I Lost My Son to Mental Illness, But I'm Fighting So No Other Parent Has to Feel My Pain
My son had his first psychotic break at 17 and he was threatening to carry out a school shooting. I immediately intervened, but the years that followed were a roller coaster. I lost my beloved son by suicide when he was 24 years old. Now I've made it my mission to fight for mental health reform.
Julian was my first born and only son. He was always very attached to me, as I was him. I even breastfed him until he was 3. When he was 2 years old, my daughter, Paris, was born and I remember nursing them together, with one on each side. Julian was a happy, funny child. But that began to change when he was 3. After I separated from his father, actor Kristoff St. John, Julian became quiet and agitated easily. Sometimes he would stare into space for long periods of time.
I did everything possible to try and make him happy, but he started getting into trouble early on, and even got kicked out of the first grade for fighting. We put him in a private school and went to seek professional help. We were told he had ADD. The truth was no one really knew what was going on—even the therapist and psychiatrist were just guessing. It’s hard to get a clear diagnosis at such a young age.
Julian had great qualities too. He was very athletic—I’m a professional boxer so I’d like to think that’s something he took from me. His father and I encouraged him to play sports and also put him in taekwondo. I took him to my fights when he got older and we traveled the world together. Those would be our most cherished memories. He was also very much into the arts and was talented like his father. When Julian was 10 years old, he started making movies, writing, and painting. His art, which depicted mental health, racism, love, childhood, and self-portraits of a beautiful but tormented soul, have been displayed in several galleries in California.
Then when he was around 14 years old, he quit every activity and was kicked out of his private school. He was blurting out foul language in class and displaying out-of-character behavior like spending long periods of time sleeping and irrational anger. During the next few years, he was in and out of appointments with therapists and doctors.
At 17, he had his first psychotic break. I got a call from the mother of his best friend and she said Julian was at his high school talking fast, very manic. He was not the Julian his friends knew. He was agitated and talking about how he was going to get a gun and have a shootout at the school then turn the gun on himself. I immediately called his father and planned for us all to meet at a local grocery store parking lot. Kristoff and I would then hospitalize him. I have a degree in psychology, so I knew the signs of psychosis.
After a few weeks, the doctor told me what I had long feared: our son had schizophrenia. My heart sunk and I went into panic mode. I knew there was no cure and, if I was lucky, this would be a lifetime struggle. Following his hospital stay, Julian was mortified about what he had done. He profusely denied he was planning such a thing. And I knew he was too sensitive and compassionate to ever be capable of that in his right state of mind.
Julian’s life became a nonstop roller coaster ride. He would go on and off his medication. When on medication, he was my beautiful, loving, and funny son again. Off medication, he was delusional, aggressive, and ended up either sleeping on park benches and in bathrooms, hospitals, or jail. I fought long and hard for conservatorship and even after I won in court when Julian was 24 years old, I learned it was very difficult to involuntarily commit someone unless they are a danger to themselves or others. I had to wait until my son was in psychosis and on the streets again. I contacted the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and they had him placed in a facility they contracted with.
On November 23, 2014, I lost my beloved son by suicide when he was 24 years old. We had hopes of getting him sober and back on his medication. We had plans for Thanksgiving the following week and he was looking forward to his December 7 gallery showing. It would never come to be. He took his life in the bathroom of his room in the facility leaving us with so many unanswered questions. What really happened in there? Was he even given his medication?
After Julian’s death, life became unbearable. Even breathing became difficult and exhausting. Not only was I in mental distress, but physically as well. I once read a quote, "The hardest thing I ever had to hear was that my child died, the hardest thing I ever had to do was live every day after that.” That is the best way I can describe what it feels like to lose a child.
I know Julian desperately wanted to live. Unfortunately, my son’s dreams will never materialize. Julian will never get married or have children. His paintbrushes will never touch another canvas. We’ll never have long talks about life, love, and the universe again. No more road trips with his sister Paris and I, laughing amongst silly arguments, all the way to our destinations. I’ll never get to hug or kiss my little boy again. I struggle every day to find answers. How does a parent recover from such a loss?
His father never could, and we lost him on Super Bowl Sunday on February 3, 2019. I spoke to him shortly before he died, and he was crying uncontrollably, saying he just wanted to die. I sent his best friend to check on him because I was too far away. By the time he got in the house, Kristoff had passed. They found high levels of alcohol in his system. I believe he drank himself to death—Kristoff had been drinking for weeks and he was also suffering from bipolar disorder. Two days earlier, he was in California’s Las Encinas Mental Health Hospital on a 72-hour psychiatric hold.
Kristoff was a friend to me. He always gave me hope, even when he had none. He was a very special soul and I’m saddened I couldn’t give Kristoff the hope he needed. But I’ve now made it my mission to fight for mental health reform, something I always promised Julian I would do. Julian’s art studio, Stone Art in Palm Springs, California, is now transformed into a center for those like himself, to express themselves through art, because for many of them words aren’t sufficient. We accept everyone, including those battling mental illness and substance abuse and the homeless. We also have two programs in Santa Monica at Step On Second, another center for the homeless and those battling mental illness. I know this is what Julian would have wanted.
I hope to help change the conversation surrounding mental illness and educate people—about 1 in 5 adults have mental illness in America, while about 1 in 5 youth aged 13-18 experience a severe mental disorder. And 46 percent of people who die by suicide have a known mental health condition. I’m also advocating for better quality facilities because I believe it could have saved my son. I will never stop fighting. In the meantime, I’m comforted in knowing that my beautiful boys, Kristoff and Julian, are together again and will always remain in our hearts.