Crisis in the Rearview
Guest Post, By Annie Slease
“Writers write from what they know.” This has been my mantra for more than twenty years as a middle school English teacher, but I hadn’t ever put it to the test until my older son Jake suffered his first true mental health crisis. As a way of coping, I began writing an anonymous blog called Still Hopeful Mom. While my blog reached readers across the globe and became therapeutic for me, I knew I needed to do more; I knew teenagers needed to know our story. If my son Jake had understood more about mental illness and the danger of its stigma when he was 18, his life, our lives, would look very different today. With the support of my husband and two sons, I started writing A Brother’s Oath based very loosely on my two sons, Jake and Luke and the events that took place in our home just after Jake graduated high school in 2010.
Though Jake’s bipolar disorder formally presented itself when he was 18, I believe an event that took place three years earlier may actually mark the beginning of his spiral into mental illness. At 15, Jake was a talented basketball player with hopes of playing in college like his dad. Jake had been playing competitively since he was in elementary school, but early in his sophomore season, he suffered a serious knee injury during a game. And though physically he rehabilitated completely over the next year, psychologically, he was never the same. Jake, a boy who had always identified himself as a ball player, lost the mental tenacity for the game. He lost that spark.
It seems so easy to see now how life-altering an injury like this can be, but at the time, none of us had any idea what lay ahead. Early in my book A Brother’s Oath, the main character Dylan Truman tells about his older brother Dane’s basketball injury. Here is an excerpt from A Brother’s Oath:
Dane and his teammates were out on the floor warming up. As usual, he was nailing every three pointer he shot. No matter how much I hated to admit it, my brother was really talented when it came to basketball. Dad said he could probably get a free ride to any school in the Big East. Since Dane was a senior, college talk was constant. He was hoping for Villanova or Georgetown, but he really didn’t care as long as he got to play.
The first half of the game was not even close. Dane was leading the team to what appeared to be a solid victory. Then it happened.
He and his teammate Brett along with two other guys from Danforth Hill went up for a rebound. Nothing special about it. Just a regular rebound. All the guys went up and then they all came back down again. Only when the rest of the guys headed back toward the other side of the court with the ball, Dane was left lying under the basket white as a ghost. Mom immediately sprang up from her seat and tried to go to him, but Dad told her to wait. “He’ll get up. Just give him a second.”
The entire gym fell silent. He didn’t get up.
The trainer raced onto the court as Dane lay remarkably still right where he had landed. Then he twisted himself around to find us in the crowd. There was this expression on his face I’ll never forget. It wasn’t pain I saw in his eyes. It wasn’t anger either. I think what I saw was defeat. It must have looked like shock to everyone else, but I know what I saw. That was the day that Dane’s life, and our lives, would change forever.
“I heard a snap, Dad. A snap!” Dane’s voice cracked with panic. Sitting with his right leg propped up on the bench behind his team, he was balancing an ice pack on his knee as he kept repeating to himself, “I heard a snap. Damn it! This isn’t happening.”
The game had resumed by then. Mom was talking to the trainer and the coach down on the court, while Dad, Grandma, Gramps and I were all trying to calm Dane down. His ashen face reddened with rage as he watched his teammates race back and forth down the court where he knew he should have been.
“Now, there are lots of little things in knees that can make it seem like a snap. Don’t worry, Son. We’ll get it checked out. I’m sure you’ll be fine, back out there in no time.” That was Dad, forever the optimist.
“Yeah, Rex, don’t sweat it now. We don’t know anything yet.” Grandpa said encouragingly.
“Right. We don’t even know what it is yet, honey,” Grandma echoed as she reached out to pat him on the shoulder.
“Hey, yeah, and anyway, you got a standing O for it. That was pretty cool,” I piped in.
“Shut. Up. I don’t give a crap about a standing O. I just blew out my f-ing knee, Ass Face!”
So much for making him feel better.
Hindsight is twenty/twenty, don’t they say? While there is nothing I could have done to prevent Jake from that ACL tear, maybe I could have recognized the serious signs of depression that followed. In my book, through cheeky sibling rivalry, I try to capture the strain that develops between the boys, Dylan and Dane. The fictional timeline of events begins with Dane’s injury and chronicles a year in their lives. In real life, with my two sons, the events stretched out over three years.
It has been eight years since my son Jake suffered his ACL tear, but as a mother, I still remember it vividly. So does he. Today Jake sits in a prison cell. I plan to tell more of Jake’s story as well as the fictitious story of Dane in future posts. For now, just know that after all this time Jake is finally healing. The scars on his knee as well as the psychological scars are finally fading, and he’s finally looking toward his future with new found hope.
Annie Slease is a teacher and musical theatre director from Delaware. Ever since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, she has been writing about her own son’s battle with mental illness that eventually led to his incarceration in 2013. She maintains her own blog, www.stillhopefulmom.com, as well as contributes to the International Bipolar Foundation’s website. She is an active member of her local NAMI chapter, and she is working on a semi-autobiographical young adult novel about mental illness and its stigma called A Brother’s Oath.
Featured Image and all photographs provided by Annie Slease