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Serge and Pierre: Coping with Schizophrenia on Two Continents

Pierre’s father and my husband Guy were in the same class at the School of Architecture of the Beaux Arts in Paris and worked together after graduation. We were friends and had known their son Pierre since birth. An excellent student and a personable young man, he was chosen by his high school in France to spend a year with a family in the USA.

Our own son Serge was also born in France. When my husband became interested in modern, American architecture, we moved to New York when Serge was two. Guy liked working here, and the temporary move became permanent. We saw Pierre and his family each time we returned to France. His mother and I often talked about our sons’ futures.

Serge was adorable, and everyone loved him. We applied to the United Nations School for kindergarten and were told that they wouldn’t have room until the new building was completed, but he so charmed the French teacher that they accepted him, anyway.

In December of 1971 the director of a children’s T.V. program came to the school to choose six children out of the student body for major roles in a Christmas special for UNICEF called “The World of Love.” Serge was one of the children. We have photographs of him walking beside the actress Shirley MacLaine down the aisle of the General Assembly and adlibbing on stage with actor Bill Cosby. We were so proud of our son.

Things began to change during Serge’s freshman year of high school. He cut classes and didn’t complete his schoolwork. High on marijuana, he skateboarded all day. He was scheduled to play the march from “Aida” in a trumpet trio at the school’s annual spring concert, which we attended. We were surprised to see a duet for trumpets listed on the program and learned after the concert that our son had been dropped from the trio for not practicing. We weren’t fazed by this incident and didn’t think that there was anything seriously wrong with Serge. Nothing could damage our vision of a wonderful son.

We drove across country and camped that summer. Bombarded by tirades against “bad” parents from Serge in the backseat of our car, I couldn’t take it any longer and told him to shut up. He bit me. He refused to get out of the tent to look at the Grand Canyon nor would he ask the address of a skateboard park in a skateboard store when we visited Los Angeles. His major complaint to the psychiatrist in New York was that we would not take him to the park. The diagnosis the psychiatrist gave us was adolescent rebellion against his parents, a tragic mistake. It was schizophrenia. This incorrect first diagnosis caused us to lose precious time helping Serge, as we later learned that the earlier a mentally ill person receives treatment, the less severe it would be.

Back in France, Pierre’s father died from cancer at age thirty-five. Pierre was just starting high school. He finished high school but was unable to focus on anything afterwards, either the university or a job. He began acting strangely, withdrew from his mother and younger sister, and ran away, never to be seen or heard from for many years. He too had developed schizophrenia. His mother knew he was mentally ill, that he had been hospitalized several times, but was unable to locate him.

In France policemen have the right to pick up a person who is acting strangely and put him/her in the hospital, whether or not the behavior is dangerous. During hospitalization the patient can be forced to take medication, but after discharge he/she can choose whether or not to take it. Following discharge, the patients are not given a place to live and are not provided with any follow-up care. Because of the paucity of halfway houses and psychosocial rehabilitation programs, Pierre was left to his own devices. He did not receive any housing or allowance from social security.

Back in New York, Serge dropped out of school at age fourteen. We didn’t believe neighborhood shopkeepers who warned us about his “delinquent” friends. What right did they have to interfere? When we finally realized that our son was in trouble, it was too late. The first psychiatrist, who still claimed he was a rebellious adolescent, cautioned us not to interfere. “If you don’t interfere, he’ll eventually come around. If you do, you’ll provoke him to hurt himself or you or run away,” he said.

Serge’s best pal at that time was another high school dropout who had run away from his family and was getting into trouble in the neighborhood. Because of his close friendship with this boy, it wasn’t long before Serge got into serious trouble with the law and was arrested. The Court resolved that if Serge attended a residential treatment center, he would avoid jail time and instead be placed on probation.

Serge’s fall into mental illness is complicated. Several more years passed before an accurate diagnosis was made at Bellevue Hospital. Medication resistant, he remained in the hospital for seven months before an effective medication was found. Then, he was transferred to a psychosocial rehabilitation center in Brooklyn, where he did not receive the best of care. However, he was safe. He had a room, meals, and financial help through social security. At the end of ten years he enrolled at The Bridge, a wonderful multi-service program on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He changed medications and became an active member of the agency’s Art Group.

Back again in France, it was impossible to locate Pierre for many years. His mother then learned Pierre had been discharged from a hospital near Paris and was going to the South of France on foot to look for a job when he was hit by a truck and killed in the village of Sens. His mother was surprised and shocked to receive the tragic news about her son’s death. He never would have been identified had the receipt for a French National ID Card application not been found in his pocket.

Pierre’s mother and I compared laws concerning the treatment and care of the mentally ill here in New York and in France. The differences are significant. In France the rights of the mentally ill are virtually nonexistent. Lack of follow-up after hospitalization and no government support for housing or living expenses make consumers vulnerable to following their “voices”. Guy and I planned to move back to France after our retirement, but our son’s mental illness made us change our plans. We are happy to live in a country where the mentally ill receive support. Had he lived in New York, Pierre may not have died so tragically.

Roxanne Lanquetot, MS, MA, is a Writer and Former Teacher at P.S. 106, Dept. of Psychiatry, Bellevue Hospital, New York, NY.

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