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

Susan And then Jay and I followed down to [CAMH]

Jesse The police brought me to the back door there and I was interviewed. And I said [to myself] "Okay, they are going to see I am okay and let me go." That wasn't the case.

Jay To his surprise, they took him to the 10th floor and he was basically - I am sure he would call it - incarcerated.

Jesse I was admitted to the CIU - clinical investigation unit - which is where they bring people suffering their first break, which is their first sign of experiencing psychosis.

Susan We'd already talked to the head of the first-episode program and I talked to a person there to make sure they had a bed for him.

Jay But, of course, at that point you don't know what's going to happen at all and you have no sense of where he's headed. You figure that's it - he's institutionalized for life. That's pretty rough.

Susan It was awful. That was one of the huge issues, of course, that Jay and I wondered if he would ever forgive us.

Jesse But I did. When I first found out, I was very angry. But then when I thought about it, I realized it had to be done. I had to go through this to get better.

In the elevator after the first meeting with Jesse's doctor at CAMH, his parents were reeling from the diagnosis. Susan looked at Jay: "This is a death sentence," she said. Only about one-third of people diagnosed with schizophrenia make a full recovery and, even then, the disease is a chronic condition.

For four months, every day that he was in the CIU, Jesse and Susan played gin rummy, often in silence. Jesse doesn't remember his mother's daily visits very clearly. At first, there was no sign of change. Jesse still refused to admit that he was sick; the patients on the 10th floor, he says, inflamed each other's delusions.

"It was like one big summer camp," he recalls. "I got pretty good at Ping-Pong."

For four months, his doctors experimented with medications. He was released briefly at Christmas, but went off his pills and had to return. His parents finally took Jesse home for good in February, 2000, although he was only beginning to improve. Susan spent her days reading him the entire series of Harry Potter. At last he showed progress on a new antipsychotic called Clozapine.

Even so, it was a year before they began to see signs of the old Jesse. He could follow a conversation. He showered. He spoke less often about the voices. He began to talk about getting a job.

Jesse I was very lonely for a very long time. It was really tough. Because I had never been lonely like that before. There was nobody around except my folks. My parents became my best friends, pretty much.

Susan It was a very long, slow process. But he just started to be less delusional. He started to be more interested in doing a few things. ... He was still not in great shape for quite a long time. But by a year, he was able to go to an interview and get a job at Burger King.

Jay We got to a point where we thought he was probably as good as he'd get, and then he would get better.

Jesse That's the thing about schizophrenia, about a brain disease. It's not like you had a fall, you broke a bone, and you put it back in place and it heals. It's like a work in progress, putting your life back together. You are constantly learning on the way. And you don't know exactly where it came from, so you don't know exactly how to fix it or cure it.

Jay When he started to experience the recovery, it was like having your long-lost son return from someplace, after he had been presumed missing.

If you met Jesse Bigelow today, more than eight years since his release from the hospital, it would never cross your mind that he had a mental illness. He's tall and clean-shaven; his handshake is friendly, his eyes warm. He makes jokes. He tells his story frankly and with an easy eloquence.

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