When mental health isn't DIY

A month ago, a California criminal court sent my close friend Nick, who was one of the founders of Slingshot in 1988, to the state mental hospital where he will be involuntarily medicated with antipsychotic drugs. It hurts to write it — what could we, his friends and community, have done to avoid this? Sadly, I don’t know.

Nick is one of the most fearless, tireless, committed radicals I’ve ever known. He’s always been intense about fighting the system and injustice, but also funny, creative, modest, and caring. Nick designed the Slingshot logo by dripping ink out of a bottle. I met him a week or two after Slingshot started and he helped me develop a much more radical analysis of the system and inspired me with his militant street tactics. Back in the 1980s we lived together and worked on the paper and went to protests. At a riot on Telegraph Avenue in 1990, he was the only one with a protest sign, which read simply “no more liberalism.” He created funny graphics and articles for Slingshot that brilliantly mocked authority. In the early 90s, after traveling in Germany and seeing radical Germany calendar/organizers, he made a pocket calendar that inspired the first Slingshot organizer. Nick was always making a flier and organizing a protest.

Possibly after suffering a head injury during a police beating in 1998, Nick’s mental health began to gradually deteriorate. He got more and more isolated and began having wild delusions that he was being followed, that his family were mass murders, and that his friends had betrayed the radical movement and were part of a vast conspiracy. There was no way to talk him out of these delusions or convince him that he needed help. He made activist-style fliers and organized protests alleging misconduct against members of his family and a bunch of his closest friends, including me.

After his mother passed away he picketed his brother-in-law’s business for months accusing him of cutting his mother’s head off and keeping it alive to torture her. He sought a restraining order against a long-time local activist who Nick had been living with and circulated fliers accusing him of being a mafia leader and a child molester. At one point Nick thought all Latino men were part of the conspiracy — later it was all gay men.

For years, Nick’s friends would periodically exchange a flurry of emails to see if anyone could figure out what to do, usually triggered by a new shocking delusion Nick was having. But we were never able to come up with anything between do-it-yourself remedies, which weren’t working, or the heavy mainstream options that we found unacceptable: bringing in mental hospitals or the state.

I felt so frustrated and powerless for years because I wanted to help Nick, but he didn’t think he had a problem. So you couldn’t suggest that maybe he try acupuncture or herbs or meditation or talk therapy. Instead, Nick impulsively sold his possessions and jumped on airplanes to flee dangers he was perceiving but that none of the rest of us could detect, running to Europe, the East Coast, or up North. Nick has a ton of friends who gladly took him in and offered him space and time to relax and recover, but he just got worse.

By the time Nick finally landed in jail facing a felony battery charge for elbowing an 11 year old boy, his paranoid delusions were so deep that while many people loved Nick, his community was worn down, out of ideas, and scared to stick our necks out and argue with him anymore. Nick had turned on a lot of his closest friends who told him there was no conspiracy and that he needed help. I use the term “paranoid delusions” not to pathologize Nick or attack people who are not neurotypical, but merely because it is descriptive. Nick couldn’t function because he was terrified about things that were not really happening.

Nick is not a violent person, but when I would hear about mentally disturbed people who went on shooting rampages or killed themselves, I would pray Nick would never go off that edge. It felt irresponsible to not be doing anything.

I want more options for people who are experiencing serious mental illness. But as it stands, the decision Nick’s friends couldn’t bring ourselves to make is now out of our hands. Nick is locked up in a psych ward.

I don’t think this is the end of Nick’s story. I have to believe that some of the drugs or therapies available can bring Nick back. I’m hoping that Nick’s community can communicate with the state hospital, monitor his case, let them know they’re being watched, and advocate for Nick to receive meaningful care, rather than just being locked up. It’s a long shot at best.

If you’re a friend of Nick’s, have experience with this, or know about treatment options for people with paranoid delusions, please email Slingshot to share information. Have other radical communities figured out ways to help delusional comrades who didn’t think they had a problem without involving the police? I hope this is only the beginning of this discussion.