In high school, Tommy was Mr. Everything: handsome as anything, top 5% academically, football quarterback, led the basketball team in scoring, great sense of humor. How the girls flocked to him. He was living the dream, a future with endless possibilities and promise.
I first met Tommy when he was 47 years old, room 314 in the psychiatric hospital. He told me he wanted to die. Jump off a bridge, just end this whole damn nightmare: “The voices, Doc, the voices, I can’t stop them.”
Life has a strange way of moving forward. We cannot know what awaits us, nor should we. We make our plans, but sometimes things just seem to happen, and everything turns upside down.
Two years after his stellar high school journey, when Tommy was 20, something happened. Slowly, subtly at first, Tommy started believing that his friends were taking his things. Then he started commenting how the government was poisoning everyone’s food as a form of mind control. Soon Tommy was missing his college classes, too tired to go. His grades plummeted. He forgot to take showers. His inner world had changed, but his friends still adored him.
Sadly, tragically, Tommy’s journey started heading down a road of no return. Schizophrenia. His life became psychiatric hospitalization after hospitalization. His mind was plagued by voices telling him that he’s no good, that the world would be better off without him, that no one loves or cares about him. He didn’t want to live this way. Suicidal. And he hated taking meds which made him gain all too much weight.
“Here’s a picture of me in high school," Tommy showed me - and there he was in his basketball uniform, tall and strapping and confident. I asked if he had any more pictures - and we looked at some family photos in days gone by. He started to cry, then caught himself. Then, in a flash, things shifted and he wanted to warn me about the mafia: “they already got my Mom, Doc, but soon they’re coming after you…”
Tommy and I developed a wonderful relationship during his two week stay on the psych ward. Having no filter for communication, he liked telling me about his high school girlfriends. He would carry around a Bible and want to discuss certain passages. He told me about his Uncle Bill and his dog Charlie and the mob and conspiracies and the haunting voices - and then please doc, can you get me more snacks. He never stayed with one topic for very long. Over time, the intensity of the voices and the paranoid delusions decreased. He reluctantly took his medications, which did help, but he continuously complained about them.
I grew so fond of Tommy, and learned so much from his pure refreshing soul. His spirit always put a smile on my face. Yes, maybe he was a star in his younger days - but, as a 47 year old with Schizophrenia, in his earnest innocence, he still had the ability to touch people, to make the world a better place. And so, feeling better, he finally left the hospital and headed back to his group home and mental health clinic.
Sadly, I never saw Tommy again. I read about him in the paper. Six months after he left the hospital, he stopped taking his meds once again. The voices intensified. A tortured soul, Tommy had taken his life.
I went, quietly, to his funeral. Hundreds of people were there. Family and friends. Feelings of love and adoration.
I have since often thought about this beautiful young man. From high school star to a suffering and yet engaging adult, his life clearly was not in vain. Maybe I could have, should have, helped him more. It’s hard to know.
One day recently, for some reason, I suddenly remembered that when I first met him, I had addressed him as ‘Thomas’, the legal name that was on his chart. But after a week of good talks, he said with a big smile, “Doc, you can call me Tommy, like all my friends do.”
And Tommy remains with me - both then, now, and forever.