Rutecki_Sensory lens_Fig 3

My father and I are both introverts. We have blue eyes and the terrible habit of smirking when other people say stupid things. We were both chain smokers well into our 30s, both managed to quit.

My father lives far away from me in a city in Southern Thailand that’s famous for its Dim Sum, but he prefers to eat at Dairy Queen.

He reads William Carlos Williams, likes to scuba dive.

When he was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young adult, doctors blamed my grandmother for bad parenting.

The myth of the “schizophrenogenic mother”—a mom who is at once cold and anxious—got its start in the 1930s when researchers observed a few cases of maternal rejection and more cases of overprotection among mothers whose kids struggled with schizophrenia. The theory that mothering styles can cause schizophrenia has long-since been debunked, but if my kids ever develop symptoms, there’s no denying it will be my genes they got it from.

Schizophrenia affects one percent of the general population worldwide—making it twice as common as Alzheimer’s and three times as common as insulin-dependent diabetes. But in my family, we’ve got a 10 percent chance of experiencing the world in this taboo way.

 

Do you think you have special talents or supernatural gifts?

Pick one:

Not at all

Just a little

Quite a lot

All the time

 

When I was growing up, my father made stream-of-consciousness experimental animations in my grandparents’ basement apartment and wandered the streets of the Monterey Peninsula wearing a Louis the XIV wig and playing his trumpet.

He never got much treatment that I know of. When I asked him about it once, he said his doctor told him, “That one’s incurable. You’re just cuckoo.” He shrugged and didn’t say anything else for the rest of the night.

We watched strangers sing Karaoke.

Photo+Credit-+Anna+BeekeKate Axelrod’s debut novel The Law of Loving Others is about a high school student dealing with her mother’s recent schizophrenic break. The title was taken from a quote in Anna Karenina that reads: The law of loving others could not be discovered by reason, because it is unreasonable. This story is NOT autobiographical. Kate’s mother Marian Thurm was my workshop teacher at the Yale Writers’ Conference 2014. Marian and I chatted for hours in and out of class. She told me that the first story she sent out got published by The New Yorker when she was only twenty-five years old. Marian’s daughter Kate isn’t much older than that. She’s right on track. She holds a BA in creative writing from Oberlin College, a master’s in social work from Columbia University, and splits her time and efforts to satisfy both passions. When she flew out west this summer, I whipped up a batch of raw vegan pecan truffle bars and asked Kate over to my place in Santa Monica to get raw and candid about mental illness. We discussed her day job as an advocate in the criminal justice system, what it’s like to hail from New York literati and how she came to the story.

PhotoMarinSardy4In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide, a plethora of articles and blogs have been published on the topic of mental illness and depression. As a writer whose work often directly or indirectly addresses mental illness, do you think this sort of mass response is helpful?

In some ways, yes, absolutely, the mass response is very helpful. The cultural silence around mental illness, without a doubt, made my experience as a child of someone with schizophrenia far worse than it needed to be. I had no one to talk to about it and no vocabulary for it even, and so that silence stunted my ability to even do my own thinking about it. In a culture without open conversation around mental illness, I was cut off from social support that could have helped enormously. So I’m pretty much glad across the board whenever anyone is openly discussing it. But with this I’ve also been glad that most of it seems to be aimed at educating people and fighting stigma.

 

I have measured out my life in sentences: composing, reading, revising and discarding them; talking to students about how to write, interpret, and edit them. I have dreaded the sentence that doesn’t come easily. I have learned at times to play with words that feel like nonsense in order to discover and organize thoughts, teasing words to make clarity appear.

There are sentences with gaps and missing pieces. Redundant sentences. Muscular sentences. Transitional sentences. Sentences that sing. Then: stylistic fragments. Intentional run-ons. Does the reader trust your sentences? If you break the rules, will the reader follow? Sentences that capture complicated feelings or thoughts by uniting verbs with precise subjects and prepositional direction. I’m lost in this sentence. Is this the best place for this sentence? Could these sentences be combined?

Medusa

 

The first picture in my memory palace is from the baby book my sister and I found in our mother’s storage room. It’s a close-up of her, taken shortly after she gave birth to me in 1959. Her face is soft and demure in the cropped photograph, and a little startled. If you could see the entire picture, you would notice me on my mother’s lap looking up at her, smiling. What you can’t tell from the photo is that not long after it was taken, my mother tried to fly out of a second-story window.

Since psychiatry has proven itself to be anything but a science, the entire concept of mental anguish must be reexamined. Might the elements of “mental illness” more properly be called personality traits as well as reflections of the societies in which those traits occur? Might those elements even be called talents of a sort?

Psychiatry’s masterwork of pseudo-science, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV), once included homosexuality amongst its “scientific” diagnoses. Psychiatry thus reflects the “values” of the United States far more than concerning itself with patients, much less looking past and through society’s existing prejudices.

Even those behind psychiatry’s Shroud of Turin question its validity. Of late, there has been talk of attributing DSM diagnoses by degrees rather than mere labels. Thus, a person would “have” a “mental illness” on a scale, not just “have” it. In such a case, the flatliners who dominate the population would once again establish the “typical American’s” plot-pointed life as “sanity.”

Yet no one who suffers emotional distress would applaud the benefits of that distress. To do so would be to refute its existence and betray oneself as an imposter. Far more likely is it that many flatliners never mention their irregular heartbeats. Could it be a Second Renaissance lies beneath the ever-recycling digital ruins and its constant skies of acid rain?

Consider anxiety. Those with anxious traits are often highly-attuned. To call them “sensitive” is, in this society, an insult. “Sensitive” implies weakness, an inability to “man up.” Instead, the anxious should be viewed as a tuning fork against which society reveals itself — rather than the “patient” — as out of tune. That no one else recognizes society’s discordant sounds only proves the anxious to be society’s musicians. Countless permutations of that metaphor support themselves.

The same may be said about every other “diagnosis.” Schizophrenia might be viewed as a William S. Burroughs’ cutup of “reality” as presented, emphasis on “presented” because, of course, most of our environment has nothing natural about it and is, in fact, a presentation in every sense.

Some conditions do respond to medication. Usually, the reasons remain unknown. In turn, the medication may solve one “problem” while creating many more. Those who take most antidepressants may no longer feel depressed about nothing, but they feel depressed about their diminished sexuality, especially males whenever they try to… express their end of sexuality’s conclusion.

Returning to anxiety, medication does relieve its incapacitating aspect, but the medications that accomplish the effect also accomplish something else, that being the worst addiction known to humankind. This class of drugs, benzodiazepines, includes Xanax, Valium, Ativan, etc., the whole lot of tranquilizers, excepting the rarely-prescribed barbiturates. In some cases, antidepressants may relieve anxiety. However, they do so for reasons as unknown as the reasons antidepressants diminish depression. Likewise, they alleviate anxiety but create symptoms that mirror anxiety, such as trembling hands, odd emotional states, etc.

Rather than diagnoses, all of these traits show themselves to be products of society, products of the product society uses to diagnose those personality traits, and the products society sells to treat the products of the product society uses to diagnose those personality traits. That’s to say, they’re products of an environment completely divorced from nature.

All of this enshrouds some rather simplistic facts about a complicated subject. To martyr those suffering in the way biographers now “diagnose” every author, musician and artist “of the ages” as “bipolar” reduces suffering by labeling it, making suffering a product of their products, that being books and, eventually, films based on those books. Those who write memoirs about their “mental illnesses” bend over backwards for sainthood and reveal themselves willing to do endure any humiliation in exchange for profit.

On the other hand, failing to notice the strange talents hidden within the emotionally inflamed creates an even greater injustice. These strange talents do not prove the existence of artistic talent, as many would like to believe, but they do reveal an artistic temperament. No one can suffer emotionally but for recognition of something and, more likely, many things, and their recognitions go unnoticed by the general public. Why does no one listen to them? Who do “doctors” listen only to themselves when they recognize nothing beyond the power of their prescription pads? Is it because they realize their absolute lack of talent, strange or otherwise?

Most of those suffering in the ways described cycle through life in various stages of function and dysfunction, and most have periods of absolute dysfunction. To calls these periods “nervous breakdowns” would be far more accurate than to split the hairs of the suffering with psychiatry’s blunt axe. They must be tended to as they once were, in humane sanitariums surrounded by the true environment. Such sanitariums could — with no joke intended — be established on useless golf courses around the nation.

With that, some proposals:

1) Psychiatry should be abolished. It simply lacks the will, or even desire to have the will, to fulfill its dream of being medicine. Psychiatrists should be stripped of their meaningless licenses and sent on their way to more suitable careers, like accounting.

2) The “mentally ill” should be educated to understand their conditions as also encompassing strange talents, until they begin to believe the fact that their recognitions are true even when masked by the wildest hallucinations.

3) Medications should be dispensed by doctors who have achieved certification in dispensing those medications. They should know, and prove that knowledge by required yearly testing, that they understand prescribing medications and the facts of addictions that may occur to any such medication they dispense.As it stands, psychiatrists receive eight hours of addiction “education.”

4) Medications known to cause addiction should be removed from any policing or government surveillance whatsoever. Those subject to mental anguish should not be criminalized for trying to relieve that anguish, including and even especially when relieving the added anguish of addiction to a prescribed medication.

5) All those suffering from the acute perceptions so well described in Rumblefish should ultimately determine their own treatment, including beginning or continuing use of addictive prescribed substances, even when addiction has established itself, for the suffering caused by eliminating that addiction will likely lead to more dangerous and illegal addiction.

Flatliners already receive society’s benefits. Those who benefit society without society knowing it — those with strange talents — deserve just as many benefits.

I came in early yesterday from work. My wife and I had an appointment with our real estate agent to view a handful of homes. Before we left, I checked my messages on Facebook. In my inbox was a message I never expected to read from a mutual friend who now lives in Florida.

“He died a couple of weeks ago,” the message read.

Between the ages of 15-18, I never had a greater friend than Brian. From dawn till dusk, we four were inseparable. Then the house came crumbling down. Rick had a bad trip on acid and did a stint in a psychiatric ward in Petersburg. Ricky was in and out of jail for drug possession, and BBP had returned to New Jersey to be with his family.

After he left, Brian used to call me at all hours of the night. His mind had began deteriorating long before he left, and as it would be later confirmed, he suffered from the disease of paranoid schizophrenia.

He changed his phone number a half dozen times, his number never the same each time he called.

“They are listening,” he would tell me. He believed the government had tapped his phone.

“They are following me,” he said. They being government spies.

He would see friends from Virginia he believed were in New Jersey, visiting.

“I saw Jeremiah,” he would say. “I saw Kelly and Gary.”

But he never really did. They were never in New Jersey.

He saw ghosts of friendship.

He ditched his cell phone and started using calling cards. He would call me from various payphones in Trenton, New Jersey. Then one day he arrived at my doorstep in a beat-up pickup truck. He had no driver’s license and he was supposed to be in court that day in New Jersey for assaulting a police officer. But he was here, in Phenix, Virginia, to visit his friends — one last time.

He arrived around 4 AM and we visited his old home that he had boobytrapped before he left. He believed people were breaking into his house when he was not there.

“Stealing my dope,” he thought.

But they were not.

A string was tied from the front door knob on the backside to the trigger of a loaded shotgun. If someone entered that was not supposed to, it’d be “all she wrote,” he said. But no one ever had their head blown off because no one ever entered his home except him.

After he left Phenix that day years ago, he called me a couple of time using his calling cards. Then I never heard from him again. None of us did. And we had no way of contacting him though I tried numerous times to find a way to get in touch with his sister.

“He died a couple of weeks ago,” the message read.

From what cause, I don’t know just yet. I imagine I will shortly. Maybe. If anyone knows.

It could have been a car wreck. A sickness of some sort like cancer. Drug related. Suicide.

Suicide wouldn’t surprise me, though it saddens me.

“The comfort I take in his death,” I said to my wife, “is that he will have found peace that he no longer could find while alive.”

And I am trying to find a way to reach his sister but will probably fail miserably like I have for the past ten years.

We four were inseparable at the height of our teenage existence.

“He died,” I said to Ricky over the phone. He choked up.

“He died,” I said to Rick.

And we feel so detached from the death of a friend so great. I think in that detachment is the comfort he has finally found peace, as cliche as it may sound. It’s true.

I searched for his obituary but have been unable to find it. His family did not celebrate birthdays and, for all I know, maybe they do not celebrate deaths either.

“An individual person is not important,” he had said of his father’s beliefs which he did not share.


Years ago, in my last seminar while at the University of Virginia, we were given a final project. The class was The Road in American Literature taught by Jennifer Wicke. We had the option of writing a story 10-15 pages in length.

I ended up writing an 80-page story on BBP’s return to Phenix those years ago. I fictionalized it by changing the names. But it was no fiction. Brian’s name was not Ezekiel. My name was not Jackson. Ricky was not Charley. Rick was not Chuck. This is part of what I wrote:


I was lying in bed, a book in hand, my thumb resting on the inside joint of the pages when an old ghost pecked at the window in my room. The floor creaked as I made my way across to investigate the sound. The ghost pecked again. Crunchy wasps and ladybug shells, their souls retreated, were scattered in chipped white paint on the window sill. I drew up the Venetian blinds. Dust fell freely and tickled my nose. The apparition below stood in four sections, divided, suspended on the cross of the pane, glaring up at me. His arms were spread. He let them drop, releasing a pebble from his palm.

The figure motioned with his hand and began to walk toward the front door. I paused from where I stood and glimpsed at the neon light of the alarm clock atop my nightstand: 4:30 a.m. Possessed with the motion of the apparition’s hand, my body responded and drifted wearily down the staircase toward the front door. I began to open it simultaneously reaching up to flick the porch light on from the interior, but the bulb only flickered and fizzled out, the sight outside the door becoming visible only momentarily as if a match’s flame snubbed out. I opened the door. Three invisible Mary’s stood by the ghost in disbelief. None had removed the stone from the tomb but the body had emerged and now stood before me—intact, breathing. He is no Christ figure, I thought, only the criminal who asked for redemption in the final hours.

“It’s been a while Jackson,” the phantom said but ghosts do not speak. I stared into the darkness. The darkness stared back. The figure lifted a cigarette to his mouth and inhaled. The red cherry lit up his face. The face grinned.

****

Quite some time had passed since I had last seen Ezekiel. I never expected to see that sinister face again—the split front lip, the cigarette dangling from it, tobacco smoke pouring out of his nostrils; but now, standing before me, the face beamed. The abandoned orphan had come home in search of his natural family. Dried spittle gathered around his mouth like a rabid dog broken free of its chain. A beat up Ford pickup truck sat in the distance with New Jersey plates. As the two of us began to walk toward the truck in unison, matching one another step for step, the smell of gas fumes too early in the morning nauseated me to the core of my stomach. Ezekiel turned the key. The engine roared in the calm of the otherwise silent morning as sleeping birds nested high atop the limbs.

Painted strokes on a gray-black canvas kept in harmony as Ezekiel and I rode off into the hours before dawn. The crisp morning air drifting from the open windows of the truck wrestled with loose paper in the floorboard as we began to pick up speed.

I looked at Ezekiel.

His hair had grown out, an afro of sorts, jutting into the background like hungry snakes lying wait on the dewy grass of a cornfield in spring time. His mind was ready to bite, spit venom, and then retreat back to the path it slithered its way from prior to our meeting again. Thick glasses like Coca-Cola bottles framed his eyes. These were the same glasses given to him less than a month before his disappearance, now a little scratched on the lens but holding up nevertheless. Ezekiel looked as if a mad scientist or some sort of social deviant unfit to roam the streets freely at will.

Send him back, his father would say.

Send him back.

To the white padded walls of the asylum. Four pills at breakfast. Four pills at dinner. Mouthwash that tastes like toilet bowl water. There you just sit in a room without locks. An eye peeking through the keyhole. Peeking through the pane.

A toilet in the open.

A nurse watching you shit and piss and twiddle your thumbs and color in a coloring book like you are in elementary school.

She knows by now on average the amount of times it takes you to wipe your ass. She watches you like a hawk does prey through the glass pane and counts each wipe out of boredom more than anything. Six good wipes usually and before you wipe she knows you always lift your ass off the seat a little and look back into the bowl to see what you’ve expended.

“Cigarette,” Ezekiel asked tapping the bottom of the pack with his palm. His face lightens up.

“I’ll have one.”

“I thought maybe you had quit.”

“I did.”

****

Two cars were out at this time of morning: Ezekiel’s raggedy pickup the two of us secured in its seats and Kenneth Gold, the local newspaper deliveryman dropping off a fresh batch of the day’s Dispatch. Ezekiel flung his arm into the air, waving. Kenneth reared his head only to nod slightly and in a begrudging manner, and then returned to opening the orange box to place inside the newspapers. Ezekiel turned off the highway and up the dirt driveway to his former residence. The road was weathered and eroded, conduits made so by rain onto the silt and bits of orange clay, nay enough compacted dirt nor rock to keep the road whole and ingot; and as we traveled down it, the truck shook from side to side as the house came into view. He downshifted gears, slowing the engine to a halt. The porch light was on.

The hummingbird moth
Danced into the morning sun
But there was no sun.

Ezekiel took a drag from his cigarette and I heard the crackling of the paper as the cherry ate away toward the filter. He removed his glasses and wiped the corners of his eyes. The whites of his eyes had the appearance of jaundice and the vessels around the iris were burst. The stubby beard on his face looked of four or five days since last seeing a razor. The smell of sweat and an unwashed body seeped through the white shirt he wore, the neck of the shirt yellow and brown. He opened the door and placed his foot to the ground. Ice crystals had formed in clods of orange and brown soil. When Ezekiel’s feet met the earthen floor, a crunching sound was heard as the crystals collapsed into nothing. Standing outside of the vehicle, he crouched down and peered back in to where I still sat. He flicked the cigarette butt to the ground.

“You coming,” he said.

As we made our way on foot up the remainder of the driveway, the white light from the porch grew brighter. The house sat high atop the hill like a poor man’s plantation manor. The windows were non-existent and the panes stared back at us forming hollowed out eyes. Shards of glass had fallen from the metal crosses that were not completely concave as if melting ice-cycles in February stabbing into the ground. The roof was of rusted tin spotted with patched blocks of shiny silver. Black tar used as sealant oozed from the corner of the patches, its tin quilt in dire need of more patterns to sustain the rain whence it came, leaking from the ceiling.

Together the two of us sat down on the front stoop. Ezekiel pulled the pack of cigarettes from out his front pocket and tapped two cigarettes above the rest. He lit one and the other by its cherry, handing it to me. The smell of smoke was thick as we both looked out into the yard. Pipes were scattered about, as were bolts, a porcelain toilet, and kitchen sink. Primordial oak trees that witnessed every life that went inside, that died inside, and that left and never returned stood to the left and right of the tattered home now become of itself with no inhabitants yet another decrepit country house. The limbs reached out like his father’s hands beating the termite infested wood siding and moths flew into the porch light and fell like Icarus back to the wooden planks into a black sea of other dead and decomposed insects.

Ezekiel stood up from the stoop and peered into one of the broken windows at the front of the house. Inside were buckets to relieve the floor of rot. Trails of splotched black mold peppered the rotting floor. He pulled a flashlight out from inside his jacket pocket and shined it at the ceiling. The ceiling was warped and stained tawny and coffee colored, and there too splotches of black mold. A lone light flickered about inside, shorting from the water that had leaked from the roof over time and found its way into its circuits.

****

The sun rose, febrile and hot orange, birthing the start of a new day. Far off, the cockalorum of a rooster could be heard, the shrill of its lungs blowing mightily as was its everyday call. Sleeping birds arose and ruffled their feathers amongst the leaves of the oaks and people all across this sleepy town smacked at their alarm clocks and awoke with deep yawns expelled from their guts . . . .

Sherrill Britton, an associate vice president at Loyola Marymount University, laughs only once during our 45 minute phone conversation. “Adam used to wear a black ski cap and I hated it and made him wear a baseball cap when he left the house,” she says, referring to her 35 year-old son’s sartorial choices with loving disapproval. Her brief chuckle sounds fraught with exhaustion, though, as if even mirth requires effort now. It is late afternoon on a recent Monday and I assume she is in her office, but I don’t ask because for the past two and a half years she has had to reveal so much so often, I want to accord her whatever scrap of privacy is possible. Also, as Britton would be the first to agree, where she might be located is beside the point. 

Britton last saw her youngest son, Adam Kellner, early November 2007 in the comfortable Stevenson Ranch, California house they shared with Britton’s second husband, Leonard, who died last year. The loss of one’s partner is, of course, searing, but Britton lives with a still deeper pain: Adam occupies the netherworld of the missing. Britton was away on an overnight business trip the evening of Wednesday the 7th when Adam offered his ailing stepfather assistance climbing the stairs before bed. Despite the schizophrenia with which Adam had lived since young adulthood, when it became clear his newly askew behavior was more than collegiate posturing, he remained warm toward his mother and stepfather, if remote from nearly everyone else. Which augments the mystery of what occurred next.

“It’s been a long, frustrating ride,” Britton says plaintively. “But we keep hope alive.” As a result of Adam’s illness and medications, he frequently slept past noon, so his stepfather had no reason to worry when he didn’t see him at breakfast Thursday morning, particularly as Adam hadn’t left the house for months. The call Britton received hours later remains indelibly etched: her husband couldn’t find Adam. For years, Britton had laid out Adam’s meds in a day-of-the-week dispenser. Thursday’s pills were gone and, unlikely as it seemed, so was her son.

“I still feel like I’m going to see him on the corner of our block,” Britton continues bewilderedly, as if the facts she’s relaying can’t be real, despite imbuing each facet of her life. “You think you’re going to find him. At first you think it will last a day, maybe two or three. You can’t believe it will go on this long.”

It was reasonable to conclude Adam would appear soon: an avid smoker who was self-conscious about his bald spot, his cigarettes and hats remained, as his did his keys and wallet. He was out of shape, receiving no exercise except climbing the home’s stairs, so it was hard to fathom he could get far. And, crucially, he was stable under the circumstances.

“At some point, you settle for stable,” Britton says. “He had a job years ago, but the stress of losing it caused a psychotic break. But he had been stable for quite some time. If you live with someone with schizophrenia for fifteen years, you can tell if he is having a psychotic episode. Adam wasn’t psychotic.”

Nor was he paranoid or violent. When he heard voices, Adam believed they were his girlfriends and, poignantly, found them comforting. “There’s so much misunderstanding about schizophrenia, but Adam is a sweet young man. He would take out the trash when my husband was ill. He always brought me a Mothers Day gift.”

Britton and her eldest son, Douglas, think the common fallacy that all schizophrenics are dangerous or out of control hindered the search for Adam from the start. Britton filed a missing person’s report with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and for awhile, police conscientiously searched. Unable to find evidence of a crime or foul play, however, they concluded Adam had run away or wandered off, though they discovered no proof of this, either. 

Which begat an obstacle-strewn maze for Britton and her family. A local television station ran a segment on Adam’s disappearance and the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily News each ran short pieces, all of which led to scattered and nebulous reports that he had been spotted roughly 30 miles south on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

“I’m sure it was a ‘slow news day’ and that’s how we got coverage, but I was so grateful, so appreciative someone cared,” Britton says.  “Douglas and I went to the L.A. missions and handed out fliers with Adam’s photo and information. A security guard said he’d seen him. A homeless couple who essentially adopted us called to say Adam had been picked up by cops. Someone else said he was spotted getting on a bus and asking directions to Santa Clarita, the valley in which our home in Stevenson Ranch is located. But Santa Clarita is a bedroom community. A new face might stand out on Skid Row, but Adam would have been disheveled by then and definitely would have stood out in Santa Clarita.” Each report turned out to be false and Britton doesn’t believe Adam was ever sighted.

“People wanted to help us and felt for us and I think that colored their perceptions. We had people tell us they wished their families would look for them. One woman, who was probably a prostitute was quite kind and said she knew everyone’s faces but she hadn’t seen him. There’s a humanity on Skid Row,” she says and pauses. “It’s scary when you’re driving through but it’s different when you’re walking around.”

Since those early weeks, Britton has hired a private investigator, faxed fliers to hospitals and morgues within a 90 mile radius, given Adam’s dental records and DNA samples to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, and filed reports with the National Center for Missing Adults and the California Department of Justice Missing and Unidentified Missing Person’s Unit. Her home’s proximity to I-5 spurred her to place an ad in a trucker magazine and to contact the 18 Wheel Project, a coalition of truckers who help search for missing individuals. “I’m a very private person, or I was before this. I had to allow people in and I’ve been grateful for their help,” she says.

But Britton’s anguish is palpable, particularly as she describes begging the Sheriff’s Office to search the dense wilderness near her house and trying to procure a helicopter company to do the same, each to no avail.

She recently donated her deceased husband’s clothes to one of the L.A. shelters that helped in her family’s search, explaining, “When you’re doing nothing, you’re giving up. And we don’t give up. But Adam’s clothes and shoes remain in his closet. I haven’t even been able to move his half-pack of cigarettes and lighter from his spot in the garage.”

Then her voice cracks. “When I was at Loyola’s baccalaureate mass recently, the priest asked everyone to reach out to put their hand on a family member. Some people had seven hands on them. I started crying because I had no one.”

The accompanying video contains the television report and additional information regarding Adam Kellner. Please join Sherrill Britton and Douglas Kellner’s Facebook group, Help Us Find Adam Kellner.

It’s spring.  I love transitional seasons but they also frighten me – they tend to take my mind and moods on random, unpredictable journeys.  Existential vertigo, as it were.

702 W. Martin, the cute puffy red cartoon star on my Mapquest map, turns out to be a creepy, rundown cinderblock high rise. The grass is worn away in big patches and the windows are lined with garbage bags, aluminum foil or blankets. It smells like a hundred people have been cooking potent ethnic food in concert with their doors open. Mariachi music plays at hearing damage volume from a ground level unit.

But the view is breathtaking.

Step off the grimy elevator on the twelfth floor and you’re served up a panoramic cityscape that typically comes with luxury condos: Tower of the Americas surrounded by overlapping multi-tier freeways, a colorful stream of vehicles flowing by like shiny toys, the enchilada red central library flanked by punchy green trees, clusters of skyscrapers made of blue, black and bronze reflective glass glinting in the sun. An airbus glides in silently, smoothly, extra white against the giant blue Texas sky.

A black boy in his teens wordlessly answers my knock at 1224. He is morbidly obese. I introduce myself. As he lifts his arms to take the heavy box of dishes, his body odor overpowers the air. He walks across the living room, where two half-inflated air mattresses sit in the middle of the floor with three males of discrepant ages sprawled across them, and disappears into the kitchen. The air mattress guys acknowledge me with a cursory glance and then turn back to a small TV, also on the floor. Two shopping carts draped with clothes function as makeshift closets against one wall and an immaculate, beautiful baby sucking on a pacifier is standing up in a ratty playpen against the opposite wall. Cheesy Puff smithereens cover the concrete floor.

The big kid comes back with middle age woman who shuffles unevenly toward me.

Scuse the mess, she says brightly. We’re just trying to get by.

We’re all just… I let my platitude trail off. It rings hollow and the TV drowns out my voice anyway. Her apology is less to me than to the world.

I tell her I need to go back down to the car.

Oh Anthony can help you, she says.

I’d really rather he not, but I can’t think how to phrase this nicely so I just smile.

He’s big but he don’t bite, she laughs, looking up at him with adoration. Anthony scratches his massive arm.

We wait for the elevator and gaze out over the penthouse view.

What school do you go to? I ask. He mentions one I’ve never heard of.

Are you from San Antonio? I ask.

He shakes his head. He doesn’t offer anything else. There’s something wrong with him but I don’t know what.

We really appreciate all this, the woman says as I’m leaving.

It’s no problem, I reply. Take care.

****

On weekends I deliver oven mitts and such to crazy people.

Years ago this lady named Patsy started a non-profit called Home Comforts, a donation service for the chronically mentally ill when they get discharged from the state hospital. Patsy’s son lost his mind pretty young, back in the day. They gave him a little therapy, lots of drugs and turned him loose.

Home Comforts doesn’t do clothes or food. Only the other stuff – spatulas and shower curtains and alarm clocks.

Having a stable place to live, we can all agree, is a basic human right. It is also considered the cornerstone of recovery for the mentally ill.

The largely female executive board of Home Comforts refer to themselves as “the ladies with the can openers.”

****

1403, Tanya’s apartment, is a corner unit all the way around back next to two big blue dumpsters. The complex is called The Mirage, smack dab in the middle of the Medical Center on the west side of town. A big plastic banner outside the leasing office announces Move Ins Available Immediately – From $475/month.

I’m not sure The Mirage is an appropriate apartment complex name for a chronically mentally ill person.

One of my co-workers used to live here. The amenities include a small outdoor pool, clothes care center, barbeque areas and a mini gym. Any apartment complex financed by city-issued tax-exempt bonds is required to set aside 20% of the units for low-income tenants for a period of 30 years. You may know this as Section 8 housing. Sections 8s are in very limited supply and they’re always the units no one else would want: the ones by dumpsters, the ones way across the parking lot on the fifth floor overlooking a drainage ditch. The chronically mentally ill qualify for Section 8 twofold: they’re considered disabled and they’re always very low-income.

Tanya’s stuff has been in my trunk for like two weeks, which nearly drove ME crazy, because I kind of can’t stand to have stuff lying around not in its rightful spot. My car stinks powerfully of knockoff Tide powder and Compare to Pine Sol cleaner and industrial plastic packaging for things like sheet sets and ironing board covers. It smells like brain cancer.

The chronically mentally ill are not good at the phone. They have phone anxiety. Their meds make them sleep a lot. For these and other reasons, Patsy instructs without elaborating, try not to call them too much.

Finally one Saturday afternoon Tanya answers on ring six, just as I’m thinking I’m pushing it.

Oh hey, thanks for calling, she says breezily.

What would be a good time? Will she be home this afternoon?

Yeah, my mother’s just taking me to get groceries right now, then I’ll be back around 4:30. Would that work?

Tanya does not sound even marginally crazy. Her voice is clear and even, her syntax normative. This disappoints me. I am disappointed with myself for being disappointed but the truth is I wanted a small challenge in dealing with her. I don’t just want to deliver something, I want deliverance.

Tanya’s Big Lots Extra Value white with blue trim dishes rattle precariously over the speed bumps within the apartment complex. She answers the door in three phases: small crack, halfway crack, wide open. She’s got that hospital chub and a huge nest of curly hair, which has been lassoed into a hasty ponytail. The stench of cat urine forces me to mouth breathe. Small balls of what appears to be toilet paper festoon the living room floor. There’s a heavily stained recliner and a large Sanyo TV on top of a sagging Rubbermaid storage tub and small folding oak table covered in telltale orange prescription bottles. A kaleidoscope-shaped splash of Coke or coffee has dried on one of the walls.

She starts unloading the bags as soon as I set them down.

Oh wait, these are queen? I don’t know what size my mattress is. Can you hold on while I see if they fit?

I don’t mind. I can use the practice holding my breath.

This is it.

I pick up a shit ton of stuff.

Call a little.

Go to their place.

Help them unpack maybe.

Make awkward small talk for sure.

Try not to look at their sad, stinky life always. Then leave. And that’s it.

Volunteering for the Extremely Lazy and Existentially Guilty.

****

Mapping the human genome excited scientists so much because they were going to be able to find the genes that caused cancer or schizophrenia. Find those suckers and shut them off.

But in the couse of human genome mapping, it was discovered that single genes don’t cause cancer or schizophrenia.

It is the interaction between genes that fucks a person up.

Specifically, DNA methylation.

****

Construction makes finding the Henry B. Gonzalez housing projects on Ingram and Callaghan tricky. The late Henry B. was a rare Texas Democrat, a social justice pitbull. He still holds the state legislature filibuster record – in 1957 he talked for 22 hours straight against segregation.

I keep getting booted around the same intersection, which is giving ME incredible anxiety. Not because I mind going in circles, shoot, I’m always getting lost around here but because a crazy person is waiting. I must show up on time. I must not be late. I am a reliable, predictable and gift-bearing representative of the (comparatively) mentally healthy world.

Finally I veer onto a side street and after a few loops randomly and magically arrive at Henry B., which consists of about fifty 1 bedroom units in single story brick buildings, clustered much like a budget travel lodge. In a central garden area, a forlorn-looking latticed gazebo sits vacant.

I only have her initials, A.M. (Patsy explained she wants her privacy respected). 301 is easy to find. A.M. answers the door, and I’m taken aback momentarily. She is enormous in her flowered muuumuu and thick, outdated plastic frames. Her hair seems to be coated in oil. A metal cane supports her huge frame. The apartment has the persistent smell of new paint. Unopened boxes cover every floor surface.

She just moved in then?

Oh no, I’ve been here about a month, she says plainly. I’ve been so depressed though, just haven’t felt like unpacking.

I smile sympathetically, as if I might understand the effects of chemical sadness. Which of course I do not. Unpacking and putting things in their assigned spaces is, for me personally, a reliable sort of happiness. But I shouldn’t say that. Should I? I don’t know. My entire mental health training is two viewings of Girl, Interrupted. I’m just here to hand over a shower curtain and some measuring cups. So I tell A.M. I’ll be right back, there’s more stuff in the car.

With exertion, she takes the bags from me and piles them on top of her unopened boxes. She signs the delivery confirmation form, dates it incorrectly, and peers at me through her big plastic lenses.

Yeah, I don’t what it is. I guess I’m just not used to being alone.

Finally you get out of the hospital, armed with your SSRIs and behavior modification plan and a new apartment and suddenly the crushing loneliness starts making the nuthouse look pretty good.

Patsy says most of the country’s mentally ill are either locked up or in homeless shelters. The L.A. County Jail has been called “the largest mental health treatment facility in the world”, spending more than $10 million annually on antipsychotic medication.

The ones who end up in housing projects, Patsy sighs, are like shipwreck victims who make it to shore.

****

DNA methylation is a normal chemical process that occurs as your cells divide or multiply, which they’re always doing, right now even, to replace dead or damaged ones.

Sometimes DNA methylation goes awry, for reasons no one understands yet, and then your genes can’t communicate clearly. They tell each other wrong things, or even nothing.

You’re suddenly full on bipolar. You’re officially schizophrenic. It’s too late: You’re Crazy.

****

The Arriba Apartments are almost on Blanco Road, like one foot away from the street, four crumbling green and white two story buildings between a Church’s Chicken and a Kwik Wash. Fried poultry and fabric softener are not a complimentary fragrance combination. Wayne lives in 412, where a scruffy long-haired black and brown cat is shitting in the dirt two feet from his door.

This one’s a GI, Patsy said when she gave me his mops. I don’t know if it’s PTSD or something else. Probably the something else.

I have no idea what the something else is. Patsy’s not in the habit of commenting on the clients and she never assigns me to men, so the whole thing is making me sorta scared. The shitting cat, though, I take to be a literal, spiritual reassurance. This situation is just shitty, not dangerous.

Waynes answers the door visibly upset and on the phone. He has three piercings in the skin below his bottom lip. Time Warner, he explains. They were supposed to come two days ago, then yesterday. The guy never showed up! I’ve been waiting all – yes? Hello? This is Wayne —-. I’m calling about my damn cable.

He’s a husky guy in denim shorts and a Green Bay Packers jersey and big black sneakers. His head has been shaved recently. The skin is pink. Wayne’s unit is completely empty except for two cardboard boxes and a green duffel bag with a busted strap shoved into one corner. Fresh vacuum lines give the carpet two gradations of beige.

Sorry, he mouths to me.

It’s ok, I whisper. I’ll be right back.

While I make my trips to and from the car, Wayne sits cross-legged on the carpet and argues fervently with a Time Warner representative, someone who is using all the techniques they learned at How To Deal With Difficult People training, assuming they had such a thing. I give him a little wave to let him know I’m going.

Hold it! Hold on, he barks into the phone. He covers the microphone and says to me, Sorry, sorry. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

It’s ok, I reply, though he’s gone back to shouting. It’s no problem.

****

How does a person just lose it?

We almost know now.

Of course the stigma persists: bad drugs or bad parenting or bad coping skills. It’s hard to equate physical illness and mental illness. Hard to see cancer the same as depression.

Except on a chemical level, it is. Crazy is a disease you’re born with. Just like your inherited genes brew up lymphoma for years before you need chemo (and smoking/eating pork ribs every day doesn’t help matters) mania sits latently in your DNA, waiting to methylate and unleash its fury.

Researchers now believe it is some combination of hereditary and environmental factors that make people crazy, not just one or the other.

This represents a major shift. It means we’re heading in a new two-prong direction.  We’re getting closer.

It’s fucking exciting.