Tim Steller: Getting help for mentally ill is a grind

2013-06-09T00:00:00Z 2013-06-10T14:57:24Z Tim Steller: Getting help for mentally ill is a grindTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 09, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Jeri Taylor didn't hesitate to take charge of her son's medical care when University Medical Center discharged him in February.

It didn't deter her that caring for Josh, in those weeks before his amputations, meant cleaning daily between the exposed toe bones of his feet, as dead, blackened flesh slowly migrated off his feet.

Josh, 25, suffered hypothermia in January - yes, in Tucson - the root cause of which was his serious mental illness and substance abuse. But his mother and her boyfriend, his sister, his wife and other family members banded together to help him get better.

"We've all learned to work as a unit," Jeri said when I visited their west-side mobile home April 29.

Having a mentally ill young adult can tear a family apart, even a family with resources. Help is hard to get, and oftentimes the mentally ill person refuses it anyway, which is their right as an adult, unless they're court-ordered. But a crisis like this can also bring a family together.

Unfortunately, even a unified family does not guarantee good results. The outcome depends to a great extent on the mental illness itself and the individual sufferer.

After I wrote March 31 about Jared Lee Loughner's parents and their failure to get him help in the run-up to the Jan. 8, 2011, shootings, many family members of mentally ill people wrote me to say I underestimated how hard that is.

Joy Nelson of Tucson wrote of her experience in Fresno in the 1970s: "As the stepmother of a schizophrenic boy, I am all too familiar with the pain of dealing with mental illness. In the beginning, I felt certain I could find The Solution. I just knew I could 'make the system work.' Twenty years later, I was forced to admit defeat."

Friday, Nelson told me, "The family made good efforts to find a solution, but it was so frustrating. He was not compliant. He was not in on it."

"We had means, we had lots of resources, and to no avail."

Now imagine Jeri Taylor's position, and that of Corina Felix, Josh Taylor's wife in Phoenix.

Josh and his three siblings grew up in a mobile home park on South Park Avenue in Tucson, Jeri said.

She fiercely protected her kids, but that wasn't enough to prevent a molestation of Josh at age 11. Nor did it stop him from being shot in the left eye during a drive-by shooting at age 17. His vision worsened, and the shooting ended what was until then a promising basketball career at Sunnyside High School.

After high school, Josh lived for a few years in Phoenix, where he met Corina. Around that time, he said, he began recovering the memories of his molestation. Just before they married in November 2011, he tried the street drugs known as "bath salts" for the first time. His mental illness cropped up soon after the wedding.

"It started making me freak out - hallucinate," Josh told me in late April. "It was taking my mind away from it (his problems), but it was making mine and my wife's relationship worse."

In early 2012, Josh made the first of several attempts to kill himself by overdosing. He also started cutting himself, his wife said.

After several suicide attempts in spring 2012, Corina got a court order to force Josh into psychiatric help. Corina has kids from an earlier relationship, and it was becoming impossible to have him at home.

"I literally had to lock him out of the house," she said.

But last summer she got him admitted to St. Luke's Medical Center in Phoenix. After a few weeks, the hospital discharged him. Jeri drove up to Phoenix, and brought him back to Tucson to live with her.

He was in a depressed spell the cold evening of Jan. 14 this year when he took a bunch of antidepressants and other drugs and walked away from his mother's home, intent on dying. He walked to the West Ajo Way bridge over Interstate 19 and crawled around the fence onto the edge, intending to jump into traffic.

He decided not to. The problem, as Josh remembers it, is that the drugs he'd taken had begun to affect him physically, and he couldn't climb back onto the bridge. He fell onto the freeway and may have been hit by a car.

"The next day I woke up and looked at my hand, and it was green. As soon as I got up, I fell back down," he said.

He lapsed back into unconsciousness, and it was hours before police found him there, about 2 p.m. Jan. 15.

The low temperature was 17 degrees that morning in Tucson. Not only did Josh have broken bones from the impact, but he had severe frostbite on both feet and his left hand.

He was in UMC for about a month but was discharged before the necessary amputations of about half of both his feet and the fingers of his left hand could be performed. That's when Jeri and the family went to work.

They helped him do some physical therapy, kept his wounds clean, helped him stay on his medications, and most of all, they advocated for him in the medical system, where his lack of insurance was an obstacle everywhere they turned. UMC surgeons performed the amputations in March.

The family's work helped. When I met Josh April 29, he looked like a guy who had come out the other end of a tunnel. He had hope. He was even considering becoming a motivational speaker.

"Now, he is a totally different person. He's more humbled now," Corina told me by phone April 30. "In a sense, it's like the old him is back."

Among the many problems Jeri solved was Josh's need to be classified as disabled by the state Medicaid program and Social Security, and for him to get needed painkillers. The pain of walking, even with therapeutic boots, made Josh practically immobile, which in turn made him stir crazy.

In May, Josh finally got the narcotic painkillers he needed to stop the shooting pains in his amputated feet and let him walk. They quickly became his undoing, his mother and wife said. He took the first batch too fast, got a second prescription, and kept up the pace.

Last Sunday he decided to try to kill himself again. He took a knife and left the mobile home, Jeri said. She and her boyfriend chased him outside, took the knife away and called police.

They took him to the Crisis Response Center again, for a 72-hour stay. Corina called me Monday, desperate for an idea as to how to find him a bed somewhere Eventually, Jeri found a way, getting him placed as an inpatient in the state's Arizona Long Term Care System. 

That stay is scheduled to end Tuesday. But then, thanks to the efforts Jeri made to get him classified as disabled, he will head to an inpatient rehabilitation center. That, Jeri said, is what he's needed all along.

"Now," she said, "we can find our way back to being a functioning family again."

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter

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