A Cello Backdrop for Voices Inside

Her plan is both rational and delusional, an echo of the inspired madness I often get from Nathaniel. I've been working toward the day when I can talk to Nathaniel about his condition, but Carol seemed instantly comfortable describing the landscape of a schizophrenic mind.

It hit when she was about 37, Carol said. She was a Highland Park homemaker with an interest in horticulture, and she and her husband -- a floral designer -- had two children.

"That's when I had my breakdown," she said.

Was she aware of it at the time?

"Oh my, yes. I was running away from my family for days at a time." She didn't know why, or where she was going. But she slept on the street and in neighbors' yards while her family searched frantically for her. Eventually, she landed in a mental hospital, where her first instinct was to pick a fight with the biggest woman on the ward.

"She was about 6 feet tall," Carol said.

When I asked why she would do such a thing, she paused before answering.

"I'm different," she said. "I'll admit to a lot of anger in me. And paranoia too. It's not so much fear as it is suspicion." She said she didn't want to talk about it, but she thinks her late husband might have been trying to poison her. The family television set couldn't be trusted, either.

"I was getting messages from the TV."

What kind of messages?

"That's personal, Steve." She was more comfortable talking about the voices she hears.

"It's never anything like, 'Go kill yourself.' It's just someone calling my name. I don't know who it is, but it's happened four times in the last six months." No matter how sick she gets, though, Carol claimed she will never go back on medication. The side effects are wretched, she said, and the medicine they gave her in the hospital turned her legs into jelly.

"It didn't immobilize me, but it would weaken my muscles and lower my blood pressure, so that I would stand up and faint." Worst of all, she said, the drugs leave her in such a fog, she can't enjoy one of her passions -- reading.

"I really think the medical system is overmedicating people and under-counseling them," she said. "We need more talk therapy."

Carol's daughter Brynne, who lives in the Highland Park house where her mother went mad, confirmed Carol's story. Brynne told of her family's decades of love, worry and exasperation, with countless searches for Mom in the neighborhood and on skid row, along with multiple visits to psychiatric wards.

"I really feel that I lost a lot as a child," said Brynne, who is 47 and regularly visits her mother. "I didn't have a mom." Her mother's odyssey parallels a history of failed policy, from the shutdown of mental hospitals, to the broken promise of adequate community clinics and halfway houses, to the teeming population of addled street dwellers living in squalor.

"I've developed so much more compassion for someone on the street, and it frustrates me to death that they've taken so much funding away from the mentally ill," Brynne said.

At Lamp, Brynne's mother watched as Nathaniel tried to pull a fast one. When no one was looking, he loaded the cello onto his shopping cart and was prepared to wheel the instrument away, breaking his promise. Lamp counselor Raul Gonzalez was on to him, though, and adeptly talked Nathaniel into leaving the cello in the office.

Nathaniel wasn't happy about it. He walked half a block down the street, pulled a tennis ball out of his shopping cart and tossed it against the wall for a while, using his Christmas stocking as a mitt. A few days later, he returned to Lamp, and this time, he managed to sneak the cello out.

I saw him playing it on Friday in his favorite spot, just outside the 2nd Street tunnel.

Don't worry, he told me, a T-shirt wrapped around his head like a turban. He had kept the cello on the street the previous night, and nobody bothered him. He said he had tied the cello to his violin, hid the instruments under a tarp, and slept next to them on the sidewalk near 4th and Los Angeles streets.

He still had every intention, Nathaniel promised, of taking the cello back to Lamp. At some point.

Carol, for one, would like that.

"My favorite piece is Beethoven's Sixth," Carol told Nathaniel on the day of his courtyard concert.

"The Pastorale," Nathaniel said, hearing the music and waving a hand as if conducting an orchestra.

I called Nathaniel's sister Jennifer in Atlanta that day from Lamp to describe the scene. Nathaniel brightened when I handed him the phone and he spoke to his sister for the first time in several years.

"I'm very fond of you too," he told her.


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