During the final stretch of his doctoral program, Walter Russell,* 41, went from part-time dad to full-time caretaker—all while his for-mer wife suffered from an episode of schizophrenia.
Just as I was completing my dissertation for a Ph.D. I received a phone call that no parent is prepared for. “Come to the hospital immediately,” said the medical worker on the line. My former wife, with whom I shared joint custody of our then-4-year-old son, Tyler,* had been admitted. Once I arrived, doctors gave me the news: My son’s mother had experienced a psychotic breakdown. Neighbors had heard her screaming as she attempted to take him out into traffic, and they called the police. Once the police subdued her, they took both of them to the hospital. Thankfully, Tyler was not injured. Shortly thereafter, she received a diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenia.
Since we’d separated, I’d seen some signs that my former wife might’ve been ill; but since we did the weekly exchange of our son at his day care center, I hadn’t been able to observe her home surroundings. Once the officers gave me her house key, I was shocked at what I found inside. The walls were covered with hand-drawn pictures, there was no food in the fridge and the place was in chaos. It was like a scene right out of A Beautiful Mind. The thought that my son had been living in these conditions made me feel broken.
The day I left the hospital, I made a series of calls—to my attorney, to a social worker, and to the child psychologist who’d been working with our son since the separation. I also called my college advisor with the disappointing news that I’d have to set aside my dissertation work, but she had more faith than I did. “You’re going to finish this,” she told me; however, at the time, all I could think about was my son’s well-being.
“Mommy’s not feeling well right now,” I explained to him, “so you’re going to be with Daddy for awhile.” In the following days, I made the adjustment to caring for my son full-time, teaching to earn a living and squeezing in time to work on my doctorate.
A few weeks after her episode, my former wife was released from the hospital and went to stay with her parents nearby. In the meantime, I sought full legal custody of my son. But even after a parent has been diagnosed with a mental illness, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to circumvent any legal arrangement that has already been reached in court. Without due process, the courts cannot simply take away a person’s parental rights. So that meant my son’s mother had the right to continue picking up our son from day care, which she did one day—an alarming experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Eventually, I received temporary emergency custody of our son—all while I was defending my dissertation. One month later, I re-ceived the news that I’d successfully earned a Ph.D. in mass communications and media studies. I was ecstatic. Yet having already spent more than $12,000 on legal fees and owing another $6,000, I couldn’t afford the trip to attend the ceremony. As much as I’ll always wish my son could’ve witnessed me walking across that stage, I’m so grateful I was able to persevere.
Last year, I finally secured full legal custody of my son. After I completed my Ph.D., I was offered a position in the Southeast, but I instead chose to work as a professor at a university nearby. I love the job. And I wany my son to be near his mother so they can have a good relationship. My ex-wife, who is taking her medication and has sought treatment, is recovering very well. And one day at a time, I’m doing the best job I can of taking care of our son. *Names have been changed.
Read more in the April 2012 issue of EBONY Magazine!