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San Carlos family deals with adult schizophrenic son

A chronicle of illness, fear, and frustration

Illustration by Tom Voss

Illustration by Tom Voss

November 5, 1984

I returned home around 6 o’clock to find Billy in yard shouting obscenities loud & clear. Neighbors came over to say that police had been called — that Billy was breaking things, pounding on anything he could. Bill, Sr. came home before police came & Billy & Bill pushed one another — Billy wanted money — called me a motherfucker — Bill had blood on his shirt from altercation. Police arrived & found Billy (don’t know where) but they had him in police car. Billy had broken 2 windows in my front door. Glass all over entrance hall. Blood all over family room & kitchen. Talked to Dr. and he had him sent to CMH. He was transferred to hospital on Tuesday. On Wed. Bill and I are to have conference with Social Worker.

And so began the latest frustrating episode in the Clark family’s ongoing ordeal with son Billy, a thirty-seven-year-old schizophrenic. His mother Bea, who has kept a running diary of Billy’s travails, saw the bloody event of November 5 as a blessing, really. For much of last summer Billy had been living in the side yard of the Clarks’ home beneath an old camper shell. But since late July, when her son had so frightened her that she acquired a restraining order to keep him away from her house in the San Carlos area, Bea had been waiting for some outburst that would cause Billy to be picked up and ordered into a hospital for treatment. She was both afraid of him and concerned for him, and was convinced that the best v ay to proceed was to have him committed. And in October she had finally succeeded in qualifying her son for Medicare, so all that remained was for him to violate the restraining order. Or so she thought.

But four days after Billy was picked up, on November 9, Bea’s hopes were once again dashed, as they have been regularly for six years now. She got a call that Friday evening from a social worker at the hospital, informing her that the hearing to decide if Billy could be held against his will for two weeks had not gone the family’s way. It was determined that Billy did not meet any of the three criteria required to hold him — being a danger to himself, a danger to others, or gravely disabled. At the hearing, Billy told the commissioner that he would voluntarily enter the hospital for treatment, a decision that more or less automatically terminated the hearing. The restraining order, the violent rantings, his naked tirades through the quiet residential streets of his parents’ neighborhood, none of that meant anything once he volunteered to go into the hospital — which he could leave any time he cared to. Bea, her daughter Janis, and another son, Paul, were devastated. “He met all three of the criteria, plus he'd violated the restraining order,” says Bea, still incredulous. “We thought the hearing was just a formality.” Bea cried for days. Janis and Paul became outraged.

The mental health system, in its zeal to protect individual civil rights, works in strange and often obscure ways. Actually, the issue of the restraining order was probably never brought up at the hearing. Billy was taken before a superior court commissioner, not a judge, who was to decide whether there was probable cause to hold him against his will. In such a hearing, matters relating to possible criminal violations are not considered germane to the question at hand, so it’s unlikely that the commissioner ever heard that Billy had violated a restraining order. Bea has been unable to discover whether testimony was given concerning Billy’s violent and threatening behavior toward his parents, or his history of escalating rage. As an adult, Billy’s privacy rights supersede even his parents’ rights to information about his case. Since in her mind there was no question Billy would be ordered into the hospital, Bea didn’t attend the hearing; the hospital social worker who was there is legally prevented from even telling her the name of the court commissioner who heard the case.

When Billy left the hospital three weeks later, his father picked him up, gave him his sleeping bag, and told him he couldn’t live at home. But it was raining and cold that day in late November, and Billy’s Social Security disability checks were mired in a bureaucratic snag in Sacramento, so against her better judgment, Bea relented. “It wasn’t his fault he was out there with no money, and nowhere to go,” Bea says, the strain of her divided feelings evident in her quavering voice. Even though both parents are frightened of Billy, to the extent that they sometimes booby trap their bedroom door at night when he's around, Bill, Sr. went out in the dusk and found his son and brought him home.

It was that kind of year for the Clarks, one of high hopes and crashing realizations, and fear of their own kin. Though they asked that their identities be changed for this story, no other details concerning the family’s struggle with schizophrenia have been altered. Billy is the oldest of four children, who range in age from thirty-seven down to twenty-seven. All were educated in Catholic schools in Riverside and San Diego, and Bea says that Billy was always her smartest child. It wasn’t until he was about thirty, and his wife suddenly left him, that he began showing signs of mental illness. The Clarks (excluding Bill, Sr. and Billy) wanted to tell their story for reasons both clear and clouded. Certainly they’re afraid of what Billy is capable of, and hope that any action on their part, even just talking about the problem in public, might somehow bring about a return to security. The names Huberty and Hinckley come up often in their conversations about Billy. Their utter frustration with “the system” also prompted them to talk, though they don't hold naive notions about somehow improving the mental health care morass. Ultimately, they spoke out because they thought the details of their personal hell might somehow help others in similar, untenable situations.

Week of February 12, 1984

On Monday Feb. 13th a.m. I was called by the SD Police asking whereabouts of son Billy. They reported to me that his car was found vandalized and was at the Dana boat area parking lot. No signs of Billy. I went down to see the car as soon as possible— did not find Billy. His car was a total wreck. Nothing in car was intact, i.e., all windows broken, seat covers slashed, glove compartment broken, shift broken off.

A young man walked over to talk to me. Pete was his name. He had talked to Billy and said it was he (Billy) who wrecked the car. Pete said the police and Harbor Patrol had picked Billy up that night & took him to CMH. The following a.m. he was released and back out at the car.

On Tues. a.m. I went out to see the car again & to see if Billy was around. Car still there but no Billy. When I returned home on Tues. around 4:30 Billy was in the house. He was dirty, tired, no possessions except a blanket. We got him to bathe & eat & I washed all his clothes (pants, tee-shirt w/hood & a velour shirt). Nothing else. He stayed and is still there on Sat. a.m.

Wed. a.m. Paul notified his conservator & she made arrangements to see Billy on Thurs. at 10 a.m. Wed. evening he went down to his car & did clean up some of the glass (I think). He also went to some stores and spent approx. $40.00 on brushes, leg hair shaver, body creams (rose milk), combs.

Did not hear from conservator at all after that. Fri. a.m. son Paul called her & she said that Billy was quite rational, looked good, talked well, & was dressed nicely.

That was probably the last time the conservator saw Billy.The conservator is appointed by a judge as a kind of trustee to handle a mentally ill person’s financial, medical, and psychological affairs. (A person on a conservatorship must meet with the conservator on a regularly scheduled basis, at which time his lucidity and well-being are evaluated. He may be prohibited from signing contracts, driving a car, and even voting, depending on the individual case.) Each year the “conservatee” must be reevaluated by a doctor to determine whether to continue the conservatorship, but in Billy’s case, once he’d taken a hammer to his car, he disappeared and couldn’t be located for the psychological evaluation, so the conservatorship lapsed in May. He’d been living in the ’76 Chevy Monza for the previous few months, a living situation that, given his status as a conservatee, left the Clarks believing that the conservatorship was a farce. Bea especially came to see it as an empty approach to helping Billy, given the intense mortification she’d had to endure while testifying in court against her son in order to get him on the conservatorship in the first place. But if the conservatorship failed in keeping Billy on his antidepressant medications and in stable living situations, part of the reason, according to his brother Paul, was because his conservator was a woman.

“We noticed back about 1978 that he’d developed an intense dislike of women,” explains thirty-five-year-old Paul. “During his first stay on the psych ward in the VA Hospital he heard a lot of guys blaming women for their problems. He said to me once that women were the cause of the all the world’s problems. Plus, he’d witnessed his own women troubles when his wife just up and left him.”

This was back in 1978, and it marked the beginning of the Clark family’s disaster. Billy had met his future wife while visiting brother Paul in Lakeside. Anne. a neighbor of Paul’s, was about ten years younger than Billy. He was working on the production line at a local aerospace firm at the time, making decent money, and after he and Anne were married she went to work for low wages at a local factory. Paul says that Billy’s dream of buying a house became an obsession, and soon every bit of money they made was put into the bank. “He thinks that money is everything, that the world revolves around money,” says Paul. The family had always known that Billy was tightfisted, but they noticed that his parsimony went to extremes after he was married. Anne’s mother had to buy her daughter shoes because Billy refused to spend the money. Anne soon .became pregnant, and she worked almost until the day she gave birth to a girl. Though his parents didn’t know it then, Billy was beginning to get destructive during his marriage. “When his wife was pregnant, Billy was making her a nice sewing cabinet,” explains Billy’s sister Janis. “Anne told me this after they split up.They had a fight one day, and Billy went out and chopped the sewing cabinet into little pieces.”

Before Billy’s daughter was a year old, Anne took her and walked out. It was a complete surprise to everyone, especially Billy. His mother recalls, “I was there one Thursday visiting my granddaughter, and everything seemed fine, but Friday she was gone.” In the divorce settlement, Billy was ordered to pay child support (which was later rescinded when he became a conservatee), and Anne was awarded half of all community property. They split a total bank account of about $15,000, but Billy kept his part ownership (with his father) of several choice acres of avocado land near Valley Center. Since the breakup, Bea has seen her granddaughter sporadically, and Billy has seen the child even less. No one has really explained his diagnosed mental illness to Billy’s ex-wife; Janis says her mother is afraid that if Anne knew how bad off he was, the grandmother would never ^gain see her granddaughter.

Immediately after the breakup, Billy made himself an outsider to his family. He got an apartment in El Cajon, but the usual family gatherings for barbecues, birthdays, and holidays were increasingly conducted without him. Within a few weeks, the family began to sense that something wasn’t right with Billy, his justifiable grief notwithstanding. “He just wasn’t dealing with the situation the way a normal person would,” says his brother Paul, who was a counselor on the psychiatric ward at the VA Hospital at the time. Both Billy and Paul had spent a hitch in the army in the late Sixties, Billy, despite his talent for electronics, as a cook, Paul as a medic. Paul became increasingly concerned for his brother, who seemed to wallow constantly in the muck of his broken marriage. Eventually Billy lost his job, and Paul began confronting his brother with his poor attitude. At their parents’ house one afternoon they came to blows, and Paul put his older brother on the ground and pinned him. Ever since Billy broke free, there’s been bad blood between the brothers.

Soon after the fight, Paul’s father told him that Billy was deteriorating quickly. Bill, Sr. had been getting calls from Billy's landlady, informing him that something was wrong with his son. In October of 1978 Bill and Paul drove out to the apartment to see Billy one day, and the sight of his apartment “hit me like a hammer,” says Paul. There were holes in the walls, the furniture was slashed, the windows were broken, and everything electrical — light switches, wall sockets, radios, appliances — was dismantled. Paul understood the implications much more clearly than his father did. “It was totally new to him,” says Paul of his father. “He didn't know how to understand it, and still doesn't. He still hasn’t accepted Billy’s illness.”

The landlady told them that Billy wasn’t sleeping in the apartment anymore, that he was sleeping outside under a neighbor's window. They found out later that Billy couldn’t sleep in the apartment because he said he kept hearing electrical buzzing noises, which was to become a recurring problem. The doctors on the psychiatric ward at the VA Hospital told Paul to bring his brother in immediately, but it took three trips out to the apartment before Paul and his younger brother, along with their father and their sister’s husband, could locate Billy. “Once I saw him, I knew,” says Paul, sadly. “His look was completely different. His expression was changed, his hair was long and dirty. It was obvious he was having mental problems.” Billy was angry that the four men had come, and he resisted their efforts to take him to the hospital. He swung at them and tried to resist, but once he was overpowered he assented to going with them. During the struggle and on the way to the hospital, Paul felt as if his insides were being torn out, a sensation that has become communal within the family.

Billy stayed in the hospital for three weeks in November of 1978 and was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. He was put on antidepressant drugs, started eating good meals, and quickly became more organized. His father helped get him a job at the same aerospace firm where Bill, Sr. is employed, but Billy only worked there a few months. He’d stopped taking his medicine and refused treatment as an outpatient. Paul says that his brother did well at the job initially, but that he was forced to work closely with women, and eventually he couldn't take it. He was laid off, and soon he destroyed another apartment and ultimately ended up back in the hospital, a cycle that has continued for five years.

June 23, 1984

On Wed. June 20, Bill & I returned home to find our back door frame shattered again. Billy had done this several weeks ago but it was not as bad & was repairable. This time the door frame will have to be replaced. He also took a bath & cut himself, I do not know where, but there was much blood on the towel.

On Thursday, June 21, we were awakened by loud shouting outside our bedroom windows (Billy had started sleeping outside our house the end of April). He completely tore apart a screen on our camper, smashed his radio, and took a big tree branch (approx. 8 inches in dia.) and broke it off. He left but as I was going to work I saw him on the street. He was very angry. I went shopping. I went back home but did not enter — I was afraid he was there. I went to friend’s house & called police. They went back to the house with me but he was not there. If he had been, I would have signed him into CMH.

Fifty-nine-year-old Bea is a successful retailer with a small shop in Hillcrest. Sometimes she feels as if the only time she isn’t in turmoil is when she’s at work. Since Billy got sick she’s seen her family, including her marriage of thirty-nine years, buffeted like a flag in a gale. Always the more assertive parent, she has had to stand before her whole family and absorb Billy’s verbal abuse and physical threats while her husband has done nothing to defend her. For lack of his father’s leadership, Paul has had to assume the role of family guardian more often than not. “There are times when I really dislike my father for that,’’ says sister Janis. “Not having the support of my dad is really a problem, and it’s been hard on their marriage. Mom’s told me that this whole thing really opened her eyes to their relationship. She was the one who actually had to take the stand and testify against Billy. I think she feels real lonely.”

The whole family has reexamined Billy’s upbringing, in an effort to find some clue or reason for his sudden mental illness. Every one agrees that Bea was always the disciplinarian, the more dominant of the two parents, but Bill, Sr. was always there when the children needed him. Looking back, Bea has done a lot of second-guessing about the way she raised Billy, but the children say they were raised the same way, and it was a happy, supportive atmosphere. They do agree that Billy was a loner, though he did have some close friends, and girlfriends. Paul says that his brother was always good in art and electronics, that he was a perfectionist who had the capacity to become completely absorbed in whatever project he was working on. “He was always an intellectualizer, and later he became a rationalizer,’’ explains Paul. “He won’t take responsibility. His problems are always somebody else’s fault.” Janis is the only family member who remembers Billy as capable of violence. “He always had a bad temper,” she says. “He would get enraged if things weren’t working out his way. He and I never got along.” But in all the reassessing, they haven’t been able to come up with a clue as to one of Billy’s strangest adult traits: his cross-dressing.

Once Billy’s illness cycle began, his mother noticed that he started wearing effeminate clothing — sheer shirts, slinky fabrics. Then, during the periods when he was living at home, Bea began to discover her own clothing in his bedroom, although she hasn’t yet seen him dressed in it. He took to shaving the hair off his arms (and presumably his legs), and became partial to skin creams. One Christmas two years ago the family was to gather for dinner at Janis’s house, but when his father arrived at his apartment to pick up Billy, Bill, Sr. found his son wearing feminine clothing and facial makeup. Bill told him to wash his face, but Billy refused. The family had dinner without Billy, but his parents brought him food and presents afterward. Bea thinks her son is a transvestite. “I’m enough of a realist to realize this is the way he is,” she sighs. “I feel bad, I feel unhappy, but it’s not going to make my world fall apart.”

Paul has done some armchair psychologizing on this point. He thinks Billy’s cross-dressing is attributable to a psychological mechanism in which a sick person takes on the characteristics of the person or people he despises. “I’d prefer to think it’s that, rather than some latent sexual confusion,” he says. It’s not a subject he dwells upon.

July 22, 1984

On July 22 (Sun.), 1984, Bill, Sr., Paul & younger son John took Billy to VA Hospital. They sent him to care place in El Cajon. On Tues., July 14,1 found Billy asleep outside our house. He had left El Cajon at 4:30 Tues. a.m.

Tues. afternoon I engaged a lawyer & got a restraining order for Billy. It was served on Thursday morning.

Back to Tues. — John called Tues. even. & found out that Billy did not stay in El Cajon. He was upset. He came out, parked his car 1/2 block away & walked to house. Found Billy outside starting a fire in a purse. John could see the danger of a Fire (leaves, branches, & wood stacked outside our house) & tried to put Fire out. Had words with Billy. Came in and was shaking. We went outside & found Fire still smoldering. Had many more words with Billy. That night he scratched the paint on my Capri very bad. (All across the trunk & the driver’s side — so bad that we took the Capri out to my daughter’s home.)

September 30, 1984

On Sunday, Sept. 30, I arrived home to Find 2 police cars at the house. The neighbors had called because Billy was trying to burn some clothes. Earlier that day the police had been called because Billy was breaking up a chest of drawers that was on the side of our house. He also broke a window, destroyed a shade, threw several jars of assorted creams (Porselona) at the side of the house. All of his possessions were smashed, broken & thrown about. This was the first time the neighbors have called and neighbor across the street was very shook up. She had seen the ladies pants, shoes, hair clips, etc., & was concerned he was getting violent with a female. Billy had left and I went ahead and filed a police vandalism report...

The Clarks have removed a shotgun from their home and given it to son Paul for safekeeping. As the Christmas holidays approached and the weather turned bad, Bea couldn’t bring herself to force Billy out of her home. But the stereo she wanted to buy as a present for her husband had to be put on hold. Billy has destroyed three stereos. Over the holidays, Billy was picked up and booked for misdemeanor vandalism involving one of his wrecked apartments, and his father paid the S150 bail; Billy has been placed on three years’ probation. “He sits and chain-smokes all day, and talks about getting an apartment with a friend he met at the hospital,” Bea says, her eyes brimming with tears. “His father thinks he’s doing well. that things are going to be okay now. But I’ve seen this all before.” Bea has also heard it all before, in the meetings she attends with the group known as San Diego Alliance for the Mentally 111 (formerly Parents of Adult Schizophrenics). Still, the remote possibility that Billy will get better as suddenly as he got sick is a real one to the Clarks, and his recent relative stability is encouraging. But they’ve learned to distrust encouragement, for it has misled them in the past.

Bea has been careful not to let her family problems consume her. As she tries to maintain ties with her granddaughter, as well as her own daughter, who has more or less withdrawn from the situation, she continues to try to get help for a son who seems capable of showering a furious hate on his mother. Her daughter Janis admits sadness for having withdrawn, “but it was like this mad circle that I had to get off. You get involved and try to help, and then you have the system just shooting you down. Bea’s son Paul, who stayed with his parents for a time over the summer in order to protect them from his brother, feels obligated to help. “Before this year [1984], the violence was indirect,” Paul says. “This year, for the first time, we witnessed it, we experienced it.... We’re getting closer, and Billy is getting closer, to a breaking point. Either he’ll be institutionalized, or this will be a pattern that we’ll just have to live with. And there’s always that hope that he’ll get better, but that’s being pushed farther and farther back. But I’m more fearful of my parents’ physical and mental health than I am about Billy’s. They have to realize that he’s writing his own book, and we can’t change it much.” Paul and his parents recognize that Billy needs intensive therapy, but so far that’s been impossible because of his periodic denial of his illness. To this day the family doesn't know if any counselor has sat Billy down and explained to him that he’s seriously sick. “Every time we’ve pushed him in the direction of long-term psychotherapy, he leaves,” Paul explains. “It’s very difficult to force that on someone who doesn’t want it.”

For herself and her family, Bea’s hopes don’t seem overly large, but given Billy’s situation, she knows how vast the distance is between those hopes and her reality. “For Billy, I just want him to understand what his problem is, that he needs to take his pills, and that he needs an unstressful job,” she says. “For me, I want to be able to sleep at night, without worrying about the house burning down. And I know I cannot live with Billy.”

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