My name is Sean Adler. Has Melissa told you of me? She has told me enough of you to provoke me into writing. She often talks about her earliest memory, the day you brought Tony home nearly ten years ago now. Just as often she speaks of the altogether different mood in the house when you brought Katie home seven years later, a mistake. Accidents can surely be happy, but this one wasn't. Your husband had already planned to leave you and this wasn't going to stop him. But he stuck it out through the pregnancy figuring he would be awarded all three kids. He wasn't awarded the kids, was he?

Of course he was shocked, but the gavel came down and he couldn't take it back. Still, no one could blame him for leaving. Melissa couldn't even bring herself to hold it against him. How could she? She wanted to go with him. Did you know? And at the time she was newly twelve years old and so legally old enough to decide for herself which parent to live with. But there was no choice. After all, if she went with him who would take care of Tony and little Katie? Not you. Not good enough anyway. And then there was the guilt. Guilt about envying her father for being able to escape. Guilt about the anger she felt because it hadn't worked out the he planned. No, she couldn't leave. Who would take care of you? Not you. What would you have if not your kids? What are you if not a mother?

Certainly not least of all, Melissa is the only one of your children old enough to know that you haven't always been the way you are now. She has recited to me dozens of snap shot memories of her grade school years when you worked at the public library (back when you were able to work). She would walk there after school to wait until 4:30 when your shift was up and watch you "pirouette" (her word) up and down the aisles looking for the proper decimal in Dewey's system. She would snuggle into beanbag chairs in the children's section and giggle too loudly with fright when you would sneak up on her from behind a bookcase and pounce with tickling fingers on her ribcage. Do you remember Ms. Johnson? Melissa does. That is her real mother and she clings with teenage tenacity to the hope that this mother will return.

But lately I see even this hope beginning to fade. I see it evidenced by the amount of time she spends here now. When she first started dropping by it would be only occasionally and she would not stay long as she would want to get home to make sure Tony and Katie were fed and not watching too many or inappropriate television programs. But now she is over as often as I let her. Anything not to have to go home. Don't you wonder where she goes after school? Has she told you? Well, I'd rather have her here than taking those long walks through the city she uses to avoid home life. Of course she feels guilty and apologizes incessantly for being here, but she is really not much of a bother. She will sit quietly for hours so as not to trouble me. For lack of anything better to do, she does her homework. She is actually quite bright and her grades have improved immensely, though she assures me you "aren't all that concerned with it."

Perhaps I should tell you how I came to be concerned about Melissa. It is a story you don't know, and I hope it will help legitimize my reason for writing to you. Please picture a frightfully skinny brunette girl sprinting up an alleyway. Clutched in her hands is a small, pale blue Tupperware bowl filled with prescription medication. There are anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, pills to aid sleep and pills to counter-act the side effects of other pills. She runs four blocks before exhaustion creeps far enough into her hysteria to make her realize that she must do something. She turns and pounds on the very next door. No answer. She sees a light across the alley, runs to it and pounds on that door. The young man on the other side of the door is so startled he nearly drops his textbook. He gets up to answer the knock hoping it is the girl he met in the Student Union last week. Instead, he cracks open the door to find a young girl with a tear streaked face holding a small, pale blue Tupperware bowl. She stands two paces back and turned sideways as if ready to scamper up a tree with so many skittish squirrels. The young man unchains the door and raises one bewildered eyebrow at her. In one breath she blurts, "I took these from my mother she tried to kill herself my brother and sister are still there."

He takes the bowl from her outstretched arm and examines the kaleidoscope pattern of pale orange hexagons, sky blue spheroids, half-green/half-yellow capsules and chalk white squares each imprinted with a capital "D".

"We'll call somebody."

She goes in and sits in the chair closest to the door. He calls 911.

"Nine-one-one emergency."

"Um, hi. A girl just knocked on my door saying her mother is attempting suicide."

And so on the call goes with the student playing middleman between the trembling girl and the patient operator. It is settled that the girl should stay put for now and that the police and an ambulance would be sent for her mother. An aunt would be notified to pick up the children who, the operator was made to promise, would not have to ride in the back of a squad car. The aunt would then pick up the girl at the student's apartment. So that's what happens.

During the eternity before the first policeman arrives, followed shortly by an anxious aunt, the young man gives the girl a blanket and she turns down the soft drink he offers. Mostly he monitors her catatonic stare and her shaking, wishing he had some Kleenex and that someone would hurry up and get there already. People come and go that quickly. He can't seem return to his books.

Two weeks later she shows up at his door again. She immediately launches into thank-yous and apologies for the previous incident, but doesn't get out more than three sentences before bursting into tears. He invites her in and gives her a blanket (hold the soft drink) and the box of Kleenex he recently resolved never to be without. He cooks for her a simple meal and gets her laughing after a bit. He learns her name. He offers to ride with her back to her aunt's place, but learns that the reason she is back in the neighborhood is to prepare the apartment for her mother's arrival home tomorrow. After only two weeks! So he walks with her the few blocks and helps her clean the apartment, which "always gets this bad before mom goes into the hospital," she explains.

The next time Melissa stopped by she got through her thank-yous and apologies. She even brought me a box of Kleenex to replace the half box she used up last time, telling me that I should buy the good kind with lotion in them so they won't make my nose sore. So she started dropping by now and again, usually in a somber mood and hungry, and we developed a friendship, of sorts. Still, for eight months now I've expected you to bang on my door, accuse me of some impropriety and forbid your daughter to return here. I figure most parents in their right mind would be protective of their fifteen year-old daughters that way. The fact that this hasn't happened makes me thankful that it was indeed my door she happened upon, instead of another. Mostly I just try to listen and help her with her homework. After hearing what she's been through, I don't mind doing what I can. But also, I'm in no position to do any parenting. I gather you aren't either.

Melissa's father on the other hand seems, well, fatherly. I've had the opportunity to talk with him a bit because I let her call him from here, since you won't let her call him from there. Wisely, he asked to meet me. After his suspicions were cleared, he thanked me for letting Melissa call and for offering her a refuge from you. He sends me money every month for the phone bill and some extra for the kids (knowing that if he sent it to you they would never get it). He has told me that all of his efforts at legal enforcement of his two weekends per month visiting rights have been met with judicial jargon equivalent to "tough beans." In addition, in the preliminary hearings of his constant lawsuits to obtain outright custody, he is told that your medical records are inadmissible, as though you had perhaps a heart disease, not a degenerating mental illness. This mistaken legal equivalency is the critical one for the children. A single mother with a heart condition need not have her children taken away from her. While some accommodations may need to be made as her disease progresses, the mother will remain the same in essence and intent. In fact, treatment is administered with this preservation of identity as its specific goal.

This same sensible "quality of life" approach has been taken in the treatment of your disease with surprising inefficacy. While you are also given regiments of pills and therapies intended to make you "yourself" again, you do not experience physical pain or a shortened life expectancy if you do not comply. With these motivations nonexistent and none other imposed on you, what then is supposed to create your desire to obey doctor's orders? The unfamiliar might assume that an innate desire to be well arises at the same time and to the same degree as any sickness, and that you would simply want to take the Novane as one might want to take aspirin for a fever. However, the advanced state of your particular illness renders you unable to realize you are sick in the first place. I think you honestly believe that nothing is wrong with you (though this letter is an attempt to convince you otherwise). This belief works out quite wonderfully for you. If the heart patient suffered no immediate symptoms, nor any long-term ill effects due to her disease, then it wouldn't be much of a problem would it? Your disease, then, is not much of a problem for you since the malady itself has made you oblivious to its symptoms. The notion that it is "all in your head" becomes precisely wrong, it is everywhere but. When a mental illness reaches such a profound state it becomes a social disease. The symptoms of it can only be observed by those you have social interaction with. Sadly, due to their unfortunate proximity, most of the behavior symptomatic of the advanced state of your illness is inflicted on your children.

Over the months Melissa has told me the details of not only your last stay in the hospital, but of all eleven of your stays. She recounts to me stories yet more bizarre than systematically emptying your prescription medication into a Tupperware bowl with the intent of committing suicide in front of your children. Driving 60mph down city streets, with Tony in the car, to the corner market because you were out of cigarettes. Almost burning down the old house because you left a plastic spatula in the oven next to the casserole, "for convenience" you told investigators. Putting your declawed house cat outdoors last February.

Unfortunately for the kids, these simply crown months of increasingly erratic behavior. I find it appalling that not one amongst the army of psychiatrists, psychologists, case workers and counselors who have reviewed your case history has ever given regard to the impact this cycle of hospitalizations has on your children. Yet, time and again each of your incidents is treated as separate from the last. You are given the latest-greatest combination of medication and your children are given back to you to go through it all again. Well, fine for you. But what of the children? What of the missed school days because of late nights trying to make mom stop crying? What of the missed homework and failed classes because no one is checking up? What of the missed meals? What of the sorely missed father? What of the dread of going home? What of the lack of friendships caused by the simple inability to invite a classmate over? How do you rebuild the self-confidence destroyed as a result of all this? How do you tell a child it's not her fault? I do not feel sorry for you Ms. Johnson; you are not the victim here. The children, your children are the victims and they are victimized by you. Melissa tells me you are as bad now as you have ever been. I hope that you are not so far gone that the written word is incomprehensible to you. At the same time, I do not wish that you are well either. Your children don't need to go through it all again. Not one more respite in the County Mental Health Complex just until it is determined that you are not a threat to yourself or anyone else, then out the door. Don't force them to pretend nothing happened upon your return. Spare them the nervous anticipation of the impending next time. Your children still have a chance. The time has come to send them to their father.

If I believed in Jesus I would say a prayer against your demons. But I don't. I do believe that there is a power somewhere strong enough to forgive you for your life and that it will. Do you understand Ms. Johnson? Do it right this time, and not in front of the children. I write to beg you, please, not in front of the children.