{CoffeeBreak} My Son And the Knife: When Mental Illness Turns a Boy Into a Man

By Michelle Bond

My son was a week old the morning his father threatened me with a butcher knife because I tried to wake him up to go to work. While our relationship was an abusive one, up until this point it was always at the venom of his words or fists.  I remember holding my newborn in my arms at the door of our apartment. It was May. I was barefoot. I just kept thinking, If I can get to the other side of the door, we'll be safe. I remember standing nose to nose with this beast and I prayed to God as if each word were sacred. If it meant my son would be protected, I was ready for my flesh to be sacrificed and sliced. Not soon after, I would turn to my family and friends and begin my new adventure of motherhood joining the ranks of The Nation of Single Moms.

Thirteen years later, I would once again be threatened with a knife.  This moment would be much like the first over something very simple. This day the man-child holding the knife would be my son the very child I was willing to get cut to protect was now turning into the man he has never known.

My son has been diagnosed with ADHD and Oppositional Defiance Disorder.  What this means is that my academically gifted son, the one with the huge and loving heart who is adored by many in the Twitter community as da boi, also has a mental illness.

What does mental illness look like in a child?  In my home it looks like moments of rage. It's walls being decorated with outlined fists. It's yelling and screaming. It's not cute. Or pretty. And now that my 13-year-old baby is taller than me and stronger than me, peace feels like an accident in my home.

This meltdown with the knife was different.  He didn't lunge at me. He didn't try to stab me. But when dancing with a person who lacks control, I do not have the luxury to trust that stability will kick in. This melt down required immediate attention. I spent the rest of the day talking with my health insurance, my local hospital and met with the Magistrate at our local police station. Before the night was over, I would be part of a full operation in plotting to have my son apprehended, as if he were a fugitive.

I felt shame. I felt sick. I felt angry at the Universe.

The next day, my son once again refused to go to school. He once again was defiant with his words cursing at me and refusing to follow my instructions. All these moments only co-signed my need to drop the dime on my one and only child.

The dynamics of this decision are so deeply layered. I have heard of other young Black men having meltdowns: their family calls the police and hours later their loved one is laying on the ground dead or beat up. Mental illness is not manifested based on race and ethnicity. But for a Black woman to have to turn to the police to come get her Black son makes me want to run home to chant the names Emmett Till. Amadou Diallo. Danroy Henry, Jr.

I watched the police drive by me as they hunted for my baby. When they found him, they placed him in handcuffs and put him in the back of their squad car. They were nice to him. They treated him like he was a child.

A very good friend joined me at the police station as we began the quest to commit my child.  She has known my son since he was seven years old.  We watched my son through the police station window. He was still cuffed. He was watching the basketball game with the officers.  It almost looked normal. Like a group of guys just hanging out.

My friend and I had to wait until the woman from the county arrived.  Only then was I able to enter the room I had become a voyeur of earlier. Now the television was off.  My son sat in the chair.  Eyes wide and doe like, face calm innocent. There was a moment of silence as we looked at each other. I could feel myself getting ready to cry. My son looked at me and said, I didn't understand at first, but I understand now.  I'm not mad.

We were at the police station until 3 am.  My dear friend got my son some food and, later, some coffee for me. I mention this because it was these small gestures that gave me the strength to continue to keep it together.

I have devoted my life to creating a healthy and happy world for my son. Mental illness is a beast.  You cannot love mental illness away. I know because I have tried. You cannot spank mental illness away. The best you can hope for is to create some sort of balance, find tools that can be used as a resource to avert a meltdown.

My son spent the next four days in a hospital two hours away.  He left armed with a prescription, and still, we need more tools.  We need more help. I know there are answers for my son. So far they seem to be buried in red tape.  Or out of my reach, where solutions for only the wealthy reside.  And still, I am an advocate for my son. And still I refuse to give up.  Many, including our school system, would rather just have my son disappear. And I've explained to some male friends, who love from a distance, that should the day come when my son is killed or in jail, a part of me absolutely will blame them. Does lack of mentorship give birth to mental illness?  No. But it does contribute in more lack in his life. My son is my child. My responsibility, but I cannot be the only one who cares about his future.  Right?

Mental illness is not a curse.  It's not right to just discard and throw these kids away.  They are, after all, kids. And one of them is my baby. My son.

Michelle Bond is a writer. A mother. A Flower Child. All of these things… not necessarily in that order. She’s written for Today’s Black Woman and regional publications. Visit her at CoffeeBreakDMV.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

50 Comments

  1. INCREDIBLE post! I used to work at a juvenile crisis center with kids. Don’t give up hope. I CAN imagine how difficult it was to do this. WOW! I don’t know how current this situation is. . . but I will keep this family in my prayers! AMAZING mother. . . simply AMAZING!

  2. I’m so proud of you, Michelle. I’ve watched you do this dance for as long as I’ve known you. You have more strength than you have every given yourself credit or permission to have. You did the right thing for your son and for yourself. Now you can both find the tools to start living the life you deserve. He in getting stability and you in order to find yourself again, outside of just your son’s mother. You can work on you as he works on himself and when he returns, you will both be better. You’ve helped so many by writing this. Trust that. Only good can come from it.

    • B! I have said this privately and proudly say publicly “THANK YOU!”
      Thank you for being an amazing friend and a true source of light & love when I need(ed) it most . <3 U!

  3. this is just so incredibly brave of you. so brave of you to ask for help where and when you recognize it’s more than necessary. so brave of you to share your pain and struggle. people are going to read this and recognize it and someone, somewhere will get the courage to do what you’ve done or to confront something they may have been ignoring or pushing aside, or simply did not see. thank you for your courage and your voice. love.

    • I deeply hope you are correct as the hope that someone…anyone – going through this can know they are not alone is my driving motiviation. Thank you for your kind words, I apprecaite them a lot.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this. I have a friend that needs to read this and will pass it on. You have touched my heart and I understand some of what you are going through. My 8 year old is starting to show signs of oppsitional defiance on top of his Autism and ADHD and I am trying to work through it while he is young. I out weigh him by only 50 lbs and did I mention he is 8?? Thanks again for sharing and know you are not alone in your situation.

    • First of all LOVE your name “Watch The Shoes”! :)
      I appreciate you taking the time to read this article and for sharing with your friend. Additionally, I have much respect for you being a great mother to your 8 year old. Autism and ADHD are more related than not…I call them “cousins” of each other. I believe you will be an excellent advocate for your child.
      Thank you so muc for connecting. :)

  5. Wow Michelle I cried just now I could feel your pain and your heart in this piece. I pray that you do find the help that your son deserves and needs to live a healthy, happy life. God bless you guys!

    • Thank you Cheriss! And I am so serious that when the day comes for the book to be done- I want you to be the photographer! Your photo of me will have the books flying off the shelves! :)

  6. Thanks for that post….your bravery inspires me.

    • Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say….Please know that it is only through the support of my family & friends that my son & I have gotten this far. Not sure if that’s brave…but if I’m standing – it is totally because of the support & love I have received.
      I appreciate you taking the time to connect. :)

  7. Barbara Soloski Albin

    Dear Michelle ~ My heart is breaking for you and the tears are flowing. I have several family members and family friends whose children and/ or siblings hit that “age” when suddenly mental illness entered. You have done the right thing, actually the only thing. Now there will be so much work ahead for you, my hope is that you have family and if not, good friends for support. I hope you are able to share with us in the future, some positive news. Take care of yourself and your son. Love to you, Barbara

  8. I’m always happy to read your work and to see it published. I’m so sorry to read what you are going through.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  10. What a very brave mother you are in taking these steps to help your son. Thank you for sharing your story. I will keep you and your son in my prayers.

  11. WOW! What an amazing article! You are truly a strong, amazing woman Michelle! I can only imagine how difficult life must be for you & your son. I will pray for you both. I am so proud of you for sticking by your son. It is not something to be taken for granted. There are definitely women who would lose hope & ‘give up’. You keep fighting the good fight! God will give you the strength that you need! xoxo

  12. This is an incredible story, and thank you for being brave enough to tell it. I cannot imagine what it must have taken for you to do this, but clearly you love your son enough to do what’s best for him, as hard as it may be. I will pray that you find continued strength and guidance. You have truly touched me…

  13. i am so moved by the emotion of these words. you truly have the strength to mother “da Boi” – i wish you all the best and progress with the circumstance.

  14. Michelle, you’ve quickly become one of my favorite Tweeters. I look forward to seeing your thoughts on my timeline. I knew you were lovely, intelligent & witty. I had no idea how courageous… Praying for your strength in loving your son as a black single mother faced with tough decisions that hugs alone wont fix. I have faith & confidence in the best possible outcome for you and da boi. Thank you so much for sharing your story!

    Peace, Love & Happiness
    A

  15. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Michelle.

  16. I am not the sort of person who is easily moved to tears, and I am not in the habit of leaving messages on the blogs of people I don’t know, no matter how much I have enjoyed their posts. Today you have forced me to do both.

    As a mentally ill person raising a little boy, also my one and only, who is only five years old (and a half, apparently the half is important), who if his family history is anything to go by, is almost certain to become mentally ill himself, this post moved me and caused little prickles of tears to begin forming beneath my eyelids. Your writing was both terrifying and inspiring. I really hope you and your boy get through the red tape, and that he gets the help he so desperately needs. He sounds very lucky to have a mama like you.

  17. I cried for both you and your son. I pray that you are able to cut through the red tape and get all the support you need. Thank you for sharing this.

  18. As a black mother of four children, three of whom have mental health challanges, who works with other families in the same situation I feel your pain in a very personal way. I want to offer my encouragement to you as you go forth on your journey. Your young king in training is one of the most precious commodities that our community has and I thank you for being the queen you are and standing strong in the face of the multilayered challenges we face as the mothers of Young Black Kings. There is so much I want to say to you but for now I just want to say … THANK YOU MY SISTER!!!! My love and prayers are with you.

  19. michelle…your story has taken my breath away. my heart goes out to you and your son, and other parents and children who have similar challenges. we are all in constant need of prayer, guidance, and strength as we strive to do the hardest job we’ll ever have–everything in our power to bring balance in our children’s lives. don’t give up, don’t give in. i believe your blessings are and will be greater than you hope for. thank you for sharing.

  20. WOW. This article moves me in so many ways. Wow! I started reading this post yesterday and couldn’t get pass the first paragraph because it reminded me too much of my last relationship. And of loving and leaving. Then I read the rest of the article. Talk about your life coming full circle. As part of my graduate program, I study mental illness, and although I am a believer in God, I know that you cant pray it away, love it away, or spank it away. As a single mother of a Black boy, this is one of my fears. He is my responsibility, but is he really only my responsibility? I pray daily that I can find the right male mentors for him as he grows, that i can create a world for him in which he can strive and be successful. I fear though. I fear a lot. I can not even imagine a son with ODD and ADHD… wow! Your story moves and inspires me in more ways than one. Thank you for sharing your story.

  21. michelle as one that knows the two of you personally & by having a mentally ill adult child of my own … i know that some of the pain was left out of the telling of this story, because it really can’t be described in words. I have to admit it’s hard sometimes to believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel~ but I have to hope and pray that it is…

  22. Ms. Bond, thank you for sharing this. As a mentally ill son of a strong Latina woman, this story hits very close to home. My disorder (Borderline Personality Disorder) has worn her down emotionally though she won’t show it. Unfortunately my illness went undiagnosed until adulthood, all the while my mother feeling guilty that she didn’t recognize the signs earlier in my life. Now that we are equipped, it is very manageable, but it’s not that easy for everyone who suffers from mental illness. It is shameful how much of a stigma presides over this very real health issue, but stories like these incrementally break down those barriers. Thank you and may you and your son prevail.

  23. My heart goes out to you. I don’t know u or your son but this same story plays out in many black house holds, so I know the story. I’m no doctor so I’m speaking from an observer’s point of view, as I’ve observed situations like this in my family and neighborhood. In my experiences with mental illness it’s been the medication that exasperated situations above and beyond where they would have gone. We love our children/nieces/nephews etc. so we want the best for them and when they come with the meds saying they will help we’re usually desperate to help them and we allow them to take the meds. These meds are the problem in a lot of cases I think. Don’t know the meds your boy is taking but does the side effects mention “increased suicidal thoughts, and or violence?” a lot of them do. If so try to wean him off those. It’s not easy but it’s worth it. They act like the meds are helping, just not enough when they really are hurting. Again, don’t know the situation there, so I’m just speaking from my own experience… About “the males who love from afar” we need guidance, all of us! We’re caught in this self destructive cycle and I just wish I could reboot the whole black race male & female. Everything that’s bad for us we think is good for us, and I’m talking every thing from our church to our shirts, all bad…. Sorry for turning this into a guest post… I send love and prayers to you and your son.. Hope a resolution comes.. peace.

  24. …and you don’t have to be black for this…thank you for this story and for sharing. May God Bless Us All.

  25. I was always known as moody, mean, selfish, flaky. My father never called me that and because he stood up for me I was able to not let what other family thought of me to tear me down. I was doing good, but I was 25, I broke. I was ready to just dissappear, but I had to say goodbye to my Dad. I looked different, but I walked in my parents home, my Dad was the only one that said anything. Once again, Mom that I was showing out. This time my cut it short and took me to the hospital. I was there for 30 days. After a close look at my medical history and talking to me and my parents, I was diagnosised was Bipolar I disorder. Im 33 now leaving on my own working on my MA in literature. I take Lithium everyday and go to a therapist once a week. I still have my moments, but like ones before.
    I tell this story, because I want parents to know that they are doing the right when they make that decision to have their child committed. Many times things are ignore because folks worry to much about what other people will say, but my Dad’s only concern was me, his baby.
    Thank you Daddy. I love you too

  26. Thank you – all of you – both Ms. Bond as well as every single one of these brave commenters. Mental health issues loom large in our house – I have nothing but compassion/empathy/understanding. All my best, y’all!

  27. Michelle – thank you for posting this and thank you for having the courage to reach out to the authorities the first time it happened- as much as they are a pain in the butt, they, at times like this have their indispensible uses.

    My older brother – 47 is currently on the psych ward – oops today is his 48th birthday, he’s been in and out since he was 30. It’s been a long game. My sister – 42 currently manages on drugs but did a lot of in and out, my brother won’t take drugs, is resentful of the same system, but at the same time won’t give himself the consistency of good food and supplements – which does work for him. My dad passed last year – 72, in and out since he was 30. They nicknamed him “The Original” so even though I’m not a mother yet, I know the mental health game like the back of my hand, both hands over and I’ve had my own issues too from an early age.

    Please take this as just a suggestion, but now is the moment to shout long and hard for him to have talking therapy. When you hit the adult side of things they come at you with the drugs first and not much talking later.

    I have faith in you – I don’t know if it makes any difference to you, but his age is a benefit here, he has enough time to learn how to live life with the support that he needs and to learn what that support now looks like. I could call it a blessing, but I’d rather think of it as forewarned is now armed to thrive.

    Love you – in a non-stalkerish kind of way, you rock ;) and I wish well always for you and da boi to have good days.

    Xx

  28. Powerful and moving. Congrats and much respect to you and your strength through this. Reading this gave me chills, I have had a similar incident with my son’s father, and I also have an adopted sister who suffers from mental illness and addiction…. It is always a constant uphill walk. You are a testament to a true mother’s love for her child. OVERSTAND that. Parenting is hard, not to mention “single” parenting. You do what you have to as a responsible parent, and often it isn’t easy to decipher your own emotions from rationale in tough situations. I applaud you for your honesty and admire the fact you can write so openly about a subject that is so frequently hidden. And with that, I will leave you with a quote I always loved from Anais Nin ” Happiness is a journey, Not a destination.”

    Peace, Strength, and Love

  29. Michelle, I have watched you talk about da boi for a couple of years now. This just breaks my heart – I had no idea you were dealing with this issue. I am keeping you in my prayers. Peace and blessings and know that you are loved. May God bless you for what you are doing for your son now – not leaving his side.

  30. Michelle, extremely courageous writing here. Amazing story of both hurt and hope. Your son reminds me of students I work with everyday who vacillate between youthful joy and homicidal rage as they struggle many times with undiagnosed mental issues. Thank you for not giving up on your son.

  31. hello

    as a mental health therapist who has worked with families and children like yours I want to refer you to a book “orders of love” by bert hellinger and to the work of family constellations. Most western pscychology views mental illness as hereditary, only marginally treatable and the patient as a victim of their biology. In fact often such illness like your sons is a out of systemic loyalty to his father. your son may long for his father’s presence and is unconsciously becoming him out of loyalty. the issue is systemic and not individual. blessings on your and your sons journey to health.

  32. Wow Michelle, I have know you since before you had your baby and I have empathy for you because I know you both. I sometimes think that, that evil cut of the eye that my almost 175 pound, over 5 feet tall 10 year old of mine will be the warning signs of evil doings. I slapped his face yesterday for doing that to me after I had chastised him for something , but I later questioned myself, wondering if that is the answer. Although he is a wonderful and loving child, such as yours, at the back of my mind, I wonder if someday, he would do something to me. He has no known mental issues, but I do and it runs ramped in my immediate family. I truly pray for you and your family and for all of our little boys. I love you and miss you.

    G

  33. My dear Michelle,

    I’ve known you since we were in elementary school and was so glad to reconnect with you on the ‘Book….I’ve always enjoyed your posts about your son since we have sons that are the same age, so I was shocked to read about the struggles you’ve both been dealing with. I can only offer you my heartfelt support and as I’m not the praying kind, I will send lots of good juju both your ways to help give you the strength to deal with this. You’re a strong woman, but you’re only human. :-)

  34. I am so proud of you! This post is amazing!!! I knew you were on my mind for a reason. This post, makes my job working in the field of mentally disabled worth all of the hard work. You inspire me to keep working with the youth and helping those who can’t help themselves. I love you and your strength will only be seen and enhanced through GOD who loves you! I too have a brother and father who are both diagnosed with a mental disability, your words inspire me to stay strong! All the best and if you need anything please email me. I have some resources since I am in the field.
    A.

  35. Michelle, Brought tears to my eyes. You & Da Boi have become a part of our lives in a real way. Sending you love and blessings. No other words.

  36. Michelle,
    13 and 1/2 hours ago I admitted my 8 year old baby girl into the hospital for the 4th time, in the past four months. You’re story caught my eye because the night before last I was wrestling knives outta her hands in our kitchen while she thretened to kill me and her 6 yr old brother,she’s been called ODD,Schizoaffective,Bipolar,noone knows.I want to thank you, I have been awake for 48hours now and your site brought me comfort letting me know my baby isnt alone.Good luck and God Blessyou

  37. I sympathize with your situation and I hope someday you realize that APD is born not created by lack of love, lack of attention from a man, or from being overly motherly, giving the child too much and it has NOTHING to do with being black. My son is a wealthy white boy from a gated community and because of that the system shrugs their shoulders because we don’t qualify……. We have spent thousands on special schools starting at age 10, counselors who believe it is my fault and want me to seek therapy, and finally a gifted psychiatrist that was brave enough to tell us the truth: There is nothing you can do to change this but love him, set firm boundaries and hope for the best. Best case scenario he will go to jail several times and by age 25 his brain will develop enough for him to be a functioning adult BUT he will ALWAYS HAVE APD. He is 19 now, has been to jail three times, convicted of assault and possession of marijuana, kicked out of high school three times. He did earn 34 college credits before being kicked out, so now he is at home no diploma, no job prospects, and his credits are worthless without a high school diploma. We are on the brink of asking him to leave because we have had a flat screen TV stolen, fundraiser money has gone missing etc- he also befriends the worst type of people so they could be to blame for the thefts, but it’s highly possible it’s him. Yet I look at his handsome face and still see his cherub eyes and it is all so hard to believe. I feel angry that these genes are undoubtedly from my father and I have to live through this again but from my CHILD. I worked so hard that my children would not know the shame I experienced, yet he thrives when in the company of dredges of society. He finds the friends he grew up with in our neighborhood “Boring”. I pray for you and your son – stay strong and keep honest with yourself.

  38. Aaaw, this is such a touching post. It’s difficult to take care of a child with mental illness. It takes devotion, care, and patience. I admire people like you who could understand the pains of having a mentally-ill child. I know the efforts it took to make him the person he is now. I really believe that sometimes it just takes proper communication to the child.

  39. Very moving article. There is lots of work to be in this area. There are diverse groups and individual Mental Health Counselors, Psychologists and Psychiatrists, depending on ones preference.
    Two xamples, New York Association of Black Psychologists and the New York Mental Health Counselors Association.
    Google: Mental Health Facilities/ Mental Health Associations/Organizations/Mental Health Counselors/Groups etc.
    Contact these for referrals.

  40. Michelle,

    I read this post with tears in my eyes, as it sounds so familiar to me. My 16 year old son has a mental illness…we are not sure what, as he has been diagnosed with ADHD, depression, ODD… and the latest bi-polar. Our walls are littered with holes from his fists as well. He even broke several doors on his bedroom…the last one he tore it off the hinges and broke it in half! Life has been so hard for so long. He is such a great kid, very sweet, but that can change in an instant and he just blows up into this huge ball of fury over some of the smallest things, asking him to do chores, taking a shower, or telling him its time to go to bed. I thank God that I have not had to face this alone… my husband, my 4 children’s father, has been such an awesome blessing to me! But its still hard, he is gone often for work so I am on my own quite a bit. My son is 6’4 and weighs 190. He has gotten too big to control.
    About 3 weeks before school let out for the summer, my son was backed into a corner by 5 boys, he pulled a knife and got in some serious trouble. Thank God no one was hurt, but my son was arrested and sent to the Juvenile Detention Center, for 3 days. We have been in and out of court since. We did have to make the decision to relinquish our custody to the state so that they could put him in a facility and get him some help. It was so hard to make that decision, even though I know that my son needs this. He is now 300 miles away in a facility, and we are praying with everything we have that this is the answer to all of these years of trials. That finally our family is going to get to live a peaceful existence. I miss my son… I do not miss his temper, his lying, his stealing… but I miss my sweet son, and hope with all I have that this works… that he will finally be able to live a happy, healthy life! Thanks for writing this, its nice knowing that we are not alone and that other people understand what its like living with a child who is mentally ill.

    • These stories are so close to me. I have a 14 year old daughter with bi polar. I have the same holes in the walls, closets doors ripped off, etc. After the fourth hospitalization I had to allow CPS to take custody of her so she could get the help she needed. It is horrible that help for these kids is so hard to come by unless you wealthy. I pray for all of you and your families and I hope you will pray for my child as well. This is the hardest thing I ever had to do. Even during her violence, screaming and cursing I knew she was ok because I could protect her but now she is in someone elses hands. Only God can…

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