Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness

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Pete Earley had thirty-years of journalism experience, mostly as a reporter for the Washington Post, before he wrote Crazy – his nonfiction book about travails faced by his own family. Earley navigates America’s extremely dysfunctional mental health system, culminating with the horrors of the Miami-Dade County Jail.

The book was inspired by his son Mike’s schizo-affective disorder and documents the unlawful acts that landed him in a courtroom, potentially destroying his future and leading him and his family on a nightmare journey. Earley discovers the faults of the system as he attempts to help his son. He decides that the only way it will change is for him to illuminate the dire situation that mentally ill people face every day in courts, jails and hospitals.

Each section of the book starts out with a chapter about Mike, Earley’s son, describing his predicament and Earley’s own worries and frustrations. Subsequent chapters follow other mentally ill people who caught Earley’s interest.

Earley reconstructs the lives of his characters, backtracking to their early childhood and shadowing them into the present – or in some cases to the time of their premature deaths. He appeals to our empathy this way, showing us that mentally ill are not deviants who need to be jailed for punishment. Even the most disturbed people he follows were once everyday people like him, Mike and the reader.

He describes each character’s backstory, which often involves enduring a horrible childhood, and shows them cycling the street, hospitals, jails and the street again. He also illuminates how an untrained police force in Miami-Dade County sometimes kills mentally ill people unnecessarily because they simply don’t know any other response.

The book points out that the mental health system is in need of a major overhaul. This is emphasized throughout the book by Earley’s own thoughts as well as interviews with doctors, lawyers and family members and mentally ill people. Frustration and discouragement are major themes of the book, as well as the indifference – sometimes cruelty – inflicted by people who don’t see themselves as personally connected with mental health issues.

Crazy helped me see the truth behind the mental health system and the horrendous ordeals that affected people undergo simply to live their lives. The cycle of imprisonment, being thrown out on the streets, and being warehoused in institutions or bad group homes reflects poorly on our society. Instead of attempting to help mentally ill people, Earley says, people wish to push them away and forget about them. Earley’s emotional connection to his son Mike helps connect us with these people, and we start to think about how to change the situation.

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Madison County Adventures

A local Athens photographer whose girlfriend is from Madison County gave me a pretty good lead into the afterschool life of teenagers inhabiting Madison County. His recommendation:  Chicken Express, the sports complex, Fox’s Pizza, Paparonni’s. Right after school, around 4ish.

I decided I would go to Chicken Express first. I left around 3:30, hoping to make it to the fast food restaurant a little before 4.

The twenty minute drive wound into Danielsville, past the Veterans Memorial Garden, and toward the Chicken Express.

I looked to my right after the GPS on my phone went haywire informing me of my arrival. “Turn right. In three-hundred feet, turn right.”  After fidgeting with the annoying contraption, I looked to my right to make the turn.

My jaw almost dropped. Never before have I seen so many Ford pick-ups lined in a row, their original colors untraceable due to the exorbitant amount of mud caked all over the vehicles.

Trucks were packed in like sardines next to one another. Teenagers overflowed from the restaurant’s entrance, wearing brightly colored shirts and holding large “Chicken Shack” fountain drinks. Almost everyone was wearing a baseball cap.

“Oh dear lord,” I said to myself, as I attempted to find parking amongst monster trucks and other random vehicles. I almost talked myself out of what I was about to do, but I knew this would probably be the only opportunity I had, my schedule permitting.

I got several strange looks from the large group of teenagers as I entered, as I’m sure I looked rather awkward and indecisive about whether to approach and talk or not. I ducked and moved inside the restaurant, where I saw a boy sitting sort of off to the side of another large group of teens.

I approached him and introduced myself. The large group of boys and one girl sitting next to him immediately quieted down a few decibels and began to eavesdrop. I noticed them glancing at one another and giggling.

“Do you mind if I interview you?” I said, ignoring the comments and giggles.

“Sure, go ahead,” the boy said, slumping down in his chair but turning to the side towards me as I sat in the booth behind him. He fidgeted with his baseball cap, which was already straightened.

I brought out my tape recorder, which I determined would be pretty useless due to the absurdly loud volume in the restaurant. “Do you mind if I record you?”

“Naw,” he replied, shrugging.

I asked the boy several questions about health in teenagers in the county, and he didn’t have many answers. I couldn’t tell if he didn’t want to talk or just didn’t know, but he yelled at a few other teenagers sitting in the next booth.

“Ey!” he shouted. “Come here. She’s doing an interview. On health in Madison County.”

A short, slim teenage boy came toward me. His group of guy friends patted him on the back and giggled as he walked, and he sat across the booth from me. Two of his friends pulled up chairs and sat, staring directly at me, trying to suppress laughter.

“So, I just need to ask you a few questions,” I said. The eighteen year old across from me grinned like a Cheshire cat, his deep blue eyes glittering in the late afternoon sun.

I ran through my introduction. The boy kept peering to my right behind me, where I’m sure the other kids were making faces and gestures. He turned red, and I rolled my eyes.

“Do you go to school here?” I began.

“I did, but I dropped out.”

“Okay, so…” I began, and he followed the interview with one-word answers. I finally tried leveling with him and being pretty blunt. “You can be talking about other people, you know, you don’t have to tell me anything about yourself. What do kids do for fun out here? Drinking? Drugs?”

One of the kids got bored and went back to the group. The other stayed and kept listening.

“Well,” the boy across from me would start, then burst out laughing as his friends behind me continued their shenanigans.

“There’s a lot more drinking than drugs,” he said finally, as he placed his baseball cap over his left eye so he could concentrate on my question without distraction.

“Care to elaborate?”

“I mean,” he said, then began laughing at the people behind my right shoulder as he removed the cap from his face. “No, I can’t really.”

Knowing this was going nowhere, I thanked him. I asked the next boy if he wanted to be interviewed. The one across from me got up, slapped his friend on the back, and said, “It’s your turn,” as he trudged off to rejoin the group. I didn’t even dare look behind me.

The next boy was large and stocky, with a ruddy face and bright blue eyes. One of the eyes was lazy, I noticed. He concentrated on my questions, however, without distraction. He answered the questions and as soon as I appeared finished, shot up from his chair and left.

By this time I was finished, most of the teenagers had gotten up and pealed out of the parking lot in their trucks.

I sighed, and headed back to the car.

Madison County Adventures – Part I

As a first year, second semester Health and Medical Journalism student, one of our requirements is to cover a beat in a particular county. The county doled out to me was Madison County, GA.

The first thing I did to research the county was to ask my ex-temporary roommate, an unemployed local Athens native in a dire spot and sleeping in a friend’s garage, about the county.

“They have some absolutely beautiful antebellum houses,” he said after I harangued him for a few hours about various topics that had arisen in my first few weeks of classes – statistics, dietetics, and now this.

My excitement tripled as he uttered those words. The freelance photographer side of me jumped inside for joy, and I dreamed of all the pictures I would get to take of beautiful, dated southern architecture.

Unfortunately, upon further research, I discovered that he was talking about Madison, GA, not Madison County. I deflated like a punctured bicycle tire.

“Well, there might still be some really cool architecture,” I thought to myself as I regained composure and optimism.

I searched the internet for hours looking for something unique that I would be able to take pictures of, now that my photographic interest had been piqued. Nothing. Nothing.

And, nothing.

“Well,” I thought to myself again. “This will just require a drive.”

The drive was pushed further and further back as the semester ensued, and homework piled on top of homework. I was forced to come up with an elaborate scheme to get rid of my roommate without hurting his feelings, as he attempted to distract me from my schoolwork every waking moment with some new idea – “let’s go for a bike ride!” “let’s go out to eat!” “let’s go hang out with my friend so and so!” “let’s go downtown to see a show!” “let’s go downtown to see a movie!” As I am an easily distracted person, this became unbearable.

I eventually formulated a plan in which I involved my dad traveling from Savannah, GA, to collect half the month’s rent from him.

He was gone in a matter of hours.

As they say, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

After that debacle, I quickly tried to catch up on lost time. I planned to drive to Madison County one Friday, but was stricken with a sudden and intense cold.

The cold consumed my entire weekend.

I lay in bed, surrounded by Kleenex. I didn’t feel well enough to move, let alone get up to throw away hundreds of used tissues.

By the time Monday rolled around, I was finally well enough to move around again. I planned to drive out to Madison County after my “Food and the Consumer” class at around 4 p.m.

Consumed by anxiety and frustration, I forgot to keep track of my mileage, as well as keep track of where I was going. I eventually decided it would be best to just keep driving. With plenty of coffee flowing through my veins, I sped through the town of Colbert in my champagne-colored Honda Civic, peering from side to side in hopes of catching a glimpse of something photo-worthy.

Either side of the road was as equally long as it was aesthetically unappealing.

Our assignment required a multimedia package, however, so I was going to have to stop being such a snob.

After about ten more minutes of driving past nothing of visual interest, I pulled aside in a driveway that lead to a house at the top of a small hill. It was surrounded by a vast nothingness that crawled across browning grass that ended at the edge of a dense, dark coppice.

I maneuvered around my car, removing my camera from the trunk. Cars sped behind me at breakneck speeds, pushing gusts of wind into my back.

I crossed my fingers that whoever lived in the house was not going to rush outside, yielding a shotgun aimed at my face. I quickly disregarded my skepticism of small towns and their inhabitants as I noticed the light was quickly fading.

Several photos later, I decided to cross the highway to take a photo of a dilapidated shed that had seemed rather curious. I managed to cross safely, and get several shots of the leaning shed.

After re-crossing the highway, I decided my next goal would be to obtain pictures from the only hospital I had managed to find during my extensive internet search about the county – the Cobb Healthcare Center in the town of Comer.

The healthcare center was tucked away behind a low-income neighborhood. I was astonished to see how small it was. It looked like an elementary school.

The bright blue sign in front was the only marking denoting what the building was. A security guard was meandering near the front of the building. I crossed my fingers that he wasn’t going to try and prevent me from taking photographs.

I snapped some quick shots while his back was turned. Feeling rather sly, I drove off and began brainstorming about other things I had seen along the way. I retraced my way back to the highway, stopping at a small barn-looking building with an American flag in front. “Colbert, GA, City Hall,” the building read.

By this time, the light had almost completely disappeared. Feeling only semi-satisfied, I made my way back to Athens, and to a late night of assembling a multimedia production.