The Dreadful Day on Autopilot

Today WordPress gave a writing prompt to blog about the most hectic day you’ve had in the past decade. Now, any parent knows that just about every day can be hectic, especially if you’re a parent of two or more children close in age, which my younger two are. But this particular day, in August 2007, was a different kind of hectic. The day suddenly sped up to a terrifying cascade of actions that needed to be done rapidly, so I went on autopilot, just to be able to carry on, because I certainly didn’t want to think about what was happening.

My oldest son, age 19, had suddenly left town a week before, leaving an excellent job at a local bookstore, leaving his apartment without paying rent, and leaving us a phone message saying he was hitchhiking to California. This morning he’d called and informed me he was in Eureka, California and needed me to drive down there and pick him up. Something about how someone had slipped him a date rape drug and that had led to some kind of incident with the police. Well, I rather firmly told him he’s 19 now, he chose to leave town, probably losing his job and apartment in the process, and would have to deal with the consequences of his choices. I can’t just jump into the car, with two small children and go off driving to California!

After I’d said that, everything he said in response made zero sense. What he’d already told me was somewhat incoherent, but now a kind of cold dread overcame me as I listened to my son’s voice, that I’d recognize anywhere, saying completely irrational things. He told me if he wasn’t in Europe by the end of the year he would kill himself. If I was informed that he was dead in California from a gunshot to the head, “they” had killed him. When I asked who “they” were, he couldn’t tell me.

I realized this was something horribly wrong, something terrible that was completely beyond anything I’d dealt with before. A kind of instinct took over, perhaps a “maternal” instinct, and that’s when I sort of shut down my brain and began to just act to save my son. I interrupted his strange, disjointed speech to try and calm him down as best I could (because although the words made no sense, the subtext was perfectly clear, that he was very afraid and couldn’t deal with what was happening to him.)

“I want you to hear this: we really love you, and you have to call me back in just 1 hour. I’ll talk to your dad, and we’ll arrange some way to come and get you. So you have to call back.” He appeared to calm down, but I had no assurance that he would call back.

I then called Jim, and he happened to be with a colleague and friend, H, whose son has schizophrenia and she recognized the symptoms. Our son had mentioned suspicions of someone slipping him drugs on two occasions prior to this, and H suspected that this was his way of explaining to himself what was going on in his mind. She told me that my son, Nate, was probably really freaked out and scared, so when he called back I had to talk very calmly and very softly, so softly that he would barely be able to hear me. I took in what she was saying, but in the back of my mind was a horrified shriek, “Schizophrenia?!” I pushed it away.


After hanging up with Jim, I looked up and called the Eureka police. They had no record of an incident from the night before such as my son had described, but I could call the county courthouse. I offhandedly said, “That would be Weed County courthouse?” because Nate had mentioned how he needed to appear in Weed county court. The fellow said, “No, you must be thinking of Yreka.” I shudder now, thinking how close we came to never seeing our son again, just because we might have gone to the wrong town to pick him up, never knowing there’s a Eureka and a Yreka in California…

Calling the Yreka police, I found that yes, there was an incident the night before. I then took a leap, which I’d never done before in my life, and begged a total stranger for help. I explained to the officer that my son was in their town, we believed he was having a mental breakdown, and we were coming to get him, but it would take a while for us to get there. I then proceeded to basically tell him how to do his job (!) by asking if they could keep an eye out for him, but not to approach him as we thought that might freak him out. I gave him our cell phone numbers. The cop kept saying, “yeah, yeah”, and I thought, “He isn’t even listening to what I’m saying! I’ll bet he’s not even writing down these numbers. Why should they give a shit about my son, some strange kid in their town?”

I was making these calls on my cellphone and keeping our land line (we had a land line back then) free for Nate to call back. I then called Jim and H to update them on what I’d found out, and Jim said I should tell Nate to get a room in a hotel and we’d pay for it. When Nate called our home phone, I was still on the cell with Jim, and put it on speaker phone so they could hear my end of the conversation. I said (very softly, very slowly, very calmly), “Hi Nate, where are you?” He said, “In Eureka.” I asked, “Where in Eureka?” (I didn’t quibble about ‘Yreka’.) He responded, “On the street at a pay phone.” I asked if he could see a hotel nearby, and he said yes. I told him he could get a room there and we’d pay for it. He answered no.

So I asked, “How will we be able to find you, because Eureka’s a big place?” And he said, “You’ll have to think logically. Where would I be?” So I said (calmly, softly, which was surreal since by then I was completely panicked), “Um, an internet cafe?” Nate sort of chuckled and said he figured there would be no internet cafes in that town. I told him, “I can’t really think logically at this point, because it seems logical to me to stay in a hotel, and that way you could get some rest.” And he said, “No.” I’m wracking my brain to think of somewhere, and he’s silent on the other end, so I say, “Are you still there?” He answers, “No” and hangs up.

I begin shaking, trying to keep it together, and cried out to Jim and H on the other line, “He hung up!” We’d gotten nowhere with that call, we’d never be able to find him…

Earlier, H (dear, sweet friend) had arranged plane tickets for Jim and me, and a rental car for us to pick up in Sacramento that would allow us to drop it off here when we got back home. Amazing. Fortunately Jim’s parents were visiting from out of town, and could watch our two younger ones. Jim spoke with them in their Winnebago, and I found out later he’d completely broken down and wept, perhaps because he hadn’t had tasks to do that put him on autopilot, and instead had been thinking of all the horrible ramifications of all of this…

The home phone rang again, and I grabbed at it. A calm woman’s voice on the other end said that she was a nurse at the hospital, she was finishing up some paperwork, and Nate had given this number when he’d checked in. She needed his full social security number. My jaw dropped. “Is he still there??” She replied no, he’d left a while back. I explained to her everything that’d I’d explained to the police earlier, and asked her, if he showed up again, could she give me a call. She was amazed to hear that he was having a breakdown, as he’d been so polite (“gentlemanly”) earlier. That was certainly good to hear. She said he’d told her he was going to sleep in a park nearby the hospital, and she would go out and look for him… Incredibly kind! But when she called me back later, sadly she’d been unable to find him.

We drove to a hotel near the airport, got no sleep but just lay there in the dark room silently holding each other. Next morning we caught an early flight to Sacramento. There was a delay in Seattle, which had me frantic, as my greatest fear was that Nate wouldn’t be there when we arrived. But during the delay, Jim and I saw that we both had messages on our cells. The Yreka police had called saying the highway patrol had picked Nate up outside Yreka, walking on the median of the highway. (You know that strange guy you saw once, dirty clothes and hair, walking down the middle of the busy highway, talking to himself? Yeah, that was my son…)

So the police had taken down our numbers. They had listened to what I’d said, and had done what I requested, not approaching him belligerently but just keeping an eye on him. They’d only picked him up when he left town and was doing something dangerous. They drove him back in to Yreka and dropped him off at a Denny’s, and was now back to keeping an eye on him. Again, I was amazed.

We called them back, and they let us know he was still outside the Denny’s in the parking lot, not going in. They gave me the number of the Denny’s, and when I called and spoke to the manager, he said sure, Nate could come in and have a meal and we could pay for it when we showed up. I was floored. He didn’t even take our credit card number or anything, just said sure…

We finally arrived in Sacramento and as we drove to Yreka, I pointed out to Jim, “Look at this highway. How often do you think they patrol this highway? Never. Did they just happen to pick Nate up on this highway? No, they were looking out for him.”

When we finally got to Yreka and called the police again, they told us Nate had never gone in to the restaurant, and when they’d approached him again, he said he’d like to go back to the hospital. H told us later that he’d probably felt too threatened by public places like restaurants and hotels, and it was a good sign that he wasn’t threatened by the hospital. That’s where we finally found him, 22 hours after his second phone call. He slept for most of the long drive back home.

That was over seven years ago, and now Nate is stable, on medication, and doing fairly well. He’s had only one relapse after starting medication, but now is on a type that’s given by injection, so it would be harder for him to go off it. It’s been sad to watch how this disease has robbed him of such a promising future. He’s always been very creative and intelligent, talented at music and drawing, so gifted in many areas, but has not been able to do anything with it, due to the illness. However, it’s also been wonderful to see how patiently he’s dealt with it all as well. (As the nurse mentioned, he’s “gentlemanly”!)

How many good, dear friends and family, such as H, and Jim’s parents, gave us unlooked for help through all this. And it’s been astonishing to discover so many kind and thoughtful and generous complete strangers along the way, such as those good police in Yreka, the kind nurse, and the Denny’s manager, willing to give a meal to a strange young man, with no assurance that he would ever be paid.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me…

Matthew 25: 35-36

6 thoughts on “The Dreadful Day on Autopilot

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I can’t imagine what it must have been like having to go through all this, and in such a calm way! I would hope I would be able to simply keep calm and take care of what needs to be done. So happy you encountered such thoughtful people along the way. God bless you and your family!

    Liked by 1 person

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