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Personal Essays

Photograph by Darren Sacks

Gimme Shelter

Everyone knows a relative who dabbles in conspiracy theories. For one writer, seeing her brother be targeted by a global cabal—and develop schizophrenia—was all too real.

The Cahoots are an evil group of people conspiring against my brother. They created a reality TV show to keep tabs on him, and everything he does is broadcast live, 24 hours a day, on cable. Hidden cameras and microphones are just the beginning of their surveillance. They’ve installed a microchip in his brain. They are responsible for the missing dollars in his bank account, they are the reason he can’t sleep at night. When he finally closes his eyes, they crawl into his mind and tamper with his dreams. Some days they put a drug in his food that speeds up time.

There is no evidence of their presence, but the wreckage The Cahoots create is all around. My brother, Jay, doesn’t know who they are, exactly, but George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are definitely involved. So are John Kerry and Barack Obama. Everyone is somehow involved in this massive conspiracy against Jay. Even me.

 

* * *


This is the story Jay told me when he came to live with me in Austin, a month after he graduated from high school. His plans in the big city were to look for a job and an apartment; back home, his classmates from alternative school were likely spending the summer mowing lawns and bussing tables to earn a little beer money. Nine years earlier, I’d done my turn working double-shifts at a Cheddar’s (a cheese-obsessed cousin of Chili’s) as a waitress, counting down the days until college started and I could move away from Lubbock, our conservative Texas town stuck 300 miles from anything.

We made a deal: Jay could sleep on an air mattress in my living room for six weeks. I wanted us to have nightly dinners together, maybe even vegetables, and talk about our days instead of just zoning out in front of the television. He was expected to sign up for some classes at Austin Community College, and I planned to teach him how to do his laundry, cook macaroni and cheese, buy groceries on a budget, and balance a checkbook. It would be a little crash course in life, and then Jay would be ready to live on his own.

 

* * *


I remember thinking “Cahoots” is such an outdated word. Surely it hadn’t made its way into Lubbock slang. I read him the definition from the dictionary:

“Cahoots is a plural noun that means, colluding or conspiring together secretly. You can say that so-in-so and so-in-so are in cahoots with one another, but no one can actually be cahoots.”

“Whatever. You know what I mean,” Jay said. But I didn’t.

He insisted the government was in on the conspiracy. I tried talking politics.

“Jay, you know there’s no way the Republicans and Democrats would come together to allow a conspiracy like this. Frankly, Barack Obama is a little busy running for president. I doubt he has much time to worry about you.”

He stared at me blankly. He didn’t feel the need to defend what he knew to be true.

And it’s not that I believed he was lying. Jay spoke about the Cahoots with the conviction of a zealot, a fire-and-brimstone preacher. He emphasized words like “microchip” by drawing out their syllables, and repeated phrases such as “massive surveillance effort” to create more drama. Where he had learned to talk like a preacher, I had no idea. Our grandmother had dragged me to the Church of Christ three times a week until I was in high school, but Jay threw screaming fits anytime he so much as had to sit in Sunday School with a roll of Jesus stickers.

The most disturbing part was that when he talked about the Cahoots, he was terrified. Not only were they real to him, they were threatening his life.

 

* * *


My house became a fortress of solitude. Jay spent all of his time in the living room. He kept the blinds shut and the lights off. At night, he complained about the bits of light that penetrated the blinds from the Shell station one block away. The Cahoots kept him from sleeping, so he watched TV until four or five a.m. The drone of cable news when I got up to make coffee meant that Jay was still awake; I hated it almost as much as the afternoon’s silence, a sign he was sleeping.

I wanted to believe that if he stuck to the plan, we could fight The Cahoots. Maybe it would take a little longer than I had hoped, but he could do this. He was just doing his part to “Keep Austin Weird.”For six weeks I confined myself to my bedroom and office where I worked from home as a telecommuting magazine editor. The A/C unit was in the kitchen, but I kept my doors shut and worked and sweated it out, even though it was a hundred degrees outside. I needed my job more than ever. Jay depended on me to pay the rent and buy the groceries, and I needed the rhythm of emails to and from the outside world to protect myself from the madness inside my home.

On good days Jay spent a few hours walking down Congress Avenue to look for work. Mainly he watched television: news, historical documentaries, and Comedy Central. He came unglued from the television only for bathroom and smoke breaks, and for dinner with me.

Most nights, I joined Jay for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. We didn’t agree on what was real and what wasn’t, but for 60 minutes we were able to escape from our individual worlds and laugh together. It was my favorite hour of the day.

I wanted to believe that if I was attentive and loving enough, Jay would begin to feel less lonely and afraid. I wanted to believe that if he stuck to the plan of starting over in Austin, together we could fight The Cahoots and prevent them from messing up his life. Maybe it would take a little longer than I had originally hoped, and college was permanently on hold, but he could do this. He was just doing his part to “Keep Austin Weird.”

 

* * *


I should point out that I also had no choice. More than anything, I wanted to whisk Jay off to a fancy mental hospital like they do in the movies, but I couldn’t afford it. And Jay was an adult. He would have had to consent to treatment. I begged him to see a shrink. No way, he said. All doctors knew about The Cahoots and had been trained in what to say; a doctor would only be another middleman between him and the people at the top, and they were already drugging him. Did I really think he was going to take their medication straight up?

No, I did not. In fact, the line between sane and surreal had become so blurred that I felt ridiculous every time I mentioned that he should see a doctor. I knew every line, every turn in the story; I could tell what he was about to say before he opened his mouth.

He wouldn’t see a shrink, but I would. When I relayed the stories about the video cameras and The Cahoots, my psychologist said it sounded like Jay was having a delusion, a symptom of mental illness, though it was difficult to say which one. Major depression, bi-polar disorder, and schizophrenia are among the more common serious mental illnesses, and their symptoms overlap, making it hard to reach a diagnosis, especially in teens. It can take years of documentation to differentiate between illness and angst. The inability to initiate plans, express emotion, or find pleasure in everyday life are considered “negative symptoms” in psychiatry. Unfortunately, they are also typical symptoms of being a teenage guy.

He interpreted my perseverance as proof I was the mastermind of the conspiracy. He yelled things like, “If you or anyone you know have God-like powers you need to stop it right now.”The “positive symptoms” are harder to ignore. They include bizarre thoughts and delusions, like believing you’re a character on a TV show. According to the fourth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, schizophrenia is diagnosed when a patient sustains both negative and positive symptoms for more than six months.

It seemed dangerous to self-diagnose my brother. Instead, I became transfixed on the problems that were easier for Jay to solve. His days were lost in anticipated and prolonged slumber. As weeks disappeared with no job prospects, I became more persistent about him finding work and getting out of my living room. As Jay would say, I turned up the bitch.

He interpreted my perseverance as proof I was the mastermind of the conspiracy. He yelled things like, “If you or anyone you know have God-like powers you need to stop it right now” and “You suck the devil’s dick before you drink coffee every morning.” He began to hate me, but grew increasingly dependent on my presence. He always wanted to know where I was going and how long I would be gone. On the rare occasion that I left the house, it was on a walk to call a friend and vent or cry, usually both. If I walked a block away without telling him, Jay would call wondering where I was and what time I would be back.

 

* * *


Jay wasn’t alone in his theories. As if on cue, just as I was beginning to put my finger on my brother’s illness, the New York Times ran an article in the Style section about modern psychosis. Splashed on a page with pictures of Jim Carrey from The Truman Show and Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, the article chalked up Jay’s condition to “The Truman Syndrome.” Psychiatrics had noticed a trend among mentally ill patients, it said, who like Jay felt that their entire lives were scripted and being filmed—just like the character from the movie. According to the article, “Schizophrenics and other paranoid patients can take common fears—like identity theft because of information transmitted on the Internet, or the loss of privacy because of the prevalence of security cameras to fight crime—and magnify them.”

I was amazed and relieved that we weren’t alone, and grateful for an article I could forward to my friends who I hadn’t yet been able to confide in. I wanted to know just how many people like Jay were out there, hoping for strength in numbers. Online, commenters pontificated about whether or not an influx of trashy reality TV shows and the Internet were making people crazy, or if this story was a bit of a stretch, even for the Style pages. I ignored the emails piling up in my inbox and focused on hitting the browser’s refresh button. I even posted a comment, desperate and angry, lashing out at readers who possessed a naivety I wanted back.

 

* * *


I never liked drinking in front of Jay. One day I snuck into my bedroom with a bottle of cranberry juice, opened the bottle of vodka I’d stashed in my closet, sat on the floor with a cup full of ice, and made myself a drink. I didn’t care how pathetic I looked, drinking on the floor of my room, my back propped against my open closet door. I was too exhausted to move. By my second round, I realized I was in too deep. And I remember thinking: Maybe I would be better at this if I were older and if I weren’t alone. If I had more money. Or time. If I knew what to do instead of just making it up as I go along.

I poured another drink.

If he could crawl outside of his new self and see how much I want to bring him back, and how deeply I love him, maybe he could save himself.

I kept drinking. My head ached the next morning, a familiar sharp pain in the top of my head, for a few hours upstaging the sorrow I felt for failing my brother.

 

* * *


Six months after moving to Austin, Jay got on a city bus and rode downtown to check himself into the Travis County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center. I had gone to New York for work and a psychiatrist called to inform me that Jay had almost all of the positive and negative symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. At that moment, he was, in her words, “totally psychotic.” Her voice was grave and I was stunned to hear those words used seriously, even though I knew—I knew and still I wanted so badly for it—The Cahoots, the anger, the paranoia—to mean something else. The psychiatrist wanted to observe Jay for a few days, at least, she said, but he was free to leave at his will. She hoped I could convince him to stay.

The next day my flight from New York arrived just in time for visiting hours at the mental hospital. I stuck a visitor’s pass to my jacket and read the list of items not allowed inside: no cell phones, belts, ink pens, scarves, razors, cash above $5. As requested, I sanitized my hands. I was eager to be the perfect visitor, a gold star somewhere on Jay’s chart. I gave the nurse his patient number, the secret code used to make sure unwanted visitors were kept out. I was in. It looked like a hybrid of a hospital lounge and a jail cell: sterile white walls, industrial tile floors, and eight round tables with small plastic chairs. There were a few people already seated. A middle-aged man with graying hair spoke softly to a woman who was probably his wife. A younger guy in athletic gear sat alone and played solitaire. And Jay. He smiled and held out his arms to hug me. His hair stood straight up and his Artic Monkeys T-shirt and hoodie were tucked into jeans that now seemed about two sizes too big.

“How are you?” I asked.

“OK. Do you have any money?” he said, speaking quickly as if we were only allotted a few minutes. I handed over a five-dollar bill.

He left and returned with a Twix bar, and began to inhale it.

“You’re so skinny,” I said.

“The food isn’t very good, and I don’t really eat anyway.”

“What size jeans are those? Do you want me to bring a smaller size? I mean, you need to gain some weight, but they are falling off of you.”

“No, don’t. Anyway, I think I am going to bounce soon. I checked myself in and I can sign myself out.”

“Do you have a date tonight?” I teased.

He laughed. He hadn’t talked to anyone that wasn’t a blood relative or pizza deliverer in months.

A nurse came by with a form for him to fill out for the doctors: a description of his daily routines before arriving at the hospital. From what I could tell, his routine had been to sit, stare at the wall, and write messages on note-cards so the cameras would broadcast them on the channel that is only about him, and the people who are poisoning his food and tampering with his dreams would know that he was on to them.

The form did not have a box for that.

After Jay completed the form, I tried persuading him to stay at least one more day at the hospital. I was nervous about mentioning his medication. There was no way to know what concessions he’d made that allowed him to finally take the pills, and I didn’t want to say something that would disturb the balance.

“I’m not above bribery,” I said.

Neither was he. He wanted a cheeseburger. Nothing but meat, bread, and cheese. And fries.

Visiting hours were almost over. I had 45 minutes to find my car in the garage, pay for parking, pick up a burger and fries, drive back to the hospital, park, and re-enter the psychiatric wing. If I made it, my brother would stay another day. The hospital was just off I-35, which should have been a hotbed for trans fat, but there was no McDonalds, Burger King, nothing of that ilk anywhere. After 20 wasted minutes of driving around and swearing, I stopped at a deli. Ten minutes later, I was back at the hospital with a roast beef and cheese foot-long.

I worried that he’d already left. I worried the roast-beef sandwich wasn’t an adequate substitute for a burger. I worried that the storm inside my brother’s mind required much more than fast food to be contained. Minutes later, Jay appeared in the now empty waiting room. With a wide grin he said, “Thanks. Bring a cheeseburger tomorrow.”