My son was first diagnosed with a debilitating form of bipolar disorder when he was 19. His diagnosis was changed eight years later to schizophrenia and he died at the age of 27 and a half.
Alan began to exhibit signs of obsessive behavior in junior high school. In high school, though he was in all honors classes in a very advanced private school, had trouble completing his assignments on time and being ready to go anywhere on time. The car pool was always waiting for him!
But it was when he was a sophomore at Yeshiva University that things took a dark turn. Alan began to sleep all day, not go to classes, and he even stopped eating. We received calls from his friends in the dorm telling us that something was very wrong with him. We took him out of school for a long Thanksgiving recess break and had an evaluation done by the Chief of Psychiatry at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, NJ. It was there Alan was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The doctor advised us to take Alan out of school with a leave of absence, and have him begin therapy immediately. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there were no medications that existed that could help him in the long-term. There is still much work to be done in terms of research breakthroughs and medications. It was only after Alan’s death that I learned how low a priority fund-raising is for mental illness – it is the “step child” of all fund-raising endeavors, even at the Congressional level.
So I decided to organize my own annual fundraiser, A Walk for a Cure, back in May 2001, and looked around for an organization to donate funds to. A good friend of mine, Janet Reckenbeil, gave me a NY Times clipping of a wonderful article that talked about the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (then called NARSAD), and the rest is history.
The psychiatrist wanted to put Alan on medication ─ Alan fought it for a long while, but finally agreed. We quickly learned that until the right combination was found, each medication could exacerbate the symptoms it was meant to alleviate. We finally found an effective combination with lithium as the catalyst.
Alan, celebrating college graduation with mom and friends
Lithium enabled Alan to return to college, read and focus again, and ultimately graduate, going on to get a great job. Unfortunately, this medication began to attack his kidneys and he had to be taken off of it. His doctor was never able to find an adequate substitute.
Because people often mask the signs of mental illness, some of my friends thought Alan was faking it and that I was spoiling him, and even refused to accept his diagnosis. It wasn’t until Alan died that those around him accepted the truth.
One devastating night in 2000, the police department called and gave us the news every parent dreads: that our son had been in a terrible accident, and to come to the police department as soon as possible. On the ride to the police department, I kept asking why we weren’t going to the hospital, but I soon learned why. My beautiful private school-educated son had jumped to his death from the roof of his apartment building. He was just 27 and a half years old.
Once I returned to work after a period of mourning, my colleagues greeted me and told me that they were going to help me heal ─ and they did! Part of my healing process after Alan died was to take their suggestion to write a book. The solitary, healing exercise brought back happy memories of raising Alan, which had been eclipsed by all the years of his illness. I wrote the dedication “in loving memory to my son Alan who always wanted to do the right thing and have all of those whom he knew and loved do the right thing as well.”
People still view mental illness as something that only the homeless or criminals have. The only way to change this is to share stories of people like my son, and to let others know that mental illness can strike anyone – your mother, your sister, your best friend, your son. That’s why I want to keep fighting and tell others to keep fighting mental illness, and keep raising money for the wonderful research that is funded by NARSAD Grants.
by Toby Serrouya
Paralegal, Mother, Donor – Brain & Behavior Research Foundation