The People

Kris and John Wilkinson

Son’s mental illness leads to life of advocacy

WilkinsonsOur youngest son, David, became ill at 16. He started having psychotic episodes, was hospitalized, and could no longer attend high school, so we quit our jobs and moved back to Montana from California, where we were living at the time. We thought we could give him a more stable life there. He was able to finish high school and start college, but his struggle was hardly over, as he continued to have psychotic episodes, attempted suicide and spent time in a hospital.

During a psychotic break, he committed three felonies and ended up in jail, spending six weeks in isolation in a holding cell while highly psychotic. A few months later, he was sent to the state psychiatric hospital’s forensics unit for an evaluation. The evaluation showed he was unable to form a criminal intent as a result of his illness. The court gave him a sentence of 25 years, with all but 10 suspended as a “guilty but mentally ill” offender. In Montana, an individual is considered to have committed the crime even though they are mentally ill, so they serve their time in a secure Forensic Hospital Unit.

He was there for almost four years. We visited him every weekend, celebrating three Christmases and Thanksgivings at the hospital. Most visits, our car was the only one in the lot. It’s a long trip, and some of the patients in the unit had committed crimes so horrible that their families couldn’t get past it. But we knew how important family connection was to David’s recovery. So we came every week, 120 miles round trip to be there for him. His two sisters and brother, along with their families, came from out of state for visits and called him on a regular basis.

David was paroled to a treatment facility in Missoula, Montana, where he has been since December 2014. After spending time in jail and the hospital, David decided he needed to make a change in his life and started working toward it. He participates in the treatment facilities’ 12-step program, volunteers, and is an active participant in his treatment plan. David has a wonderful parole officer who works with him to make sure he stays on track. She works with his therapist and case manager to help him set manageable goals that he can reach. She recently helped him apply for college. As he has been convicted of three felonies, she helped him prepare for the questions the college would ask. She helped him convey his commitment to recovery and sobriety, and that he’s taking responsibility for his life and sticking to his treatment plan.

We started taking a NAMI Family-to-Family class around the time David first got sick. At the front of the class, there was a chart showing the stages of emotional response to a loved one getting sick. We started at the first stage, dealing with the diagnosis. We were in denial and angry. We slowly moved toward acceptance and are now in the final stage: advocacy. We know what it feels like to have a pain in the pit of your belly, knowing something bad is about to happen but not being able to prevent it. But now we have more hope than we ever thought we would and want to work to give others that hope and support. Our daily mantra is “suit up, show up, try not to screw up and pray.” We do what we can.

Kris and John Wilkinson are the parents to four smart, beautiful children. They live in Montana, where they teach the NAMI Family-to-Family program and advocate for mental health services.

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