First-Hand: 'Our son spent Christmas in a street doorway': Tilly Day recalls when, in the season of supposed goodwill, her schizophrenic son went missing

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
I HAD spoken with my son on the phone, and he did not sound well. He was to make his own way up to Yorkshire to stay with us over Christmas, travelling by coach from the Midlands to Leeds, then catching a train out to the Dales. This is a journey he is quite accustomed to making alone.

'Don't leave it till Christmas Eve,' I said. 'Come as soon as you can before the crowds build up. Everything stops early on Christmas Eve, and I don't want to have to drive out to Shipley or somewhere to fetch you.'

He seemed to have difficulty translating my words into meaning, and also in fetching up the words of his replies. This did not augur well. 'Come on the Monday if you can,' I said.

He did not arrive on the Monday so we expected him on Tuesday, when our other son was coming. 'Perhaps both of them will meet on the train and arrive together,' we thought. But when Bill and his family clambered down from their carriage, Jack was not with them. We phoned his friend-cum-landlord, and he confirmed that Jack had set off that morning. So when he failed to arrive by the last train, we called the police: the railway police at Leeds, the police in his Midland town and our local police for good measure. We had the comfort of knowing that his name and description were on computers, nationwide, as a missing vulnerable person - he is schizophrenic. There seemed to be nothing else we could do.

The next day was Christmas Eve. We hoped and feared and called his friend again, but still he did not come. So we all went through the charade of Christmas without Jack. We gave each other presents, stacking Jack's parcels up, and we cooked and ate Christmas dinner, had Christmas tea and watched television at Granny's. On the whole it was ghastly.

Very early on Boxing Day morning the telephone rang, and I leapt out of bed. 'Is that Mrs Day?' said a Londonish voice. 'This is the Union Grove Wandsworth police station here. He's done nothing wrong, but we have your son Jack Day here. We found him on the pavement at Clapham Common. Can anyone come here to take care of him'?'

'I'll come down,' I said. Bill volunteered to help out with the driving and we started out in the darkness for London. By the time we reached Wandsworth and found the police station, I was shaking.

We were both shocked when we saw the man the police brought out. Jack was only 36, but he looked at least 50. He had lost weight, he was stooping, and his hair was grey with dust.

'You have missed Christmas,' I said.

'I want to lie down and sleep and never wake up,' he replied. I told him that we had come to take him home.

Bill was talking with the policeman. The alternative would be to have Jack sectioned, as a danger to himself or others, he was told. Perhaps this would have been a good idea, but our instinct was to look after him ourselves. I had brought some emergency medication; I gave my sick son a pill and he slept across the back seat of the car for the 250 miles home.

'What happened?' we asked him later. His friend had already told us that he now realised that Jack had been without medication for several weeks. Jack has never been bad enough to be hospitalised, but he has a gift for slipping through nets and he lives in a kind of limbo. They had recently moved and, being unaccustomed to the new Health Centre, he had postponed visiting it alone.

He had also become very withdrawn in the house, and had complained of the new 'magic carpets' with a pattern which seemed to him to writhe like a snake and form sneering faces. When he failed to catch a bus to Leeds at the crowded bus station, he felt he could not go home to a house where the furnishings terrified him.

Jack took a bus to London in order to come north by train from King's Cross. He bought a ticket but, he said, no one would let him join the queue and the people on the train all seemed to be turning him away.

This was paranoia, of course, but the rejection by his fellow travellers seemed very real to him. Then he tried to telephone home. Unfortunately I had not thought to tell him that BT had changed our number, so the recorded voice of a man on the line saying, 'The number you have dialled has been changed . . .' seemed like more of the conspiracy that had prevented him from coming home. So he headed off into central London and spent his first night in a doorway in Tottenham Court Road.

'What was it like on Christmas Day?' we asked. In his usual laconic way he said: 'There wasn't a lot open.' This is the terrible thing about Christmas. We go into our houses and close our doors on the world. Couldn't a part of the ritual be a search round the nearby streets for outsiders with nowhere to go?

For an hour or two Jack was lucky. Somewhere in south London a woman saw him alone in the street. She invited him into her house and gave him a cup of coffee and a tangerine. She persuaded him to have a shave and let him use her bathroom. Whoever she was, she was brave, good and very kind to welcome an unknown and unbalanced man into her home. I feel eternally grateful to her, and wish that Jack could have taken a note of her address.

Then came the night when the police found him on the pavement. After that came his rescue, followed by relief and gradual recovery, though Jack's kind of problem is never wholly resolved.

Many families with members who suffer from schizophrenia must have had similar - and worse - adventures and some especially fraught Christmases. Schizophrenics are happier when they are in familiar routines, but over Christmas all routines tend to stop.

We celebrate Christmas and New Year at the darkest time to counteract the lowest ebb of life. But there are always those who are locked outside our festivals.