Of the World Looking Over the Edge

About twenty-two years ago, I was standing in my kitchen first thing in the morning with an eerie feeling, when I turned around and saw Sam standing in the doorway, pale as a sheet. His hand was bandaged. Sam had spent the night at the hospital. He asked if I could pay the cab driver.

This is Sam. I did not take this picture.

This is Sam. I did not take this picture.

I grabbed my wallet and ran outside. When I came back to the kitchen, he told me he’d put his hand into a saw and nearly cut off his fingers. In the days that followed, he couldn’t even look at his injuries. I cleaned and bandaged them. He recovered. We had a four- or five-month disastrous relationship and an agonizing breakup that burned a hole through me I try not to remember in any great detail. We both behaved very badly; we could not be friends.

Why did he have this? Why did he give it to me?

Why did he have this? Why did he give it to me?

Sam was whip-smart, funny and genuinely interesting to talk to. We’d gone to art shows, music shows, poetry readings. He introduced me to great music and made me a wooden cassette case to get all my tapes off my bedroom floor. Knowing him changed the way I viewed myself as an artist. He could be a complete bastard or a patient best friend. We took pictures of ourselves and each other. Later, when I got this roll of film developed, I had someone else look at the pictures. It was too painful to see him. The pictures languished in a cigar box. In some of the others, I look so young to me. After I finish this blog post, I’ll put these pictures away. I may never look at them again.

Thursday night, one of my old housemates emailed that Sam was dead, died late last year. A little googling revealed that Sam went missing in November, 2013. A month later, his body was found. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

Samuel P. Hoyt, 46, according to his stepfather, is believed by investigators to have jumped from the Lee Bridge in Richmond on Nov. 22 after being seen at the Virginia War Memorial by a guard there.

Most of his personal belongings, including a recently issued prescription for high blood pressure [Note: no one gets a prescription for high blood pressure, idiot.], were found at the memorial on South Belvidere Street, where witnesses described him as “disconsolate and troubled,” said stepfather Bruce Littman.

An autopsy showed that Hoyt drowned and suffered internal injuries consistent with a fall, Littman said. Hoyt’s body was spotted by a tugboat crew below the Osborne Boat Landing in Henrico County on Dec. 31 and was recovered by county water rescue units.

Hoyt’s mother, Catherine, and Littman said a cousin in Ashland visited by Hoyt was concerned about his well-being after the self-employed, unmarried carpenter expressed paranoid thoughts and was having difficulty separating reality from bursts of delusional thinking.

An aunt and uncle in Richmond also feared for Hoyt’s safety when they saw him take a knife from their kitchen. They took him to an area hospital, where he was assessed by a psychiatric social worker, Littman said.

And now I’m angry.

Littman said a psychiatrist was not consulted, nor were other family members contacted who had more knowledge of Hoyt’s past. Hoyt, though, had seemed rational for much of his life and worked as a carpenter and Web designer, needing help with finances only in recent years.

“He kept his secret (of delusional thoughts) well,” Littman said. Hoyt was a graduate of Douglas Freeman High School and Virginia Commonwealth University and had attended graduate school at Rutgers University on scholarship, Littman and his wife, Catherine, said.

The morning after being released from the hospital with no finding of mental issues that warranted detention, Hoyt threw furniture in the uncle’s home through a window and left.
Littman said that when he was found in the river weeks later, Hoyt was identified from the hospital bracelet on his wrist, from documents left at the war memorial, and a DNA sample from his mother.

“We are very sad about what had happened and are concerned that this is happening at a time when Virginia is considering important changes to its laws dealing with the rights of mentally ill people,” Littman said last night.

Littman stressed that procedures need to be tightened that mandate more thorough assessments of a person’s mental condition, especially people without insurance such as Hoyt.

The stigma of mental illness is deeply ingrained in us. The half-assed article’s author struggled with language throughout, but most obviously here:

A man found dead in the James River on New Year’s Eve had been missing for more than a month and was feared by family members to be suffering from a mental condition.

What is that, I ask you? His family knew well that Sam was ill. Sam joked that bipolar disorder was “the family bug.” I accepted this without judgment because mental illness hasn’t visited my family so much as moved in and ordered pay per view. My father’s grandmother spent much of her adult life in institutions and died under suspicious circumstances in a notorious asylum. Many members of my family have mental illnesses, both treated and untreated, and I was seeing a therapist at the time, so Sam’s problems didn’t feel unfamiliar or threatening. At times, he was very far away and negative. His mood would spiral and he would be unreachable. Kindness didn’t help; he could not accept it. He needed treatment, but I see now he didn’t get it. He didn’t even get evaluated by a doctor on his way to committing suicide.

Knitting Factory, NYC, 1.1.93 with Robert for my poetry reading and remarkably expensive beer.

Knitting Factory, NYC, 1.1.93 with Robert for my poetry reading and remarkably expensive beer.

This is the system we live with now. Unless the patient is cooperative and wealthy, we can’t find help – and almost no patients are wealthy and cooperative. In New Jersey, family members can seek court-monitored outpatient treatment for violent patients in denial, but without a history of violence, the courts don’t get involved. Even the expanded program can’t order patients to take their medication. Those programs can be effective for patients with documented problems, but people like Sam aren’t violent and have no documented medical history. You can know that your family member is very ill, but you may be unable to demonstrate that illness to medical or legal professionals, as Sam’s family was not.

Sam in our backyard

Sam in our backyard

This problem may be more common than our society is willing to acknowledge. My mother’s first cousin suffered a breakdown and became homeless; we do not know if he’s dead or alive. My extended family faces a similar ordeal: a family member who at one time sought medical attention in Utah, was diagnosed borderline schizophrenic and prescribed medication. He soon stopped taking the medication and has for some time been living with a girlfriend, but he hears voices and files lawsuits and calls the police to report his hallucinations. I talked to his local, rural police, who were well aware that our family member – let’s call him Tommy – was mentally ill and not trying to make trouble. The police agreed that he was no danger to them, but Tommy’s delusions were eating up police time and resources. We believe they charged him with something small. Next thing we knew, Tommy drove across country and turned up at his father’s house. It did not go well there. Tommy’s father wanted him to stop doing all that stuff, meaning hearing voices and talking to them. They argued and Tommy came to New Jersey. During the day, Tommy looks fine. At night, his symptoms are much worse. He is staying with a friend. We expect that situation will break down fairly quickly and have been searching for what to do next.

While he is in New Jersey, we will look for help here. Tommy does not have a job or insurance or a fixed address. We don’t know if he’s going back to Utah. He may be homeless. He says he’s thinking about going to Florida, but doesn’t know anyone there. He is looking at apartments here in the small town. I suspect I’m going to spend a lot of time on the phone and Pete is going to work hard to protect Tommy from the police. We cannot expect the police here to be understanding. We can’t prove Tommy needs help before something happens, and that is where we as a society fail our mentally ill cohort. Seeing a therapist is fucking expensive and treatment has not advanced a whole lot. Medications don’t work on everyone and work differently on different people. The whole thing is a crapshoot and try getting insurance with this pre-existing condition. Even so: treatment is better than no treatment, and maybe if Sam had been treated and his illness taken seriously, he might still be alive.

It has taken me days to write this. When I mentioned I was having trouble putting all this into words, a mutual friend wrote me:

I remember helping him mount a piece once. It consisted of two huge counter-rotating sheet metal cylinders one inside the other with openings arranged so that as the cylinders spun they would only occasionally line up. Once you’d gotten inside you had to wait inside that barren metal space till the openings lined up again and you could get out. I remember asking Sam why while we were wrestling the metal into place and he said he wanted to ‘force’ people to be inside their heads, to be alone.

I can’t help but think of that now.

It’s cliché but I can’t think of a time when I saw him without a smile. I really can’t. the only time maybe was when we were at the barracks breaking up radiators for metal casting. My sledgehammer bounced back and hit me on the shin and I had a piece of iron in my leg (still have the scar and a divot in my bone). I don’t know who was yelling louder, Sam or me. He was so upset. He gave me all the money he had on him at the time for the hospital because I had no health insurance. Fuck you Virginia.

You say he loved to say his name, it gave him pleasure. You say he always smiled, that he helped, that he gave a shit. You say he was a good sweet guy who drew people to him like a candle draws moths. You say no fucking more. No more senseless waste of such beautiful life, no more because we can’t take responsibility as a society to help those in need, no more shit heel politicians trying to slip out from the blood and misery on their hands, no more people alone and staring down a world gone completely sidewise and strange, afraid and desperate and doing stupid things. No more. No more.

Let us say all that and one more thing.

Sam, a little blurry around the edges. I took this picture.

Sam, a little blurry around the edges. I took this picture.

In the winter of 1992-1993, we had snow storm after snow storm. My car was frozen into a bank of plowed snow. During one blizzard, Sam and I suited up in our winter warmest and made an Arctic expedition down our street. Where the road stopped, we made a tricky descent where we knew a path into the park lay. The ferocity of the wind made breathing arduous and visibility was limited to a few feet. We trudged through the thigh-high snow across the park. Sam was very strong and not afraid of pushing through the seemingly endless snowy hills and mountains. At one point, we took refuge behind a building to catch our breath. All familiar landmarks were obscured by the vast whiteness, so we climbed a steep hill and emerged from the park in a place between some trees. Triumphant and exhausted, we found our street and made the climb up the hill to our house. A bunch of people were snowed in at our house. When we realized they would be hungry, we made a second Arctic expedition to the grocery store four blocks away. This is how I wish to remember him: smiling, capable, strong. If we were a just people, he might have grown old that way.

Best But I Could Do Without

Perhaps you remember these among my many antics:

Okay. Okay. Okay: we’re sitting in the car on the way home and I burst out laughing.

Tata: Omigod, I forgot to tell you something.
Pete: You like my rugged good looks?
Tata: Pffft! Like I shut up about that. Remember I took a shower for about a year before we went out?
Pete: I remember.
Tata: And remember that I’ve been glum about my hair for weeks?
Pete: How could I forget?
Tata: And I’ve been putting my hair up in a ponytail to avoid dealing with it?
Pete: I’m still snickering. I mean, sure.
Tata: And since I got sick I’ve been complaining I could smell fever on my scalp?
Pete: Hoo boy, yes.
Tata: And you know how we bulk shop at Costco and use giant bottles of smelly goo?
Pete: Indeed I do!
Tata: Well, I was in the shower before and I washed my hair, and I was really frustrated because I couldn’t get the shampoo to lather, which I thought was because my scalp had suddenly become oily or something. So I washed my hair a second time and still no lather and I was just like, “What?” So finally I turned the bottle around and if you can believe it, I have been washing my hair for – like – six weeks with conditioner.

And then, when I expected him to drive off the road in stupefaction at my antics, Pete said the most extraordinary thing.

Pete: I know.

What?

Tata: What?
Pete: I was looking through the bottles on the shelves in the bathtub. There’s this stuff, that stuff, some other stuff and I said, “What’s she washing with?”
Tata: And you didn’t say anything?
Pete: Nooooooo. You’re mysterious.
Tata: I’m not mysterious, I’m – like – stupid.

Don’t panic! I’ve washed my long, luxurious blond hair, glazed it, conditioned it and come clean about this episode with every last one of my female co-workers, and at the end of the story, when they’re gasping at my ability to move about in society without a keeper, I can see they are mentally reviewing the products in their bathrooms.

So you will be unsurprised to discover ridiculous history repeating today.

Tata: Do you want to pick out conditioner?
Pete: No. Yours is just fine.

I had just recycled an empty bottle of conditioner so I made the puzzled face.

Tata: What conditioner?
Pete: The small container.

Mentally, I sorted through the products and came to a startling conclusion.

Tata: I’ve been washing my face with conditioner, haven’t I?

If no one has invented the in-shower reading glasses, I’ll get right on that.