It's a weekday evening, and Grant McKenzie sits at a Starbucks near his home on North Academy Boulevard. He's busy writing in his notebook when I arrive, and when we settle in for a chat, I notice his hands still tremble uncontrollably, a symptom of prolonged lithium use.
He also makes uncomfortable chuckles now and then, another sign of his bipolar disorder.
But he's doing his best to stay on an even keel. And he recently scored a court victory that will make that easier.
McKenzie has struggled for nearly a decade to establish a fairly normal life after the Air Force diagnosed him as bipolar, then apparently failed to follow its own policies for dealing with such disorders ("Flying solo," March 24, 2011). A 1993 Air Force Academy graduate who held a top-secret clearance while on Air Force-prescribed meds, he spiraled into pornography addiction that got him convicted of misconduct and dishonorably discharged in 2004.
His conviction and disorder made him virtually unemployable. Yet 4th Judicial District Magistrate Evelyn Hernandez-Sullivan first increased his child support for his ex-wife, from $688 to $1,608 a month, then threw him in jail when he couldn't keep up. Two months later, in early 2011, an administrative judge told Hernandez-Sullivan to reverse the contempt order; a motion to disqualify her as biased had been pending when she jailed him. The case resumed with Judge Gilbert Martinez.
Finally, last week, after innumerable hearings and a mountain of legal bills mostly paid by McKenzie's parents, Martinez ruled that McKenzie's child support should be $363 a month, based on minimum wage. Because the ruling was retroactive, Martinez wiped away about $40,000 in support McKenzie owed and lifted the fear that he might again go to jail.
"It's going to take some doing and will take some help [from his parents] from time to time," he says, "but it's manageable."
McKenzie makes and sells candles, but the fledgling business lost money its first two years and will be only slightly profitable this year, he says. He also screens some movie trailers for theaters and hopes to earn money with his writing, as he did last year when he wrote a book on management. His new project is a fantasy novel for teens.
The former Air Force captain is able to survive largely because his second wife, Connie, works full-time. Her insurance helps pay for his medicine, which would have been funded by the Air Force if he'd won his petition for a medical discharge. But in May an all-female panel ruled McKenzie "has not been the victim of an error or injustice."
"The error I was addressing in my application was that the doctors never ordered a medical board when they were supposed to have," he explains. "The evidence the board used to substantiate their denial is that none of my doctors ever ordered a medical board, so I must have been OK."
Robert Alvarez, an advocate for injured service members, has helped McKenzie with the maze of legal issues. "The judge came to the right conclusion," Alvarez says, "which is that Grant is mentally ill, which puts an extreme burden on making a living."
McKenzie's feeling optimistic about the future now, but Alvarez says many others are still floundering in darker places. "I see it happening every day," Alvarez says. "It's pervasive. If you don't see a physical injury, then people have a tendency to dismiss the issues surrounding mental illness."