My Crazy Brother

A personal look at the West's suicidal tendencies

  • John and Ray Ring at Ray's October 1993 birthday party. John, who struggled with mental illness most of his life, committed suicide a year and a half later at age 47. COURTESY RING FAMILY

  • Dotti Ray (far left), gunshot wound to the head, 1995 Shown here with children Tisha and TJ Thomson, Dotti Ray struggled with depression and migraine headaches for 12 years before she committed suicide in 1995. She had been an artist, and was selected to do a portrait of President Ronald Reagan, which she delivered to Reagan in the White House in 1987. "Eventually, she just crossed the line. I didn't recognize the signs, didn't expect it," TJ says. He was home in Idaho on leave from the Air Force when it happened; she shot herself the day before he was to go back to work. PHOTO COURTESY TJ THOMSON

  • "They're both doing pretty well, now ..." Twin brothers Robert and Richard Encinas were normal, popular high school students in Southern California until the summer after their sophomore year. "One minute they're playing football, and the next minute they're in a psychiatric hospital," says brother Tony Pelais, who after that summer returned to the high school and questions like, "What happened to your brothers? I hear they freaked out." Ricky Encinas says, "My wife and I actually had no idea what mental illness was. We hadn't even heard about schizophrenia." After years of turmoil, "(the twins) finally learned to take medication continuously, and everything kind of leveled off." Robert now has his own apartment and Richard has a job, is married and has a child. ENCINAS FAMILY, LEFT, FROM NOTHING TO HIDE: MENTAL ILLNESS IN THE FAMILY. GIGI KAESER PHOTO.

  • Kevin Graham (right), hanged, 2003 Major General Mark Graham, at Fort Carson, Colo., and his wife, Carol, highlight their story in TV and newspaper interviews. One of their sons, Kevin, suffered depression and hanged himself when he was 21. (Their other son, Jeff, was killed in the Iraq War; they also have a daughter, Melanie.) The Grahams work with the national Suicide Prevention Action Network, trying to lessen the stigma of mental illness and suicide. On their Web site, they say of Kevin, "Our son died on his own battlefield. ... He fought against adversaries that were as real to him as his casket is real to us. They were powerful adversaries. ... At last these adversaries overwhelmed him and it appeared he had lost the war. But did he? ... (He) has won our admiration because even if he lost the war, we give him credit for his bravery on the battlefield." COURTESY GRAHAM FAMILY, WWW.GRAHAMMEMORIAL.COM

  • "I think that maybe someday there will be a cure for mental illness ..." Trinidad Esparza sailed through high school as student body president and a star athlete, and went on to college and then a job as a tax auditor. But then he started feeling paranoid and thought voices in the television were talking to him. He stopped eating and even stopped drinking water. He had to resign from his job, and eventually was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder. His mother, Bartola, says of her son's illness, "We didn't hide it ... Some people won't tell anyone that a family member has a mental illness. They keep it to themselves and hibernate in the closet. I tell people to open up and let the world know." Trini, as he's known, now volunteers and is waiting for a cure for mental illness. "It's just a matter of time and research." ESPARZA FAMILY, LEFT, FROM NOTHING TO HIDE: MENTAL ILLNESS IN THE FAMILY. GIGI KAESER PHOTO.

  • Harry Reid, self-inflicted gunshot wound, 1972 Nevada Sen. Harry Reid's father, also named Harry, a gold miner, committed suicide in 1972. Reid revealed the suicide in a Senate hearing in 1997. "For many years it was just one of those unpleasant memories that I didn't allow to surface and I've found that's very typical," Reid told the Associated Press in February 2008, when he introduced the Stop Senior Suicide Act, which would allocate federal money to help prevent suicide. Other Western congressmen also have shared their stories: Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith's son, Garrett, suffered depression and committed suicide in 2003. Smith is also a champion for better funding for mental health care. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden had a schizophrenic brother who died. New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici has a schizophrenic daughter. Domenici is also a champion on the issue. A SQUARE FROM A SPAN USA LIFEKEEPER MEMORY QUILT, (COURTESY SPAN USA)

  • "We want to do the same things you do." Juan Ineguez says the media has a lot to do with creating the stigma around mental illness. When mentally ill John Hinckley shot President Reagan, "The media made it sound like everybody with a mental illness was going to go out there and shoot people ... (it) can't conceive that anyone who has a mental illness can have a healthy relationship or even a normal conversation with someone else." NOTHING TO HIDE/GIGI KAESER


Page 2

John's path alternated between periods of lucidity and paranoia and hallucinations. He made a few unsuccessful attempts at college, then enlisted for four years in the Army, hoping the structure would straighten him out, serving in the South and Germany as a radar technician. Then he had a few brief civilian jobs. He tried enlisting a second time, but by then he had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, so the Army had no more use for him. He began what would eventually become hundreds of sessions with psychiatrists and counselors. He tried outpatient treatment and hospitals run by universities, counties, private businesses, and the Veterans Administration, the long grind of antipsychotic medications, even shock treatments. At times he wandered the streets incoherently, or landed in jail.

The first years of John's intermittent care were in the Illinois system. Then he and my mother returned to Tucson, where he spent 17 years in the Arizona system. I left Illinois for Colorado, but wound up in Tucson for most of John's crazy years there. I was old enough to be a better witness, and I saw how the Arizona system was itself crazy and sad.

Our family didn't have a lot of money for treatment. John got by mostly on small disability payments from Social Security and the Veterans Administration, and whatever the public mental-health care system could do for him. Arizona's system, like those of the other Western states, is a complicated array of dozens of agencies and companies, some of which operate to make a profit on craziness. The federal government provides some money through programs such as Medicaid and Social Security disability, but state governments are in the driver's seat. Every year, the legislatures and governors allocate state money for the systems, and it doesn't have much to do with what's needed. The principle is called "managed care," which really means managing costs.

"It's an oxymoron approach," says Chick Arnold, a lawyer who has pressed a class-action suit against Arizona's system since the 1980s, demanding a series of improvements. "The companies (and agencies) get a finite amount of money to provide an open-ended commitment for service for a growing population. They can't do it. ... The system is designed to screen people out, not in. It's all about cost containment."

At most, John would see a psychiatrist for one 15-minute visit per month. Most of his interactions with the system came through his case managers and counselors, each of whom juggled many dozens of patients. Much of the treatment is based on medications that try to soothe or dampen the brain chemistry. John would get his meds in pills, liquid potions or injections. All the meds had bad side effects, such as tardive dyskinesia - uncontrollable pacing, stiffness of posture, facial grimacing.

John would take his meds for a while, stabilize, and then stop taking them. He would fly without meds for weeks or months, then crash. Sometimes when he had bad spells, my mother and I would ally with local prosecutors and go to court, testifying against him, saying he was a danger to himself or others, the legal standard for court-ordered commitment to treatment. The commitment would last for a week or so in a locked hospital ward, then longer periods of follow-up and mandatory meds outside the hospital, sometimes for as long as a year. Always the commitment would end, and then the cycle would begin again. All this is familiar to people who pay attention to crazy people.

John tried taking megavitamins and nutritional powders. He paid to consult with psychics. Once, he drove to California to try to talk to the guy who wrote a popular book on primal scream therapy. The guy refused to see him.

When he wasn't in hospitals, John lived wherever Tucson landlords would rent to a crazy person, usually cockroach-infested dives. In one big apartment complex that was filled with various losers, one of his neighbors got stabbed, and the police helicopter regularly flew over with its glaring spotlight and warlike noise. The wait for federal subsidized housing stretched out for years, and he could rarely take advantage of it.

In the bad spells, he forgot to eat and grew extremely thin. Or he got mad at everything and everyone, sometimes attracting the cops. The busts I know about were for leaping out of bushes and threatening strangers with a hammer, for taking the hammer into a convenience store and causing a disturbance, for tearing the windshield wipers off a parked car, throwing rock salt into the swimming pool in his apartment complex, and for forgetting to show up in court. Landlords evicted him for hurling rocks through his windows and breaking his door. During visits to our mother's house he broke dishes, threw a hammer through the wall, broke furniture, or pounded on the front door demanding to be let in. One time when they were driving together, he became agitated and told her, "Pull over or I'll put your face through that windshield." Sometimes the cops took him to hospitals, and sometimes to jail. At least once he set a fire in his cell.

He had a series of troubled cars - a Ford Falcon, a Mercury Comet, a Ford Pinto, and then an old International Harvester Scout. He worked on them constantly to keep them going. During bad spells, he caused a few car wrecks.

Most of the world had no sympathy for him. Banks dunned him with extra charges for bounced checks, and he would struggle to keep track of all his bills, especially the ones from ambulances and other mental-health providers, with their complicated deductibles and formulas for benefits. Bills from the phone company, other utilities, car insurance and the dentist often came faster than he could afford.

In desert heat above 100 degrees, he went around in a long-sleeved shirt with a T-shirt under it, and long pants. He wore down the heels of his shoes with his pacing. He loaned money to "friends" and never got it back. He was incapable of bargaining and often got rooked. Now and then, he picked fights with strangers and put up no resistance as the blows began to fall - punishing himself like that. One of the times I talked him into going to a hospital, we sat on chairs in the waiting room, and suddenly he curled down onto the floor, a catatonic escape.

Music could soothe him. In his lucid spells, he liked a good joke. He could talk Arizona Wildcats basketball. He had a persistent hope of creating something special and lasting, a breakthrough in physics or some other wild dream. One time I asked him what he was up to, and he said, "The never-ending battle against entropy." I had to look it up: the natural tendency of all things in the universe to fly apart.

I would get angry at him, wanting him to take his meds, regardless of their side effects, because the alternative seemed worse to me. Now and then he threatened to commit suicide. I got tired of hearing it. Sometimes I secretly wished for him to die, thinking it was the only way for him to find relief, and also because it would end my duty.

Then in 1995 at the age of 47, he bought a pistol from a guy he found in the classified ads, took it home to his latest one-room apartment in Tucson, lay down on his bed, and, sometime during the night, shot himself in the head. I do not know the exact date of his death - only that it was sometime in late April or early May - because it took a while for his body to be found. He was that alone at the end.

I know there are many dedicated professionals in Arizona's mental-health care system. But sometimes it seems as if the system mostly amounts to passing out guns. Maybe for some crazy people that's the only effective treatment.


High Country News Classifieds
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a staff scientist to advocate for the conservation of endangered species. General position overview: The position will involve working...
    The Center for Biological Diversity - a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of imperiled plants, animals and wild places - seeks a dynamic...
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Staff Attorney to join our team of attorneys, scientists, campaigners who are working to protect America's public lands...
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Southwest Conservation Advocate to join our team of attorneys, scientists and campaigners who are working to protect America's...
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks an experienced campaigner for its oceans program. The aim of the position is to campaign for the protection of...
    The Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute is looking to add an attorney to its team and will consider applicants at both staff attorney...
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a full-time Campaign Director in our Climate Law Institute to join our campaign for progressive, urgent government action to...
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online:
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...