by Cara and Carlton Johnson
Author’s note: This is a letter that my wife and I composed to our oldest son. Recently, he began treatment for mental illness. Because we know that so many want to say these same words to their children, we share this letter with you. We hold you in our prayers. — Carlton
My dearest elder son,
I know I’ve always been overprotective because you tell me so. Wiping away tears from the bruises of a fight or a scrape on the knee from falling from your bicycle was hard enough for a single mother. So, know that telling you that you may be susceptible to an imperceptibly slow-moving disorder, which could ultimately unravel your well-hewn life, was close to impossible.
For years, I carried the concern that I may have been the genesis of your malady. There was a delay between my water breaking and your delivery. Though my obstetrician assured me that you were fine, the fear that I had somehow caused you harm persisted.
I fought so that you might have a “normal” childhood. I watched your every move and mood. When I discovered a history of mental illness in your biological father’s family and in my own, my fears were renewed and expanded. I doubled down.
A therapist told me that you simply “marched to the beat of a different drummer.” I was relieved, but still vigilant.
You didn’t want to play sports. You were asked not to return to gymnastics because you fought other children when they touched you. Private school with its smaller classrooms seemed to be the answer. There, you thrived.
Then came the maturing of your active, more energetic and often precocious baby brother. You found him irritating. While I worked to teach you to protect him, he discovered the rhythm of your “different drummer.” He became eloquent in introducing you: “He processes information differently.” Eventually, he was the one protecting you.
Your younger brother drove three years before you even showed interest. I was thankful when Carlton offered to spend more time with you. Call me a coward, but I did not want the responsibility of having taught you if something happened to you.
Several months ago, you told me of an accident. You swerved when you thought someone was about to run into you. I felt a twinge in my stomach. I was thankful you weren’t severely injured, but I wondered if the accident had actually happened in the way you told of it.
At Thanksgiving, you revealed how people everywhere were suddenly beginning to whisper about you. The more you explained, the more I grimaced. Fear rose in me, fluid as a fever, like a tsunami crashing against my heart and all I wanted to do was protect you again. You’re a grown, loving, kind and gentle man. But you’re my baby and all I could hear was your tiny feet marching to the beat of that “different drummer.” Inherited traits of paranoia or schizophrenia were now being revealed. That night, I wept aloud.
All I can do now is assist you in getting the best possible medical, mental and spiritual support. I will call your doctors, employers, friends and family to keep you safe. I know you believe that what you say is real, but I love you too much to simply agree.
I’ve proudly watched you march into manhood, to the beat of that different drummer. For many years, you have made me the proudest woman in the world. At times, I know you think we, your family, are somehow not listening, but we are. Remember, we know the drummer, we always have. And if you remember nothing more, remember that we love you.
As would any parent, I will fight for your right to be happy and whole. I need you to fight as well.
I love you so much.
Cara Fears Johnson is a singer, songwriter, writer and mother of two sons. Carlton Johnson is the operations officer for Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta and associate minister at the First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, Georgia.