December 20, 2012 11:19:59 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
Early last January, I got a call from an old high school friend who lives in the suburbs of Memphis.
It was the same day a deeply-disturbed 22-year-old named Jared Loughner opened fire in the parking lot of a Tucson supermarket, killing six people and injuring 12 others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
"Ever since I heard, I've been having the worst thoughts," she said.
I didn't have to ask what she meant.
"You're thinking it could have been Chase," I said.
"Yes," she said, quietly. "Isn't that an awful thing for a mother to be thinking about her child?"
In the days since last week's slaughter in Newtown, Conn., my thoughts again have turned to Chase, especially as public attention has turned to the troubling issue of mental illness and violence.
I had not spoken with Amy -- Chase's mom -- in months. But I did wonder how he was faring, if he was safe. If Amy and her husband, Tommy, were safe.
I thought of them again when I heard of the Idaho mother who, under the blog name of Anarchist Soccer Mom, wrote a post where she assumed the identity of the Newtown shooter's mother to express her own crippling fears about living with a mentally-disturbed, potentially homicidal son.
Wednesday morning, I got a Facebook message from Amy:
"It's been a very stressful two weeks with Chase. Long story, short: Chase was discharged from the mental hospital he has been in after being there a year. He was discharged to a group home that was supposed to have 24-hour supervision, like he had at the hospital.
"Well, in his three weeks there, he has walked out five times. As of Monday the group home says they no longer can keep him there due to that. Tommy and I can't care for him because his issues are too big for us to handle and, of course, there is the history of violence with us. Tommy was on the phone all day yesterday trying to get some help and, in the meantime, Chase is out somewhere in Memphis wandering around."
It is a disturbing story, even more disturbing when you consider some of the circumstances surrounding Chase.
As a child, there was nothing to suggest that anything was "wrong" with Chase. He was a happy, well-adjusted kid with lots of friends. He played sports. He was the typical upper-class suburban kid.
After he graduated high school, he enrolled at the University of Memphis, where he promptly flunked out after one semester. By then, there were signs of trouble, but nothing to suggest mental illness.
Chase drank heavily and used drugs. Three times, he was arrested for DUI. Each time, he avoided the DUI charge, and the sentence that went along with it, because his parents, being affluent, were able to hire the best attorney in the state of Tennessee to handle his cases. Chase never spent more than a few hours in jail.
Court-ordered treatment for alcohol and drug abuse didn't seem to help much, though. He sort of drifted through life for a year or two. Soon, darker, more troubling signs emerged.
He isolated himself, staying in his room at his parents house for hours at a time, rarely leaving the room.
He began to talk about voices -- "Number One" would tell him to do things, he said.
And soon, there was the violence.
One morning, when Amy refused to buy him beer, he shoved her through a glass sliding door. When Tommy came home that evening to find his wife bleeding from the cuts she sustained, he confronted Chase. Chase began to hit his father, over and over, pummeling him unmercifully.
That was the last night Chase stayed in their home.
His parents rented him a furnished apartment in Memphis.
A week after moving in, Chase jumped off the second-story balcony of his apartment and onto a car below, suffering a broken leg and a broken arm. Number One had told him to do it, he said.
Weeks later, still in a cast, he stepped in front of a moving car on a Memphis street, again at Number One's command.
Throughout all of this, his parents spent thousands of dollars on therapists, treatment programs and medications. The powerful medicines worked, but only when he took them regularly. Chase seldom did.
Arrests for petty crimes sent him to jail for brief stints, followed by stints in rehab centers. Chase never stayed. Because he was of legal age, he could leave anytime he wanted.
He once wandered away, hitchhiked to New Orleans and was picked up a few days later on vagrancy charges. When arrested, he never spoke a word to anyone and remained silent for almost a month. Everyone assumed he was a mute. Then one day Chase calmly told the jailer, "I want to go home now."
He gave the jailer his parents' names, and they retrieved him a day later.
It didn't last. The voices became louder, more confusing. He talked of not being able to find his "mantle," pleading desperately with anyone who would listen to help him locate it. It was wild, animated, crazy talk. His parents were frightened that he would erupt into violence without any provocation or warning.
The year Chase spent in the state mental hospital by court order was the longest uninterrupted period of stability in the past five years of his life.
"When Tommy was making his calls yesterday, they told him probably the best thing that could happen was for Chase to be arrested again and start the whole commitment process over," Amy wrote. "In other words, he'll have to commit a crime to get help. Craziness!"
For now, he is "out there" wandering the streets, a deeply-disturbed 26-year-old from a respectable, caring family. The best that money could buy -- Amy estimates they've spent more than $200,000 on rehab programs, doctors and attorneys -- seems to have done nothing to improve his state.
"I was a mess yesterday crying, and I even got sick at my stomach at work," Amy wrote. "I'm just worried sick about his well-being. But know I can't take him in."
Some time, probably some time far too soon, another tragedy involving a mentally-disturbed young man will explode onto our national consciousness. He will be the next Jared Loughner, the next Adam Lanza.
At this very moment, he may be wandering the streets of Memphis, doing the bidding of "Number One."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]