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Mark Lazenby/The Globe and Mail

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A most amazing thing happened in my family last year: My 39-year-old adopted son graduated from university with a degree in psychology.

To many, this might seem a fairly ordinary accomplishment, but for Ian, who has schizophrenia, it wasn't ordinary at all.

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His story begins in Toronto, where he was born in December, 1972, and where we were living then as landed immigrants. One day the phone rang in my office. It was the social worker. "We have a baby boy for you," she said. "Can you come get him Friday?" It was Monday of the same week.

I gave my notice that afternoon. The week reeled by and suddenly it was Friday morning. Before we met him the social worker shared some basic information: his birth weight; his favourite toys; the fact that his birth grandmother had suffered from a serious mental illness, probably schizophrenia.

Soon we were in the car with John driving and me holding our precious two-month-old in my lap. It was Feb. 2. We were overwhelmed, but so grateful that this beautiful baby had been entrusted to our care – we who weren't even Canadian citizens.

The next few weeks, months, even years, were pretty ordinary. Ian was a jolly baby with an even temperament when he wasn't hungry, and an avid interest in the world. He was everybody's favourite at our sailing club, where we would hang him in his Jolly Jumper from a doorway while having a beer with friends. People would give him a twirl and watch while he laughed with delight.

Two years later his brother Mike was born, and our family was complete. When Ian was 5, we moved back to the United States.

Eventually, certain problems did arise. We noticed that at times Ian withdrew from people. By elementary school he was spending a lot of time in his room alone, excluding even Mike. He hesitated to make a simple phone call. At school, speaking in front of others became such a problem that the teacher once had his classmates put their heads down on their desks to make him feel more comfortable.

His father worried about his lack of initiative and follow-through. Still, he did reasonably well in school and had a loyal cadre of friends, so we were not alarmed. We put it down to shyness. Occasional meetings with therapists did nothing to warn us of what was to come.

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The more serious trouble began in middle school, and culminated in Ian flunking several subjects in Grade 9. Moving him to a private school where the classes were smaller didn't work. He failed every subject there. Returning him to public school was no better.

By then, some of his friends had deserted him, moving beyond perpetual games of Dungeons and Dragons. It seemed as though Ian was stuck in this imaginary world. In time he became psychotic, hearing voices and medicating himself with drugs.

In June, 1994, John and I sat at the kitchen table, holding hands and shaking our heads. Ian was 22 and had dropped out of college. Something was terribly wrong, but we still didn't know what.

Later that month, Ian behaved strangely at dinner. He cowered over his plate, then took it from the table and cradled it in his lap. He was delusional. Mike was able to soothe him that night, but the next day he was admitted to hospital.

The next months were difficult. The medications initially prescribed were ineffective. I suspected he didn't take them. One day I found dozens of pills in an empty cigar box in his closet. It was inevitable there would be a second psychotic break. By the time it happened, we were more prepared. We knew what we wanted to try – a medication called Clozaril or Clozapine. After some months, we began to see small progress. Ian got a job delivering pizza and was spending less time in his room talking to himself.

Then tragedy struck. On the day before U.S. Thanksgiving in 1996, Ian picked me up at the school where I was teaching. When we arrived home, we found his father dead of an apparent heart attack. Ian immediately stepped into protective mode, shepherding me into the backyard when the medics came to try to revive John. At the funeral home, Mike and Ian, the son who found it difficult to make a phone call, worked the crowd, always returning to my side. Years later he had a simple explanation. "Dad's death made me realize what 'real' is."

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Despite Ian's grief, his progress continued. A year later, he was able to get a better job as a driver for a large warehousing operation. He moved to his own room in a nearby house, and later into an apartment.

About six years ago, already in his 30s, he made an amazing leap: He returned to school. It wasn't easy. He had never learned how to study. He hadn't written a composition or tackled a math problem in 20 years.

But he did it. When he walked across that stage in his cap and gown I knew I was witnessing a miracle.

Along the way, Ian figured out he wanted to help other people. He has interned at an agency that helps homeless people and at an addiction treatment centre, and worked at a psychiatric hospital. He has just begun graduate studies in counselling. His personal experience and education have put him in an extraordinary position to make a difference in the lives of others.

It all began in Canada, and we will be forever grateful for Canada's gift to us.

Vicky Wood lives in Bethesda, Md.

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