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For Las Vegas man, struggle against mental illness ‘not all misery’

When James began hearing voices, the unseen others would simply call his name.

Then they began to feed his fears.

James, now 19, thought people were following him to his Las Vegas high school. To avoid detection, he began leaving his house as early as 5:30 a.m.

At school, the boys and girls appeared to be a product of his imagination, a world he had created.

“I felt confused, like nothing around me was real,” James explained. “It’s like living in your own bubble.”

The voices told him he couldn’t touch doorknobs because they were poisoned. One day, stuck behind a shut door, he had to call someone to let him out of a room.

“The voices would support my theories,” said James, who was having difficulty with school friends.

In his sophomore year, at age 15, the delusions washed over him, a flash flood of sensations.

“The next thing you know, I’m talking to empty corners of the room,” James recalled. “At one point, I heard the voices so loud, I couldn’t go to school. I started writing things on the wall in my bedroom with a Sharpie.”

It was too much to bear.

He remembers writing the suicide note, carefully dotting the last period of the last sentence before he tried to drown himself in the bathtub. The episode ended with his first stay in a psychiatric hospital.

James is diagnosed with schizophrenia, a disorder that can cause hallucinations such as hearing voices, paranoid delusion, and disorganized thoughts and speech.

He also may have a mood disorder, discovered after his hospitalization in late February following “rapid cycling,” or quick mood swings or shifts in and out of lucidity.

Despite his mental illness, and perhaps because of it, James also is highly creative, articulate and engaging. An aspiring novelist, he has been writing stories since third grade and is studying filmmaking and literature at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He dreams of one day winning the Nobel Prize — perhaps like John Nash, a genius-level schizophrenic made famous in the film, “A Beautiful Mind.”

“It’s really not all misery,” said James, a dark-haired youth who is neatly groomed and wears glasses. “I would rather live in a world with my voices than live in a world without them. They’re part of me. I don’t like to call it a problem because it doesn’t have to be.”

NOVEL DESCRIBES DELUSIONS

James, unlike many of Southern Nevada’s mentally ill, has a strong support system; his mother, friends, educators and private doctors provide the best of care and help him monitor the medication he takes to control his delusions.

He is in better shape than many because he has no substance abuse problems, which can aggravate mental disorders.

Yet, James knows he is in for a lifelong struggle against madness. It comes through in his writing.

Terrance, one of the main characters in his first draft novel, “Zodiac Lane,” suffers the same demons At one point, he is homeless and disheveled on the streets, running lost in the rain, voices battering his skull “with the consuming desire of audience members trying to escape a blazing movie theater.”

“He tripped and fell hard on his side,” James wrote. “Looking round, he found that he was under an overpass — or maybe he was looking on the belly of Hell’s cavernous ceiling, now so very far away, shut off from the sun.

“His hands searched the ground as he crawled and, for a second, it seemed a purposeless search until a single thought yelled loud and clear: Relieve their pain and save them from the fire.

“In that same instant, his hand found a rock about the size of his palm. Relieve your suffering — Your hand is Zeus and your head is Cronus. Terrance took a breath of the moist stagnant air beneath the overpass.

“As he brought the rock up from the ground, he thought he heard the buzzing of malaria-infused mosquitoes, but, before he could stop to worry, the hard face of the rock slammed into the side of his head and knocked him cold. His hearing became muffled. Stars swam in a dark, stormy cloud, and then disappeared.”

Terrance awakens. The voices remain.

NAMES FOR THE VOICES

Like Terrance, James has names for the voices only he can hear.

And James has begun to engage the voices, a tactic he and his mother read about to quiet auditory hallucinations, make them less hostile and perhaps one day go away.

“I’m keeping an open communication with them,” James said. “I check in on them to see how things are going. I’m keeping them in the loop. When they’re out of the loop, they get angry.”

Karl, with a malevolent British accent, is the most trouble, telling James to hurt himself.

Adele, who is 19 and also British, offers comfort in times of stress. When his wisdom teeth were pulled, she told him, “Everything will be all right,” and he felt her invisible hand brush his cheek.

There are two distinct children’s voices — a boy, Lindsay, and a girl, Mary.

And there is a chorus. Hundreds of voices that can emanate from the clouds or from a kitchen cabinet.

Two new voices have emerged since James’ latest hospitalization: The Messenger, a sexless voice from above, and Charon, named for a character in Greek mythology, the ferry man of Hades who carries souls across the river Styx.

“It’s a type of thinking,” James said. “You can still have voices and still think rationally.”

As an example, James tells of being outside his house when The Messenger told him, “Take off your clothes.” James refused. There were children at a nearby playground.

As he tells his story, his mother, Anna, listens. He smiles at her across the kitchen table. He says she has gone beyond the “denial stage” to acceptance, and is learning everything she can about how to live with his illness.

“Sometimes, my mom sounds like she thinks it’ll still go away,” James said. “But even people with success stories, they still live with it. It’s a chronic thing. It can be crippling some days. But some people, they can still do what they want to do and they can still be productive. It’s hopeful, but you shouldn’t look for magic.”

Anna is taking a 12-week National Alliance on Mental Illness course for families on how to deal with mental illness and help their loved ones cope.

She is circumspect about James’ mental illness, preferring that he doesn’t broadcast to the world his diagnosis because she fears he may be stigmatized.

She asked that his real name not be used in this article, although she recently told one of his UNLV classes about his illness .

“He tells me he tells everyone because he’s tired of being discriminated against,” Anna told the class. “I have to say to myself 365 times a year, every day, ‘Don’t be afraid because if I’m afraid he’s going to be afraid.’ ”

DEEPENING OBSESSIONS

James’ condition is hard to hide, though he said he doesn’t speak to his voices in front of people. Recently, his medication had an adverse effect, causing him to fall down at UNLV with what appeared to be seizures.

James said he felt the attack coming during class. He felt ticks in his eyes, shoulder and neck, and his voices kept trying to talk to him. One told him he would collapse, and even where he would fall.

James has come to recognize signs of a psychic break coming on. He starts to engage in rituals, such as repeatedly washing his hands until they are chapped.

He recently became fascinated by religion. Raised Catholic, he has read parts of the Bible and the Quran. Most recently he read the Book of Mormon and was baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“My doctor said I might have some elements of hyperreligiosity,” James said, laughing at himself. “So then I thought maybe I should stay away from that.”

His ability to focus — obsess, really — has helped him. James said he worked nine hours straight to finish a university project last semester. But other times, he said, “I can’t concentrate at all.”

So far, James has overcome, driven by a persistent desire to live a full life.

He missed a month of his senior year after he was hospitalized, yet graduated with his class.

During his first time in the hospital, James practiced his part in the school play, the British farce, “Charley’s Aunt.” He took the stage as planned after his release, playing his role in two separate casts during the two-week run.

“I have said many times, I would be very happy if I just lost my mind,” James said, only half in jest. “But I realized that giving up isn’t an option. There are things you’ve got to do, man — get married, have children.

“My goal is to make it to my death bed when I’m 88 and I’m old and crotchety. You have to decide not to be mad and to decide whether to get better or get worse. I am a person, not an illness.”

Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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