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.
On November 23, 2014, I received a call that my only son was dead. My beautiful 24-year-old boy was gone. I could barely hear the words from the other end of the line, my cries were drowning them out. I was given the news while driving. I remember pulling over to the side of the road to call my ex-husband, my son’s father. How I made it home that day without getting in a wreck is still a mystery to me. I can only think that I was guided home by my higher-self, to inform my daughter, Julian’s sister, of his death.
Two months prior, we had placed Julian in a mental health facility in Long Beach, California. He was placed there on a 5150, an involuntary psychiatric hold, and then later, a 5250 (14-day hold). Finally, he was placed in a long-term hold. Our son Julian, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at 17, had become suicidal while off his medication and hooked on a powerful substance – meth. He was referred to the long-term facility through LA County’s Department of Mental Health, which allocates a certain number of beds to different facilities. The county facilities lack proper oversight by the California Department of Health Care Services and are often in violation of neglect and falsifying records. This particular facility had numerous deaths on their record and were, in fact, cited for neglect and falsifying the records of my son, resulting in his death.
“He could light up a room with his lovable smile and zest for life. Julian desperately wanted to live.”
The deaths and violations of facilities are often swept under the rug, so many parents have no knowledge of the history before placing their children. The websites of these facilities paint a hopeful picture and claim to “deliver recovery-centered services that enable people to live their lives in a more hopeful, healthful, fulfilling way that is in line with their hopes and dreams.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Our LA County facilities, for example, often lack programs for recovery, doctors on site, proper medication oversight, and, sadly, an empathetic staff.
Like many parents with children who have mental health issues, we just wanted to find help for our child. Our children suffer from a horrific illness for which there is no cure; however, with proper medication and therapy, living a viable life is possible. We had hoped that our son could withdraw from meth in a safe environment, get back on his meds, and that within the year, he would come home – alive.
My son was the light of my life. Julian was a gifted artist, a writer, and musician. His art had been displayed in several galleries, depicting various topics from the inadequacies of our correctional and mental health system to racism and love to self-portraits of a beautiful but tormented soul. He was insightful, compassionate, and tolerant of all, traveling the world always in awe of its beauty. He could light up a room with his lovable smile and zest for life. Julian desperately wanted to live.
“How does a parent recover from such a loss?”
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’m never to hug or kiss my little boy again. I struggle every day to find answers. How does a parent recover from such a loss?
I told my sister that I could not go on without my son, and that I was ready to take my own life. Her response was, ‘Then give it away.” I was confused. “What do you mean ‘give it away,’” I asked. “Since you don’t want your life, give it to someone who does,” she replied, and so I did just that.
I have made it my mission to continue the fight for mental health reform, as I had always promised Julian I would do. I am fighting to ensure better care and monitoring in mental health facilities. Julian’s art and his words will live on and continue to inspire children and young adults that suffer from addiction and mental illness.
Julian’s art studio, Stone Art, is now transformed into a center for those like himself, to express themselves through art, because for many of them words are insufficient. We accept anyone and everyone, from the homeless to the mentally ill to the “addict who still suffers.” I know this is what Julian would have wanted. He gave me the greatest gift known to man, which is unconditional love. I once asked him, “What is God?” to which he replied, “God is love. God is everything.”
After Julian’s death, I asked my sister why it was my son. “Because this is the one case that will not be sweep under the rug, and Julian’s death will help save the lives of many,” she said.
The homeless people I give my life to every day are not my students or clients, but they are my friends. They breathe life into me, and now every morning I wake up and know that I have purpose, a reason for being. Their unconditional love is worth more than any of my five world titles. It’s something money can’t buy.
Boxing was my passion for over 20 years, but it was simply the vehicle to take me to my true destiny in life, which is helping others. My son gave this gift to me. He had a great compassion for the homeless and those suffering, and I am grateful to be able to carry on his message of love.
Mia St. John is a world champion boxer who is committed to raising suicide and mental health awareness following the death of her 24-year-old son, Julian. In light of her son’s tragic death, Mia created “The Stone Art Studio,” a program of The Mia St. John “El Saber es Poder” Foundation, a non-profit social service organization.