‘This feels more like spin-the-bottle than science’: my mission to find a proper diagnosis – and treatment – for my son’s psychosis

There are nights when I wake up and, in the disorientation of those first conscious moments, I am right back there. Los Angeles, 2009. Winter. Zach has entered my room, perched on the edge of my bed, and begged: “Mum. What is going to happen to me? You must know.”

I see him in all his anguish – my younger son in his last teenage year. He has just been discharged from hospital after having what the doctors had called a psychotic break, when he thought that his friends weren’t his friends but were out to harm him, that our house was bugged and that helicopters were instruments of surveillance, trained on him. Years before, it would have been called a nervous breakdown. I don’t like either term much, but I think the connotations of a nervous breakdown feel more apt. It was this sense of nervousness that I witnessed on the night I first took my boy to the psychiatric hospital.

He was slim and strong back then from long days spent surfing with his elder brother, and there was something of the shy scholar in him, the animal lover, the erstwhile chess champion, the boy with the amber-flecked eyes. Just a year prior, I had been so ready to let him fly the coop. No empty nest syndrome for me. We were settled in California and I was happy with my new partner, Nance; we had far too much still to discover and enjoy to feel daunted by this next transition. Besides, this son of mine, nicknamed Golden Boy because of how much the neighbours idolised him, had big plans. He wanted to travel, to become a scientist or a professor.

So, in those first days after the breakdown, it didn’t seem possible that Zach could have left the world we knew just as he was about to launch himself into it. How could he have departed so thoroughly from the reality we thought we shared?

I had expected him to come home from being sectioned – or what in California is known as a 5150: a compulsory stay in a psychiatric hospital for up to 72 hours – feeling and looking better. I thought the doctors would have some answers, some method or plan for how to fix him, but instead his skin was pasty, his pupils large as he scanned the room, his fingers raking at the quilt. He couldn’t sit still.

“It feels as if there is something inside of me and it’s trying to get out,” he said. I would come to learn that this agitation had a name, akathisia, and was caused by antipsychotic drugs.

I was nervous, too, that night, scared not of my son but of his fear. Everything I knew about how to parent was tested in that moment.

“You will be fine, Zach,” I told him, my hand on his, willing it true. “You will get better. You’ll go back to college. Do all the things you want to do.”

In earlier days he may have trusted me. I might have had more faith in my own words, too. But both of us knew a shift had occurred. This city, having once promised opportunity, was suddenly foreign. And so were we. Back when we were new to LA from London, my boys Zach and Dale, 12 and 13, had enrolled at the local middle school. Dale loved being the new kid, a fish out of water and the centre of attention. Zach loathed it. The turnstiles and metal detectors in the foyer unnerved him. He was afraid of the abstract threat of violence, of gangs and weapons. He struggled with the change in ways that we tried to assuage with love and without undue concern: he was sensitive, that was all. I realise now that these things count, that the trauma of feeling different can lodge itself in our cells and remain there.

Tanya Frank, photographed in Epping Forest, Essex.
‘Zach’s first diagnosis was psychosis NOS (Not Otherwise Specified), a vague kind of darned if I know description.’ Tanya Frank, photographed in Epping Forest, Essex. Photograph: Alex Ingram/The Guardian

Psychosis is often thought to be genetic, or a symptom of brain chemistry gone awry, which is what I was led to believe for much of my journey through the traditional mental health system. Zach’s first diagnosis was psychosis NOS (Not Otherwise Specified), a vague kind of darned if I know description. Later, depending upon which doctor he saw, he was classified with either schizophrenia, paranoid schizophrenia, depression with psychotic symptoms or, more recently, schizoaffective disorder.

These labels plucked from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a text often referred to as the bible of psychiatry, felt more distracting than helpful, masking a deeper truth about what had happened to Zach and our family. They ignored larger questions that were messy and ambiguous, such as whether the real story began before we moved across the world, when Zach’s father left, or when we lost my mother, Zach’s precious Nanny Shirl. Or later, when he entered one of California’s most prestigious universities and suffered from academic pressures coupled with sleepless nights as he crammed for exams. Was all that a perfect recipe for psychosis?

“I want to return to my studies,” Zach told us after his first hospital stay. “I worked so hard to get into that college.” It was true. He had won a full merit scholarship. We bought him a skateboard so he could move easily through the campus crowds he still feared, and headphones to drown out the external stimuli. But his angst and suspicion persisted. On the rare days when I managed to wake him from his heavily sedated sleep, ply him with coffee and drive him to class, he was too anxious to leave the car. He distrusted almost everyone, including me. He never felt that way about Dale, and I’m grateful for that. Maybe because Dale never tried to fix him, to change him or chastise him. He was just there, his big brother, with a lifetime of shared history and mutual understanding.

Dale, of course, suffered in his own ways from witnessing Zach’s altered state. The late psychologist Diane T Marsh, in her book Troubled Journey, recognised that in families where one child experiences mental health challenges, other family members fear that they might catch or develop the same thing, and may experience survivor’s guilt if they don’t.

Zach (right), aged three, with his older brother, Dale, in Dorset, 1992.
Zach (right), aged three, with his older brother, Dale, in Dorset, 1992. Photograph: Courtesy of Tanya Frank

But while Dale tried to process our new reality, I craved solutions, and the more I searched the more confused I became. First, I discovered that no disease markers show up in brain scans or blood tests for any of these so-called disorders. Nobody seems to know for sure what is really going on, which feels more like a spin-the-bottle game than science. I also came to understand that the effects of the antipsychotic drugs were intolerable for Zach, far worse than the symptoms that they were meant to alleviate.

I recall the way his shoulders slumped when I held out the pills and a glass of water to him each day. “They make me feel emotionally numb,” he said. “I can’t live like this.” One evening he pushed the drugs back at me, held the water glass to my chin and said: “If they are that great, why don’t you take them?”

I couldn’t help him. To quit these drugs cold turkey would lead to severe withdrawal. Zach tried it once and ended up in the hospital. Finding a psychiatrist equipped and willing to support tapering in a safe way is rare.

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Over eight years in the US, Zach was detained in the psych ward several times, for up to three or four weeks each time. His despair earned him the label non-compliant. When he was forced to comply and the drugs still didn’t work, he was classed as treatment-resistant. Talking therapy was not offered on any of his acute psychiatric wards. This is not uncommon in inpatient systems: patients who are deemed to be actively psychotic or who are hearing voices are considered too unwell to benefit. This relatively modern view has developed alongside the rise of the pharmaceutical industry and the belief that altered states are a disease rather than a process or response to trauma resulting from difficult life events.

This is not the case everywhere. In Finland, a more radical understanding of extreme distress led to a programme called Open Dialogue which aims to avoid hospitalisation and medication with therapy that revolves around families and other networks, and involves contact, preferably in the person’s home. It has contributed to lowering the suicide rate in Finland; one of the highest in the world in the 1990s, it has dropped by 50% since Open Dialogue began.

I meet regularly online with two Open Dialogue therapists. Dale and Nance have joined me, but so far Zach, the person at the centre of our network, who might benefit most profoundly, has not been allowed to participate. He is back in a locked ward – in the UK now – undergoing treatment that sees his brain as broken and in need of chemicals as the first line of defence.

I moved us back to England three years ago, just Zach and me, to a house near Epping Forest, with a garden and a view of the stars. I hoped that the UK would give us new options, and that the break from Nance would help to heal the pain in our relationship caused in part by loss and grief. But the pandemic derailed us. Isolated and living alone with Zach, who went off his meds, I felt overwhelmed. Mental health services had ground to a halt, and the new and changed systems made me feel like an immigrant all over again. When Zach took apart the gas cooker one night, emptied all our food into the bin because he feared it was poisonous and wanted to lock me in my room to keep me safe, I panicked and took him to the nearest hospital.

The unit where he is currently detained is an hour away by car, and he has already spent the best part of 18 months there. It is meant to rehabilitate him, but rules abound. Zach cannot have items classed as contraband – such as drinks in cans, glass bottles or shoelaces, even though he has never attempted to harm himself. After each visit, he must be searched, breathalysed and scanned by a metal detector before being accompanied through the air lock back to the ward. I watch the patdown, Zach’s face pained. I see the tremor in his right hand, yet another drug side-effect. My stomach drops every single time. I wonder how much this absurd system is costing us all, and how on earth we will ever recover from it. How anybody does. Research conducted by psychotherapist James Davies has shown that, despite a quarter of a trillion pounds spent on mental health in Britain since the 1980s, it is the only area of medicine where outcomes have stalled, and by some measures are even going backwards.

Zach, aged 18, in Los Angeles.
Zach, aged 18, in Los Angeles. Photograph: Courtesy of Tanya Frank

Still, I hold on to hope. Some of Zach’s nurses are compassionate. I won’t forget their names. Open Dialogue trials are being conducted in some of the UK’s NHS trusts, and more ex-psychiatric survivors and their loved ones are rallying for radical alternatives to the dominant paradigm of the psychiatric system. Soteria Network, for example, is a non-coercive space where people going through psychosis can be supported in a compassionate, force-free environment with minimal medication. I have also discovered a community of other mothers through Safely Held Spaces, a group dedicated to supporting those navigating mental distress. These women help me carry my grief. We ask what has happened to our children rather than what is wrong with them.

Nance has joined me here in the UK, and Dale has returned to the fold, too. Zach doesn’t ask me what is going to happen to him any more. But if he did, I would tell him I don’t exactly know, which would be the truth. What I contemplate these days is not so much what is going to happen, but what already has. I find comfort in the idea that perhaps Zach’s challenges were always going to constellate this way, that what we’ve faced as a family was out of our hands in any meaningful sense. Like me, Zach undoubtedly senses how unusual it is for his mother to remain at the heart of his life, his world not growing as it was supposed to, or as we thought it would. And that is a hard thing to accept – but it’s also our reality. Trauma can blast a family apart, but it can also piece them back again like kintsugi – the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery – scars and all. After everything, we are tighter, stronger, still staring down challenges, but together, all of us as one.

Zig-Zag Boy: Madness, Motherhood and Letting Go by Tanya Frank is published on 2 March.

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting


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