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The next stop in a mother’s mental health odyssey: ‘It is so good to see you again’

On Jan. 8, Donna Smith was in Jacksonville attending a court hearing on whether her son was going to be released from a mental health facility there. He had been involuntarily committed in late December after causing a disturbance at his apartment complex.

It was his third commitment since he disappeared from his North Carolina home in May and was found incoherent in his truck in Oklahoma. In August, he was committed after he donned heavy winter clothing and set off walking to Utah.

Smith’s son, whom I agreed to call Michael, was diagnosed as bipolar with psychotic features at age 18. He is 31 now. He was in Jacksonville because there were no available beds in Wake County.

At the January hearing, Smith wanted the judge to order Michael held on a long-term basis. He had stopped taking his medications early last year and, after three commitments in seven months, clearly needed to stay in the hospital until he was well enough to realize how ill he was.

Unsurprisingly, the hearing was an ordeal: The judge ordered Michael committed for two more weeks. Why two weeks? In Smith’s mind, it was completely arbitrary. No doctor spoke on Michael’s behalf. She hadn’t spoken.

When Smith said she wanted Michael moved to a Wake County facility that was holding a bed for him, the judge changed the commitment to three days. If Wake doctors wanted him to stay longer, a judge there could order it, he said.

For the commitment order to stay in place, law enforcement officers needed to transport Michael from Jacksonville to Raleigh. No one would do it, Smith said. She ended up having to drive him, meaning he no longer was under any order to be hospitalized.

Fortunately, Michael was willing to go in voluntarily. He also became willing to have his medicines administered by injection. After a three-week stay, he was released Jan. 28.

“I looked at him and said, ‘God, I haven’t seen you in a year. It is so good to see you again,’ ” Smith said, smiling widely at the thought of her child now unclouded by illness. “I just can’t even tell you what that felt like. I missed him.”

Michael meets twice a week with an Assertive Community Treatment team and will remain under its watchful eye indefinitely. He wants to find a job, Smith said, something he hasn’t mentioned in years.

“That’s how sick this whole system is,” Smith said. “I’ve watched him for a year be completely nonfunctional, and with medication and the right treatment and right supports, he’s normal – well, as normal as any of us are.”

Wheeler: 919-829-4825,, @burgetta_nando

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