At Seventeen

AT SEVENTEEN

So this is what happened exactly 11 years ago, when Rob was 17…

I was on my way to work when I got a text from Rob saying that he was in some kind of a fight with two girlfriends, and how both of them totally hated him. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so didn’t.

The first phone call from Caryn came as soon as I walked into my office. She said that Rob was freaking out and wanted her to drive him to school so he could talk to the two girls. When she refused—Rob was in no condition to go anywhere, not to mention he’d recently been expelled—he began to scream and curse at her, blasting loud music and slamming doors. The next time Caryn called me, a few minutes later, I told her I was coming home.

Meanwhile, Rob began wildly searching the house, looking for Caryn’s handbag so he could take her car keys and drive himself to school (even though his license was suspended). When she tried to stop him, he picked up a small serrated knife and threw it at a cabinet, shattering glass all over the kitchen floor. That’s when Caryn called 911.

When Rob saw the cops at the front door, he bolted out the back and then called me, screaming and crying how he didn’t want to go back to jail. He’d been arrested and charged with aggravated harassment for threatening one of his ex-girlfriends just a few weeks earlier. I told him to take a deep breath, turn around and go home and that if he did, the cops would treat this as a psychiatric incident and take him to the hospital instead of arresting him. And that’s how it played out.

After a torturous hour on the train, I met Caryn at the emergency room. Then she went home to decompress while I sat with Rob, waiting for him to be admitted. He was perfectly calm and we started goofing on the drunk and crazy people the cops were bringing in. We sat there for almost four hours before they finally found a bed for Rob in the adolescent psych ward. We hugged and kissed and then some orderly took him upstairs.

*

The next morning, we went back to the hospital to talk with Rob’s doctors and social worker. We were escorted into a day room and on the walls were these weird murals of Rugrats and Winnie the Pooh characters. Whoever painted them was just a little off in the composition and scale departments, like most of the kids in this place.

The first doctor walked in and introduced himself, but I didn’t catch his name because it was long and African-sounding. He shook my hand with two fingers, mispronounced Rob’s name and then proceeded to ask us the routine questions every psychiatrist and psychologist had ever asked us about Rob. Caryn and I responded robotically until we were joined by the social worker.

After that, we directed our conversation toward her, which was a good idea because she proved to be a more attentive listener. Then another woman came into the room and it turned out that she was the head psychiatrist for the unit. She told us that she wanted to put Rob on three or four different medications for bipolar disorder, and in the moment, what she was saying made perfect sense to us.

On the way home, I began to change my mind. I started thinking about the last time Rob was in this hospital, several months earlier, and how they kept him there for 11 days and pumped him full of drugs and how he stopped taking them as soon as he came home. I didn’t want to go through that again.

Friends of ours who had been down this road had suggested that we yank Rob out of the county snake pit and place him in a private hospital to be properly and comprehensively diagnosed. And after an hour or so of weighing the pros and cons, we did just that. I called the private hospital to see if they had an open bed (they did), and then I called the social worker we had just met and arranged a transfer.

Then we turned around and drove back to the crappy hospital. Not surprisingly, Rob flipped out because he had no idea why he was being moved and, as much as he hated the place, had already figured out how to game the system. But when I told him that they wanted to keep him there for at least two weeks and pump him full of drugs again and how he could wear his own clothes and be outside in the other place and how I thought this was the right thing to do because I fuckin’ love him to death and only wanted to see him get well, he relented. He even almost smiled when he saw that I brought him his baseball cap and black leather jacket.

I was allowed to ride along with him in an ambulance to the new hospital and when they wheeled him out on a stretcher because of insurance-related idiocy, I started to make annoying Hannibal Lecter jokes—“Hey, they forgot your mask!” Caryn drove up ahead by herself.

It was dark and much colder when we arrived. The three of us had to speak with yet another psychiatrist, who I immediately liked because he looked like an old freak with hair down to the middle of his back. I could tell he was no-bullshit because he said things to Rob like, “You just need a little something to smooth you out.” I could tell that Rob liked him too. We then had to talk to another psychologist, who was fat and distracted and all-bullshit, and we yessed him nonstop because we were exhausted.

Right before we split, I kissed Rob goodnight and told him that everything would be better tomorrow.

*

A few days later, I went to see Rob by myself. I brought along some Burger King and other crap like Kit-Kats, Reese’s Pieces and Swedish Fish. Just your average visiting day at Camp Mood Disorder.

Actually, he was in this unit called The Lodge and it was really more of a dorm setting except that everyone there was majoring in anger or depression. Rob, I’m proud to say, was carrying a double major.

When he came down from his room, he looked tired and cranky and I don’t know why this made me so sad, but it did. He hadn’t even been there a week, so I don’t know what I was expecting.

We sat down to eat and I began to ask him questions, really just to keep the conversation flowing. He answered with single syllables (“yes,” “no,” “meh”) until we started to talk about what would happen after he was discharged. I explained that we couldn’t continue to live the way we had been living.

He didn’t really see a problem in the way we had been living, which, of course, was our biggest problem. I brought up the fact that he was getting high all the time, and he said that he was going to continue to party because that’s who he is. Then I brought up his female troubles and he said that I couldn’t tell him who he can or can’t go out with. I kept at it, asking about some money that went missing and he said that he didn’t know anything about it. A few seconds later, I saw his face change right before he angrily stood up from the table and walked away.

I just sat there, knowing he’d return, and in about 15 minutes, he did. We sat in silence, watching some androgynous kid play Connect Four with his (or her) folks. And then I gently repeated that, with the help of the right meds and therapy, he needed to change his attitude if he wanted to come back and live with us, and that maybe we needed to change a little, too. He nodded and said that he didn’t want to fight anymore and I said that I didn’t come there to fight and we were both crying as we hugged each other tight. Then he looked at me and said, “I’m glad we had this talk.”

*

While Caryn and I were visiting him a few days later, Rob kept busy by drawing a picture. Like all of a sudden he’s fuckin’ Van Gogh. Or back in kindergarten. I noticed that none of his colored pencils had erasers on them and he explained that some kids would rub the eraser on their arms and legs until it burned their skin.

We then started talking about how things needed to change when he came home in a few days, and he sat there quietly coloring in small circles, which he then strung together into something that resembled a rainbow of candy necklaces. As we continued to draw our own lines (stay on meds, go to school, stop smoking weed), he did the same.

Keeping his head down as he sketched large clouds over the rainbow, Rob said that he wasn’t going to stop smoking, and then he drew a sun with a sad face on it and said that he didn’t care if he went to jail. As a finishing touch, he picked up a black pencil and wrote FUCK LIFE under the rainbow, folded up the paper and told us to go home and put it on the refrigerator. Two hours later, he called me to apologize.

*

A few days later, I picked up Rob and drove him home. He and Zach were elated to see each other, and for me there was no better sound in the world than when they were laughing together. After a few minutes, Rob came downstairs, gave me a kiss and said that one of his friends was coming by to pick him up. I then went out to run a few errands. A few minutes later, the phone calls started.

I immediately heard the agitation in Rob’s voice. He said something about how Caryn had run into one of his girlfriends and told her that they shouldn’t see each other anymore, and how that girl went and told his other girlfriend some shit, and now both girls weren’t talking to him again. And then he said that he wasn’t going to follow any of the rules that he had just agreed to follow when we did the exit interview at the hospital two hours earlier.

I called Caryn at work, and she told me that she hadn’t said what Rob thought she had said. Then I called Rob back and he became angry at me for taking Caryn’s side. He announced that he wasn’t coming home, wasn’t going to take his meds and was going to get high.

I explained that if he chose to throw everything away, he was going to suffer severe consequences this time around, and we went back and forth until I suggested that maybe one of the girls had told the other girl some shit because she was trying to get him all for herself, and that maybe he should trust and believe us more than his girlfriends. Click. Dial tone.

For the rest of the night, Caryn and I zombie-stared at whatever was on TV until we eventually fell asleep. Around 11:30, I heard the front door open and both kids came into the house and went up to their rooms. A few minutes later, Rob sent me the following text:

I want to apologize. I fucked up on the first day. Mom really pissed me off by talking to my girlfriend and I took it out on you. N e thing you want me to do for you, tell me. Like they said in the hospital, I gotta give back. N I’m on a stronger dose of meds tonight. My girlfriend’s still not talking to me but ur right. Everything can be fixed. I didn’t see it b4. 

I went into his room and he said that he had just taken his meds, which knock him out pretty quickly. I asked him if he had gotten high earlier and he said that he hadn’t. He apologized again and I cut him off. I don’t remember what I said after that.

*

I don’t remember a lot of things about what happened after that. It’s all kind of hazy and unreal—like a long bong hit—except for when the really serious shit went down with Rob. Try as I might, that stuff is impossible to forget.

3 thoughts on “At Seventeen

  1. If nothing else, the two of you are the strongest people I know. You must give yourselves that. I can’t think of a soul on earth that could have done one more thing to save Robbie. Some of us are just not strong enough to live in this very difficult world.

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  2. I know the knife throwing story from Caryn. It was the first time I was over and I asked her what happened to the glass in the cabinet, without even thinking she said “my son rob threw a knife at me and missed, do u want something to drink” I didn’t even flinch and said “do u have Diet Pepsi” and she said sure. We both knew from that moment on we’d be friends forever. It wasn’t easy then and it’s certainly not easy now. But here we are ❤️

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