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Hidden in Plain Sight

photo of a shopping cart in a grocery store aisleI will never forget the moment three years ago in the Walmart greeting card aisle, when I clearly experienced the reassuring predictability of the Circle in what felt like the complete chaos of serious mental illness. My 21-year-old son, amid an early acute phase of his yet-undiagnosed and untreated schizophrenia, was tossing random objects in the cart that he wanted me to buy – a plastic sword set, balls of yarn, fake plants, a Buddha statue. I had taken him shopping to buy clothing and decided to find a card for my elderly father, who was nearing the date for his heart surgery.

I was taking my time with the cards, using the search as an excuse for a few minutes of stillness, calming myself after the volatility of the last half hour. It had been a week since he had knocked on my front door, wearing flip flops in the sub-zero night. I thought he was in a shelter for unhoused persons across the state and hadn’t heard from him in an agonizing month. The last call he made from a borrowed phone was angry and accusatory, and he said I would never see
him again. And then suddenly he was in the Safe Haven of our warm living room, experiencing psychosis and describing fantastical delusions of his celebrity and divinity.

Bigger and Stronger isn’t quite the same when you have a 6’2” adult child, and the Circle can’t solve mental illness. But I have found it to be a meaningful anchor to guide my responses as his parent in times of extreme turbulence. I have learned that I need to Take Charge when necessary, and that my son needs me to set boundaries, even if he isn’t happy about them.

Each time he threw something in the cart, I would gently say “no, Honey, we aren’t getting that today – please put it back.” Over and over, he would hurl curses and profanity, run away in a fury, then return after a few minutes. “I hate you! I’m leaving and never coming back! You’ll never see me again!” And yet, he kept coming back. I was his Hands, offering a steady and secure presence amidst the roller coaster of his symptoms.

The last time he came to find me that day I said, “your grandfather is having heart surgery in a few days, would you like to get a card for him?” For a second the curtain of psychosis slipped, and my son was well enough for that to register. “What? Grandpa is having surgery?” A brief flash of recognition and presence, and then it was gone. But that moment had shifted something in his brain, and he calmed a bit for a few minutes. We bought a sweatshirt and the Buddha statue and left the store.

The day of my father’s open-heart surgery, while I waited all day with family, my son was a few floors down, involuntarily held in the psychiatric unit of the same hospital– the first of at least 15 such stays so far.

The last few years have been incredibly challenging. There have been blessed months of stability and the right medication, more days of volatility and navigating the mental health system. On the bad days, my son’s thought disorder targets me with vitriol and what I have come to decipher as bids for connection and “Protect Me” moments. No matter how angry he is with me for calling the treatment and crisis teams or the police, when necessary, he still comes in on the
bottom of the Circle, again and again, to his Safe Haven.

Having access to the Circle of Security guides me, even in a Walmart on a tough day with a young adult living with a little-understood brain disorder. Sometimes it’s hard to see past the disorder. But as COS likes to remind us, even when it’s hard to see, “The Circle is always there, hidden in plain sight.”

Hearing each other’s stories helps us connect with caregivers all around the world; and it also offers opportunities to reflect more on the Circle of Security that is present in all our lives. Please consider sharing your own story for our blog page. Click here to submit your story.