Jon Ludlow suffered from delusions and paranoia after he abruptly ceased taking his mental health medications in December. (Ludlow family)

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First of three parts.

Almost a whole day had passed, and still Melissa Ludlow hadn't heard from her son. She checked her silent phone again, trying to imagine the reasons he wouldn't respond.

Didn't he know how to work the phone that she had lent him? Had he lost it?

Her missing son, Jon, was her youngest. The mom and her husband, Dave, both 55, had raised four other children before him.

But that didn't make the worrying any easier. Jon, a 19-year-old Orange Coast College student, had recently been experiencing mental health symptoms that none of Melissa's other children ever had.

In Jon's world, street gangs and the National Security Agency together tracked him. He thought employees in Forever 21, or "corporate people" as he called them, took note of what he looked at on the clothing racks.

FBI agents also followed him, Jon insisted. He even went to the local FBI office to prove it, offering them evidence in the patterns of cars and people he had noticed.

Jon had battled major depression and social anxiety disorder for years, but the delusions had begun when Jon stopped taking his prescribed medications — Prozac, Adderall and Xanax — without heeding a physician's and his family's advice to slowly taper his intake.

He wasn't acting like himself. The abrupt change caused a psychotic break, introducing underlying conditions of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Melissa couldn't figure out how to rein him back into reality. Because Jon had already turned 18, he could not be forced into treatment by his parents unless he met strict qualification standards — a legal issue officials in the field refer to as the "age 18 cliff."

Instead, Melissa handled each crisis when it arose, never imagining they were building toward a tragic end. As night fell, she did what any concerned mother would do: She went to look for her son.

*

Early in Jon's life, nothing about his behavior concerned Melissa or Dave.

Jon was born on Sept. 2, 1994, when the Ludlows lived in Modesto. He moved with his family to Utah when he was a toddler.

By first grade, Jon was already the smartest in the class, said his boyhood friend Griffin Taggart.

His peer could read a whole page of a Harry Potter novel in one minute, while it took Griffin that long to get through the first sentence, he recalled.

Sports came to him as easily as academics. As they grew older, Jon proved the fastest in track and a valuable running back in football.

When Jon's lacrosse coach wanted to evaluate other players, he made them sprint against Jon to see if they might win, said Melissa, who had signed Jon up for gymnastics classes in pre-K and supported his athletic endeavors ever since.

She and Dave recognized his need for social growth too. The boys often came over to the Ludlows' house on weekends or during the summers, and Melissa happily welcomed them to stay overnight.

When they awoke, squirming in their sleeping bags, his mom would already be preparing breakfast, sometimes fresh cinnamon rolls, other times bacon and eggs.

Like Julie Andrews in the "Sound of Music," as her husband said, Melissa was always cheerful when she cared for her children.

*

Warning signs of the mental health problems to come didn't emerge until Jon hit puberty at the ages of 12 and 13, his mom recalled.

Pale, with brown hair and gray-blue eyes, Jon started to obsess over his appearance. During his eighth-grade year, Melissa would check in before they needed to leave in the mornings to find Jon sitting in front of a mirror, messing with his hair as the minutes ticked past.

His mother was shorter in stature than her son, who grew to be just over 6 feet tall. But he stared at himself with large, round eyes — the same shape as hers. Natural dark circles also smudged the skin under the eyes of both mother and son.

Especially if he had any acne on his face, Jon might refuse to go to school at all. Still, the symptoms of anxiety and depression were not yet fully fledged.

The trigger came around the time Jon turned 15, when Dave took a new job and the family moved from Bountiful, Utah, to Southern California.

Neither parent anticipated how the change would affect their son.

At his new public high school in Dana Point, Jon had trouble making friends. Everyone already had a social group, he told his mom, and it was hard to break into the cliques.

Melissa had no easy solution. Gentle and soft-spoken, she tried to encourage her son, a sweet boy who had excelled in so many pursuits, to continue going to class.

Raised in the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jon started his days at 6:30 a.m. with early morning seminary class. As the weeks went on, he began having trouble going to school afterward.

Melissa recalled days when she drove Jon to school as he told her he hated himself or he cried, frustrated by his appearance and inability to fit in with his new peers.

The rides tortured her. She worried an incorrect response to his emotions might force him into an even deeper depression.

On the worst days, she turned the car around. If he did make it to school, she returned midday to pick him up for his lunch break. He had eaten alone enough times – and forcing him to eat alone any more than he had wasn't going to help.

*

Unable to overcome his anxiety, Jon stopped going to school altogether around mid-October, finishing the semester from home. He stopped going to seminary classes too.

Not only did he give up on the idea of making new friends, but he also rejected invitations to go out with his family. Rather than play tennis, as they might invite him to do, he stayed inside where he felt safe from public criticism.

I was on the deep end, he recalled in rap lyrics he recorded years later, But I spent weeks locked in my chamber trying to cope / With those little tendencies / Suicidal ... a little down, no motivation, no hope.

The song continued: See when you're already sad and down, / It doesn't help to go to a high school and get shoved to the ground. / Then things built up in my mind and my mind was gone/ Accepted the "fact" that as long as I lived I'd never be someone.

Jon's time became occupied with online gaming. He climbed the ranks in "World of Warcraft," an online pastime that frustrated his dad, who now believes gaming keeps many young adolescents from balanced development.

"What do you do with a child like that?" his father asked. He still doesn't know the answer.

Teens and young adults ages 16 to 23, known as "transitional age youth," and are particularly vulnerable to mental illness, said local behavioral health advocate Brian Jacobs.

But those who have turned 18 are in a new position according to the law, Jacobs explained: Parents have no control over their treatment.

It creates a Catch-22 situation. In order to get help, the patient is required to make a logical decision to seek medical attention; however, the dysfunction that needs to be treated causes the patient to lose that necessary sense of rationality.

"We're losing them because they can't get treatment," said Jacobs, a member of the county's mental heath board.

Jon wasn't 18 yet, but committing him to a mental institution was far from his parents' minds. Such a serious decision would demand a more dire situation.

Melissa, ever attentive, went jogging with Jon at night, when no one was around to see him. Their dog, Karma, came too.

While Melissa continued to treat her son with care and sympathy, Dave worried that Jon needed to better prepare for the future. He thought they needed to push their son harder. After all, he had been firm with his older children.

The issue created a rift in his marriage. Melissa had been his first date in high school, and they had married when he was 21.

"We probably needed therapy," he said of his whole family. "Melissa and I never really argue about anything, but we did about Jonathan."

One night Dave demanded that Jon not stay up past midnight playing computer games. When he discovered the light still shining under his son's door at 1 a.m., he asked him to shut off the game.

Seeing it on again past 3 a.m., he lost his patience and began to lecture his son.

"We never did have a good relationship after that," Dave said. "He yelled back at me, and I was yelling back at him. It was a blowout."

Tall and broad-chested, Dave speaks plainly, never hiding what he intends. In conversations, his love for his family is as evident as his frustration at not knowing whether he should have behaved differently.

Jon remained curled in the fetal position on his bed for a week. Reduced to a state of infancy, the boy finally recognized he needed help. He told his mom he wanted to start taking medicine to help him feel better.

The decision offered a chance for improvement.

Part 2 | Part 3