Tie-dyed schizophrenia: How COVID-19 has shined a light on living with mental illness

Published on May 22, 2020

The Miami Herald

"I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me.” - Hunter S. Thompson

BY THEO KARANTSALIS

Psychiatrists describe me as charming, unpredictable and dangerous.

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"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.

Resolved3In 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.

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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. Tsa

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.

IMG_0879AMy 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 about the globe 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.

May is Mental Health Month. If you would like to share your mental health story in hopes of raising awareness and helping others, please visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


On Being Lit

July 11

 

BY THEO KARANTSALIS

The fine line between sanity and madness blurs as a jittery librarian in downtown Miami with body sores, unkempt hair and tattered clothes gives fiery sidewalk lectures.

Onlookers who recognize the senior librarian shake their heads as they toss a dollar or a get-well note into a tip jar with the hash tag #litwithfire scrawled on it. As the 57-year-old hippie throwback from San Francisco rambles on about spiritual warfare, chem trails and legalizing weed, a struggle between rational and irrational thought plays out on the public stage.

I am Theo Karantsalis, a longtime college library administrator who has suffered from serious mental illness since childhood, or for about 50 years. This includes multiple suicide attempts, drug addiction, and bizarre behavior resulting in police standoffs, countless trips to jail, dozens of lawsuits, restraining orders, and lots of psychiatric intervention.

A crumpled doctor’s note in my pocket is a reminder to take medicine which includes immune system injections, large doses of anti-psychotics, anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. It reads: “chronic mental illness, poor coping skills, evidence of paranoid and persecutory delusions, most recent episode manic, severe, with psychotic features.”

Over the years, a team of doctors have helped keep me afloat with schizoaffective disorder bipolar I type, or a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar.

Regardless of how consistent one is with treatment, there are risks of unexpectedly going off the rails, as I did earlier this year. This left coworkers in our tight-knit College community scratching their heads and whispering.

When I requested emergency leave last April, the official reason was something valid and visible: psoriatic arthritis, which has left me covered head to toe with skin lesions that make it hard to sit, stand or walk. If need be, I was ready to stack the request with multiple sclerosis, a condition that for twenty years has given me a neurological golf umbrella to hide any mental misfires.

One thing that I could never admit was that I had been sucked into a psychotic black hole. I recklessly spent thousands on Rolex watches, passed out $100 bills to strangers, filed a bizarre lawsuit against the College in federal court, chose to sleep on the streets, and recently fired two psychiatrists for being spies for the CIA.        

Years ago, when I started my librarian career with Miami-Dade County, I looked the other way as homeless bathed and shaved in our restroom sinks or violated other minor rules like sleeping or eating. Deep down, I knew that I was just one psych ward visit away from joining them. And I did.

Ending up on the streets outside the main library – disheveled, delusional and with Diogenic indifference – I saw first-hand what it was like to panhandle near the metro rail station, watch the sun rise from a decrepit alley, wait for handouts of day-old muffins and coffee, smoke discarded cigarette butts, and feel the disdain some locals have for the downtrodden.

At the College, the mentally ill make up a slice of the folks we serve, and many colleagues have confided in me that they too suffer, albeit quietly. And for good reason, as words like “schizophrenia” or “bipolar” conjure up fear and the related stigma might affect a promotion or a career.

There were signs in the months leading up to my break that things might be amiss like handing out psychedelic business cards and custom bookmarks that detailed my extensive medical and drug use history, including LSD, cocaine and meth. I also wore the same wrinkled and stained clothes for weeks on end, quickly lost about 75 pounds, stopped shaving or combing my hair, and often shed clothes and spoke to wildlife by the lake.

While in a psychotic state, one often has poor insight or an ability to perceive that he or she is ill.

And even if I did have a sliver of insight, who might I have reached out to at the College about being under attack by inter-dimensional demons? Or that meetings were a waste of time, as we should just send mind messages back and forth via ESP? Or that out-of-tune foreign radio stations in my mind scrambled my thoughts and words jumped from my computer screen onto the desk and scattered into the walls?    

Perhaps it is time for the College to address mental illness from within the ranks so we can better understand and help each other, as well as those with similar issues seeking our services. 

As I wind down my wonderful 15-year journey at the College, I leave you with a simple, best-life practice that has helped me deal with police, jail, court, and living on the streets. 

Smile.

This is an international signal that no threat exists. Just love. These words from Crosby, Stills, Nash’s ‘60s classic, Wooden Ships, say it best.

If you smile at me, I will understand/
'Cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language

The reason those of us suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar may appear distant, aloof, or otherwise detached is because our minds tend to run on different operating systems. Though I now have flickers of clarity and reason, my thoughts and speech remain fragmented and disorganized, drowned out by noises and visions from another dimension.  

We live in another world, at times a wondrous and magnificent world, but one that is often disconnected from your version of the world. We remain somewhat tethered to Earth in various degrees, some with a fat rope, and others, like me, with a tiny thread. And the library is the magnet that instinctively pulls us as we seek direction, meaning and purpose. 

As I glance down from another galaxy, like Major Tom floating in a tin can, the signal bars waft in and out of service and I wonder what life will be like when and if I eventually land.

But I think my spaceship knows which way to go.

Theo Karantsalis, associate director of learning resources at Miami Dade College’s North Campus retired on July 29, 2019.

Theo’s Suggested Schizophrenia and Bipolar Reading List:

The Collected Schizophrenias, by Esmé Weijun Wang, https://amzn.to/2Zyn9Na

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, by Elyn R. Saks, https://amzn.to/2Flo3os

Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, by Kay Redfield Jamison, https://amzn.to/2WXfLZT

Photo Credit: Theo Karantsalis by Wally Clark.