MARENGO – The first punch came out of nowhere – an unexpected jab that landed on Carrie Taylor’s ear. The next one hit her squarely on the jaw and sent her crumbling to the floor.
Carrie’s kids hurried down the stairs to the basement of their Marengo home and locked themselves down, just as they had done so many times before. The mother of seven (three biological, four adopted) looked up at her attacker, her teenage son Gabe.
Carrie began noticing violent fits from Gabe almost as soon as he could talk. He would throw himself on the floor in grocery stores. Bang his head against car windows. Throw shoes.
“I’ve raised other kids,” Carrie said. “I know what a 2-year-old tantrum looks like. It was just way more than that.”
His symptoms became so severe that Gabe was admitted to his first psychiatric hospital when he was younger than 4 years old, diagnosed with a multitude of overlapping conditions, including autistic spectrum disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, intermittent explosive disorder and bipolar disorder.
His most serious diagnosis, bipolar disorder, causes dramatic shifts in mood and energy level. Everyone experiences the ups and downs of life, but it’s much more severe for those living with manic depression.
Many individuals with bipolar disorder are not prone to violence. But Gabe has experienced bouts of anger, even violent rage. The relatively minor episodes resulted in broken bones in Gabe’s hand or fist-sized-holes in the Taylors’ walls. Police officers would respond to calls and joke that they hadn’t been to the Taylors’ home in a while.
Carrie laid on the ground, absorbing kicks from Gabe, and knew the police wouldn’t be laughing this time. She keeps her phone on her at all times. It’s her “lifeline.” Curled up into the fetal position, she couldn’t make the call herself. She knew the strength of her son and feared what would happen next. One of Carrie’s daughters slipped upstairs and dialed 911.
Gabe retreated to his room and wedged himself against the door. As police officers tore down the door and pulled her son from his home, a domestic violence counselor asked Carrie if she wanted to press charges.
Over and over. Do you want to press charges? She didn’t.
“I was worried about Gabe,” Carrie said. “I still wanted my child to get the help and not be treated as a violent criminal ... even though he was violent.”
• • •
Sitting at the family’s kitchen table, right about where Gabe struck her more than a year ago, Carrie wore a breast cancer awareness T-shirt that proclaimed in bold pink letters, “Keep Fighting.”
“The holes in the wall aren’t for decoration,” she smiled. “We’ve left them up until we’re sure he’s done. Then he helps his dad fix them.”
“I’m good. I’m good,” the barrel-chested teenager insisted through the braces on his teeth.
A series of increasingly violent episodes – many of which Gabe has no recollection of – came to a head at the end of Gabe’s sophomore year at Marengo High School. He had to be handcuffed to a gurney by six officers after the last one and was hospitalized for several weeks. Since he was discharged, the Taylors have seen a dramatic shift in his attitude. He’s more stable, more controlled.
Now, as Gabe prepares to enter his senior year and final football season, it’s been more than a year since his last violent outburst. Instead of acting impulsively, Gabe considers his actions and usually is able to calm down before his emotions bubble over. Now, when one of his sisters is bothering him, he’ll say, “Can I just hit her once?”
“No. You can’t hit her at all,” Carrie said. “But at least he stops, he thinks about it.”
“Half the time I’m kidding with you,” Gabe said.
“Sometimes you’re kidding,” Carrie responded. “Sometimes you’re not.”
The change in Gabe’s demeanor from his sophomore year is noticeable. But if he didn’t improve, the Taylors admit they might not have been able to keep him in their home. During Gabe’s especially violent stretch, family members tried to convince Carrie and her husband, John, to give their adopted son back.
“I love him. And he’s my son,” Carrie said. “I can’t send him away.”
• • •
Gabe came into John and Carrie’s life as a foster child when he was 16 months old, after his biological mother went to jail for a drug-related crime. Both of Gabe’s biological parents struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, something that continued even while Gabe’s mother was pregnant. As a result, Gabe was born addicted to methadone and treated for withdrawal at Children’s Research Triangle in Chicago.
The Taylors suspected that the drugs and alcohol Gabe was exposed to during the pregnancy would contribute to mental health issues, but they wanted to adopt him anyway. The couple already had three biological children but felt that their family just wasn’t complete.
There was an instant connection with Gabe and they knew he would be their own. They shared their intentions with his biological father during one of their regular meetings in 1997 at the Department of Children and Family Services in Waukegan.
Gabe’s biological father, a tall, slender man with an unkempt appearance, said little. He sat on the couch while Gabe played with some toys and snacked on some crackers.
Finally, he responded, “Well, I’m not going to let you.”
“That’s fine,” Carrie remembers saying. “If you stay clean and be the dad that he needs you to be, I shouldn’t have him.”
Their next appointment was in early March, right about the time of Gabe’s birthday and his father’s birthday. Carrie brought cupcakes for a party and gave one to Gabe while they waited for his father to arrive.
He never did. The Taylors never saw him again.
The adoption was finalized before Gabe was 3. His biological father has since died of a drug overdose and his mother moved to Washington state.
Gabe paved the way for the Taylors to adopt three more children, all of whom are affected by a variety of mental health issues. Sometimes people will tell John and Carrie that they just need to show the kids some love and they will get better.
“Just because you love them to death doesn’t mean you can fix them,” Carrie said. “You can’t love genetics away.”
The Taylors have been foster parents to about 15 children, something they said not everyone is cut out for. Kids will swear at John and Carrie and do things their biological kids never have done.
“They don’t start out in your house, so they’re used to different rules,” John said.
“Or no rules,” Carrie said.
Integrating the foster children into the family is challenging, but the more difficult part is saying goodbye.
“There’s times when you can get really attached to one and you just don’t think they should go back home, but the system says they can go back home,” John said. “It can rip your heart out.”
Although the days can be a struggle, small moments make the fights and the disagreements worth it, Carrie and John said. Recently, Gabe was talking with his mom when out of the blue he looked up and said: “Mom, did I tell you today I love you?”
• • •
The whistle blows and Gabe gets into position. Wearing a maroon football helmet and a pair of shoulder pads, he drops onto his hands and knees in a four-point stance. When the ball is snapped, he muscles through the line and into the backfield, where a running back escapes his pursuit and dashes away.
Gabe screams and yanks out his mouthpiece. He stomps over to the sideline. Spit sprays from his mouth. Ripping his helmet off, he leans against a light post.
After the rest of the Marengo football team runs a couple plays, coach Matt Lynch looks over at Gabe, “Just let me know when you’re ready.”
“Two more,” Gabe responds, wiggling two fingers at the coach.
For years, Gabe tried a variety of treatment methods to control his bipolar disorder. When he was young, he would climb into his mother or father’s lap and rub their earlobe until he calmed down.
As he’s gotten older, he consumes himself in a leopard-print fleece blanket or blasts Kid Cudi, Eminem or tribal tones through his headphones. Getting the right balance of medications has been critical. Tenex and Depakote for bipolar disorder. Concerta for ADHD. And Topamax for migraines.
But Gabe and his parents remain convinced nothing has helped him deal with his condition better than football.
Dr. Kenneth Duckworth, an Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard University Medical School who serves as the Medical Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, agrees that the science backs up what the Taylors have found. He encourages patients with bipolar disorder to get into an exercise routine to alleviate anxiety, help with mood control and promote better sleeping patterns.
However, he expresses concerns that football might not be the best sport for Gabe.
“The way we think about it, it’s the number of setbacks you have,” the doctor said. “If you have PTSD, that’s one. If you have bipolar disorder, that’s another. If you have autistic spectrum, that’s a third. If you have a head injury, the idea is your reserve is reduced. Every single injury compounds the pre-existing problem.”
He would advise parents to pursue other sports that don’t have as high of a risk of concussions, such as wrestling or basketball. While stressing that every individual case is different, the doctor conceded that contact could be a beneficial experience for some patients.
Gabe agrees: “I get to let out anger with it being totally legal.”
Gabe’s path to the football field began when Lynch sent a letter to every incoming freshman saying that he would like them to consider the sport. Gabe saw the letter and thought it was a personal invitation.
Initially, the nature of football – the yelling, the intensity and the passion – was too much for Gabe. Screaming can trigger Gabe’s flashbacks. He doesn’t even like when his dad and brother watch Bears games and yell at the TV.
During one practice his freshman year, he was out of breath and his teammates and coaches were yelling at him to keep pushing. He ripped his helmet off and threw it halfway across the field.
Lynch, who also is Gabe’s special education teacher, didn’t give up on him, though.
“This is a brotherhood,” the coach said. “We accept all.”
He worked with Gabe on techniques to cope with his frustration. Now, when he is agitated, Gabe simply walks away to take a few plays off. He’s used these skills in other parts of his life, and his parents credit football and Lynch for his dramatic change at home.
“(Lynch) changed Gabe’s life,” senior defensive end-outside linebacker Dillon Csanda said. “Out on the football field, they have a connection.”
“It’s amazing what he’s done to transform Gabe,” fellow senior Derek Caskey said. “Honestly, I never thought I’d see Gabe be the type of person he is now from what he was freshman year.”
Gabe jumps back into the practice and takes his spot on the defensive line. He chases a running back down the sideline, and continues to follow him even when the ballcarrier dips 10 yards out of bounds.
After a few more series, Gabe needs another break. Lynch scans the field for a defensive tackle. When none is found, the tall, muscular coach throws on an orange pinnie and takes his place on defense, picking up the slack for his player.
It’s this way on and off the field. When Gabe gets frustrated at home, he’ll call his coach, who helps him to calm down.
“Sometimes you just need to talk,” Lynch said. “Everybody needs somebody. I don’t care who you are.”
Gabe is by no means the star of the team. But the practices and the games are only one part of the equation. Some of his best memories come away from the field. His teammates laugh, recalling the song he made: Maroon and White, a remix of Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow.”
Gabe’s favorite part of being on the Indians is the team dinners.
“We just hang out and eat,” he said. “Two of the best things: hanging out and eating.”
His freshman year, Gabe’s parents hosted one of the dinners at their house. His brother had just arrived back home from Iraq and brought with him glow-in-the-dark pucks. The team stuck them to the football and to themselves. Twilight gave way to a pitch black evening. The back yard lit up as glow-in-the-dark football players, with full bellies, tossed around the glow-in-the-dark football.
“To have kids who have disabilities be into sports and feel that they’re more mainstream and that they’re with everybody has helped him tremendously,” John said.
Gabe puts it much more concisely, “They’re really like a second family when you think about it.”
• • •
It was just before Christmas a few years back and Gabe was agitated all day. He broke some pencils. Threw anything else he could get his hands on.
He shut himself in a closet to calm down. Carrie was ready to leave for a baby shower when a hand popped out of the closet and slipped her an envelope. She stuck it into her purse, thinking nothing of it.
When she arrived at the baby shower, Carrie opened it. In Gabe’s handwriting, the letter read: “All I want for Christmas is to be normal.”
“That right there is why I do what I do,” Carrie said. “He wants to be normal. Some of this is not stuff that he can change.”
Football can’t cure Gabe’s mental illness. It won’t reverse genetics, nor can it undo his past mistakes. And Dr. Duckworth is not even sure football is the safest sport for Gabe.
But when No. 77 straps on his helmet and takes his place under the lights this football season, he’s just a teenager caught up in a game. For that play or for that game, he feels – for lack of a better word – normal.