Personal Lessons Learned From The Leftovers

In the world of The Leftovers, The Departure happened on October 14, 2011. In my world, the departure happened on July 5, 2014, three years ago. I was working in my home office when suddenly, my 17-year-old son burst into the room. He was not the son I knew the night before. Something had completely changed. He was screaming and ranting at me, manic and aggressive — not at all like the boy I thought I knew. 

There was no calming him down, and the more I tried to talk rationally to him, the louder and angrier he became, until he was screaming incomprehensible nonsense. He was accusing me of doing something horrible, but he couldn’t articulate what, and it quickly became clear he didn’t know what it was he was accusing me of. After working hard to calm him down, it was obvious this outburst was the first symptom in what would become a tragic diagnosis. In that moment I met a stranger, someone I had never seen before.

I knew our son’s temperament, his mannerisms… And this was not him, not his personality. This was someone who terrified me. Not only because he was so aggressive, but because he wasn’t making any logical sense. I knew there had been some type of psychotic break, which terrified me more than his actions or behavior. I knew our lives were going to change forever. Our son, who we love and care for, and who had been a “normal” teen up to that point, was showing the first signs of serious mental illness. There was no history of mental illness in our family trees, so my wife and I were both baffled, incredibly saddened and frightened at this turn of events. 

We later found out he had been recently hearing voices. He believed his room and the entire house was bugged. He had delusions that the radio and TV were sending him messages he believed were specifically for him. The voices were telling him of things his family and friends were doing or had done, leading to a rapidly changing demeanor. We were never sure if he would have an “episode” (of which he has had many now). Sometimes questioning him about it would be enough to trigger one. 

The sense of loss we felt over finding out our son was suffering from mental illness is hard to overstate. We were completely crushed. A healthy son, a close family had been ripped from us, and in his place was a person we really didn’t know. We kept asking why — wondering if it had been brought on by drug use or some other factor. Ultimately, there was no “reason” for it — it is a disease and this disease took our son’s mind hostage. It has been the hardest thing my wife and I have ever had to deal with emotionally. We still struggle with our feelings about it, and likely always will. 

While watching The Leftovers, it soon became very clear that there were parallels between the feelings experienced by everyone left behind, and our feelings regarding losing the healthy son we had to this disease. Anger, guilt, sadness and the bigger question — why? — continued to haunt us, just as those same feelings and questions haunted those “left over.” 

Once Kevin’s father was revealed to suffer from mental illness, the show took on even more relevance. We watched with a different set of eyes than I believe most might see due to our experiences. We saw the struggle Kevin was experiencing with his father, while also struggling with the idea he may also be having a mental break of his own. All of a sudden, we were looking at television portrayals of mental illness in a totally different light. And, to the credit of the writers of The Leftovers, mental illness was not portrayed as monstrous — it was portrayed with care. It wasn’t a caricatured portrayal, but a much more nuanced look at mental illness and its effect on families.

Now that the series has finished, our experience still feels eerily close to those expressed by others in the show who lost loved ones. And while our son is still alive, his life is radically different now. Ours is also different. The sweet, smart, caring boy we knew is gone, and in his place is someone who is tortured by “demons” we can scarcely imagine. We do our best to help him in all of the ways society says we should, but it’s never going to be the same. 

Anyone who has seen a loved one go through a traumatic experience can most likely relate. People who have been physically hurt in an accident, or who have lost a someone unexpectedly — the feelings they feel are not unlike this, I’m sure. Adjusting to a new reality is difficult for everyone, as there are no easy fixes or answers. Religion and spirituality ring very hollow to me when tragedies of this kind occur because there is no acceptable explanation, ever. Nobody deserves something like this, especially someone just starting their young adult life. Yet, it happens.

In situations like this, some do turn to faith. Some retreat and cut themselves off from family and friends. Others just block it out as best they can and go on with their day-to-day routine. For us, we hold hope that maybe the mental illness our son has can be treated effectively with medication and therapy — although that road is not easy. Just as the people left behind in the show discover, there is no quick resolution, there are no simple answers and we all must deal with it in the only way we know how. If there is a message for me in The Leftovers, it is that recovery is a process, a journey — for both the afflicted and their loved ones — and it takes time, patience and love. Maybe someday, our son will regain his healthy mental state and can move forward. Regardless of whether that happens, we hold onto hope, just as the characters do in the show. 

We look for ways to connect. We look for signs. We look and we keep looking. And we also accept that resolution may never happen. Our son may never return from his “departure.” But we will do what we can to help the person he is now. We can consider ourselves lucky he is still around. In the end, we all have to deal with the experiences we are dealt with on our own terms, and it will never be easy, fair or entirely explainable. We just go on. Thank you to The Leftovers, including the cast and the incredible writers, who chose to look at mental illness within the show in a more nuanced, compassionate way than the vast majority of TV or movies. I’m sad the series has come to an end, but I’m glad to have been able to connect my feelings and our circumstances with the plot lines and characters. It’s been cathartic for me and my wife, and I’m glad I can share my experience.