By Fred Dickey Feb. 27, 2017
Twelve-year-old Amar Reed pulled the cord out of the kitchen blinds and wrapped it around his neck. He then sat down hard on a chair, which pulled the cord tight. His eyes bulged and his face darkened.
His mother, Amanda Donahue, was in another room trying to straighten out a sibling skirmish the boy had caused. She happened — just happened — to return to the kitchen to look with horrified eyes on her adolescent son’s attempted suicide.
She rushed over to untangle the cord, fumbling frantically with jittery fingers, racing against death or brain damage. “It’s too tight. A knife. Where’s a damned knife?”
She cut the cord just in time.
Amar is now 13 and an eighth-grader. He was saved by his mother, but what crisis might next threaten this mentally disturbed child’s life?
Amar sits next to me, preoccupied with a Japanese toy called a kendama. I think that’s part ruse, because he knows I’m talking to his mother about him. However, he says he doesn’t mind. He’s a teddy bear kind of a kid — friendly, open-faced and sort of roly-poly. The kind teachers like — when his conduct allows it.
Amanda is going public because she
wants teachers, neighbors and the parents of other kids to realize that
the struggles of Amar are real and deserving of their support.
Moreover, when they see children with obvious issues that go far beyond everyday acting up, she wants them to stop and think before bullying or judging.
Amanda is a 40-year-old licensed vocational nurse who (make that “serves”) patients with severe paralysis. She smiles widely when she says she loves her job.
I will listen to anything this woman tells me about compassion.
She is the articulate, thoughtful mother of Amar and 9-year-old twins. They and their steelworker father-husband, Mario Reed, form a middle-class family in Spring Valley.
She is also the one who lifts up and supports Amar. It’s an ongoing effort.
Another time, in fourth grade, Amar was taking a test in a quiet classroom. Amanda tells what happened:
“The teacher said Amar got up and slammed his books down on the desk and just started screaming, ‘Stop talking to me. Leave me alone.’ Amar picked up a chair and threw it across the room.”
The teacher obviously was alarmed. She took him out of the room and asked what was wrong. He told her, “This lady won’t stop calling my name.”
In the aftermath, Amanda took Amar to a psychiatrist and received a diagnosis of non-specific-form psychosis. He was put on a drug called risperidone, commonly used to treat schizophrenia and bipolarity.
It is also used for autism in children. However, Amanda says Amar has been tested for autism and shows no signs of it.
The psychiatrist sort of tiptoed around his judgment because, Amanda says, doctors are loathe to diagnose a young child with mental illness until they reach adulthood because of the stigma.
I look over at Amar. I’ve repeatedly asked if he is good with being talked about to me, a stranger. Both Amar and Amanda give me reassurance.
He is clearly relaxed and willing to talk. He has been taught at home to not be ashamed of this battle for his mind.
That openness is a tribute to his parents. They avoid hushed whispering about the boy behind closed doors, which his adolescent rabbit ears would surely pick up.
Amar, do you remember that incident in fourth grade?
He looks up from his toy preoccupation to answer. “Well, in that school year I wasn’t doing too great. We were taking a test, and I got really mad because I felt someone was talking to me, so I went ballistic.”
Are you aware that no one actually was talking to you?
“I didn’t know why the woman was talking to me.”
Was she friendly?
“She just kept saying my name.”
Was it the voice of anyone you knew?
“Sometimes it sounded like my mom, or like one of my classmates. … I threw a chair across the room.”
Why did you do that?
“Because I heard voices.”
That circular answer is Amar drawing a blank. How is a child supposed to know?
Can you imagine being a kid in junior high with other children aware of your aberrant behavior? At that age, insecure bullies survey the playground for weakness like big cats padding along the veldt.
Fourth grade was about the time the bullying and teasing started. (Actually, that’s redundant: teasing is bullying.) Kids whom Amar hoped to make friends with would turn on him, taunting: weirdo, crazy, psycho. Children of that age can be artful in nastiness.
Amanda says teachers and counselors came to his assistance. “They were fantastic,” she says, but they couldn’t be everywhere.
The bullying continued into the seventh grade until Amar couldn’t take it any more. He would scratch his face, tearing his skin until blood ran. He even gouged his eye with a pencil.
Last October, in his home, he took a fold-up metal chair and put it over his head to where his neck rested on a steel bar. Amar lifted the chair and slammed it down, bashing his neck into the metal. It left marks and bruises on his windpipe, necessitating a trip to the emergency room.
Amar’s parents called PERT (the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team) four times during 2016. A psychiatric professional and a police officer would respond and, if necessary, take Amar to the ESU (emergency screening unit) in Chula Vista for evaluation.
The family members had to stand by and watch their adolescent son-brother taken away in handcuffs for safety.
“In the ESU, it is decided if he is suicidal, homicidal or neither. If he is considered not, then they send him home. All he has to do is reassure them that he is none of those things.”
Amanda says this with just a whiff of bitterness, though she acknowledges that is what the law stipulates. If he would be considered a threat to himself or others, he would be placed in a psychiatric hold of 72 hours on a “fifty-one-fifty,” the legal designation.
The reality is that 72 hours is only three days, which is nothing in the treatment of mental illness.
“That’s right,” Amanda says. “There were two instances where he was held on two 5150s in one week. We were calling the PERT team every other day to come down because he was hurting himself.”
Sounds like the medication wasn’t working.
“Yes. The doctor just kept increasing the risperidone instead of trying something else. There was really not a formulary for a child. We changed doctors.
“In December, Amar had gotten very upset at the house. I don’t remember why, but he went into the backroom and broke off a piece of metal and stabbed himself.
“I called the PERT team to come and get him again. They took him away. I went down to the emergency screening unit and I said, ‘No matter what we’ve done to try to protect our son in our house, if he wants to do this, he’s going to find a way.’
“I said in desperation, ‘If you guys don’t do something with him, if you don't help him, if you let him go home tonight, I’m going to sue you.’”
“They admitted him for two weeks for psychotic behavior. That went well. He was able to do the entire two weeks in the psychiatric unit and then was released. While he was there, they put him on another medication, which has done wonders for him. It’s called Abilify. It’s an anti-psychotic drug, and it’s helped to control his outbursts.
“Now his behavior has stabilized, he’s doing very well in school and he’s got some solid friends. The medication seems to be working. He sees a therapist once a week. He sees a doctor every two weeks.”
I turn to Amar: Did you hear that, my man? Good job! Now, can I also ask you: What are your thoughts about trying to hurt yourself?
“I don’t feel too good about it,” he says, looking away, as children do.
But why did you do it?
“I don’t know. I did it out of anger.”
He feels sad about all the tantrums and the attempts at self-mutilation. He doesn’t say that it in so many words, but this is not a defiant boy. You can read the body language.
He turns back to me and says, with sort of a pleading smile: “I feel that I’m not going to hurt myself anymore. And I also feel that everything is going to be all right.”
Psychiatric Times explains childhood psychosis thusly: “A firm diagnosis may be more difficult to establish in adolescents who present with bizarre and persecutory delusions. … The diagnostic uncertainty in such cases may have to be accepted and shared with parents and/or caregivers while awaiting a clarification as the clinical picture evolves.”
That’s like your doctor saying, “I agree you have a bad cough, but let’s wait and see what happens.”
For this family, it’s a waiting game, and time crawls.
More broadly, the National Institute of Mental Health writes, “In 2015, an estimated 3 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. This number represented 12.5 percent of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17.”
Things are going well at the moment for Amanda’s family, but they live with apprehension. They are, in a sense, prisoners in their own house. Amanda says they go to very few events or even shopping as a family. They never know when an outburst from Amar might send them fleeing a restaurant in embarrassment.
Are the younger, smaller twins afraid of him?
“They are, yes. He’s a lot bigger than they are. My daughter and my son have each come to me and said, ‘Mom, you know if Amar ever went crazy and came and tried to beat me up, what would happen? Would he hurt me?’
“I say, ‘Amar’s not going to beat you up. It’s OK.’ I try to alleviate their fears a little bit.”
Alleviate their fears and also your own?
She’s not eager to answer that. “In all honesty, he’s about 15 pounds lighter than I am. And when he gets angry, he uses that weight to his advantage.”
And someday soon he’s going to be a grown man.
A slow nod. “Yes.”
Amanda will not hide her son. Her support is his self-worth, and the way he looks at her affirms what a kid usually can’t find words for — gratitude.
Amar’s mother and father push back against the dark hoping that their son, a nice and polite kid, will emerge into a full life.
Society surrounds motherly love with a rosy glow, and it’s well earned. However, it’s put to the test when shadows descend.
Someone once said, “The worst sight in the world is seeing your mom cry.” Amanda sheds her tears against her pillow because Amar doesn’t need to see them. He’s done nothing wrong. Guilt will not heal him.
What he sees is a mother with strong will and a big heart. That has been a balm for many hurts.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]