Editor's note: Some names in this story have been changed to protect the privacy of the patient, at his request. The names Johnny, Mary, Annie and Dianna were created by the writer.
Imagine that your child grew up and suddenly couldn't tell reality from the drama playing out in his own head.
Imagine that you couldn't get him help, because he didn't want the help.
Imagine that he had weapons — swords, a bow and arrow, a freakin' gun — and he thought the neighbors were after him, and he punched your elderly mother, and said he was going to kill the neighbors when they came into the yard. And imagine the police wouldn't help you because being mentally ill isn't a crime and people have rights after all and...
Scratch that. Imagine that you are 24 years old. And you had all these dreams. You were in love once. You had hobbies and passions and friends. You wanted to maybe be a landscape architect. But you seriously can't even hold down a job at a Taco Bell now, because there's all these voices in your head all the time, and sometimes they're angry, and sometimes you can't tell if the voices are in your head or outside of it. And it's scary. And you're angry. And maybe you're going to have to defend yourself.
In the worst moments — the moments when you need to keep it together most of all, you can't even remember that the voices aren't real. But then, if you take the meds that make them go away, you're so tired and you don't feel any passion for anything, and it's a struggle to even get through the day and...
Scratch that. Imagine your grandson — the little kid that you doted on, and kissed, and spoiled every Christmas — grows up and he's so mentally ill that he can't care for himself. And you feel like you can't let him be homeless because that breaks your heart, but you're old and he's so unpredictable. And sometimes, he goes into a fit of rage and nothing in your house is sacred. And you're scared of him. You think maybe he'll kill you, or kill someone else and...
Scratch that. You're the kid's aunt and sometimes he'll actually listen to you. But, actually, you're a little scared of him too sometimes. And your husband doesn't want you around him, because what if he flies off the handle? And you have two little kids of your own to take care of. But what are you supposed to do? Abandon this boy who you've loved since the day he was born?
What's the right choice? How in the world does anyone help this kid?
How does anyone help Johnny?
Back in February, when his life was still jarring about like a wooden roller coaster, Johnny's extreme height (about 6-foot-6) was further exaggerated by his extremely slender frame, oversized clothes and wild, dark, curly hair that seemed to add a couple inches to his figure.
Johnny was shy, evasive, soft-spoken when he spoke at all, and yet his dark, unblinking eyes tracked you around a room, rarely looking away for even an instant. Even as everyone else smiled, laughed and attempted to fill the long silences that his short answers left, the room Johnny occupied eventually settled into a malaise that he alone seemed to have the power to lift.
It is hard to say — neither Johnny himself, nor his closest relatives were quite sure — whether this social awkwardness was simply natural shyness or whether it was caused by Johnny's schizophrenia. Whatever the case, it was unnerving.
Me: "At one point, I understand that you thought some of the voices you hear were your neighbors, right?"
Johnny: Nods head.
Me: "That would be frightening, if you thought you were being spied on or you weren't ever alone."
Johnny: Nods head.
Me: "Did you feel scared of them?"
Johnny: "For a while."
Me: "Or maybe angry?"
Johnny's aunt, Annie, and grandmother, Dianna, try their best to encourage him to open up — both about the voices he hears and about the other parts of his life. They recall summer days in his childhood spent roughhousing with his cousins. A talent for drawing. Long-gone vacations.
Like Johnny's mom, Mary, these two women remember a different version of Johnny — still shy, but so tender, sweet and loving. You sense that they are digging around in this new Johnny, searching for the boy that they're positive is still in there.
"Oh my god," Annie says, when asked about Johnny's childhood. "It was nonstop laughs. [Johnny and his cousin] rode their bikes outside and they played video games together. We were out all the time with the kids — at the park, or out to dinner or lunch."
But these warm remembrances don't bring a smile to Johnny's face. Wide-eyed, he sits staring straight ahead. Often, his greatest contribution to the conversation is the movement of his expressive eyebrows.
Later, when Johnny leaves to go grocery shopping, Annie and Dianna are enthused by how "outgoing" Johnny was acting.
On Jan. 12, Johnny's mother sent a Hail Mary email to the Independent.
Mary described how her son was spinning out of control. She had found him with a .44 at one point, and taken it away, but now thought he may have another gun. He had hurt her disabled mom, whom he lived with rent-free, and he thought the neighbors were spying on him through his TV. He had been cited on Christmas for egging and stoning their homes. He had told her he planned to shoot them.
Mary had tried everything to get Johnny help.
While service providers had agreed to help Johnny get into outpatient treatment, and he had been treated for periods as an involuntary inpatient, no one was willing to force Johnny to get help in the long term. They felt they couldn't, either because Johnny's insurance would only cover a set length of stay (interestingly, Medicaid ended up being a better choice for Johnny than the private insurance his mother bought him) or because Johnny had the right — so long as he wasn't an immediate danger to himself or others — to refuse treatment. And he did. Over and over.
Colorado Springs Police Lt. Patricia Feese says that police have the power to put someone on a medical evaluation hold if they appear to be experiencing a mental health crisis. But the law doesn't allow them to use the holds on someone just because they are mentally ill.
"We have to have probable cause to believe that they are a danger to themselves or others," she says. "That's our criteria."
Mary wanted the Independent to understand that she came from a normal, accomplished family. They were good people. They had tried to do the right thing. They understood how the system was supposed to work. Mary is a registered nurse. But they still just couldn't get Johnny the help he needed.
In most cases, the Independent does not get involved in its own stories. But Johnny was an exception.
Given the urgency of Mary's letter, and the threat of violence, the Indy took the unusual step of contacting state Rep. Pete Lee, who in turn called on mental health experts in the state, who in turn called on others. A flurry of emails ensued.
While the state was working to get Johnny help, the Indy was talking to Johnny and his family, trying to understand how the situation had escalated, and why none of the local resources available to help those with mental illness had been able to help this family so far.
The Indy did call the two mental health facilities where Johnny has been an inpatient, Cedar Springs Hospital and Peak View Behavioral Health, seeking input on their programs and rules, but did not hear back. AspenPointe, where Johnny has been treated as an outpatient, was willing to talk about their programs, but could not discuss Johnny's case in particular. Actually, no doctor or health worker who has met with Johnny can talk about his case. It's illegal to disclose such personal medical information.
But there is plenty of information available about Johnny's disease. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, schizophrenia is "a complex, long-term medical illness, affecting about 1 percent of Americans." The onset of the disease tends to come in the 20s and 30s, and it "interferes with a person's ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others."
The disease causes a range of symptoms, most famously hallucinations, which can include seeing and smelling things that aren't there, as well as "hearing voices." Delusions — beliefs that cannot be impacted by facts — and confused thinking are also common. People with schizophrenia may also show "negative symptoms," which can look a lot like depression — seeming emotionally flat, or uninterested in normal activities. Cognitive issues are also quite common and can include trouble with remembering things, organizing thoughts or completing tasks. People with schizophrenia also may be unaware they have the illness.
NAMI notes that there are a number of factors that appear to lead to or increase the risk of developing schizophrenia, most notably genetic predisposition, but also environment, brain chemistry and substance abuse. Schizophrenia is generally treated with antipsychotic medication, psychotherapy, self management strategies and education. With the right treatment, NAMI states, it is possible for someone with schizophrenia to "live well," though it is notably one of the more severe mental illnesses.
It is rare for people with schizophrenia to become violent toward others. In fact, there is a much greater risk of people with the disease hurting or killing themselves. NAMI notes that people with mental illness "are more likely to be the victims of violence" than the perpetrators of it.
Johnny was born in 1992. By then, Mary already had a 6-year-old daughter from an earlier failed relationship, and things didn't work out any better with Johnny's father. The three were on their own. Mary tried to make the best of it.
They lived in apartments, or with Mary's sister Annie, until Mary met her current husband. Johnny was 6 when they married.
"We didn't have a lot of money, but we made ends meet," Mary says. "My parents helped me out a lot since my deadbeat exes wouldn't contribute."
She remembers Johnny as a sweet child who carried around a Barbie doll late enough in his childhood to raise some eyebrows. He had friends in elementary school, and the usual sleepovers. After she married, Johnny initially took well to his new stepdad. The two would go fishing or play Dungeons & Dragons. And Johnny still spent a lot of time at Annie's. Annie had a stepson his age, and the two loved to play together, having lived in the same house for part of their childhood. Johnny even went with Annie's family to Disney World.
Johnny never liked school nor did very well in it. Looking back, Mary says she always thought that the problem wasn't that Johnny was dumb, but that he seemed to have trouble processing information. He was evaluated in third grade and was found to have problems with eye-hand coordination. She didn't have him looked at again as a kid, though he continued to struggle.
"While I knew that there was still some issues going on, I kinda — I don't know the word for it — I struggled with getting him diagnosed," Mary remembers. "I didn't want him labeled. And I guess I should have gotten him labeled earlier."
Johnny was also, as Mary puts it, "very oppositional" as a child. He would refuse to do simple chores like mow the lawn, never offering a reason, but just saying "no." The power to Johnny's room was on a separate breaker, and as punishment, she used to turn it off, so that he couldn't play video games.
Mary had her third child — the first of three with her new husband — when Johnny was 8. A girl followed when Johnny was 12. Mary never worried about having Johnny around the younger kids until one day when Johnny was 14 and in the same room with his 2-year-old sister. Mary was yelling for the girl to stop standing on a plastic chair. The girl was resisting the order and Mary thought, "Well, she'll soon figure out why it isn't safe to stand on a chair."
Mary had turned to leave the room when she saw Johnny walk up to the toddler and kicked her off the chair. The girl was fine, but Mary was rattled.
"I never left him with the little kids again," she recalls. "It's like, if he'll do that with me there, I wasn't sure what he was capable of with me not there."
By middle school, Johnny had grown distant. He didn't bring friends around anymore, though Mary thinks he still hung around a small crowd that shared his love of skateboarding. Annie's stepson moved away to stay with his biological mother when he was 14, and Johnny stopped spending so much time at his aunt's house. By high school, he had stopped doing any school work, and simply holed up in his room most of the time. He dropped out of school at 16, eventually getting his GED.
"He tells me it's my fault that he dropped out," Mary says. "At one point, I had told him, 'If you're not going to do anything, why bother to go?' He took that as me telling him he had to drop out."
For two years, Mary says Johnny sat around her house, playing video games. Then, on the advice of a friend, she gave him an ultimatum in 2010: He had to keep his room clean, get a job or go to college, help out around the house, and treat his parents with respect. Or he could leave.
Mary says she initially thought that Johnny would hit rock bottom in the real world within a couple weeks, stop being so obstinate and come home.
That wasn't what happened. Instead, Johnny earned — and then wore out — the sympathy of several other relatives. First he lived with his elder sister until she kicked him out. Next, he stayed with Annie. He ended up at his grandmother's house in the Briargate area. Dianna never had the heart to throw him out.
Johnny did leave for a while of his own accord. He met a girl, fell in love and moved in with her. In May 2011, police records show that the two were pulled over for an improperly attached license plate. Johnny was caught with less than an ounce of weed.
In January 2012, he was arrested for failure to appear on the drug charges that resulted, and spent a day in jail.
Despite the run-in with the law, Mary says she had high hopes for Johnny when he was in a relationship.
"He was doing wonderfully when he was with her," Mary remembers. "He had a job for the first time in his life."
But when his girlfriend broke up with him, after about 18 months of dating, Johnny went downhill. He quit his job and moved back in with Dianna. The only job he's held since then was a couple weeks at a Taco Bell.
In October 2014, Mary says Johnny told her for the first time that he was hearing voices. He told her he thought the neighbors were spying on him through his TV and cell phone.
"I wish I had saved them all," Mary says. "I had text messages from him telling me all sorts of crazy things."
From there, things got a lot worse.
A police report from Nov. 22, 2014, notes that Johnny called the police claiming the neighbors were harassing him, recording him with electronic equipment and that one of the neighbors told him someone pointed a shotgun at him.
"Male suffers from anxiety," the police report states. "Two nights ago, was having an anxiety attack in his bedroom and thought the neighbor behind him ... was video taping him and he had a shotgun pointed at him. Spoke with that neighbor and he doesn't own video surveillance or a weapon. No further."
By December, Mary says Johnny was talking about killing himself. She told him she was going to take him to an emergency room to treat constipation, but says she instead took him to Peak View Behavioral Health, where he was committed involuntarily for a week. Mary says that's where he was first diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. (Johnny says his diagnosis is now listed as schizophrenia.) Johnny agreed to get regular treatment for his condition, but reneged when he was released.
(Johnny told the Indy that he doesn't like taking medications because of their severe side effects, including sleepiness and the inability to focus.)
It didn't take long for more problems to surface.
A police report from May 27, 2015, shows that Annie called the police on Johnny, telling them that Johnny was hallucinating and "off his meds." She told police that Johnny had threatened to hurt someone and had a gun and a sword.
"[Suspect] has been having voices that tell him to hurt the [neighbors]," the report states.
It concludes, "Pt transported to Cedar Springs on an M1 without incident."
Dianna remembers that on that day, "[Johnny] kept going to the slider on the deck and he had what I thought was an air pistol in his hand.
"Come to find out, it was a .44 Magnum. And so I — I don't know who I called. His mother? I told her to get her butt over there."
In the meantime, Dianna told Johnny that if the police walked in while he was still holding the gun, he was "dead on the spot." He argued with her about it, but eventually put the gun in his room.
Mary arrived at the house with police and began confiscating Johnny's weapons stash, including the gun — from which she had a police officer remove five bullets — a bow and arrows, a compound bow, and a sword. She figured she could relocate them somewhere he would never find them again. But Johnny, she says, became enraged when she tried to take a sword.
(Johnny — who at one point had "a pile" of knives and swords in his room — says he is a martial artist and keeps the weapons for his practice, and also because he simply enjoys owning them.)
Federal law does prohibit people who have been found to be a "mental defective" by a court or other authority, or who have been committed involuntarily to a mental hospital from buying guns. However, many people find loopholes and buy them anyway (see nyti.ms/1THoTKY). In Johnny's case, the gun he had belonged to an uncle who stores his things at Dianna's house.
Mary says Johnny spent about nine days at Cedar Springs following the gun incident — she says she was told it was the most her insurance would cover. She says when Johnny was released, he told her he could still hear the voices, as loud as ever, though he was medicated.
Mary says no one from Cedar Springs returned her repeated phone calls when she tried to get Johnny's follow-up medications. And she went through a list of hundreds of counselors before finding one willing to see Johnny.
She says the process took her seven weeks.
When Christmas 2015 rolled around, Dianna told Mary that everything was going well with Johnny. Later, she admitted to her daughter that she had lied. She just wanted everyone to enjoy the holiday.
According to two police reports, filed on Christmas and Dec. 26, Johnny was twice caught throwing rocks and eggs at his neighbors' homes.
One report states that Johnny "thought his behavior was appropriate since they harass him and that he felt punching [them] in the face was also justified."
In a second report, filed later that night, Johnny is said to have told police that his neighbors were "watching me when I work out through the window and calling me puny." The police issued a citation to Johnny, but Mary says that they refused to take any further action, though she told them she thought Johnny was dangerous. The report shows that Johnny refused offers by the police to take him to a hospital. Mary says police simply told her it was not a crime to be mentally ill.
About two weeks later, on Jan. 9, 2016, Dianna called the police saying she wanted Johnny removed from her home. She reported that Johnny had thrown hot coffee on her and hit her in the face. A police report notes that Dianna and Johnny's stories are inconsistent, there is no independent witness, and they have been arguing. Dianna is described as being "uncooperative at first with PD."
The police reportedly told Dianna the proper method for evicting Johnny, who was considered a resident of her home despite never paying rent, and left.
Asked about the incident during a February interview, Johnny became agitated.
Dianna: "What made you feel so angry that you wanted to hurt me, [John]?"
Johnny: "I'm not going to talk about it now."
Dianna: "OK, you can talk about it later."
Johnny: "Maybe the fact that you threw a cup of coffee at me and it hit me in the side of the face, that could have been what made me mad."
Dianna describes the incident this way. She had gotten up, gotten dressed and made a cup of coffee. She sat down and was watching Johnny wrap his hands before he used the punching bag his mother had bought for him. Johnny became agitated and told her not to watch. She looked away. He slyly began to lift the top of the coffee table with his foot, so her coffee would slide off.
She pretended not to notice, and picked up her cup. When she set it back down, he picked up the coffee and threw it at her. She yelled, then changed her clothes and made another cup of coffee. Then he threw a glass of water on her. She lost it and threw her coffee cup at him. He stalked down the hallway, then turned quickly, came back and punched her in the face.
Dianna is 72. She uses oxygen for her COPD and has high blood pressure. The punch left her dazed and bruised.
"It looked like a piece of raw liver," she says, pulling up a photo on her phone to prove her point. "But, uh, I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it. And he hit me hard enough to knock me, you know, and honest to god, I am not kidding, I heard a ringing sound in my head like a dong."
Dianna says that at one point, she complained to police that Johnny was breaking her things. She says police stated that Johnny was free to break anything the common areas of his grandmother's home. Only her bedroom was off limits.
This wasn't helpful advice to give in earshot of Johnny.
In the coming months, Johnny took full advantage of this license. He had already been a destructive force in the house, but now, Dianna says, he seemed to pursue her most precious belongings with a wicked glee.
"He's either angry or he's quiet all the time," Dianna said in February, "and I think he's angry all the time, every single minute of every single day."
Dianna can't help but cry when she lists her losses. Two crystal lamps, two crystal candelabra from her mother, 16 Nachtmann colored crystal glasses, a clock that was a gift from Annie, her kitchen cabinets, her pantry doors, the teak elephants that her late husband brought her from Thailand.
Johnny slashed the upholstered furniture with a knife and punched holes in the walls. He broke Dianna's entire collection of clown dolls, which her husband had bought her annually for their wedding anniversaries.
In January, Dianna and Annie served Johnny with an eviction notice, giving him 30 days to get out. Dianna was tired. She wanted her house back. After Johnny hit her, she hadn't felt safe and she had gone to stay with Annie.
In late January, Johnny — who said he had been getting home visits from AspenPointe workers as of late, encouraging him to seek treatment — committed himself voluntarily to Peak View. When he came back home in February, Dianna thought she might join him. But Johnny ominously warned her that wouldn't be a good idea — since she was kicking him out.
Asked in February why she hadn't tried to evict him before, Dianna started sobbing.
"Because I love the kid," she said. "I don't want him on the streets. You know, I can't stand the thought of him being on the street."
"So," she says, "I'm at [Annie's] house, and he's got the run of my house. It's just like, what the hell's going on here?"
In fairness, police say they have tried to help Johnny and his family. CSPD's Lt. Feese says the city's fire department has a Crisis Response Team — usually made up of a police officer, a medical professional and a mental health professional — to respond to mental health crises. And they have gone to see Johnny and his family, she says, both to help him and explain to the family how to ask the courts to get Johnny into involuntary treatment. Generally, that involves explaining to the courts that Johnny is a danger to his family and far beyond their ability to care for. The courts are then supposed to help Johnny get treatment, whether or not he wants it.
But Feese says Johnny's family hasn't gone that route, which isn't unusual.
"It's such an emotional issue," she says. "We bring that logic and statutes and reasoning into something — and sometimes that's just way too hard for people to hear."
Johnny's family initially hoped to get him in a group home, though Johnny was never keen on the idea.
Eventually, however, faced with confusing paperwork and denied applications, they gave up on the group home plan. Johnny hasn't even been approved to receive Supplemental Security Income; the only government program he's on is Medicaid.
Dianna never did kick her grandson out. And soon after that February interview, she moved back into her house. Annie, upset at the condition her mother is living in, has refused to enable her by coming by and doing the cleaning anymore. She says she fears the house is unrecoverable now.
In the early part of the year, Annie says Johnny got a lot worse. Johnny and Annie's husband got into a physical altercation after Johnny apparently beat up a dog. Annie took the dog (and found it a new home), but not before Johnny threw a cast iron table at her windshield, shattering it. No one bothered calling the cops that time.
In April, Annie says that Johnny went to jail for criminal mischief stemming from his Christmas crimes. He received a deferred sentence for that charge after pleading guilty, though the El Paso County Sheriff confirms that Johnny was in jail from April 2 to 6. While he was there, Annie says, Johnny had a psychotic break, and ended up being committed again for several weeks.
After that, Annie — despite the protests of her husband, who worried for her safety — decided to take over Johnny's care. She's been taking him to all his doctor's appointments with AspenPointe, and making sure he gets regular injections of medication. She even figured out that he needed glasses, and she says that he seems much less freaked out now that he can see well.
The stability has been good for Johnny, who is starting to better accept the side effects of his medications, though they remain a concern for him. He's gained weight. He's being nice to Dianna. He even made a joke the other day, Annie says.
"I see a light at the end of the tunnel for him," she says. "Not that there's an end to the tunnel, but..."
Annie knows that things could change. She knows Johnny could be dangerous again someday. But she says she can't bring herself to give up on him. When Johnny was little, Annie couldn't have children of her own. It was a personal miracle when she became pregnant later in life. Before that, nieces, nephews and stepkids looked like the closest to motherhood she would ever get. And she doted on Johnny so much.
"He's my buddy," she says. "He'll be my buddy forever."
Annie says it's going to be hard for her to see him go. But Mary and her family are moving to Texas, and they've told Johnny that they'll buy him a fifth-wheel trailer so he can live down there with them. He wants to go. Annie is crossing her fingers that a fresh start will be what he needs. She loves him, she says, but Mary is his mom.
Johnny should be with Mary, she says.
In the early part of the year, when Mary last spoke with the Indy, she said she was struggling not only with getting Johnny care, but with accepting the fact that Johnny was always going to be different than she remembered him. Just as Mary and Annie always spoke to Johnny like they were trying to reach the boy they once knew, Mary couldn't quite accept that Johnny's personality had shifted so dramatically and irreversibly.
"I asked a therapist [about the best outcomes possible for Johnny] the other day," she said, tears streaming down her face. "I said, if [Johnny] stays on the medications, will the voices probably go away and I'll get my old [John] back? And she said, no, I'll never get the old [John] back. She says, once they go into these behaviors, even if the voices quiet down a bit, the behaviors stay.
"So, he's still going to have the anger issues. The voices may quiet down, but [John] will never be my [John] again."