A grieving mom writes her teen son's touching obituary, pleads for Iowa to do more for mentally ill

Mary Neubauer and her husband, Larry Loss, read a story in the June 13, 2009, edition of The Des Moines Register about Russian children visiting Iowa through a program called Camp Hope.

Six orphans were scheduled to visit for several weeks that summer in hopes of finding families who would adopt them. One of the events was at Warrior Lanes, a bowling alley in Waukee.

Mary remembers telling Larry, "I think we have to go to this."

Larry agreed.

The couple sat in the back, observing the children and not sure what they should do. They both noticed a boisterous boy named Sergei who kindly helped a smaller girl handle her unwieldy bowling ball and cheered for the other campers' every roll.

Thus began the love story of Larry, Mary and Sergei, a story that would bring so much hope and joy to all three, but which ended tragically this week.

Ethan Sergei Neubauer took his own life Monday after a lifelong battle with major depression, anxiety and PTSD. He was 18 years old.

'We knew that was our son'

After first meeting Sergei eight years ago, Mary and Larry talked to the people at Camp Hope to set up one-on-one meetings with the boy.

They went for ice cream. They built model cars at the couple's home in Urbandale.

Mary and Larry, both executives at the Iowa Lottery, knew a jackpot when they saw one.

"We knew that was our son," Mary said.

The couple told the Camp Hope people they wanted to adopt Sergei. The rules of the organization required the eager parents-to-be to wait until a specific day to ask the child directly if he or she wished to be adopted.

The day before that meeting, Sergei approached Mary and Larry.

Through an interpreter, Sergei said he knew a secret. Mary and Larry, wanting to observe Camp Hope's protocols, said maybe Sergei should hold onto that secret for one more day.

He agreed, but added, "I just want you to know that I know."

The next day Mary and Larry asked Sergei if they could adopt them. He enthusiastically agreed.

He came home to live with them as their son on Christmas night in 2009. And the three became a family.

'A crisis facing America'

This week, Mary, a former Associated Press reporter and editor, found herself writing her son's obituary, which appeared in Wednesday's Des Moines Register print editions.

In gentle prose, she described her son's love of the family dogs, soccer and wrestling, cooking and his favorite treats from Mary's repertoire, including her cheesecake and vanilla cupcakes on his birthday.

But Mary also revealed their son's struggle with mental illness and the years he spent fighting the effects of childhood traumas that haunted him all his life.

She described Iowa's utter lack of resources to help their son.

They pleaded with "lawmakers and policymakers everywhere to recognize the toll that mental health struggles and addictions are taking on our society, particularly our young people," the grieving mother wrote. "(We) believe it is a crisis facing America, one that must be acknowledged, better understood and ultimately addressed for people to have the tools to heal. Iowa did not have adequate mental-health resources during Sergei's times of crisis."

I've written about my own mental health issues and mental health in Iowa for almost five years, but Mary's words are a succinct and powerful indictment of society's inhumanity to the mentally ill — especially in Iowa.

This a mother opening herself up at her most vulnerable moment in an effort to help a state that effectively turns its back on people like her son.

As of 2016, Iowa was dead last in the number of public beds for mental health care.

Yet that's only the beginning. The mental health treatment facilities available in the metro area are only for stabilization. That means patients receive inpatient treatment until they are no longer an immediate danger to themselves or others.

But learning the skills to cope with lifelong mental illnesses and finding the right medicine combinations can take months, if not years.

The need for long-term inpatient psychological care is overwhelming and unavailable in Iowa.

A childhood filled with abuse

Sergei showed signs of trauma early in his life with Mary and Larry.

He woke up screaming, a condition called night terrors. Mary and Larry knew Russian authorities terminated Sergei's biological parents' rights because of severe alcoholism and neglect.

Later, Mary started to notice oddities.

He was missing part of an eyebrow. Some of his eyelashes had been pulled out. One day, Mary realized her 11-year-old son had a bald spot.

Marry and Larry took Sergei to Bruce Buchanan, a therapist at Compass Clinical Associates in Urbandale.

Buchanan diagnosed Sergei with trichotillomania, a disorder where people compulsively pull out their own hair to get a brief rush of endorphins in their system to feel momentary relief from mental anguish.

Eventually, Mary said, Buchanan diagnosed Sergei with major depression, anxiety disorder and PTSD — all stemming from an abusive childhood before Sergei met Larry and Mary.

Sergei also lived with reactive attachment disorder, which made it a struggle for Sergei to develop attachments to his caregivers.

Still, as Sergei grew closer with his adoptive parents, he shared with them other stories of abuse.

"He suffered every form of abuse that is possible," Mary said. "No human being should ever have to go through what he did. It is a miracle he even survived."

Stalked by bad dreams

Sergei stayed in family counseling with Larry and Mary, but his problems began to intensify as he reached his teenage years.

Driving home from school one afternoon near the end of his freshman year at Urbandale High School, he crashed his car.

Sergei told his mother a cloud of anxiety had been over him all day. In Mary's arms outside the crumpled car on the freeway, he told his mother he could not get away from his memories of Russia, and bad dreams stalked his sleep.

As Sergei's 18th birthday approached, he told two different stories.

At home, he was all teenage bravado. He was excited to be an adult, and he could finally strike out on his own.

Yet in counseling, Sergei confessed he was terrified of turning 18 and that he would be turned out and alone; he feared Mary and Larry would not let him stay with them.

Larry and Mary worked hard to assure their son he was always welcome in their home; they would always love him and be there for him.

Fleeing to New York City

In October, Mary got a call at work. Sergei was not at school. She texted him; no reply. She texted his close friends, but they didn't know where he was either.

Mary went home and found notes he left for them. He said he had stolen some money from his parents and purchased a bus ticket to New York City.

Finally, Mary reached him by text. They begged him for days to come home.

There was nothing he had done that couldn't be forgiven. He refused.

Finally, Mary said, she told Sergei it was his decision. If he chose to stay in New York, they would be heartbroken. They would always love him, but she couldn't force him to come home.

The next day, Sergei called home in tears and told his mother, "Please, can I come home?"

Mary and Larry learned Sergei had been abusing alcohol and other drugs. He got into treatment for substance abuse.

He changed medications. He continued therapy. But still, Sergei hid his feelings.

'What happened to your wrist?'

Part of healing is learning to accept that terrible things happened to you that weren't your fault but you still have to cope with them.

Sergei, his mother said, was never able to fully do that.

At a therapy session with Buchanan in March, Mary noticed a bandage on Sergei's wrist.

"Sergei," she asked, "what happened to your wrist?"

"'Oh, it's just a scratch, I'll tell you about it later,'" she remembers Sergei saying.

"No, I need to know what's going on with your wrist right now," Mary said.

He took off the bandage. He had cut himself deeply.

He had also gashed his neck and stabbed himself in the stomach. His parents rushed him to the emergency room.

Sergei spent more than a week in Iowa Lutheran Hospital's inpatient mental health care. But once he moved past the immediate threat of suicide, he was discharged.

In May, Sergei graduated from Urbandale High School. That same month, he slashed his neck again.

Larry and Mary futilely searched statewide for long-term care. Their insurance company offered little assistance and often gave incorrect or outdated information about facilities.

They broadened their search to nationwide. The found Cottonwood de Tucson, a behavioral health and rehabilitation treatment center in Arizona.

Larry and Mary paid for his treatment there. They both make a good living, but Mary said that isn't the point.

"I shudder and weep for anyone who does not have the resources we did to put behind their child's care," she said. "There is nothing out there to guide people. We spent hours researching and calling (departments of human services) across the country."

Sergei spent 30 days at Cottonwood and then transitioned to the PACE Recovery Center in Costa Mesa, California.

'Life in your eyes'

When Sergei finally came back to Clive, he seemed much better.

"You have life in your eyes," Larry told his son.

But Larry and Mary worried. They knew their son struggled with his addictions and mental health crises. And they knew his propensity for hiding his true feelings.

"There were times I wanted to go downstairs and look in his room to see if everything was OK, but I knew I couldn't," Mary said. "At Cottonwood, they taught us that we can't save him, we couldn't babysit him and we couldn't act like police officers and search his room. I wanted to give him the dignity to be his own person."

Sergei seemed to be thriving. He recently earned his three-month sobriety chip from Alcoholics Anonymous.

He attended meetings nearly every night and got a sponsor right away upon returning from California. His "AA family" would go out to dinner after meetings.

Sergei usually returned home from meetings upbeat.

"We would ask him how it went and he would say, 'Oh, good. We had a great speaker,'" Mary said.

Last week, Sergei came home from a meeting and was sad. A member of his AA group was struggling with personal issues.

Sergei and his friends spent a long time talking with the person. It seemed to deeply affect Sergei.

Taking care of himself

In the coming days, Sergei became withdrawn. His parents worried.

"I told him that it was good that he cared so much for his friend, but he couldn't lose himself in someone else's pain," she said. "He had to take care of himself."

Monday, Mary went to work at the Iowa Lottery. A family friend was traveling and had something called "mashed fish" for a meal.

A longstanding joke between Sergei and his parents involved seafood. Sergei, who grew up on seafood, loved it; his Iowa parents did not.

"Look around you," Mary often told her son. "This is a landlocked state. There aren't a lot of oceans around here."

On Monday afternoon, Mary texted Sergei saying their friend had eaten "mashed fish" and it sounded awful. She included a smiley face emoji.

Sergei replied, "Sounds delicious" and included a smiley of his own.

Mary left the office early that day to bring home some work she needed to concentrate on.

She got home about 3:30 p.m. She went to check on Sergei and found that he had committed suicide.

She called 911 and medics tried to revive him, but it was too late. That beautiful boy Larry and Mary had fallen in love with at a bowling alley eight years before was gone.

"Oh, Sergei," Mary remembers saying.

Larry and Mary will greet mourners from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Caldwell Parrish Funeral Home and Crematory in Urbandale. The funeral is set for 11 a.m. Friday at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines.

'Be kind'

Saturday, Larry and Mary will walk for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the organization's biggest fundraiser of the year.

They will tell their story. They will help raise money.

And they will pray to God that the people in the houses of the Iowa Legislature, the governor's mansion, the insurance companies and hospital industry will finally hear the desperate cries for help from so many who suffer without adequate resources.

Mary closed her obituary with four pieces of advice that bear repeating:

  • If you need help, ask for it. Can it be scary to take that step? No doubt. But you are not alone.
  • Seek to build others up, not tear them down. In little ways every day, we each can try to make a constructive difference. A smile, a kind word, a moment of your time can make a huge impact on others.
  • Avoid drama. It does no good. Use your energy more wisely — there is only so much to go around.
  • Recognize small moments of joy, for they happen all the time. We just have to notice.

Mary added a fifth note in our conversation Wednesday as she and Larry prepared to go to the church to plan Sergei's service:

"Be kind," she said. "My God, just take a moment to be kind."

Suicide signs, counseling:

Specialists say many suicides can be headed off through counseling.

Free help can be found by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-8255. Callers can get immediate help from a crisis specialist, and they can get referrals to local counseling. The group's website is suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Counselors say people should seek help if they see these signs in themselves or others:

  • Talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself.
  • Seeking access to guns, pills or other suicide means.
  • Talking or writing an unusual amount about death or dying.
  • Feeling hopeless or trapped.
  • Withdrawing from friends and family.
  • Feeling rage or uncontrolled anger.
  • Acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities.

Experts also say family and friends should try to limit access to guns by people who exhibit signs of serious depression.

 

The Detroit Free Press


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