Mental Health Awareness Month always reminds me of a quiet Sunday in Oakridge, Oregon, nearly 18 years ago. My family and I lived in a secluded house, about a quarter mile from our nearest neighbor, at the end of a country road. Our only visitors were friends and family who usually required a fair amount of guidance to find the place.
I left home one Sunday morning in 1994 to attend a League of Oregon Cities conference in Eugene just after my family went through the usual routine of preparing for and attending church. Several hours later, my wife, children, and at least one friend from church returned to the house to find an unfamiliar truck parked in the driveway. My wife assumed the truck belonged to someone who might have been riding with me to the conference, but she was surprised when the children told her the door was locked as they tried to enter the house. Her surprise at the locked door was replaced by shock when a young man threw open the door and told everyone to come on in. The children didn’t hesitate and piled into the house before my wife could inquire about why the intruder was in our home. She reached the door and found the young man at the kitchen sink washing dishes. I might have just acknowledged our good fortune at finding a cheap housekeeper and let things go at that, but my wife is more particular. She asked the person to identify himself, and he responded with his name plus the statement, “James sent me.” Many of the male members of our family are named “James,” including my wife’s brother; so she assumed my brother-in-law had sent a worker over to do something for his company without bothering to inform us. You have to know my brother-in-law to understand why this was a reasonable conclusion.
Evelyn’s conversation with the young man at the sink took a bad turn as she asked more questions and the answers became more bizarre. She became really worried when he told her that because she refused to have his child he had come to kill her. Her concern was heightened by the butcher knife the intruder was holding as he continued washing dishes. My wife knew she couldn’t leave the house with the children scattered inside, and she had no immediate opportunity to call 911. Thinking quickly, she told our visitor that it was our family custom to gather and say a prayer after returning from church and she invited him to participate. He apparently liked this idea, and Evelyn called the children together to join in the prayer. She also told one of them to call 911, and one of our friends who was a police officer. Following the prayer, she was able to send most of the children outside.
No deputies or state patrol officers were available to respond to the 911 call; so it was dispatched to the city police chief. He and his wife had been over to our house for dinner a few months earlier, but he hadn’t heard we’d moved since that time. The new resident of our former home was more than a little surprised when a police car arrived, siren blaring and lights flashing, at her house along with a confused police chief wanting to know where the intruder was located.
Meanwhile, help arrived at our house in the form of an off-duty officer who quickly realized the situation and tried to keep the intruder calm while waiting for backup. I was blissfully attending my conference in Eugene until a television reporter walked up to me to ask about the intruder in my home. I knew nothing about it, of course; so I raced to a pay phone (pre-cell phone days) to find out what was happening. By the time I got through, my family’s ordeal was more or less over. Police reinforcements had arrived; and through the efforts of three large officers, the intruder was subdued and put into a patrol car. He was taken to the mental health unit at a Eugene hospital and was eventually sent to the Veterans’ Hospital in Roseburg. We later learned that our visitor was a Eugene veteran who had been released from the service after being diagnosed with schizophrenia.
My wife is usually calm in emergencies, and I credit her strength for keeping our children safe through the incident. I’m not sure what might have happened if I had been with the family when they arrived home from church. Until that day, I had never had much reason to think about mental health and how it can suddenly become an issue in the lives of ordinary people.
A few weeks after the incident, my wife was refilling our sugar bowl when she noticed some objects in the bowl. She pulled out a military necklace and ring the young man left there while he was washing dishes. Finding those objects triggered an emotional response from my wife, who felt great compassion for the young man and his family.
Mental Health Awareness Month is a good time to give thanks for what we have and to support the efforts of those working to treat mental illness. The problem is never far away, and we can feel its effects at any time.