Part I – 1989
It was a chilly Californian December night and one could feel the barometer dropping in anticipation of an incoming rainstorm. The cloudy sky wasn’t visible as a thick fog had settled in, reflecting the street lights in a curious burnt-orange glow. Less than a month from the turn of the decade, our group of True Gentlemen gathered outside the beloved House discussing the assigned tasks from that evening’s humdrum meeting. Random jibes, insults, and jokes were the norm and each would give as good as they got. I looked for Mark who was uncharacteristically silent most of the night, seemingly not interested in anything we had to say. He stood silently alone some 20 feet away, head angled upward, eyeballing the foggy ceiling. Mark and I were very close. We pledged together a few years earlier and our shared adventures had formed a bond closer than many blood brothers would ever know. I walked over to him, and asked, “what’s up?” I noticed his eyes bulging out of his head. He stood stoicly, unblinking, a lit but long-ashed cigarette in his fingers, mouth agape, and staring into the marshy sky.
“Hey … Dude, are you ok?” No response. “Mark?”
Without moving his head and barely moving his mouth, he whispered in his deep baritone voice “I can taste it. Can’t you?”
Well, that was weird. “Um, what?”
Still looking up he continued “The dust. I taste it. They want to get it into our brains. I can taste it, Daaave. They say it’s for medflies, but it’s not. It’s the aliens. And they made the dust just small enough to get into our brain, Daaave.”
Incorrectly, I figured I knew what was going on. Southern California was dealing with a potential agricultural and economic crisis — the Mediterranean fruit fly. In response, Los Angeles County was sending crop dusters to spray malathion pesticide over residential neighborhoods to kill the fruit flies. Door knockers, local news alerts, and public service announcements warned people to cover their cars because malathion could ruin paint. But not to worry folks, it’s safe for people. Everyone was on edge. There was a constant drumbeat of public health worries in local media, protests at city hall (by seemingly normal folks), and concerned whispers at the water cooler (this was before internet). Tonight they were flying planes, but supposedly not in our section of the city.
“Mark, you’re worried about the malathion? They’re nowhere near us, not tonight anyways.”
Still looking up, he replied. “Daave, they say it’s safe. Of course they say that, so you don’t worry. And you don’t worry Daaave. Nobody worries because you all believe them. They say it’s for the flies. They got you. You all probably have the alien dust in you now. And now it will grow in your brain. So you don’t worry, Daaave. It’s already too late for you.”
As I started thinking he must have done some hallucinogenic drugs, he turned his head to me and his bulging Marty Feldman eyes looked deep into mine. I had never seen him look like this, and it was unnerving. And then, as if someone clicked a switch his face turned pale white.
“Daave, they got you didn’t they. Daaave. Daaave, they got you!“
Suddenly he lunged at me, raised both his hands to grab my throat and started to squeeze … hard.
I grabbed his wrists, threw them down and shoved his chest pushing him away from me.
“Mark! Hey! Dude, what are you doing?”
With what I can only compare to Donald Sutherland’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers face, he stepped backward while pointing at me “They got you!” His psychodrama was real. His fear was authentic. Veins were now popping from his pale temples and he was consumed with terror. In turn, I felt his paranoia and it scared me to my core.
Then he pivoted sideways, like he was defending a basketball player, ran toward the side of the house and disappeared.
I yelled to my buddies who had also seen what just happened, “Mark’s in trouble!” and I ran after him with the guys in tow.
We hustled to the front of the house and then into the road, looking both ways. The dark reddish/orange fog was almost pea-soup thick. I couldn’t see Mark or even the house across the street. It was quiet and I was trying to hear any footsteps that would suggest he was running in one direction or another.
Then the silence of the fog was broken by the last sound I wanted Mark to hear; the turboprop of a small plane in the distance … but getting louder.
Mark was gone. We ran to our cars and each went in different directions looking for him, calling his name out the windows into the chilly night. We didn’t know what to do. I stopped at a payphone and called his parents asking them to call me if he went home. I felt bad for probably scaring them, but I was desperate. It was a very long night driving around in the fog and whatever poison we were inhaling under the buzz of the occasional crop dusters. We just wanted to find our friend.
The next morning, the phone rang at my apartment. It was Mark’s mom who told me he was picked up by police six miles from the house and after a long night at the station he was admitted to a psychiatric lockdown facility. Later that evening our band of brothers was allowed to visit him. We joined him on bolted-down industrial furniture under bright fluorescent lights. We tried to make small talk, but he didn’t respond. So we sat silently watching him stare into space. We quickly realized it wasn’t him, just the catatonic body my friend once inhabited.
He was at the beginning of a battery of tests to determine what was happening. His mother pulled me to the side and solemnly said, “he is having violent tendencies … extremely violent. I was shocked what they told me he said to the staff. They had to … slow him down.” She didn’t explain what that meant, or what he did and said to the staff, but she continued. “They seem to think it could be schizophrenia”.
The drive home from the psychiatric hospital was brutal. The five of us, all friends to this day, each silently replayed the previous 24 hours in our heads. My buddy Rob, probably the most alpha in the group, broke down in tears in my front seat.
Several weeks later Mark was officially diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Just months before graduation his life was forever diverted. He left university, our house, and by never returning calls, he removed himself from our lives.
Part II – 2017
When yet another lone gunman shoots up a movie theater, workplace, school, or nightclub, we need to know the reason. How could someone commit such a heinous act? Who was the gunman? Was it coordinated and with whom? Why?
Within three-Mississippi of hearing about the horror show, many, including myself, tacitly hope there’s a clear link to Islamism. First, that makes it easier to comprehend, making sense of a senseless act. Then it would validate our protective Second Amendment sensibilities from the imminent and ubiquitous group of gun control advocates about to take over the media, while it would also confirm our worldview that the weak policies of past eight years yielded such a catastrophe.
Conversely, some will not so tacitly hope that the shooter was a white Christian, Aryan-sympathizing, Gadsden-flagged troglodyte whose Facebook profile is filled with Trump, David Duke, and hateful memes about brown gay people. Trifecta!
After the President makes a speech, when the politicians quit pandering and celebrities stop condescending, all sides eventually go back to their respective corners and not much, if anything, really changes.
However in recent years, more are questioning policy and budgets relating to mental health as Health and Human Services reports “incidents of violence continue to highlight a crisis in America’s mental health system.” On one side, mental health advocates are quick to suggest that there are a very low number of violent crimes within the mentally ill community. That is true. On the other side, however, the frequency of “lone wolves” who are diagnosed with some form of mental illness is not something we can deny. According to the US National Library of Medicine, “reports suggest that up to 60% of perpetrators of mass shootings in the United States since 1970 displayed symptoms including acute paranoia, delusions, and depression before committing their crimes.”
After each horrific shooting, politicians make a lot of noise about increasing funds to treat mental health, yet HHS’s mental health budgets have essentially remained the same for years. But recently we’re starting to see a relatively small modicum of action. In 2015/16 the Obama administration implemented the Now is the Time initiative which “invests $151 million to make sure students and young adults get treatment for mental health and opioid addiction. These efforts will reach 750,000 young people every year through programs that promote mental health through identifying mental illness early and creating a clear pathway to treatment for those in need, including through additional outreach and training for those who work with youth.”
As discussions about “extreme vetting” of immigrants are daily headlines, shouldn’t we also set the same standard by applying our resources to locate potential internal threats? Wouldn’t partnerships with therapeutic communities working in alliance with the FBI streamline and make the prevention of future massacres more efficient?
As free market advocates, we can debate the role of a centralized government in financing these national health issues, but there is no arguing there is a need to provide treatment for this often overlooked and volatile population.
Case in point: Recent mass shootings that killed innocents and ruined the lives of many more survivors were perpetuated by individuals with a history of severe mental health issues who had either gone undiagnosed, unreported, or untreated. Would these programs have prevented Seung-Hui Cho, University of Virginia; Jiverly Wong, Binghamton, NY; Maj. Nidal Hasan, Fort Hood, TX; Jared Loughner, Tucson, AZ; James Holmes, Aurora, CO; Adam Lanza, Newtown, CT; Aaron Alexis, Washington Navy Yard, VA; and Dylan Roof, Charleston, SC?
Subsequent to their respective mass murders, several were diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In many cases, the signs were there before the killings. It is in those cases that, whether financed by local or federal agencies, the complex relationship between violence, mental health, and gun rights must be addressed.
Facts about schizophrenia:
Many wrongly assume this is a psychological disorder. It isn’t. Schizophrenia is a physical disease like cancer or Alzheimer’s. MRI tests show significant brain function changes of those who are diagnosed. According to the schizophrenia advocacy group SARDAA:
- Schizophrenia can be found in approximately 1.1% of the world’s population, regardless of racial, ethnic or economic background.
- Approximately 3.5 million people in the United States are diagnosed with schizophrenia and it is one of the leading causes of disability.
- Three-quarters of persons with schizophrenia develop the illness between 16 and 25 years of age.
- The disorder is at least partially genetic.
- To be diagnosed as having schizophrenia, one must have associated symptoms for at least six months.
- Studies have indicated that 25% of those having schizophrenia recover completely, 50% are improved over a 10-year period, and 25% do not improve over time.
- Treatment and other economic costs due to schizophrenia are enormous, estimated between $32.5 and $65 billion annually.
- Between one-third and one-half of all homeless adults have schizophrenia.
- 50% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia have received no treatment.
Mark did not hurt anyone, but his delusions and paranoia harbored violent tendencies, which if left alone could have ended tragically. While Mark’s story occurred almost three decades ago, there has been little improvement in preventing the disease. Schizophrenia is still not curable, but for many, it’s manageable.
Mark now works in the television industry. He has relatively few friends, is not married, and has no kids. The disease makes such relationships out of reach for many. Yet he manages. Still requiring medication, his life is as normal as one can hope, short of a full recovery. He isn’t the same guy I spent countless hours skiing, going to concerts, and hanging out with in college. I miss that guy and can only imagine what his life could have been.
(Names altered for privacy.)