Elizabeth Gini: 'Life Seemed Normal -- Until One Day, It Wasn't'

Sawyer Sweeten's mother on her son's suicide and the struggle for mental health awareness.

In her first sit-down interview since his suicide, Elizabeth Gini opens up about the death of her son, "Everybody Loves Raymond" actor Sawyer Sweeten, and life without him since. Below, Gini exclusively pens a statement for Larry King Now about her son, Sawyer.

By Elizabeth Gini

What can I tell you about my son Sawyer? He was a cut up, the comic relief in our family. His big smile and infectious laugh are missed more than words are capable of describing.Behind the giggles and the grin was a heart of gold. He saw people for who they were, not what they had or what they had to offer him.And he gave freely of himself – to family, friends, even strangers.At a young age, it became obvious to me that he was an empath.As the years progressed, his empathetic nature became amplified.He had become hypersensitive to injustice, judgment, negativity, and cruelty. He often felt the pain of others, even animals.

After graduating high school, he and his twin brother bought a home about ten minutes away from ours.Life seemed normal – until one day it wasn’t. One morning about eight days before his death, I stopped by his house.He looked disheveled.He was wandering around aimlessly.I asked him twice what was wrong, and his response was, "I'm fine." I knew he was not, so I turned to his brother for answers. Sullivan didn't know and, I later learned, didn’t realize something was wrong with Sawyer until that evening. I left very frustrated and worried, but dismissed it thinking that he was just tired, probably from a night of playing video games. In the days that followed, Sawyer seemed to be unraveling, and I had numerous conversations with him about it. At one point, he told me that he felt unwelcome in his own home. “Finally,” I thought, “we are getting somewhere! It must be a problem with his roommates. I can help fix this!” Little did I know that the problems did not lie outside of Sawyer, and I wouldn’t discover this until it was too late. With each day, his thoughts became more irrational, but only subtly.He told me things like, “California makes you think things that aren’t true,” and “I don’t belong here.” I thought he meant California, not this world.

About a week after Sawyer's symptoms first presented themselves, he left with his dad, brother, and his aunt’s boyfriend on a trip to Texas.My concern turned to alarm when, during the car ride, I received a call from my husband saying that Sawyer told him that he “felt like he was evil and didn't deserve to live." Just soak that in for a minute. You read my description of my son above. Now imagine your sweet child saying something like this. My husband immediately asked him if he was thinking of ending his life, and he said emphatically, “No.”“Phew,” I thought, “we aren't in danger of losing him.” But in that moment, I knew I needed to get him help.

Just a short 12 hours later my son took his own life.

There are no words to describe our unimaginable pain. The hole his absence leaves in our family is felt every single minute of every single day. How I wish I had understood what was going on with my son. After his death, my husband and I talked with Sawyer’s siblings, his friends, and other family members, and many of them had conversations with Sawyer that, like mine, seemed a bit off.It was as if each person had a piece of the puzzle and once we put it together, it was obvious that Sawyer was having a psychotic break of some sort. My son was not in his right mind, and I didn’t see it because I was asking him and not those around him.I do believe that when he said he wasn’t going to kill himself, he was telling the truth in that moment.But that is the insidious thing about mental illness, the brain does not distinguish between delusions and reality.

My son’s rapid mental decline is not a rare occurrence. According to the statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness suicide is the third leading cause of death among children ages 10-24 years old, and 90 percent of those that die by suicide had an underlying mental illness. Again, 90 percent of those children had an underlying mental illness. That is a staggering statistic that must change, and the only way it will is with detection and treatment.It is too late for my son. His death has become a statistic, but I refuse to allow it to only be that.If I can help one parent, sibling, spouse, or friend save the life of one of their loved ones, then maybe something good can come from this hole left in my heart.

If I could do the last two weeks of his life over, I would have acted in a manner my son might have interpreted as overreacting and asked for his forgiveness later! Parenting adult children is a fine line, but I can assure you your loved ones will always forgive you when you have their best interest at heart, more especially when you save their lives.

The way our insurance provider's mental health care system works, it takes weeks if not months to get an appointment. My son took his life. Crisis, right? Not according to our insurance. I began calling for my own treatment in early June after Sawyer's death, and they can not accommodate me until late September. And since I have been so mentally healthy – meaning haven't seen a mental health care provider for more than two years – they insist I do an intake first to determine if I need to be seen. Now if they determine you should be seen, they want you to work a program of approximately six sessions & then "cut you loose." Do you follow the flaws in this system? Since Sawyer hadn't seen a provider for his ADHD in over two years, he would first have to be seen by an individual to evaluate him, then referred to return to see a therapist who would then refer him for yet another appointment to see a psychiatrist to prescribe medication (which takes two to four weeks to take effect). This entire process takes weeks and sometimes months to complete, and we had eight days! Even if we had recognized our son’s pain, he would not have received help unless he admitted he was a danger to himself, or others, which he denied. There are many more flaws in our mental health care system, and I want to help change that for others. I want to change that for Sawyer.

To understand more about what happened to Sawyer, how you can possibly recognize signs in those you love, and how we want to make a change in the mental health care system, please visit everybodylovessawyer.com

Be sure to catch the full "Larry King Now" episode featuring Elizabeth Gini on Wednesday, July 29th at www.ora.tv/larrykingnow

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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