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When a Stranger Became a Friend During My Son's Mental Health Crisis

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Sometimes we know a crisis is coming like knowing a summer thunderstorm is headed our way. The light dims, the leaves turn up their silvery edges and the wind becomes eerily calm, yet more intense, all at once. At these times, my son’s moods shift and dance, and I can see the storm approaching; we have time to brace ourselves, make a plan, take cover and ride it out. We can rely on ourselves and the community we know.

But sometimes crisis just sneaks up, the way it did a few days before we hospitalized our 7-year-old son for the second time this year. As frightening as these unexpected storms can be, we’ve learned someone always appears to provide a bit of shelter.

One afternoon on an otherwise lovely day, without provocation, my sweet boy began to attack his younger sister and myself in our town’s center. He laughed maniacally and looked for things to throw at us – sticks, stones, his shoes and grass all came our way. We were several blocks from our car and about a mile from home. We’d gone out for ice cream. Nothing had happened. No warning, just a sudden, raging storm.

I pulled out my phone to make a call…to one of his therapists, our local crisis team, possibly 9-1-1. Before I could decide, I realized I couldn’t dial my phone, keep my daughter safe and prevent my son from running away, which he was starting to do, all at once. I needed six more hands. So I dropped my phone in the grass in order to use the two I did have.

Miraculously, I convinced my boy to come close enough so I could reach him. I held his hands, and he screamed and screeched and shouted obscenities and nonsense while stomping on my feet as we walked the two long blocks back to the car. My 5-year-old daughter walked ahead at a safe distance.

I forgot to be mortified or embarrassed. My focus stayed sharp – get to the car, call for help, keep both kids safe. Worry and fear overrode my urge to feel humiliated by the spectacle, even as I vaguely registered the very large number of people gaping at us from both sides of the busy street.

When we got to the car, the impulse to rage and storm still held my son’s hands, feet and even his head, which tried to slam against my body. I could not let go to find my keys or my phone.

My eyes found a woman nearby, a few years older than myself. She regarded us directly but didn’t gape. Her soft body was dressed in earthy tones and the lines on her face conveyed a warmth and fatigue that bespoke years spent mothering. I knew she would say yes before I asked.

“Can you find my keys and my phone in my bag? I need to call his therapist!” I shouted so she would hear me over his rage, but my tone was familiar, as though she were an old friend. She managed to extricate my bag from my shoulder, and for the first time embarrassment crept in – my bag is usually a jumbled mess and now a stranger was going to dig through it.

“Of course.” An eternity of rummaging passed. She could only find my keys. No phone.  The memory landed with a thud – I had thrown it down two blocks away, shielding my daughter from a stick

I imagined trying to make the round trip to retrieve it. Two blocks seemed like a marathon.

“It’s in the grass. In the park by the old railroad tracks. I completely forgot to pick it up. I just forgot to get it.” I think my voice cracked and I’m sure I looked like I was about to cry.

Now her voice had the tone of an old friend. “I’ll be right back.” And just like that, this stranger went to find my phone.

While our stranger was gone, I convinced my son to listen to an audiobook in the car. He zoned out and calmed down, and I knew we would get home. I held my daughter, letting her know the storm would pass and she was safe.

Our stranger returned the phone. She placed it in my hands and I hugged her, shaking with relief I didn’t need make the trip myself.

Three months and multiple hospital stays later, our son and our family are still riding out this particular storm. But almost daily, we encounter a new stranger who shelters us in some way. The advocacy, service, experience and kindness of these former strangers reminds us our community is much larger than we know.


Originally published: September 11, 2015
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