For Alan, who always wanted to do the right thing

by Toby Serrouya
Paralegal, Mother, Donor – Brain & Behavior Research Foundation 

Alan at high school graduation with mom (right) and grandmother (left)

My son was first diagnosed with a debilitating form of bipolar disorder when he was 19. His diagnosis was changed eight years later to schizophrenia and he died at the age of 27 and a half.

Alan began to exhibit signs of obsessive behavior in junior high school. In high school, though he was in all honors classes in a very advanced private school, had trouble completing his assignments on time and being ready to go anywhere on time. The car pool was always waiting for him!

But it was when he was a sophomore at Yeshiva University that things took a dark turn. Alan began to sleep all day, not go to classes, and he even stopped eating. We received calls from his friends in the dorm telling us that something was very wrong with him. We took him out of school for a long Thanksgiving recess break and had an evaluation done by the Chief of Psychiatry at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, NJ. It was there Alan was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  The doctor advised us to take Alan out of school with a leave of absence, and have him begin therapy immediately. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there were no medications that existed that could help him in the long-term. There is still much work to be done in terms of research breakthroughs and medications. It was only after Alan’s death that I learned how low a priority fund-raising is for mental illness – it is the “step child” of all fund-raising endeavors, even at the Congressional level.

So I decided to organize my own annual fundraiser, A Walk for a Cure, back in May 2001, and looked around for an organization to donate funds to. A good friend of mine, Janet Reckenbeil,  gave me a NY Times clipping of a wonderful article that talked about the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (then called NARSAD), and the rest is history.

The psychiatrist wanted to put Alan on medication ─ Alan fought it for a long while, but finally agreed. We quickly learned that until the right combination was found, each medication could exacerbate the symptoms it was meant to alleviate. We finally found an effective combination with lithium as the catalyst.

Alan, celebrating college graduation with mom and friends

Lithium enabled Alan to return to college, read and focus again, and ultimately graduate, going on to get a great job. Unfortunately, this medication began to attack his kidneys and he had to be taken off of it. His doctor was never able to find an adequate substitute.

Because people often mask the signs of mental illness, some of my friends thought Alan was faking it and that I was spoiling him, and even refused to accept his diagnosis. It wasn’t until Alan died that those around him accepted the truth.

One devastating night in 2000, the police department called and gave us the news every parent dreads: that our son had been in a terrible accident, and to come to the police department as soon as possible. On the ride to the police department, I kept asking why we weren’t going to the hospital, but I soon learned why. My beautiful private school-educated son had jumped to his death from the roof of his apartment building. He was just 27 and a half years old.

Once I returned to work after a period of mourning, my colleagues greeted me and told me that they were going to help me heal ─ and they did! Part of my healing process after Alan died was to take their suggestion to write a book. The solitary, healing exercise brought back happy memories of raising Alan, which had been eclipsed by all the years of his illness. I wrote the dedication “in loving memory to my son Alan who always wanted to do the right thing and have all of those whom he knew and loved do the right thing as well.”

People still view mental illness as something that only the homeless or criminals have. The only way to change this is to share stories of people like my son, and to let others know that mental illness can strike anyone – your mother, your sister, your best friend, your son. That’s why I want to keep fighting and tell others to keep fighting mental illness, and keep raising money for the wonderful research that is funded by NARSAD Grants.

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2 thoughts on “For Alan, who always wanted to do the right thing

  1. Thank you for your story! I too have a loved one dealing with a similar situation. Only with my 1 and 2 year old daughters father. He was diagnosed with bipolar shortly after my 2 year old was born (she will be 3 in april) and then a form of schizophrenia shortly after the 1 year old was born. We struggle daily with his inability to function and have yet to find the right medications to help him. We are also finding it impossible to get him access to necessary resources. We live in a very rural community in northern Minnesota. There just isn’t funding or programs needed to help the mentally ill population. Which by the way I believe to be vastly under served and undiagnosed due to social sigma. We live in a largely tourist community and the people who can help would rather hide the deep dark secrets than help solve the problems as its bad for business. We live in one of the poorest counties in the state, with some of the highest rates of mental illness, addictions, and abuse. Most of which are generational. I have been struggling with trying to figure out how to make a positive impact in my community with regard to changing not only how people are treated but also with gaining increased services for those in need. To add to all of this my 2 year old was diagnosed with Down Syndrome 3 weeks after we found out I was pregnant with my youngest. Services for her are also very lacking. Therefore I spend my days worried sick and feeling completely helpless to change my families circumstances. Sadly suicide is a very real concern for my children’s father, he has tried and failed several times and may never get the help he needs as his paranoia keeps him from being able to be truthful with the professionals that can help as he believes they will lock him up if he tells them what is going on in his head. This is also the result of a long family history of mental illness in his family. (Including his father who committed suicide 10 years ago at the age of 35.) He has slept through most of the last 3 years of our lives and is not able to function on any kind of emotional level with myself or our children. I hope that with time he will recover but have been informed by his medical doctor that I should start excepting the fact that he may never get better. (he rarely takes his medication correctly and after being but on medications to help control his chemical dependency issues continues to drink. Not all the time but really its the only thing that gets him out of bed and showered and dressed) He doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with him. We (meaning us and the rest of society) are the ones with the problem, not him, or so I am told. I still hold out hope that on day we will get answers and solutions, but I don’t know how, what, or when. Thank you again for having the courage to fight for answers and for your ability to tell your story! It means a lot to those of us who need the help and support!

  2. Amanda,

    Thank you for sharing your story. We hope the following resources will be helpful:

    1) The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Resource Specialist, a LCSW, is available to answer frequently asked questions concerning brain and behavior disorders, support groups or local mental health organizations, and can provide educational materials on request. Please visit our website for additional information:
    http://bbrfoundation.org/info-line

    2) The Center for Mental Health Services, CMHS, can provide you with information about mental health services and resources in your community. Mental Health Service Locator:
    http://store.samhsa.gov/mhlocator

    3) The Lifeline Network answers thousands of calls from people in emotional distress. If you, or someone you know, is in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or if you are interested in mental health treatment and service referrals please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) (Para obtener asistencia en español durante las 24 horas, llame al 1-888-628-9454) Lifeline’s service is free and confidential, staffed by trained counselor, this service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and they have information about mental health services in your area.

    Your courage and strength is an inspiration to us all. We wish you the very best.

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