I heard from him after 25 years when he called me from a mental hospital he'd checked himself into after blacking out. He was afraid they weren't going to let him out, so I talked to a lawyer and helped him get out. Two weeks later I drove up to Portland and out to the end of a crappy road a couple of miles from the airport. I knocked on the door of a dingy, clapboard house and walked in to a nightmare.
The years hadn't treated him well. He looked like a cross between the person I once knew, a very old man, and Gollum. The inside of the house was dilapidated and dim, with piles of junk and papers along the walls and blankets covering all the windows. What struck me most were the grease stains, thick and almost black in the doorways between the rooms. Those were the places where he'd put his hand as he went from room to room pacing, or doing whatever it was he did there. Apart from trips to the nearest store and the mental hospital, he said he hadn't left the place in over six years.
Our conversation that first night lasted over four hours. He wanted to kill himself and was hoping I could get him enough drugs to do it. He had a gun but was too scared to use it. The thing he was most scared of was becoming a "suicide survivor." It was the strangest and most intense conversation I've ever had. Suddenly I had to play cheerleader for life itself, trying to explain all the reasons there were to keep living, all the while amazed that he'd managed to stay in that place so long without having killed himself years ago.
Name a pathology and Paul (not his real name) had it: paranoia, delusional thinking, obsessive compulsive disorder, hallucinations... His was a world where everyone was evil and lying and out to get him - either sexually or in other ways. And by everyone he meant everyone - all six billion of us. I told him he had no way of knowing that and that he had no idea what some strawberry farmer in Oaxaca was thinking. (I remember saying that and simultaneously wondering if they even grew strawberries in Oaxaca.) He insisted otherwise, saying he knew things about the world that I couldn't possibly know, and to be honest he had a point. The sheer strength it must have taken for him to survive day after day, year after year in that place... Yes, I thought to myself, you know things about life in this world I couldn't possibly know.
Back in the day, Paul had been more than just a friend or an amiable acquaintance. From the ages of 16 through 22 or so we were practically best friends. These were pretty formative years: the end of high school and the first couple of years of college. We discovered girls, drugs, music, philosophy... all those things... and used each other to compare notes. Beyond being friends, we were practically mirrors of each other. We had the same family background, outlook, sense of humor, taste in music... everything. So seeing him after all those years was like a glimpse at my own life if everything had gone wrong.
One of the many things that struck me after that first night was how it was the things that I'd loved most about him that seemed to end up being his undoing: the depth of thought, touches of darkness and social criticism that were so brilliant and funny in our teens had all become exaggerated literally to the point of insanity. And his taste and appreciation for music, the thing I loved and respected most about him... that had all gone wrong too. Back then music really spoke to him. Now it really spoke to him - as in, actually told him things to do.
Our second evening's conversation was much like the first - I kept trying to find reasons why he should get professional help and he kept insisting that all humanity was a heap of evil, greedy, sex-crazed animals, that the government was controlling us through language and grammar (which was exactly what Jared Loughner, the Tucson shooter, believed.) According to him I was also evil, as evidenced by my use of passive verb tenses: "You know who else talks in a quiet, passive voice? Child-molesters, that's who! That's how they gain their trust! That's how they lure them in!"
Our conversation ended exactly like it had the night before. I disagreed with him one too many times and he leapt up, went over to a pile of junk and pulled out a crumpled pair of slacks. The first time he did it it looked like he was going for a weapon, then lost heart, became confused, and just stood there pathetically holding a pair of pants. "Christ Paul..." I thought to myself, "You poor befuddled thing..." When it happened again on the second night though I realized it wasn't just a pair of pants: there was something inside in the pants.
"What's in the pants Paul?"
I got up, left the house and haven't seen or spoken to him since.
I called his family and together we had him re-committed to the mental hospital. You can do that in Portland. They have emergency psychiatric services who will go to someone's door with the police, check up on them and if necessary, put them on a 72 hour watch. Paul went quietly and the police confiscated a loaded gun. When he was admitted into the hospital his blood alcohol level was 0.35%: over four times the legal limit for intoxication. More than one third of one percent of his blood was alcohol, and he was still lucid and able to walk on his own.
Following the advice I gave him when he was first committed, he signed a statement saying he had no intention of harming himself or others and was set free. According to his brother the first thing he did after that was go to the police to get his gun back. And apparently they gave it to him. Hopefully they at least kept the bullets, but who knows. This all happened about a year ago.
According to his family he's still armed, in the same place, and has not received any further psychiatric help. Apparently he's hired someone to bring him food and other necessities and, as far as we know, has managed to stay alive for another year inside those walls. He has a trust fund that more than covers his expenses.
He said a lot of weird and scary things during the time I was there, but apart from the bit with the gun in the pants, the only time he alluded to hurting anyone else was when he said "You think I can't go out there and just start shooting people? You're wrong." He only said it once, and I didn't really believe him, but when the news came out the other day about someone shooting up a mall in Portland I couldn't help but wonder. I was pretty sure it wasn't Paul. Not because I didn't think he was capable of doing it - he probably is - but mostly because I felt there was no way he'd be able to make it that far from his house.
As much as I once loved him, after my visit I decided I'd have nothing more to do with Paul. Nobody gets a second chance after threatening my life. Certainly not for something I've said and Most Certainly not for the verb tense I used while saying it. The shootings in Portland and Connecticut have me re-thinking all that though... wondering how I'll feel if I hear about some other rampage in Portland at the end of some crappy road a couple of miles from the airport.
I'd like to think I could absolve myself and convince myself I'd done everything I could. I told the authorities everything that had happened. It wasn't my fault the hospital let him out and the cops gave him his gun back. Honestly, if it wasn't for the gun, I'd be willing to go back there and try to talk him into treatment. It's not every day you can try to save someone's life after all.
It seems to me that the police, or maybe even the NRA, should have some sort of program or contingency plan for this kind of situation - a third party to simply hold onto the firearm while a friend or family member tries to talk an insane person into getting treatment. I guess I'll call and ask them tomorrow.
"Hi. I have a friend who's armed and insane in Portland Oregon..."