- Posted May 10, 2014 by
Los Angeles, California
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Going public with mental illness
THE ADAMS BOY
THE ADAMS BOY by Carlos Manuel Aguilar ~
Since 2004 I have been helping dozens of homeless people with mental illness overcome their struggles as I document their stories with my camera.
No vision haunts America's conscience more than the sight of homeless schizophrenics roaming the streets of our cities. Whether it's Hollywood, Albuquerque or New York City the tragic anguish that grips the chronically homeless leaps out in front of us everyday, illustrated by the story of James Adams.
James' story follows the roller coaster ride of a troubled young man impaired by early onset schizophrenia whose illness robbed him of his hopes, aspirations and ideals. His odyssey on the streets of Hollywood provides a jarring inside story of mental illness and the ravages of schizoaffective disease, as well as insight into the deterioration of a rational mind to the point of hopelessness for a normal or productive life.
In James' universe Hollywood is falling apart; the city is running out of stories to tell! James Adams has a plan to alter this fate and restore the city to its former glory. After a cross-country journey on foot, James arrives at the gates of Hollywood ready to feed the entertainment industry the stories it so desperately needs for survival. But before James sets his sights on fame and fortune, he must first grapple with three stumbling blocks: schizophrenia, delusions and homelessness.
The City of Dreams gradually surrounds James with orbiting nightmares as his broken life on the streets further deteriorates. James' inner sphere of bright ideas and noble plans is set on a crash course with the dark forces that fill his mind and corrupt his thoughts and intentions. Slowly, in the gloom of his own inner galaxy, his intentions to magically transform the world clash with his universe of paranoid thoughts.
When I met James in April of 2011, his first words to me were, “I can time travel.” He insisted that he had proof, and then went on to explain that he not only walked across the USA to get to Hollywood, but traversed Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi by foot all in one night. On hearing this, I knew immediately that I had to share James’ story with the world, so I followed him every day for three years as his life unfolded in front of the eyes of a key witness: the lens of my camera.
The first prevailing perception that emerged over the course of our meetings was that being homeless in Hollywood is “vile” and “disgusting.” Another observation was that James could not be relied on to maintain a consistent interpretation of reality. He became consumed with anger toward the entertainment industry, blaming studios, networks and celebrities for his inability to connect with dealmakers and find work as a screenwriter. He explained that he had come to Los Angeles only after obtaining a signed contract with a major studio to work as a set designer. He planned to work for the studio only until he was able to sell the 17,000 page screenplay he had written.
James' rage and resentment was further fueled by the Social Security Administration's unjustified denials of SSI disability benefits. On three different occasions between 1994 and 2009, he applied for disability benefits, and each time was denied coverage despite the availability of extensive evidence of his eligibility. James had accumulated medical records across five states and they all offered proof of his disability. Thousands of pages were available in these documents containing a seemingly endless list of his cognitive impairments dating back to his early teens. In one institution alone, I found records of more than two hundred psychiatric appointments with case notes written by a multitude of different psychiatrists who all gave a diagnosis of schizoaffective or delusional as a starting point for evaluating his mental condition.
As our bond grew and our working relationship strengthened James began to see that I had experience working with the homeless and their support networks of mental health providers, housing experts and attorneys to improve access to mainstream services for those living on the streets. Once trust was established, I shaped a plan to quickly and accurately compile the medical documentation necessary to support his disability claim.
Corroboration of James' illness with multiple medical opinions was important to me, so I paid for a visit to an independent doctor with experience diagnosing mental illness. Thankfully, James agreed and I was able to convince him to attend weekly visits with a psychologist at Hollywood Mental Health.
The more I got to know James, the more I believed the three previous SSI denials had exacerbated his condition. Before me was a man who had never been able to function on par with others. James had suffered the most inhumane social consequences, and by age nineteen, he had endured ostracism, poor education, prejudice, abuse, unemployment, substandard housing, homelessness and malnutrition.
Over the next few months, I petitioned for and received over two thousand documents that corroborated the history of his struggles. The pictures and documents came from across the country and covered all thirty seven years of his life. Once we were fully prepared, we took one final shot at the failed Social Security system but this time we were armed with a powerhouse legal team at The Cochran Firm. During the showdown with the Social Security Administration, a bottomless anger took over James as he relived his confrontation with bureaucracy and the failed system - confrontations that have haunted him since his initial battles as a teenager.
Slowly, with James' help and his unique perspective of life, I began to enrich my understanding of how struggles with mental illness transform lives. I witnessed firsthand how the Social Security system operates in a world void of any ability to cope with the most destitute and disadvantaged Americans.
Life is not all fantasy, even for schizophrenics. As his backstory came to the forefront, I came to know the horrifying details of Black Sunday in 1994, a day that changed James’ life forever by stealing a critical block of time from him and never giving it back.
Ultimately, James' story is a frightening and chilling account of an outsider estranged from himself and society, a true story of America's worst nightmare: the trifecta of of schizophrenia, bipolar disease and homelessness running amok in one of the world's most famous cities. Although James Adams' story is similar to the stories of the more than two million schizophrenics in the United States, this patient exemplifies why psychotic breaks and downward spirals are the greatest factors in the devastation caused by the most chronic and disabling of the severe mental illnesses.
James Adams is the most inspirational human being I have met during my travels. His story illustrates why homeless schizophrenics have become modern society's untouchables but it also confirms the strength and stamina of the human spirit.
Mr. Aguilar has volunteered at AIDS Project Los Angeles Buddy Program, (1988-1998), Bienestar Human Services and Shanti Los Angeles . He taught documentary filmmaking at LA Unified Eagle Center Continuation School and at LA Parks and Recreation.
His 2011 film CURB CREATURES won Best Social Documentary and Best Director at The New York International Film and Video Festival. The film was an official selection at Cannes Independent Film Festival, Guadalajara International Film Festival and Santiago de Cuba Documentary Film Festival.