Tie-dyed Schizophrenia: How COVID-19 Has Shined a Light on Living with Mental Illness

May 30, 2020
By Theo Karantsalis

Psychiatrists describe me as charming, unpredictable and dangerous. “Although Mr. Karantsalis is currently stable, he has a severe mental illness with high potential for deterioration, despite adequate treatment,” one doctor warns.

Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder make strange bedfellows, and treatment includes mega-doses of anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers, anti-depressants, and, for good measure, lots of weed.

Fired from my job last year for committing an “act of violence,” I penned a goodbye letter to friends and coworkers at the library who knew me as soft-spoken and playful.

Since high school, it was rare for me to hold a job for more than a year, most ending with lots of drama and a police response.

Joining a frat helped mask any defiant DNA as college pranks until I abruptly dropped out, sought refuge in a cave, bathed in a sewer, and then drove back and forth on a small motorbike from the Mexican border to San Francisco.

As a bank teller in the ‘80s, my future looked bright before the bank sent me for training where I dove nude off a building and swam a quarter mile across a shipping channel. Detained by the Coast Guard, the bank gave me a second chance and shipped me off to Boulder, where I was fired after showering at a stranger’s home without permission.

No matter how far or fast I ran, psychotic breaks ebbed and flowed.

In the ‘90s, my boss called in a special response team to extract me from a workstation after brawling with a federal agent in a San Francisco restroom. Police seized five weapons, ammo, and $3 in change. Upon failing a fitness-for-duty exam, I was slapped with a restraining order, put on paid leave for a year and fled to Caracas.

Other bans included hospitals, theaters, and airports. So, it was surprising when the TSA hired me after 9/11 to run a concourse at Miami International Airport shortly after being released from county jail on an assault charge. A year later, the DHS awarded me one of its highest honors for protecting the public, a Bronze Medal.

Slurred speech, a limp, and a trip to an ICU led to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, and it was time to chase my passion, instead of a pension.

Despite a lengthy rap sheet, scoring in the bottom fifth percentile on the SAT, and dropping out, I went on to earn several degrees including Master’s degrees from the University of Miami and Florida State.

My calling was a place that has never banned me: the library, a perfect fit for a high-functioning schizophrenic. For 15 years, I tackled the inner-city’s greatest threat – conformity – through books and workshops that confronted the chaos of being human.

Chided for buying 50 copies of Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, a book banned in many prisons, the boss said they would be stolen, and they were, which means they were read.

From Carol City to Opa-locka to Lemon City to North Central, and then Liberty City, Miami’s black community lovingly embraced an earnest, offbeat, white brother, who has struggled his whole life to fit in. And for a minute, I did fit in, and I loved my black brothers and sisters back as we tried to make sense of this world.

The memories fade.

My mind drifts as I wrestle with inter-dimensional visions and voices hell-bent on hijacking my thoughts. Down below, runway lights glow amid the fog and I am unsure of the terrain and scared of what lies ahead, but find solace in Steely Dan’s ‘70s classic, Any World:

Any world that I’m welcome to/

Is better than the one I come from.

Outside my capsule, society sits ravaged from the COVID-19 catastrophe, and nations feel the icy spray of terror and isolation that schizophrenics live with each day.

Together, we wage war against the unknown.

When the crisis ends, we know not what lies ahead. Please have compassion and be kind to those who remain adrift, languishing about Miami’s gritty streets, shelters and jails, as this is not a life we chose, and not everyone lands.

All minds are cracked to some degree – that is how the light gets in.

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” – Hunter S. Thompson.

Theo Karantsalis is a San Francisco native and mental health advocate whose early life was influenced by the Black Panthers and the Grateful Dead. He now lives in Miami.

This article is reprinted from the Miami Herald with the permission of the author.


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