"Suspended Sentence" Describes Mother and Son's Turbulent Journey Through Mental Illness

Nov 8, 2019

When Janice Morgan learns that her son has been arrested for possession of a stolen firearm and drug charges, she feels like she's living a nightmare. Her son's turbulent journey through anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder showed Morgan the importance of seeking a better understanding of mental health and the recovery process. Morgan visits Sounds Good to discuss her son, their relationship and lives, and her memoir, Suspended Sentence, that recounts it all.

Morgan's son's turbulent journey began with behavioral issues when he was young. "Even though they would flare up from time to time, they didn't seem to be persistent every single day. So even though we were concerned about them sometimes...it didn't seem bad enough that we would necessarily seek out a special doctor or anything like that," Morgan explains. "Of course, back then, people didn't talk about such things as mood disorders. That just wasn't even on our radar."

"Things got quite a bit worse when he was in his teen years. That's when I knew he was taking pills. He was trying all kinds of stuff," Morgan says. "I thought, 'well, this is odd,' because neither his dad nor I had taken these things. We had always taught him not to. He had taken D.A.R.E.. Ever since he was a little kid, he knew not to take drugs. So why is he doing this? Of course, kids do experiment. Some people just go through a period of experimentation and it's over. But it didn't seem to be over for him." 

Her son's experimentation began to spur incidents that slowly grew in severity, including an arrest for possession of a stolen firearm and drug-related charges. This incident not only inspired Morgan to write her memoir, but it also provided an opportunity for her family to better understand her son's mental state and why he behaved in the way that he did. After a lengthy stretch of court appearances, it was decided that he was a good candidate for drug court. "Fortunately," Morgan says, "that was a diversion that he could have, so he wouldn't have the full brunt of all those charges and have a sentence in jail." 

"He was actually court ordered...to have a diagnosis...a mental health review. That's when he, after an interview process with a psychiatrist and with the family, he was assessed and it was determined that he did have what they called cyclothymia, which was cycling through different moods," Morgan explains. "Anxiety, depression...he had what's called bipolar now. It used to be called manic depressive where you had those elevated moods. You're on top of the world one day and before you know it, you're descended into the basement and you have no energy. [He had] very much a tendency to be in the moment, very impulsive. If you make a decision when you're in one mood, you might be making a very different decision if you were in a different mood. The mood state influences the type of decisions you're making. It's a very unruly condition to deal with. It takes a lot of maturity, and it takes time for a person to be able to manage all that."

Identifying her son's mental illnesses helped Morgan better understand why her son was turning to reckless behavior and drug use. "It took me a long time to figure out the concept of self-medication," she says. "Once I understood that, it made a lot of sense to me. I could see why, if I were in his situation and had to deal with all these fluctuating moods he had, I might be very prone to do the same thing. It seems like you would want to find a way to deal with that. I think that was a way for him, a mistaken way, to take control of the situation that was always spinning out of control."

Suspended Sentence: A Memoir was written not only to share Morgan's story with other families experiencing similar struggles; it also helped Morgan come to terms with her own family's journey. "I think a lot of people don't understand what it's like to have one of these mood disorders. They don't understand why people behave in certain ways like this. We didn't for a long time. I read a lot. I remember many of the things that my son had told me over the years and was just kind of putting this together, and I thought, 'well, I just want to try to tell this story and bring people into the experience as we lived it, so they can understand and hopefully take this to heart and realize that young people do face these kinds of situations. They need help. They need help to get professional care and treatment, and I think it's healthier if we all know more about it, rather than leaving people in isolation. I think when people are in isolation and feel like they are struggling with this alone, they do tend to resort to methods that lead to more trouble, rather than help them manage the illness. [They need help to] have a more regular social life, rather than [choosing] companions who are also struggling and are also getting into trouble."

"I'm a reader," Morgan continues. "I like memoirs in particular. I've been very influenced by books that I have read. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamisons' book, An Unquiet Mind. It's an excellent, excellent book. Books like that, or Beautiful Boy, by David Sheff for example, where he talks a lot about his family's life and his son's addiction to methamphetamine and the turmoil that threw them into. I think these books, they cover painful episodes, but they also explain so much. They help people understand why people behave the way they do. They draw us in. I'm just following in this tradition. I'm trying to open up a discussion here and hopefully help change some attitudes towards people who have these issues of self-medication and indulgent behaviors that can be dangerous or risky."

"Parts of it were very hard to write, but I thought it was liberating at the end. I just felt this lightness. I don't know if it was the burden of setting myself the task of writing the book, or whether it was just feeling like the heaviness of bearing all this alone was just suddenly being lifted. Not suddenly, but gradually as I went through it. I did feel lighter and lighter as I was approaching the end of the book," Morgan says. "I hope readers will be able to identify with these characters and understand them better, because so often, you read these cases in the newspaper and you get 'here's what happened. Here's where the person went.' You feel at ease because you think, 'well, the wrongdoer is being punished.' But there's so much more to it. There's always a much more complex human story behind these things. I think it helps a lot to know what that story is." 

Today, Morgan's son is "in recovery still. When you're in recovery, it's a continuum. He has learned a lot from his experiences. I think he's reevaluating choices that he makes. He's living in a city now. He's living an independent life. He knows that I write...he knows that I belong to a family support group. He knows about that, he knows about the book. He said he was fine as long as I changed all the names. He said, 'that's fine, Mom. It's good that you wrote a book.' He's very low-key about it," Morgan laughs. 

"I've often thought about what if my son reads this in years to come. What will he think? I don't think he will right away, but he might, who knows - he might surprise me. In fact, one chapter I included specifically because I thought if I don't put this chapter in, he'll just pitch the book and say 'well, you left out one of the most important chapters, Mom.' So I definitely had to deal with it. I did have this sense of future readers when I was writing [the memoir], and that did make a difference in some of my choices," Morgan explains.

When asked to imagine what her son might think of Suspended Sentence, Morgan says, "he'll probably realize that I worry a lot. Or worried a lot. I hope he'll be impressed by how I tried to understand him. We're so different, and we see each other as being very different from each other and just completely different in a lot of ways. So maybe he'll be impressed that I tried to represent him as fully as I could. He may see me as judgmental, and so I hope that he will realize that if I was, that I've changed. That I've really tried to understand things from his perspective. I knew that that was an important aspect of this, was to present his side of things - what was going on for him. I knew what was going on for me during those years, but what was going on for him has to be there. Both parts have to be there in order to tell the whole story. I hope it would be healing for him. I hope, if he reads it, he will feel understood also by me and will feel, 'gosh, both my parents and I have come through a lot of struggles. We both had to recover. All of us are in recovery, not just myself.'"

Morgan concludes by offering advice to families who might be going through the same, or similar, situations as Morgan's. "First and foremost...they can get through it. It will be hard, though. They need to listen to each other. It's very important, I think, for parents to listen to their kids because we always want to teach them lessons, teach them what to do. We have expectations for them. We put all this stuff on them. But I think a lot of times, it's important to just listen to your kids because they're going through a lot of things. They need their parents. Even though they're rejecting them with one hand...they're actually hoping that their parents will listen to them and understand what they're going through. If they do need special help, to look for it. To not just say, 'this too shall pass.' But to treat it with attention and to maybe seek out counseling. See what ideas...their son or daughter have for how things need to change or what would make things better. I think that's important to have those conversations. Don't feel like if you're a parent, you have to come up with a solution right away. It's okay if you're a parent to just not know and to say, 'well, let's just keep working on this. Let's keep talking, and we'll figure something out.' But it's going to maybe take a while. Too often, parents think they have to have all the answers, and they have to know everything and really, we can't. It's impossible."