surreal. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the sun was shining
and there was just a hint of a cool breeze. Sitting under the weeping pepper tree, our good friend and
our son are deeply engrossed in conversation. They should have been deeply engrossed in reviewing
a book or a movie, but the content of their conversation was every parent’s worst nightmare. In the
end, Eric decided to go ahead with his plans.
So, how should we handle this now? Do we stop him from leaving altogether? We considered calling
the local police and asking them about this school, and also to alert them Eric was moving to the area
and could have another psychotic break. His father offered to drive him from California to Missouri
and check things out, but we decided against that.
We were spiraling back into our old pattern. We were trying to take care of him, make decisions and
do what we thought was best for him. And his resenting our interference.
When we calmed down, we asked a different question. Should we handle this at all? If it is a cult and
he goes there, he doesn’t stand a chance. He is incredibly naïve and would fall hard for this type of
environment. However, if it isn’t a cult, it might be the missed opportunity he so desperately wants to
make a life for himself. If we prevent him from going, he will always blame us for whatever lies
ahead and never take responsibility for himself. If he goes, we might lose him forever. This is a game
of chicken neither of us can afford to lose.