By SARAH DOOLITTLE
Four Points News
Mary and Adam are the parents of a daughter and son, both adults. Their daughter works in education and looks forward to getting married and raising a family. Their son Paul, however, suffers from mental illness, which includes delusional and erratic behavior. For Paul, who is currently not taking medications, this means he is unable to keep a job, date or enjoy a life considered “normal” by most. As best his parents can tell, Paul is currently homeless and living in his car in and around Steiner Ranch.
Paul grew up in a loving and stable home. His parents, both working professionals, raised their children in a steady faith tradition, something that became an important part of Paul’s life. Not only was he active in Future Farmers of America and Boy Scouts of America, earning his Eagle Scout, he was also a Eucharist minister and usher/hospitality minister at his church and became a 4th degree Knight of Columbus. He played sports and joined the Junior ROTC. “He’s very, very, very wholesome,” said his mom.
He was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) at age six and was prescribed an increasing number of medications, but eventually was taken off the meds when they caused an adverse reaction. By middle school he was on a total of 14, which left him feeling sluggish and sleepy. “We even said to the doctors, can we take him off of everything and just see who he is and start all over?” Mary remembered asking.
His parents also noticed that Paul, while active in many organizations, seemed always to be off to the side on his own. “After fourth grade,” his mom recalled, “he didn’t get invited to birthday parties anymore, and I think it was because… he was different in some way.”
When Paul was 17-years-old, it became apparent that he was having conversations with people who were not there, and imagining interactions that had not happened. Mary remembers coming home at 4 a.m. from a late shift and finding Paul at the kitchen table. He told her, “‘There’s Michael making fun of me.’ And I’m like, well, what are you talking about? And then I realized that these people making fun of him, even though he said it was the neighbors, was possibly something in his head.”
Paul would listen to music loudly while studying to drown out the voices. But, his mom adds, “Most times he doesn’t want to call them voices,” adding that to him they are very real.
As his illness progressed, Paul’s parents realized that he would likely need to live with them for the rest of his life. They had rules, though, as explained by Mary. “You have to be respectful and you can’t do damage to our home.” In time, though, Paul’s untreated illness made him unable to live by his parents rules. “It just became too hard to live with him, especially as we’re getting older,” said his mom. He would stay up all night and had a hard time keeping a job, although employers praised his work and work ethic.
Paul has been hospitalized and successfully medicated over the years, and he’s lived in long-term mental health treatment communities where he could live with varying independence and get treatment. He was able to successfully apply for social security disability at age 20 and continues to live off that income.
After years of being medication compliant, by age 32 Paul had gained 100 pounds (weight gain is a common side-effect of antipsychotics), became pre-diabetic and developed Parkinson’s symptoms. Frustrated and scared by his developing Parkinson’s and diabetes, he gradually took himself off his medications and has not been consistently compliant since.
And even though Paul was eventually court ordered to take his medications, when he again stopped taking them, “there’s no repercussions. There’s nothing we can do,” said Mary. The best law enforcement in Travis County is able to tell her is that, “They’ll come out and as long as he’s not in imminent danger — these are the key words, imminent danger — of hurting himself or somebody else,” then there’s nothing law enforcement will do.
Paul’s case is medically challenging. “He’s always been hard to treat,” said Mary. “I’ve had more than one psychiatrist say, I really do help people,” after being unable to help Paul or to convince him to take medication. He has what is called “anosognosia,” meaning he lacks self-awareness, especially of his own mental illness. This is a common symptom of the most severe forms of mental illness.
Although Paul’s parents have not allowed him to live with them since 2015, Paul has still recently chosen to live in and around Steiner Ranch in his vehicle. His sometimes erratic behavior has caused alarm and fear among some residents, and there are multiple social media postings on the topic.
Paul’s parents are concerned at the sheer volume of misinformation being shared about their son, as well as the attention they have received as his parents.
Neighbors on their street have complained when Paul stopped by the house and behaved erratically in the front yard. (His parents do not let him in the house as a general rule, excepting family gatherings and special occasions.) The Steiner Ranch HOA threatened to fine Mary and Adam for every day their son stayed overnight in public places in Steiner. (They informed the HOA that he is an adult and no longer lives at home.) And teens have taunted and harassed Paul, trying to provoke him. “He’s not going to go up there and hurt someone,” said Mary. “However, if you go up to him in his face and you start pushing him around, just like probably any person, he is going to react.”
Mary and Adam understand people’s concerns and hope the community can understand that their hands are tied. They wish more than anyone that the legal system could force their son into treatment. “They need to change the laws (so) that you don’t have to wait till they are in imminent danger of hurting someone or hurting themselves,” said Mary. “Help him before something bad happens.”
Their voices choked with tears, Mary and Adam both share that they most wish the community could understand about their plight and that of their son.
“Mental illnesses is worse than cancer,” Mary said. “Because you don’t get better from it in most cases. And people don’t have compassion about it. I mean, if I said my son had heart disease or my son had cancer, it’d be like, ‘Oh my God, that’s really sad. What can we do to help you?’ But people get afraid.”
As Adam explained, “People have to start to realize that six out of 10 people you meet in the street have an issue with mental illness, and that it’s time for action. It’s time to prevent things from getting worse… But unfortunately liberty seems to override mental health treatment.”
Mary, who prays for Paul every day, has this to say those who are tempted to gossip about her son. “Don’t repeat things unless you spoke to me,” noting that 90 percent of what she has read online has not been factually accurate.
In light of all the social media posts and misinformation being shared, friends of the family have stepped forward to support and defend Mary, Adam and Paul. Responding to a post on social media, one friend of the family wrote, “I agree that something needs to be done, but sadly, the situation and this man’s illness is complex as often cases of mental illness are. If this is your first time dealing with severe mental illness, please consider yourself lucky. Also, please understand that the problem gets inherently more complicated for this family now that their son is an adult. And, despite what you may have seen or heard, he does not meet the requirements to be forced into treatment or to be hospitalized.”
She goes on to post that, “My hope is that this post will enable us to come together as a community, acting in the best interest of our families while searching a solution that involves love and compassion.”
For more information about mental health and resources, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ website at www.NAMIAustin.com.
*Names have been changed to protect the family’s identity and out of fear of reprisal.