Meet Mr. Lopez, a columnist for the LA Times. A good guy whom you imagine might be your neighbor, a fellow parent at your child's school, if you're lucky he'd be your boss or colleague. Now meet Mr. Ayers, a homeless man in LA. He suffers from the disease of paranoid schizophrenia. And he is a brilliantly gifted musician. Cello, violin, and trumpet. Gift enough to be admitted to Julliard. Gifted enough still to keep up with the LA Philharmonic whose members now rehearse with and provide lessons to him when he visits them at the concert hall.
After his first year at Julliard, Mr. Ayers went home and began showing signs of his illness which was rearing its ugly head inside his wonderfully gifted mind. As a last ditch desperation move, Mr. Ayers followed the advice of psychiatrists and subjected her son to electric shock treatments. It is a barbaric treatment that was at one time, not all that long ago, accepted as a viable tool to manage the disease. Instead, it sent Mr. Ayers into a downward spiral from which he has never returned.
Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ayers met three years ago. Mr. Ayers was playing his cello in a park as Mr. Lopez roamed the streets trying to come up with a story for his looming deadline. What struck Mr. Lopez in addition to Mr. Ayers's virtuosity, was that he wasn't playing in the park for money. He was just playing his cello for himself. Mr. Lopez would learn that Mr. Ayers played to forget, to chase away the frightening effects of his schizophrenia. He needed to, wanted to drown out his deepest, darkest concerns. Thus began a 3 year friendship that continues and flourishes so much that it caught the attention of Universal Pictures and has been turned into a movie, The Soloist, featuring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. The movie will open in theatres on April 24, 2009.
My father was a clinical psychologist so I know a bit about diseases like paranoid schizophrenia. I can tell you that it is a heartbreaking disease to see and experience up close, and it is even harder to see the strain the disease places on families and loved ones of the person who has the disease. To hear the story of Mr. Ayers, to hear his incredible musical gifts mixed with his equally incredible demons, we have to believe that in all people, regardless of circumstances, there is good and not-so-good.
It was a reminder to me that too often we cast aside the mentally ill in this country as if they have nothing to offer society. They are hidden away, forgotten, ignored. Their basic needs like healthcare and shelter too often go unfulfilled. In our society, they have very few vehicles to raise their voice, to come together, to stand up, and to be counted. Let's hope that The Soloist is not just another feel good story at the box office but that it actually raises awareness that inspires action. On the movie's website, there are links to help you get involved in the efforts to end homelessness and help those with mental illnesses.
To read the 5-part series written by Mr. Lopez about Mr. Ayers, click here.
The above photo depicts Mr. Nathaniel Ayers playing the violin. I found the image at: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_pkLpnld97kc/SA6TGbPNzaI/AAAAAAAAAH0/YYywyUO3PVw/s320/1865563850_9f4c68c464.jpg