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The son who vanished ... Add to ...

On a September evening almost nine years ago, Susan and Jay Bigelow called 911, then sat down to dinner in their Toronto home, waiting for the police to come and take away the stranger at the dining-room table who was once their son.

For 19 years, they had raised a cheerful, outgoing boy named Jesse Bigelow, who had lots of friends, was chased by girls and sang in a rock band called, in an odd foreshadowing, Mental Distortion. Jay had coached his hockey teams and travelled with him to soccer tournaments. Jesse wasn't the perfect kid: He threw more tantrums than his older sister, Melissa, had. His marks were mediocre. And his parents knew that he smoked pot with his friends. But he was a typical, loud, athletic boy and, even as a teenager, he welcomed a hug from his mom.

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Then, slowly, helplessly, they watched Jesse Bigelow vanish, as surely as if he had been kidnapped. They didn't recognize the shaggy, bearded intruder who now lay like a zombie in the bedroom upstairs and ranted at them about God.

In less than a year, it had come to this - a police car in their driveway, the fear of a struggle. They weren't without resources. Jay is a successful architect and Susan, a lawyer, knew her way around the system. They were friends with several psychologists who offered help. Even then, it had taken one appointment after another and many hours at night composing an affidavit to get this far.

Now, sitting at the table, they worried whether their son would ever forgive them for making the call. When they watched the police snap handcuffs on his wrists and guide his head into the back of the cruiser, they had no idea whether they had saved him or condemned him.

What follows is told in their own words, reconstructed from interviews held on several occasions with different family members. It is the story of the beginning and of the end: How schizophrenia stole Jesse Bigelow away and how he managed, with luck and love, to find his way home again.

Jay The first thing you notice is that, all of a sudden, he is not associating with his friends as regularly as he had been. He became very withdrawn. And he was not having as much social contact.

Susan He was a little more volatile than usual, a little more angry sometimes.

Jesse I went from being very sociable to being weird and more reserved. And very moody. I became paranoid. If there was a group of people in the schoolyard talking and laughing, I started to believe they were laughing at me.

Susan Then one day, he came home and told me that he thought people on the subway had been talking about him.

Jay The first suspicion, of course, is that he's doing drugs. ... But there were various incidents that seemed to be more than just someone who'd been doing drugs the night before. We went out to a Japanese restaurant with my in-laws and the whole family, and we were ordering our meal, and he just couldn't make up his mind. Literally, for 20 minutes, it was clear that he was really, really struggling just to comprehend the menu. That's a small thing, but it really stood out.

The Bigelows tried immediately to get help for Jesse when he began acting oddly in the fall of 1998. They were referred to a psychiatrist who told them that it was a drug problem. They knew he was wrong. They went to another doctor, bringing Jesse under the guise that the entire family needed counselling. Jesse wouldn't keep his appointments. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing wrong with him.

Jesse I was becoming less and less in touch with reality, and more and more in my own world. I grew my hair long and grew a long beard. I would lie on the couch for long periods of time and I would walk very slowly, and I wouldn't respond to people.

Susan His hygiene went totally down the tubes. He wasn't taking care of himself at all. He had several part-time jobs, but they lasted a day because as soon as he worked, they realized he couldn't function. He would go off wandering by himself all the time. For hours and hours and hours on end. I remember one day he came home - he'd wandered around all night - and he told us he'd been walking on the railroad tracks.

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