Read more about the bill here: N.J.’s mental illness public funding shift will neglect most vulnerable
A little while ago, I idly clicked on my son Dean’s Facebook page and found the stunning post below. As I told him a bit later, my heart was still pounding. And it still is.
On the surface, this is an account by Dean of his attempted suicide about four years ago. (Our family had lost Kevin, Dean’s younger brother, to suicide in 2005 after his three-year struggle with schizophrenia deepening in to schizoaffective disorder.)
This at least is the surface account—which Dean has never talked about until this morning. On a more profound level, it is an extremely rare glimpse into the soul of a schizophrenia sufferer, written with blazing clarity and candor. In NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, I narrate that terrible day from Honoree’s and my point of view, as we realize that we have lost phone contact with him, then learn from police that his truck had been found beside Lake George, some thirty miles to the west of us, and then sit helplessly for hours, trying to absorb the possibility that we had lost our remaining cherished son.
I am inexpressibly proud of Dean for giving us this. He was a promising young writer until misfortunes in his life began to multiply, culminating in a psychotic break a few years after Kevin’s death. This essay tells me that Dean is working hard and fearlessly to regain and re-master his gifts. To which I say, Godspeed, my good son.
But the significance of the essay goes well beyond my fatherly pride for Dean. It should be read by anyone who believes that mental-illness victims have lost their humanity; that they no longer are capable of insight or of reaching out to the “normal” world.
And it should be read by sufferers themselves. One of your brothers has held out a lamp to illuminate the richness that remains in you.
“Three years and several months ago: i texted my buddy and boss as my gps led me to the wrong spot. “I’m lost.”
I saw a truck that looked like mine parked beside a trail. I parked there and started walking down the trail. Snakes got startled, several of them, slithering away as i walked past them as though they were frightened by me. As i walked i felt the tedium of daily life weighing on my shoulders.
I came here knowing there was danger only to face it and meet my fate. As the steps drew on and i felt tired bugs started swarming around my head. I had a vision in that moment of me several thousand years ago drunk and staggering and lonely. Death sounded like comfort.
I turned around and walked back as a crossed a small wooden bridge i saw trash in the water and my Eyes started to tear up as it crossed my mind that we are trashing this gift God gave to us. Then a low flying plane flew directly over head as if God was telling me you made your appointment i see you and all is well.
Then i got back in my truck and drove to Lake George. My eyes scanned my surroundings at a red light and they settled on a “no right on red” sign. I gunned the throttle and turned right on red. I pulled into the parking lot, left my wallet and my phone in the truck.
I got out walked to the beach took off my shirt socks and shoes and got in the water. It was July. There were other people in the water. It felt good. I walked out a little ways till i was waist deep and took a plunge. Suddenly i felt this wonderful energy running through my arms and chest as i held my knees to my chest. I was going to turn into a school of fish and swim off into open freedom. It was like i could breathe under water.
But before i took my first breath an off duty new York state trooper pulled me out of the water. My arms opened up wide like i was on the cross myself staring up at the sun as he dragged me out of the water and put me on my back on the beach. I wondered if God could see me. Then i looked down at the water and saw a boat, the Minne Ha Ha. It was as though some competing force was telling me the world is mine haha. Then a helicopter swooped over head. It was like a movie.
The first thing i said to him was, “it’s in the eyes.” His eyes were hazel. Then all these competing arguments about the origins of the world and God flashed before my eyes. My heart beat rapidly in panic. I saw Ireland with its eyes never closing even as europe fell asleep during a card game. This gave me hope that it wasn’t all as bad as it seemed. Then before even a second elapsed I was put on a stretcher and put in an ambulance with two emts with blue eyes and i panicked again.
“All i want to do is rest in peace,” i said to them. “Oh we hear you,” the man said to me. He flicked the lights above me on and off several times. Then they took me to the hospital and i heard birds chirping and saw lights flashing when i blinked my eyes.
Eventually they put me in the psych Ward and i got pissed that i was getting locked up again. 5 guys and i were standing around in a circle. I said “nobody here has any authority.” Then they bowed their heads. They bowed their heads as if the authority was spiritual. Then they all laid hands on me and put me on my bed and shot two needles in my butt. And i said “those shots better kill me.” The medics head jerked as i said this as he plunged the medication home.
Later as i reflected on it i thought to myself, “they pulled me out of the water.” Baptism, evolution, pirates. “They pulled me out of water.” I was baptised into my true spirituality by an off duty new York state trooper. It also symbolizes our journey out of the ocean and onto land. And if i had walked the plank it’s like they threw me a rope to pull me back on board.
And if he hadn’t pulled me out i might have breathed and i might be dead. I don’t even know his name, but i want to thank him.”
In the late 1990s I contributed commentaries to Vermont Public Radio. I often drew upon Dean and Kevin for subject-matter. This piece, broadcast in 1997, is one of my favorites, and captures my younger son in all his instinctual goodness and decency.
Ron Powers/VPR Commentary
Kevin and the Perfect Playboy Woman
Promo: This is Ron Powers. What’s the best defense against sleazy junk mail? Having a smart kid helps. Stay tuned for a few minutes and I’ll tell you what I mean.
Announcer’s intro: Researchers in Texas have discovered a new use for junk mail: it makes an excellent garden fertilizer. Commentator Ron Powers is not surprised.
Commentary: I was scooping out the daily tonnage of junk mail with a backhoe the other day—when I spotted an envelope that was different from all the rest. It was festooned with an oddly familiar logo; a pair of bunny-ears. It was addressed to my son Kevin. And then I spotted the legend stamped in the upper right-hand corner:
BULK RATE U.S. POSTAGE PAID BY PLAYBOY
Well, I opened it. Call me a nuidge. Inside were—guess what?–glossy photographs of young women with complicated hair, plunging décolletage and lip-gloss. But here was the zinger: a personal message for my kid: because of his, quote, “proven good taste,” he was being invited to represent, quote, “The Sophisticated Male of the Nineties” and help Playboy Magazine construct—I quote again—“The Perfect Woman.”
“You read it right!” the copy burbled. “From the many intelligent men in and around your state, we have selected YOU for our annual Perfect Woman Poll.” The potential rewards included a vacation for two in the Bahamas; round-trip airline tickets to anywhere in North America and lots of cash.
The next page listed the questions that Kevin would have to answer. The categories included “Vital Statistics” (the Perfect Woman’s measurements at bust, waist and hips); “Body Parts” (length and shape of legs, firmness of stomach, whether she should have an “innie” or an “outie”) and “Fashion Statements” (whether she should mostly wear bikinis, high heels, negligees, tattoos, handcuffs, or “nothing.”
Now, here’s what you have to understand about Kevin. He still carries the cat to bed with him. His passions include Monopoly, bagels with cream cheese, playing guitar and trying to make contact with Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls. Are we talking Sophisticated Male, or what?
How Playboy found Kevin was not hard to figure out. A few months ago his older brother took part in a magazine subscription drive for the high school. The family all chipped in. Kevin’s choices were Snowboarding and Sports Illustrated. This got his name into the computerized data system of subscription lists, which magazines buy and sell to one another. Playboy was only a matter of time.
When Kevin got home from after-school ice skating, I asked him if he had ever thought what the Perfect Woman might be like.
He was still wearing an orange knit cap pulled down to his eyes, and his cheeks were scarlet from the cold. He gave me his sidelong, you’re-tricking-me look.
“Like a grown-up?” he asked after a minute. I nodded. His blue eyes trailed upward in thought.
“Smart. . .” he said. He thought again.
“Pretty. . .” he added.
“Who doesn’t smoke.
“A very nice attitude.
“Who skis or snowboards and likes to play sports.” His gaze turned quizzical again. “Why do you want to know?”
I told him he had received a brochure from Playboy Magazine asking for his ideas about the Perfect Woman.
“I did?” he asked. “Where?” and then: “Why did they write to me?”
I told him the letter mentioned his “proven good taste.” Kevin tilted his head. “How do I have good taste?” he asked. “What are you talking about?”
I decided to show him. He was excited at first—the name “Playboy” was not unknown in the corridors of his school—but when I put the brochure in his hands, he looked at it for several minutes, and his mood changed.
“Those people probably smoke,” he said quietly. He sifted through the enameled images of cleavage and fishnetting and pouty lips.
And then, walking out the door of my study: “I don’t want to think about it.”
You know what? The direct mail geniuses at Playboy Magazine got it right. The kid does have proven good taste. This is Ron Powers in Middlebury.
Kevin could summon beautiful words as well as beautiful music. Below is his luminously phrased application to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, which he wrote at age 16. It is followed by the soundtrack to his extraordinary, probing solo in “Summertime,” a performance he gave at Castleton College less than three months before his suicide.
Kevin Powers Berklee Application Essay
As a musician, one of the most profound events I experienced was getting my first Pat Metheny CD. I was in eighth grade and the CD was “Like Minds,” a Christmas present from my dad. It featured Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Roy Haynes and Dave Holland. This was my first exposure to the jazz art form. Hearing that CD made me want to play jazz guitar.
From the first chord of the first song, something unexplainable made me listen more intently than I ever dreamed I would to a jazz recording. Gary Burton’s solo was intense. His playing was classy and smooth but not cheesy, his melodic runs and progressive energy were all there. When Pat started his solo, this was the first time I decided to give a new player a chance. I was, up until then, a die-hard for the rock scene. I had never heard someone play jazz in a way that inspired me to. That all changed with Pat’s playing.
His solo was begun in a manner that made him sound like he was in my room talking to me, telling me all the great things the guitar could offer. He started a little behind the beat with a short concise phrase and much as the title of the song would suggest, “Question and Answer,” the second phrase followed the first one perfectly. It was so lyrical and melodic. I had always enjoyed Joe Pass; however, I appreciate the two for different reasons now. I had never heard improvisation that was in a sense a melody itself. Pat was doing this. I had heard over and over again from camps that I attended that “space” was important, that one’s solo needs to “breathe.” Now it became clear to me why. It was happening here.
As soon as I was at the next record store, I bought a Pat Metheny Group CD. I realized that what I had heard on “Like Minds” was probably a small pixel in the larger scope of this guy. For a period of about a full year, each successive CD of his that I bought was more interesting than the last. Pat’s compositional ability is hard to comprehend. His songs are so expressive and the forms are so intricate. The most memorable experience I will have is attending the National Guitar Summer Workshop in New Milford, CT, where Pat came and spoke to us. It was three hours with the words from the man himself about what he has been doing, does and will be doing in the future. He is one of my biggest inspirations and I am very lucky to have been able to hear his music and see him.
Click below to listen to the track Summertime with Kevin Powers on guitar and Jonathan Lorentz on saxophone.
In case you’ve been kidding yourself that public care for the mentally ill is snugly enfolded in the bosom of America’s state government systems, and monitored by informed, crackerjack news organizations, take a look at the peculiar string of factoids stumbling forth from Oregon.The factoids originate in a verifiable event. On Dec. 1, Governor Kate Brown announced her plan to close down the Junction City Mental Health Hospital, which opened with great fanfare just 18 months ago; boasts a 174-patient capacity, and offers employment to 422 people in a community that needs every job it can get.
That, as Dan Rather used to say, is what we think we know at the moment. Beyond this base, information remains sketchy, motivations murky, the announced rationale questionable, and the future of the facility’s patients up in the air, where the futures of such unfortunate human beings generally reside.
The governor herself—a Democrat, by the way, and thought of as generally progressive—has attributed the necessity to, brace yourselves, a tight state budget. Tight budgets are virtually always given as the reason for tapping into funds and facilities for mental health care, which in turn are virtually always the first areas to be tapped in a budget pinch.
But is Oregon really suffering a budget pinch?
Governor Brown pointed to a “projected” $1.7 billion revenue shortfall set against expenses for 2017-19. She intends to narrow this gap partly by raising taxes on cigarettes, liquor, and hospitals (a grouping that one does not often encounter). Yet a “Revenue Outlook” released by Oregon.Gov begins by reporting that “Oregon’s general fund outlook remains stable” https://www.oregon.gov/das/OEA/Documents/revenue.pdf and that revenues “are expected to total $19,526 million in the 2017-19 biennium, an increase of 8.4% percent from the prior period,” although $40 million below the September forecast.
So, again, to paraphrase Donald Trump—“Pinch?—or no pinch?”
Even if the Governor is drawing upon more reliable comparisons than are readily available to an outsider, it seems peculiar, bordering on bizarre, that she would choose the Junction City Mental Health Hospital as a first-round sacrifice.
Junction City opened to great applause and greater hope in March 2015, its features harkening back to the exalted “Moral Treatment” designs of the 19th century. (The cost was either $180 million or $84 million, depending on which Oregon press account you read, a testament to the quality of press scrutiny. As of this writing, no major outlet has done an in-depth examination of the proposed closing or the political dynamics behind it. My own calls and emails to Oregon reporters are as yet unanswered.)
Its rehabilitative amenities include a library, spiritual center, hair salon, fitness rooms, classrooms, a gym, and outdoor quads. Patients can go on outings (after a review process, learn social skills and money management, acquire cooking skills and learn how to call for help.
And in case those humane offerings might strike some taxpayers as a little—oh—cushy for people who are, well, you know; consider this: the alternative to clinical rehabilitation is, typically, jail or prison. These systems, dumping-grounds for an obscene number of afflicted people, add up to a far greater drain on public revenues than does rehabilitation. Oh, and by the way, they tend to be unspeakably barbaric. To the sane and insane alike.
In early May 2015, less than two months after Junction City opened, a public-interest group called Disability Rights Organization (https://droregon.org/bhu/) released a report that found “Oregon prisoners with severe mental illness are routinely tasered, pepper-sprayed, isolated, and denied access to adequate mental health care.” (“Isolated,” by the way, means “placed in solitary confinement,” the single most devastating assault prison guards can levy on a mental-illness sufferer.”)
As I write in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, this list of sanctioned atrocities has changed hardly at all from the horrors of Bedlam Asylum more than 700 years ago, save for the technology.
I will continue to monitor the developments surrounding Junction City in the coming days, and the bedrock reasons behind the governor’s decision. Meanwhile, the links below offer a fuller discussion of some of the points I have raised.
The Cures Act’s unexpected success thus far signals a radical departure from decades of Congressional indifference toward the mentally ill, interrupted occasionally by maladroit and socially damaging efforts at reform such as “deinstitutionalization.” Its strengths, weakness and potentially controversial sections are superbly analyzed by the pre-eminent mental-health blogger Pete Earley: http://www.peteearley.com/2016/11/30/murphys-family-mental-health-bill-finally-approved-next-step-senate-then-white-house/
The Act incorporates the language of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, a measure created and promoted for years by Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA), the pre-eminent champion of reform on this issue in all of Congress. https://murphy.house.gov/latest-news/breaking-helping-families-in-mental-health-crisis-act-language-finalized-full-vote-to-take-place-next-week/.
Despite the euphoria and likely full passage, even its advocates acknowledge that the 21st Century Cures Act faces strong opposition from several influential sectors. The reliably progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has criticized it for failing to constrain the “Big Pharma,” the notoriously profiteering multinational pharmaceutical industry, from profligate pricing and lax testing standards for protecting the safety of customers. On the other side of the spectrum, the conservative group Heritage Action for America,which has denounced the “gimmicky nature of the pay fors” in the Act—“the newly creating funding mechanism designed to bypass spending caps, or the overall level of spending.”
Congressman Murphy pinpointed his satisfaction with the House vote while agreeing that it is far from a cure-all for serious mental illness in America: “We didn’t get everything we needed, but we needed everything we got.” The Congressman, who is a Navy veteran and a practicing psychologist, went to work on his Crisis Act in 2012, following the massacre of schoolchildren in Newton, Connecticut, by the 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who had murdered his mother before the shooting spree and who killed himself afterward.
I have devoted a couple of chapters to Congress’s history of ineptitude and indifference to mental illness in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. In Chapter 13, “Debacle,” I examine the lingering social damage wrought by deinstitutionalization, the early-60s experiment in mass removal of patients from the nation’s flawed and overcrowded mental asylums without following through on guarantees that they would be cared for in a vast network of community-based centers operating without government oversight.
And finally, lest anyone imagine that the surviving mental and psychiatric hospitals have solved their problems, I offer the following short list of recent atrocities suffered by mental-hospital patients (all women, interestingly). I will add that my book takes its title from a string of horrific abuses, including at least one patient death by starvation (another woman, for whatever that may mean), that occurred at Milwaukee County Hospital in the years around 2010.
So: let us justly celebrate the House action on Wednesday in advancing the 21st Century Cures Act. But at the same time, let us not forget that much remains to be done—on the Act itself, and in our still-chaotic world of mental health care.
I just answered a post by dear friend from college and early-career days. He grew up in Sudbury, Ontario. He’s feeling a little down, like a lot of us, over the election, and expressed a wish to return to his hometown.
I don’t know that I managed to cheer him up, but his message reminded me of a passage from NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. It involves a night spent in Sudbury as I drove Kevin, then 14, from Vermont across Canada and then south through Michigan to commence his studies at the Interlochen Music Academy. I’m reposting it below. If not exactly a cheerer-upper, it at least is a reminder of moments of beauty that appear from nowhere, conjured by the fingers of a gifted child and his guitar. This was before Kevin’s fatal onset of schizo-affective disorder:
“That September, I drove Kevin the nine hundred miles to Interlochen. It was a memorable ride.
“We chose a route that took us north to Montreal, then westward on Highway 17 for six hundred miles, skirting Ottawa and then the vast and pristine Algonquin Provincial Park, its primitive interior saturated with lakes and moose. We ate hamburgers at a log-built restaurant and gift shop somewhere along the route, and it became our traditional stopping-place on future trips. Traditions were important to both boys, but especially Kevin. We stopped for the night in a motel in Sudbury, Ontario. At Sault Ste. Marie, we turned south into Michigan along Interstate 75. We crossed the Straits of Mackinac, linking Lakes Michigan and Huron, on the majestic suspended arc of the Mackinac Bridge that stretched five miles.
“Kevin was upbeat during the long drive, but he admitted to me that he was worried about meeting new people at the arts academy. For one thing, he said, he didn’t know any good jokes. I told him that jokes could be over-rated, and the best way to make new friends was to ask them a lot of questions about themselves. This went for girls too, I added. Girls especially.
“In our motel room in Sudbury, Ontario, I was unpacking toiletries from my suitcase. Kevin was sitting behind me on one of the twin beds. I heard acoustic guitar notes, and turned around.
“The lamplight brought out the gold in Kevin’s hair, and he was in his usual playing position, bent forward a little, head down, the sole of one messy sneaker planted on the arch of the other.
“The piece was short, but lyric, and haunting, like a medieval ballad, and as it went on I stopped unpacking and sat down on the bed beside Kevin and listened. When he had finished, and when quotidian sounds—traffic horns, voices in the hall, TV sounds in other rooms—had resumed their noise, I asked Kevin where he’d learned it and how long it had taken him to memorize it. He shrugged and said that he’d made it up as he went along. He was just doing some finger exercises.
“Some weeks later, walking with him around the Interlochen campus during a visit, I brought it up again. I asked my son if he could reconstruct that piece from memory. He gave an absent shake of his head; his attention, at that moment, was on a pretty girl riding a bicycle in and out of the sunlight. A temporary, beautiful, golden thing had passed through that motel room in Ontario that evening, and then vanished, a presence to be experienced only once, and briefly, and then never again.”
A new advance notice for NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE (due March 21) has arrived–from Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, one of the true statesmen and -women of mental health-care reform. I’m humbled to receive it:
“Ron Powers and his wife never expected to visit the exotic lands of schizophrenia until their two sons became affected. A gifted professional writer, Powers takes the reader along on his explorations as he tries to understand why it happened and what to do. What he finds is ‘the most dreaded of all human mental disorders.’ Very readable and highly recommended.”
E. Fuller Torrey, MD
Author, Surviving Schizophrenia
Click here to read more advance notices for No One Cares About Crazy People.