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The son who vanished …

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Jesse I was becoming less and less in touch with reality, and more and more in my own world. I grew my hair long and grew a long beard. I would lie on the couch for long periods of time and I would walk very slowly, and I wouldn't respond to people.

Susan His hygiene went totally down the tubes. He wasn't taking care of himself at all. He had several part-time jobs, but they lasted a day because as soon as he worked, they realized he couldn't function. He would go off wandering by himself all the time. For hours and hours and hours on end. I remember one day he came home — he'd wandered around all night — and he told us he'd been walking on the railroad tracks.

Jay It got to the point where there was really only one of his friends that would even talk to him. They all just deserted him pretty much.

Jesse It's kind of blocked in my memory. I look back and say, "Oh, that's why no one was around."

Susan They didn't want to be out in public with him because he was acting so bizarre. But, hey, they were young guys too. I can't really blame them. I didn't like being out with him in public, to be perfectly honest.

Jay I guess that's one of the things with serious mental illness. When you develop some other physical illness, like cancer or something, your friends will rally around you, send you get-well cards. When you develop a serious mental illness, they just disappear.

Susan The year 2000 was coming up, so his story was always, "Don't worry, I am just going through a bad patch — everything will change in the millennium." That was his standard line.

Jesse is a textbook case. Schizophrenia usually strikes teenagers or people in their 20s, often without warning.

Roughly one in 100 people, across every race and culture, are diagnosed with the disease. Scientists aren't sure what causes it; as with most mental illnesses, inherited genes are believed to play a role, but in many cases of schizophrenia, like Jesse's, there is no known family history.

Jay admits that if he had been asked about schizophrenia before his son was diagnosed, he might have said it had something to do with split personalities, a false perception perpetuated in movies such as Jim Carrey's Me, Myself and Irene.

In fact, schizophrenia is defined as a "break with reality," and symptoms often progress as Jesse's did — withdrawal from friends and family, then confusion, followed by delusions.

For several months, Jesse's parents hoped that it really was just "a bad patch." Melissa, occupied with university and spending most nights at her boyfriend's place, thought he was being deliberately "obnoxious." But by the late spring of 1999, Jesse was clearly psychotic.

It was devastating: Jay had always been close to Jesse, but now his son refused to speak to him and began to refer to his father as the Devil. The family, who'd never attended church, couldn't make sense of this newly found religious fervour. "It was very scary," his mother says, as Jesse's delusions intensified.

Jesse I started hearing voices. I would hear my own voice in my head as my regular thoughts, but then I had additional voices. On my left side, I heard a very disruptive commanding male voice that I thought was the Devil. On the right side, I would hear a very soothing, calming female voice that I thought was the Virgin Mary.

When I was watching TV, particularly the news, I would watch the journalist and it was if I could hear his thoughts in my mind, and I believed it was the Devil.

I started fixating on people's hands: I believed that the left hand represented the Devil and the right hand represented God. So I got this notion that when people were doing work with their hands, if they finished with their left hand, they were doing work for the Devil; if they finished on their right hand, they were doing work for God.

I would see a couple of crows in the trees in my backyard and I would believe they were the Devil's birds watching me.

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