A call from the past: Rooting for the man behind the mental illness.

mental illness leaves

(9-1-16)    By Susan Resnick  Guest Post

The call came thirty-three years after I’d stopped hoping for it.

“Hey, it’s Nick,” he said. “Can you file a Freedom of Information request for my FBI files?”

No last name, no context. He acted as though we’d had frequent phone conversations instead of two fleeting ones in the past three decades. Coming from a different old friend, this request may not have seemed strange. I’m a journalist, so presumably I have experience getting classified information. Someone legitimately concerned that the FBI was tracking him might be wise to ask a third party to gather the documents.

Neither of these was the case.

Instead, Nick had misplaced the mind he’d already lost and found at least twice before. He has a serious mental illness, though don’t know exactly which one – schizoaffective? Bipolar II? – because I don’t really know him. He was a kid I made out with a few times, a guy who bought me coffee in an airport once when I traveled through his city. He also may have changed the course of my life.

When he called, we certainly weren’t close enough for me to ask which diagnosis his doctors had settled on. But whatever it is, his disease causes paranoia and psychosis, and had transformed him in midlife from a prosperous businessman, father and husband to a homeless person with a criminal record. Psychiatric meds quashed his demons whenever he agreed to take them, but like so many others, he tossed the pills when he felt well, claiming he couldn’t bear the side effects.

I’d recently noticed from nonsensical religious postings on Facebook that he didn’t seem well. Still, I was miffed that he’d reached out to me.

“Where are you?” I asked.

He was calling from a field, he told me in a cheery, energetic voice, because the apartment he was about to be evicted from had no electricity. His phone was disposable, though I never ascertained whether that was because he couldn’t afford a mobile plan or whether it was a ploy to throw off the phone-tapping feds.

I played along with his request, telling him to send me the details of his case so I could look into it. I was lying, but that seemed preferable to turning him away. I thought my fiction might bring him some comfort, the feeling that someone was in his corner. I owed him that much.

We’d met as teenagers when I went to a National Student Council convention, a setting that tells you a lot about my nerd to cool ratio at the time. Two other girls and I were assigned to live with his family for the week. His mother led us to our quarters in their finished basement, a posh, wet-bar equipped set up where Nick and his friends were playing pool. The first thing he did was to offer me a Coors. I’d had alcohol before, but not during the day and certainly not in someone’s house when his mom was around. But my East Coast traveling companions and I had vowed to sample Coors, then only available in his home state, so I took the can. That he offered me this delicacy with no regard for the conventional rules of underage partying with strange houseguests illustrates his nerd to cool ratio at the time.

As the week progressed, I spent the days strategizing about school spirit and the nights falling for him. Given that I’d been boy crazy since kindergarten, my being drawn to a blond, blue-eyed, albeit slightly chubby, specimen wasn’t so strange. The fact that he fell back for me was.

Until that week, none of my crushes had ever been reciprocated. Sure, boys had liked me, asked me to dances, even sent me love notes. But not the right boys, not the ones I craved. This time, the attraction was mutual.

For five nights, as soon as the convention bus dropped me back at his house, I ran downstairs, brushed my teeth and met him outside. In my memory, we sit under big stars in a big sky, either on a swing set or in a gazebo. The details are fuzzy. The feelings are not. That boy was bringing me to life. And not just because he was the first one to put his hands under my shirt.

Maybe we’d been enchanted by each other’s differences. He may have seen me as an eastern sophisticate while I imagined him, with his actual swagger and cavalier attitude, to be a modern-day cowboy. Both assessments turned out to be bad cases of projection. But the whys of our attraction aren’t relevant. All that mattered was that someone had noticed me and moved closer instead of stepping away.

Of course it didn’t last. We saw each other two more times over the next few years while I visited one of the girls who’d also stayed at his house and lived near his college. We exchanged some letters, though he was so reluctant to write that I once sent him a form letter that he could mail back to me. I’m not sure if we ever spoke on the phone.

In the end, he blew me off the way everyone did in those pre-digital days: by seeming to drop off the earth. Soon after he stopped responding to my letters, I heard from our mutual friend that he’d logged his first DUI arrest, an event that helped me move on fast. I didn’t suspect then that his heavy drinking was possibly his way of self-medicating a budding mental illness, but I started to realize that maybe he wasn’t as dreamy as I’d imagined. He partied to excess, was irresponsible, and lived like a shallow frat boy. Plus, he’d blown me off, which meant the door was officially closed, at least from my side.

Because now, you see, I had self-esteem.

It would take me years to trace my evolution from desperate wallflower to I’m-not-gonna-take-that-shit kind of girl back to him. But the fact is, when I returned from the student council trip, I was different. Someone who seemed way cooler than all the boys at my school had chosen me. Hence, I couldn’t be so bad. That change in attitude straightened my spine, shrunk my neediness. I stopped pining over crushes who didn’t like me back, which probably explains why I began to attract quality boys and develop real relationships, each one leading to my current, 24-year-strong, marriage. All because of someone I barely knew.

Some people have teachers or coaches who change their lives. I had a boy with a ticking bomb in his brain.

I essentially forgot all about him for decades. Then one night, when the staid suburban blues made me yearn for a visit with my old self, I decided to look him up online. LinkedIn provided the image of a successful entrepreneur, which wasn’t a surprise. I sent a message asking if he remembered me. Of course, he wrote back, then sent his email address so we could catch up. I expected to hear about a thriving family, wealth, business triumphs – the grown frat boy version of success. I would wish him well and move on.

Instead, I got the outlines of a breakdown. He said he didn’t remember most of it and what he did recall seemed real – like actual memories of the Pope visiting him in jail rather than hallucinations. He knew he had to stay away from religion, his downfall, but that work at a call center was getting him back to the business world and that he liked a woman in his support group. After sharing updates on our marriages and children during my layover in his city, we got on with our lives, our communication dwindling to Facebook birthday wishes. Except when he got sick. For some reason, he called me when he was at his worst.

The first time we’d spoken he had also been mid-breakdown. I’d tried to cajole him into getting back on his meds. The result, predictably, involved angry pushback. I stopped corresponding with him. A year or so later, he apologized online and I accepted.

It’s ok, I wrote. You were sick.

And now he was sick again.

He texted me a few weeks after asking me to find his FBI files.

“Did you ever have time to do the background check?” he typed.

Again, I didn’t know who he was at first. Again, I strung him along.

“I need to figure out how to do it so be patient. It might take a while,” I wrote.

He signed off by providing his exact longitude and latitude.

I’d become electronic friends with his sister, so I told her that he was reaching out for help from imaginary persecutors. There wasn’t much more I could do. My husband and others advised me to cut communication with him again, which I did, but not without reservations. I couldn’t stop wondering: what do we owe the people who awakened us?

Breathing life into someone by recognizing her value is no small thing. Not only did Nick accomplish that when we met, but by pushing me away a few years later, he probably boosted my quality of life a second time. If he hadn’t let go with such certainty, would I have continued to hang on? If so, would I have become his first ex-wife? Would my grown children be trying to revive him now?

The last I heard, he’d graduated from jail and a psychiatric hospital. He was taking his meds and showing up for support groups – all good news. But I still worry. If he tosses the meds again, he could end up like so many other mentally ill adults, asleep on a bench, judged by passersby as useless. They may view him as someone who didn’t try hard enough, or as a lost cause to be pitied. They will not see the pretty blue eyes or the self-assured smile. And they certainly won’t realize that the man before them, who may look to have wasted his life, was a blessing in mine.



I want to thank Susan Kushner Resnick for this guest blog while I am traveling. She is the author of three books of creative nonfiction, including Sleepless Days, the first memoir of postpartum depression published by an American author, and You Saved Me, Too, the story of guiding a Holocaust survivor with PTSD to a dignified death. She is currently transitioning from 30 years in the writing field to a career in social work by working on an MSW degree at Boston College.  She can be reached through twitter @suekush or at susankushnerresnick.com

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.