Whenever I drive through Ukiah and see youngish homeless men trudging along the side of the road with their backpacks, my first thought is always the same: Somewhere these men have mothers. That Pavlovian response is so automatic because without me my own troubled 43-year-old son would likely be walking among them, at which point I would become just another mother of a societal casualty instead of what I still am: mother to an adult son living out his nights in what used to be my guest bedroom among sheets and clothes never washed, a big-screen TV towering over the base of the bed, headphones and remote at the ready. I write “nights” because he gets up as we’re retiring for the night to make his sole daily foray into the outside world to drive my car down the hill to Safeway to buy that night’s microwaveable junk food—things like frozen pretzels and Hot Pockets—before settling in for another long night of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other virtual fare. By the time our first pot of coffee starts dripping in the morning, he’s settling into his all-day sleep.
Coping with my son’s stolid inertia would be easier if he were an alcoholic or a drug addict of some other stripe. My only sibling is a lifelong drug addict; I can do drug addict. You can put your finger on it and see what it is. If my son were alternatively disabled in some way I could research treatments for his disability, just like I research everything I want to better understand. But he’s none of those things. His adult life experiences have somehow disappointed him and driven him into this solitary place, and I am helpless and out of ideas about how to help pull him out of it — if indeed it is possible to do so. How could this have happened?
My son grew up in an upper-middle-class extended Bay Area family in a community with relatively good schools where he was an honor student. He was loved, went off to college, and had an apparently seamless entry into the 1990s job market, though with a major setback during the 2008 recession when he, like thousands of other young men lowest on the corporate totem pole, lost his job. For some reason that setback and a failed attempt to go out on his own triggered the slide that landed him home with Mom, his pale, soft body dissolving into today’s uneasy solitude as he sits propped up in bed, day after day, night after night, mechanically flipping through cable’s nightly offerings.
It would be easier if my son could talk about any of this, to pull himself into the light of the living even a tiny bit. Yet his answers to even routine family questions about what he’s up to or wants to be up to never stray beyond, “I’m fine,” or, “I’ve got a few possibilities” before he retreats back into his room and firmly closes the door.
Over the years he’s periodically had a few low-wage, entry-level jobs, the latest ending about a year ago when his department moved to Salt Lake City and he declined to go with it. This fact went undiscovered for months as he claimed to be “working from home.”
As one who has lived, worked, studied, and travelled all over the country and the world, I was stunned that he passed on this lifeline to the world of the living. He has no partner, no exes, no kids, none of the usual things that bind a person to a single place; he has nothing but that big screen TV and its make-believe world as he sits in his room with all the blinds shut tight. What was he thinking when he turned down that job? Nobody knows, at least nobody in his family. Another unsolved mystery, another dead end.
He’s technically not one of those government “parasites” that hard-line trumpsters and other Republicans love to carry on about. My son doesn’t believe in “government handouts,” so has never collected unemployment or applied for Medi-Cal health insurance. In a weird way he seems proud of that; by his reckoning, he doesn’t cost taxpayers a nickel, though because he doesn’t talk about it nobody really knows how he squares this self-reliant public image with the stark reality that he’s been living with his mother for most of his 30s, now spilling over into his 40s.
Though it’s cold comfort, I know that this sad struggle is not unique. In my building alone several retired neighbors have re-welcomed their adult children — nearly all boys — back into the parental nest, into their parents’ small retirement condos after their sons’ job lay-offs, divorces, and other disruptive sources of disillusion and angst. It’s the sad defeat of hope, of finding a place in today’s grown-up world of dwindling opportunities for all but the rich. What does it mean to be a man? So they come home. In the words of Robert Frost, if anything more relevant today than when he wrote them some 120 years ago, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
The community where I live has a counseling service, and five or six years ago I made an appointment and went in to see if talking with a so-called “professional” could shed new light on what I might do to somehow help my son. A perky and brightly cheery young woman in a dress-for-success pantsuit handed me brochures and lists of public agencies presumably charged with helping troubled souls and their hapless elderly parents. She was all bookish theory, unmarried and without children. As my brother always maintained in his decades of drug treatments, “If you haven’t been an addict yourself don’t bother to talk to me. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” My one-time experience with that counselor was like that. She had no inkling of the unshakeable power of the maternal bond, no understanding of the biological and emotional pull that will not be denied through a resource list of helping professionals. I don’t know what I expected from her but I do know that my time would have been more productively spent staring out the window and pondering the problem by myself, just like I always do. The hard truth is that no paid professional can hand a mother a magic formula to give her adult child a reason to live.
Then there’s the accusatory internal dialogue that never stops. As a parent, what did I do wrong? What should I have done differently? What signs did I miss along the way? My son was an honor student. He had lots of friends. He started college just fine (though even back then he began to show signs of a lack of resilience when things inevitably went wrong). His sister, just 18 months older — same parents, same schools — is a public high school teacher with a stable family of her own and is doing just fine. He grew up with a big extended family. He had both sets of grandparents, one set that lived with us, the others a couple of miles away. Everybody pitched in so that he and his sister never had a babysitter or required daycare. So what happened to him? What made him so unable to recover from setbacks?
Everyone has an opinion, of course. His wealthy father says he’s just lazy and won’t help him in any way — or even to speak to him. He espouses the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy, cut and dried. My girlfriends are trendier; they say he’s clinically depressed, mentally ill and probably bipolar, and urgently needs psychiatric treatment. After all, who would willingly choose his depressing life? One friend, totally tone deaf about financial constraints, advised me to rent him an apartment, buy him a car, and pay his living expenses, the “out of sight out of mind” view.
In the Bay Area this would cost thousands of dollars we don’t have, every month, and for what? So he can sit in another dark bedroom somewhere else? His problem is inside of him, not the location of his bedroom.
There is no area on the carrot/stick continuum that I haven’t tried, all unsuccessful: ultimatums, offers of help, repairing his car (which I gave him in perfect condition nearly a decade ago and which now sits dead, sinking on its tires and covered in dust and ash, in my building’s parking lot), talking with a shrink, enlisting his sister’s aid in talking with him, arranging for his oldest childhood friend to come out from his home in Colorado to talk with him, begging his one-percenter father to take an interest in his son – all futile in the end, all ending up right back in our guest room.
A counselor friend of mine once told me that when someone enters a downward spiral of despair, his or her social circle shrinks incrementally until the only person left in the circle is Mom. I know of course that this is not always the case, and mean no disrespect to the many fathers who step up to keep their kids off the streets, but in every situation that I know of, it’s good ol’ Mom who’s the last stop after everyone else has fallen away, the last stop before her son ends up unrolling his sleeping bag under a freeway bridge. I say son because nearly everyone I know facing this situation is facing it with a son, not a daughter. And, like all moms in the same quandary, I ask myself the same question they ask themselves: Would knowing he’s living rough on the streets (the only real possibility I see at this point) be better or worse than watching him waste away in the tomb of the guest bedroom? And even if I did somehow manage to choose the “tough love” option (a philosophy suspiciously developed by my self-involved generation to offload responsibility for troublesome adult children), would my son miraculously have some sort of epiphany about pulling his life together and shout “Eureka!” if he found himself turned out on the unforgiving streets? The only answer I can live with today, like the decade of days before it, stares me straight in the face, every minute of every day and every night. He’s still here.