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His wife says husband with schizophrenia has “a beautiful mind,” social worker is “an angel”

County helps keep those with mental illness in treatment, out of jail

By Erik Brady and Michelle Collins

Youthcast Media Group®

Gary began hearing voices about 30 years ago, long before being diagnosed with schizophrenia. He didn't tell anyone about the voices, and his delusions worsened over time.

Then, around 2006, he got into an altercation with a customer at a gas station, who called police. The next day, police arrived to serve a warrant on Gary – and he punched a cop. Then a SWAT team came to his home and fired tear-gas cannisters through the glass windows, and he wound up in an adult detention facility for six weeks.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Treatment of the mentally ill is better than putting them behind bars.

“The decriminalization of mental illness is important because it’s not only the right thing to do, but mental illness should not be a crime,” says Lisa Madron, executive director of community services for Prince William County in Northern Virginia. “It is important for our services to treat individuals outside of the criminal-justice system whenever possible.”

Madron spoke to us only in general terms, as she cannot speak directly about individual cases. Gary agreed to talk to us to make the case that the broader culture should be helping, rather than jailing, people like him. We are using only first names for Gary and his wife, Linda, because of the sensitive nature of this story, and to allow them to speak freely.

Linda wants you to know she loves Gary, though it isn’t always easy. She says he’s a sweet and loving person when he is on his meds. She also wants you to know that Gary has a beautiful mind — just like in the movies.

“A Beautiful Mind” is the 2001 film about John Nash, the Princeton University mathematician who suffered from schizophrenia and won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to game theory, quantum mechanics, and number theory. (The film won 2002’s Academy Award for Best Picture.) Linda never saw the movie until recently: "And then I said, 'Oh my gosh, that's Gary's life.' "

Well, minus the Nobel Prize and the quantum physics, of course. But the movie's most arresting scene is one Linda knows well from Gary's own life. It's the one where Nash, played by Russell Crowe, is madly scribbling formulae on the windows. Gary sometimes writes on the windows and walls of his house. He is a math savant, though in high school he never got far in algebra or geometry. Working as a carpenter, though, he picked up what might be called spatial math. It’s all in his head.

So are the voices. He began hearing them in his late 20s or early 30s.

“I was hearing voices all the time,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Who are they?’ I always had this question, like, ‘Who are they and what are they trying to prove?’ Or ‘What’s the deal? I feel like I’m being watched.' ”

Nash hears voices in the movie, too. Some tell him to hurt his wife, Alicia. Gary hurt Linda in real life, though she says it was really the mental illness.

"I knew it was not Gary because I had known him for so many years before," she says. "And I loved him, and I knew it was not Gary behind those eyes."  

Worldwide about 1% of people are diagnosed with schizophrenia, a debilitating brain disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and acts. According to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, “people with schizophrenia can have trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy, expressing and managing normal emotions, and making decisions.” The disorder can lead to delusions, disorganized speech, and hallucinations.

The notion of treating people with certain forms of mental illness in the health-care system — rather than in prison or jail or detention facilities — appeals to Gary.

“Yeah, that makes sense to me,” he says. “But, I mean, first thing you got to figure out is if you have a problem.”

Gary didn’t know he had a problem for a long time, which was a problem in itself.

Jail was “no fun — no fun at all,” he says. “Now I just know I don’t want to go back there.”

What exactly happened to lead the SWAT team to his home is hard to say. Gary was in a manic state in that moment, and Linda only knows what she's heard.

"He got into a confrontation with somebody at a gas station," she says. "He had a knife down his boot. Now this is not Gary, believe me. He doesn't carry around knives or weapons or anything."

The customer at the gas station reported the confrontation to police. The next morning, a police cruiser pulled up in front of Gary and Linda's home. Gary spoke to an officer.

"I don't know what was said because I could never get the story straight," Linda says. "But Gary hit the cop right in his cheek. And that's when Gary ran in the house and disappeared out the back."

Police called for backup. The SWAT team soon arrived.

"All these guys in fatigues and holding big shields walked me across the street to a neighbor's house, to get me out of the way," Linda says. "This was midmorning on a Sunday, and they asked close neighbors to leave their houses. Little did they know Gary was long gone out the back."

Fletcher, the family dog, was in the house, hiding in a bathroom, when the tear gas began. 

"They shot tear gas through almost every window we have and broke every one of them," Linda says. "I was at the end of the road, being held at the command center."

Police found Gary soon after, hiding not far away, across a gravel road. The attorney who represented him at his arraignment said that he couldn't make sense of what Gary was saying and asked the court to have him mentally evaluated. Gary spent a month-and-a-half at an adult detention center in Northern Virginia, and then about a month at a mental-health hospital in Central Virginia. That's where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Doctors there stabilized him with medication.

Gary maintains he never punched that cop, but Linda allows that she saw the bruise on the officer's cheek. She thinks in his manic state he truly doesn't remember hitting the officer, as she knows Gary as always honest.

They had been together for years before she noticed he was beginning to act in odd ways. She stayed with him even after the night of the SWAT team, and they married a few years later. "I love him," she says. "For better or for worse."

Gary and Linda have had more bumps in the road since, almost always when he didn't take his medication. Linda says they found an “angel” in a county mental-health counselor, Kym Ludwig, who works with him, convinced him to try a long-acting monthly injection to treat his symptoms. It doesn't depend on him taking the meds himself, and that has made a big difference.

Fletcher, the dog, survived the tear gas. The broken windows cost almost $10,000 to replace. (Homeowners insurance doesn't cover damage caused by police who are in legitimate pursuit of a wrongdoer.) Gary fixed some of the windows himself. Some of the basement ones are still broken 18 years later.

The house smelled of tear gas for months. Linda used a mixture of vinegar and water and baking soda to wash down all the walls and the floors and the curtains. "Anything that was exposed," she says, "which was everything in every room."

Her cleaning did not wash the wordplay off the walls. That's OK with Linda. She figures they would have to replaster the walls to get rid of it, and they have more pressing concerns.

In “A Beautiful Mind,” John Nash is asked why he believes the wild delusions that characterize his schizophrenia. His answer is a linchpin of the movie: They came to him, he said, “the same way that my mathematical ideas did.”

Sometimes the genius and the voices are born of the same source. You are who you are. And Linda loves who Gary is.

“Gary would do anything for anybody when he is on his medication," she says. "Such the opposite when he’s not. You wouldn’t know him today as compared to six months ago.”

“That’s why I had to help him through this. I had to. Even though there were times I was ready to give up. I really was. But I know the real Gary. And he’s got a beautiful mind.”

Erik Brady is a contributing columnist for the Buffalo News and spent 36 years as a reporter at USA Today. Michelle Collins is a rising senior at Annandale High School in Annandale, Va. Youthcast Media Group has a partnership with Annandale’s journalism class. 


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