By Laurie Ahern

This is a tale of two boys-two young men to be completely truthful. One is well known to me-the son of a close friend of mine-we’ll call him Jack. And the other, well, he is not so well known to me-only through a few anonymous phone calls to the National Empowerment Center. We’ll call him Karl. (The names have been changed for this tale to protect the innocent, and I’m sorry to say the not so innocent anymore). And for anyone who might wonder, this is a very true tale.

Once upon a time, there were two wonderful, happy, smart young men. Both were in college, living on their own-testing the waters-testing themselves. New friends, new freedoms, new loves, new ideas, new temptations-new everything. Both had the world at their feet and were limited only by their own imaginations of what their lives might be about, might become. Then crash.

Well, as I said, Jack is a child I have known for his entire lifetime. I watched him grow inside his mother, I watched him take his first steps and say his first words. I watched and I’m still watching.

Karl I met just months ago-via the NEC 800-line. Karl I don’t know-yet I do. The parallels between these two young men are eerie-yet the outcomes so different-so frighteningly different.

Crash, crash, crash. It seems to happen at that age doesn’t it? Eighteen to mid-twenties. And it happened to Jack and Karl.

Jack was at a college in New England and Karl was in school out on the West Coast. I remember when Jack was fifteen years old, he and a friend were car-jacked at knife-point. Even though they caught the guy-and he was sentenced to seven years in prison-Jack never seemed to quite get over it. He would not stay alone in his house at night, always locked his car doors no matter where he was going, and would not travel without a cell phone. When Karl called me at the NEC, he told me about a time when he was an exchange student in high school, how he had been held up-mugged-alone in a foreign country-and had never been so terrified in his life.

I tell you these things for a reason.

Jack has always wanted to be a journalist and Karl, he told me that music has been his passion since as long as he could remember. Both had such high hopes, such big dreams. Only one dreamer remains. The other dreamer died with his dreams when he was labeled “mentally ill.”

Each experimented with drugs for the first time in college-Jack went to a concert and tried LSD. Karl started smoking marijuana with the band he formed in college. Pandora’s box was now open. Paranoia and fear trickled in, replacing logic. Men were after them, people were talking about them. They could not sleep, they could not eat. Fear was the dominating factor in their lives. The drugs were gone, the high was over, the trip had ceased-but the demons remained.

Jack called home and Karl’s friends called his parents. This is where the road divides. This is where the similarities end. This is where one has a breakdown and the other has a breakthrough.

Jack’s mother knew he was frightened. She told him to leave college and come home. She felt she needed to help him feel safe again-the only way to bring him out of this deep paranoia.

Karl’s parents told him to come home. They too knew he was frightened, needed help. They brought him to the best psychiatrist. He was hospitalized. He was medicated. He was told he had a chemical imbalance of the brain. He was labeled. He was told that college was too stressful for him. He could never return. He tried to commit suicide. He lived, but his dreams, his dreams died.

Jack’s mother and friends stayed home with him, listened to the fears. He went off caffeine, ate healthy foods and took long, warm baths. He had acupuncture, massages, and found a therapist who did not label him. They took walks together, they talked. Slowly, very slowly, he felt safe enough to come back. And then they worked on why he left, why this reality was so frightening that he needed to leave it in the first place.

Jack-well, Jack is back living at college. He started working out and volunteers in a home for mentally retarded adults. He told me several things since his breakthrough: “This is the most painful thing I have ever experienced in my life and I would not wish it on anyone-but I would not change a thing. Better I deal with these issues now then wait until I’m forty or fifty. I feel stronger than I ever have. I’ve learned so much about myself, I still have fears but I control them-they no longer control me.”

Karl called me after he walked home from his last day at the day treatment program. “I saw a sign on a restaurant window-they were looking for a dishwasher. Do you think I could handle that?” I cried.