HOUSTON — The mother drives her son everywhere because he is not well enough to drive. He sits next to her, and at the red lights she looks over and studies him: how quiet he is, how stiffly he sits, hands in his lap, fingers fidgeting slightly, a tic that occasionally blooms into a full fluttering motion he makes with his hand, as if clearing invisible webs from his face. He is 19 years old, 6 feet tall, 250 pounds. His eyes are more steady than bright at this particular moment; his mouth is not set in a smile or a frown but some line in between.
“How’re you doing, sweetie?” Naomi Haskell asks.
“Fine,” Spencer says.
It has been 10 years since he began thinking his classmates were whispering about him, four years since he started feeling angry all the time, and two years since he first told a doctor he was hearing imaginary voices. It has been 20 months since he was told he had a form of schizophrenia, and 15 months since he swallowed three bottles of Benadryl and laid down to die, after which he had gotten better, and worse and, for a while, better again, or so Naomi had thought until an hour ago, when they were in the therapist’s office and Spencer said that his head was feeling “cloudy.”
“Wait —” she said, interrupting. “You described it as a cloudy feeling?”
Cloudy was the big, flying red flag that she had learned to dread. It might simply be a side effect of one of his five medications. But it could also be the quiet beginning of her firstborn son falling apart again, of hallucinations, or a dive into depression, or some other dimension of his illness that Naomi has yet to fathom.
“Yeah,” Spencer said. “Cloudy. It feels like these winds are blowing inside my head.”
A light turns red, and she glances over again.
“You’re feeling okay, baby?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he says, staring straight ahead.
This is what it is like to be the mother of a son with a severe mental illness — an hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute vigil. At a time of increasing public concern about the role mental illness might have played in mass shootings in places like Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., Naomi’s worry on a Tuesday in Texas is different. It’s about keeping her son well.
“Dear Friends and Family . . .” she had written last year, explaining her son’s illness and his suicide attempt. “I don’t believe I have fully processed the horror of my child suffering a level of torment so deep that it caused him to want to end his life. I’m afraid of what will happen to me if I think about it too much.”
So what Naomi is thinking about now is helping Spencer make it until Friday, when he has another therapy appointment, and when the effect of a new medication he has just started taking might become clear.
They are driving across suburban Houston, a landscape of gray four-lanes, brick strip malls and beige office parks that Naomi knows as the place where the therapist’s office is, or the doctor’s, or the drugstore, or the ramp to the highway that goes to the psychiatric hospital.
She asks Spencer if he wants to go with her to the drug store and then the community college library where he likes to study when he feels able.
There is a pause before he answers, a dash whose length Naomi measures as a sign of how lost he is in his own world at any moment — one, two, three seconds. She looks over if he doesn’t answer at all.
“Okay,” Spencer says. “I need to get my backpack.”
They drive to the apartment where he moved in January, when Naomi had thought Spencer was stable enough to leave the home where he had been living with her, his step-father and his younger brother. He had made it through the busy Christmas season working as a cashier, handling his symptoms with promising self-assurance, telling a customer who wondered who he was talking to not to worry, he just had a thought disorder.
Naomi knew that he wanted to get back to everything he had been doing his senior year in high school, when he was first told he had early-stage schizophrenia, a diagnosis later refined to schizoaffective disorder, bipolar subtype with obsessive-compulsive elements. He wanted to study math, go to college, go out with girls. He wanted independence, and Naomi thought the apartment would be a step toward that.
Then the first week he was there he got the cloudy feeling. He said that his brain felt like it was “under a hair dryer.” He told Naomi he felt “unsafe.” He checked himself into a psychiatric hospital.
When he was released 11 days later, he insisted on returning to the apartment rather than home, because he wanted to keep moving forward. Naomi’s 70-year-old mother moved in with him, setting up a single bed in the living room in front of a balcony three stories high and over a sidewalk, a drop that Naomi tries not to think about.
She parks the car. She watches her son trudge up the three flights of open-air stairs, a slow, lumbering figure in jeans and a sweatshirt.