The First Time I Saw My Kids After My Breakdown

"I haven't seen them in 3-and-a-half months."

by Hugo Schwyzer
Originally Published: 

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November 17, 2013.

It’s a breezy, cool, foggy Sunday morning. I am sitting on the bench just outside the reception area for Creative Care, the dual-diagnosis rehab facility that has been my home for 11 days now.

My eyes are fixed on Trancas Canyon Road. Creative Care is high on the hill, with a spectacular view of all of Malibu and beyond, and the road winds up just over a mile from Pacific Coast Highway. I am waiting for a gold SUV to turn down the drive. My children are coming. I haven’t seen them in more than 3-and-a-half months.


The bench is hard, and it’s cold. I stand up. Too fast; I sit back down again as the head rush subsides.

A dual-diagnosis facility like Creative Care specializes in treating patients who have both a psychiatric diagnosis and one or more addictions. I have collected a cluster of both diagnoses and addictions, and with them, a very long list of medications to take.

At this point, I’m on high doses of Invega, Lithium, Zyprexa , Lexapro, Naltrexone and Klonopin. I have an addiction to the last of these; when I checked in, I was on 12–14 mg. a day. They’ve weaned me down to 6 (A normal starting dose is half a milligram). Most days, they also give me Thorazine on request.

I am anxious and occasionally delusional. I talk very slowly, they tell me, even though I think I’m speaking normally. It takes me 20 minutes to read a short newspaper article.

My children are coming. I haven’t seen them in more than 3-and-a-half months.

On the other hand the days I don’t want to die are starting to outnumber the days I do. The voices that tell me to jump in the ocean have been silenced by the pharmacological tsunami. There are flickers of hope.

And Eira has decided I can see the kids.

They were due at 11 AM, and I’m frantic at 11:05 when I don’t see the car. I don’t have a phone. I can’t text. I pace, I feel nauseated, I sweat, I turn in a circle — and the gold SUV pulls up.

Eira lowers the window. “Chuchi’s asleep,” she whispers. My son is exactly 18 months old, still on 2 naps a day. She rolls down the rear window. Though my wife has texted me so many photos to document their growth, I’m not prepared to see how much bigger he is.


“Hi, Abba.” Heloise waves from her seat next to Chuchi’s. We gape at each other through the open window. My daughter is beaming, but I can hear the tightness in her voice. She is nearly 5. Eira has been cagey about how badly my absence has affected her, but I can guess.

Heloise is in therapy twice a week.

Eira unbuckles a sleeping Chuchi while I walk around the car to embrace Heloise. I’m awkward; my body has changed more in the past few months than hers has. When she last saw me, I weighed 180 pounds. Now, thanks to the meds, I weigh 225, by far the heaviest I’ve been in my life.

The cheekbones of which I was once proud are gone. Instead I’ve got softness to go with the slowness. My hugs, I think, must feel so different than what my daughter remembers. Or not. We walk together holding hands. She has her American Girl doll, Cyndel, tucked under her arm.

Eira warned he probably wouldn’t recognize me. It stings though.

We all head into the main Creative Care building. The plan is for Eira to take the kids and me down to Trancas Canyon Park, where we can play. Because this is a first visit and I’m considered unstable, we’ll only be allotted 90 minutes. Eira shows her ID and signs the paperwork taking responsibility for me. Chuchi starts to stir, and she soothes him expertly with one hand while the pen darts in the other.

She’s told me several times in recent months she will do whatever it takes to make sure her children grow up with their father. To that end, even after all the infidelities and betrayals, even though the divorce is certain, she will fight for my survival.

The tech at the desk looks at the clock. “It’s 11:20. He needs to be back by 12:50 PM.”

On the way back to the car, Chuchi wakes up, looks at me with confusion. I put out my hand to stroke his cheek. “It’s abba,” I say softly.


He shies away. Eira warned he probably wouldn’t recognize me. It stings though. Before I left, he wanted to be in my arms almost every waking minute. He had been a daddy’s boy.

As we drive down the hill, I think of the military moms and dads whose separations from their kids are 2 and 3 times as long as mine has been. I was not fighting for my country in Baghdad or Kandahar. I was cycling between hospitals, jails, and my mother’s house.

The park is nearly empty. Eira hands me a backpack. “That’s for Chuchi,” she says.

I open it up — it is filled with snacks, and small balls. “Throw the ball for him,” my ex says. I toss it on to the grass. Eira lowers my son and he bolts after it. I suck in my breath. I have never seen him walk before, much less run. He took his first steps a week after I’d left. He barely seems a toddler any more, as there’s no toddle in his game. He’s becoming a little boy.

Because this is a first visit and I’m considered unstable, we’ll only be allotted 90 minutes.

I try to spend time with both children. I push Heloise on the swing, and then chase her around the jungle gym. I tire too quickly. I have no fitness.

We play with the doll on the slide. As confused as I am in my head, I know that the doll is a way for my daughter and me to navigate this difficult reunion. I find out that Cyndel sometimes gets scared, and that her mommy protects her. “When she cries, I give her cookies and let her sleep in my arms”, Heloise says solemnly.

It’s too soon to ask what Cyndel gets sad about. I stroke my daughter’s back. “You’re a really good Ima,” I tell her. Heloise beams.

Chuchi still doesn’t know who I am, but his guardedness vanishes when I kick a small soccer ball at him. He does a halting shuffle like he’s a penalty taker trying to fool a goalie, then drives the ball straight into my groin.


It’s a soft ball but I still feel it. Eira snorts. Chuchi chortles. Heloise demands to play, and then drags her mother into it.

For a few minutes, we look like a Norman Rockwell family. A dad, a mom, a daughter, a son, kicking a ball in an erratic rectangle. I imagine the ball is carrying thread with it as it rolls, weaving us back together, restoring what was torn.

Chuchi gets bored, cries, demands to be fed. “Boobie, Ima! Boobie!”

Heloise and I go back to the slide. “Do they have dessert in the hospital?” she asks. I decide this isn’t a way of asking why her pops weighs nearly 50 pounds more than the last time she saw him. Not that it would matter if it were.

I wonder what it’s like to be so fiercely angry with someone while you’re simultaneously so desperately invested in making sure they don’t die.

“They do.”

“Maybe someday I can come try it?”

“Sure, honey. But I have a better idea. I’m going to get out of here and come home and take you out to ice cream.”

My daughter stands stock still, stares up at the mountain. Shit! Eira told me not to promise the kids anything about the future. My brain feels so sluggish; I can’t think of a way to rescue this. Heloise shrugs, and then runs towards a large bronze sculpture of 2 dolphins. “Abba, help me on this.”

I lift her onto one dolphin’s back. Chuchi clamors to be included, and we hoist him onto the other. Eira tries to get a picture, but Chuchi doesn’t like my hands holding him in place. He wails for his mother.

Flickr / Seongbin IM

Heloise stays on the dolphin, and then puts Cyndel the doll on the dolphin’s back just in front of her. She points out the sights, as if the pair really are riding through the sea. “Do you see that big ship over there,” she points; “We’re going to all live on it together some day.”

I follow her finger to the parking lot. I see my daughter in her 20s, cut off jeans and a t-shirt, running a sail up a schooner. She is fierce. I wonder what Cyndel sees.

The 90 minutes are up. We pack up the car and the kids and drive up the hill to Creative Care.

Staff are waiting as we pull up. “No need to get out, Mrs. Schwyzer!” one says, “we’ve got him from here.” I climb out, lean in through the back window and kiss Heloise, then go to the other side to kiss my son. He doesn’t shy away, just studies me with curiosity and what, I choose to believe, is a glimmer of memory.

I talk very slowly, they tell me, even though I think I’m speaking normally.

I hug Eira through the driver’s side window. “Thank you,” I say, feeling the tears starting to come, “thank you so much.”

Eira exhales. “It’s okay. Remember what you’re fighting for. Don’t ever forget.”

I wonder what it’s like to be so fiercely angry with someone while you’re simultaneously so desperately invested in making sure they don’t die. I don’t know. She knows.

The SUV pulls away. Heloise holds Cyndel half out the window, raising the little doll arm rapidly up and down in a wave. Cyndel doesn’t stop waving until the car turns out the drive and disappears down the road.

Flickr / NRMA

Because this was my first visit out of the facility, I need to be searched for contraband on my return. The 2 techs ask me kindly about the children while I strip to my underwear. Their hands move smoothly and expertly over my stout body.

I have been searched like this so many times in so many places that it’s more a meditation than an indignity. I can see out a window that looks to the west, down to the ocean. The water is glass, there is no surf, no surfers.

And it’s true I’ve had hallucinations, and it’s true we’re 3/4 of a mile from the water, but there, right out there, are 4 dolphins, and they are porpoising south. They are rising, they are arcing, they are falling, and they rise again.

They rise again. And they rise together.

I will spend another 4 weeks in rehab, followed by 3 months in a halfway house. And I will rise.

Hugo Schwyzer is a father, and scribbler of things.

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