Part Two: Settling in Upper Valley, Schizophrenic Man Welcomes Help
Woodstock — Sitting on a faded gray deck chair, the seat cushion worn in the middle, Matt Staley speaks above the hum of construction on nearby Route 4 in Woodstock, and tries to explain the single happiest moment of his past year.
It happened in the woods in White River Junction, he said, one of the countless spots up and down the East Coast where Staley has improvised homes of sticks and plastic. On a still afternoon, Staley lay flat on the ground beside the railroad tracks when, suddenly, a sparrow landed in his outstretched hand. He could feel its heart pulsing.
“Things like that in nature, it’s nice to see that,” Staley said. “I care about wildlife a lot. Once you’re out there, it’s peaceful.”
It was a rare moment of fellowship in a lifetime spent wandering alone. In its best moments, the wandering occurs along wooded trails — Staley says he once hiked from North Carolina to upstate New York, and his many releases from jail have usually been followed by a search for the nearest trail.
On the trails, Staley says he feels so relaxed that he stops taking medication that eases the symptoms of his paranoid schizophrenia. When he leaves the woods and heads into town for food, supplies, or companionship, the problems begin.
He latches onto places such as fast-food shops and recreation centers. Nervous patrons or employees call police to remove him. He refuses to go, and Staley finds himself back in a criminal justice system where he says authorities don’t know what to do with him, or don’t care — he hasn’t figured out which.
“They are clearly together, the court system and the mental health system,” Staley said. “I wish I knew how.”
Staley gained brief notoriety in January when he broke into a Hartford senior center while seeking shelter from subzero temperatures and was charged with trespassing. Before that, he was repeatedly arrested, incarcerated and shunted from town to town in the Twin States without receiving treatment — too sick to be helped in the criminal justice system, but not ill enough to warrant an intervention by the mental health system.
But in recent weeks, his journey took an improbable turn: Staley got help.
After attorneys, police, and even his own parents lost track of him this winter, Staley resurfaced earlier this month, at a group home for the mentally ill in Woodstock. It turns out that Staley had been quietly receiving help from social service agencies who reached out to him after learning of his arrest at the senior center. He agreed to a series of interviews with the Valley News to discuss his life, his struggle with schizophrenia and his frustrating encounters with the criminal justice systems in the Twin States.
Staley said he wants a break from wandering and has resumed medication to ease his disease. He is thinking of settling down in the Upper Valley, though he acknowledges there have been other times in his life when he began taking medication, only to abandon the pills and the people trying to help him. Even now, he says, the pull of the open trail — where he says medication is unnecessary, — remains strong.
After his trespass arrest at the senior center, prosecutors quickly dropped the charge. In similar episodes in the past, Staley had found himself cut loose with no support, and moved on to another town, where he would again get into trouble with authorities.
But this time, three things happened that hadn’t happened during four previous arrests in the preceding year: The prosecutor dropped the charge only after receiving assurances that Staley would get help. Local service providers — the Haven, and Health Care and Rehabilitation Services of Southern Vermont — made contact with him. And Staley accepted the help that he had refused to seek out in the past.
After living for weeks at the Shady Lawn Motel earlier this year, Staley said he spent more than a month as a patient at Rutland Regional Medical Center, then a month at a group home in Springfield, Vt., before arriving at the HCRS-run group home in early June. (Records of such stays are confidential.)
Most importantly, Staley said he has found medication that seems to help lessen the anxiety and paranoia. He has decided to take it regularly, at least for now.
Sara Kobylenski, executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, confirmed that her organization had assisted Staley, but, citing confidentiality rules, declined further comment.
Former Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand, who prosecuted the most recent trespass case against Staley, confirmed that he had been given assurances from The Haven and others that Staley would be entered into treatment, but declined further comment. There is no plea agreement filed in Windsor Superior Court requiring Staley to cooperate with treatment providers in connection with the case.
A doctor at Rutland Regional Medical Center, Staley said, convinced him to begin taking medication — Zyprexa, an anti-psychotic medication believed to change brain chemistry — again. Staley said he is on a lower dose than had been previously prescribed by other doctors.
During his two decades fighting schizophrenia, Staley said he has often stopped taking his medicine — previous medications have made him ache and gain weight, or made his head feel like it could explode. They all made him feel like someone different.
But living without them caused other problems. The worst part of being schizophrenic, Staley said, is how quickly a minor vexation can cause him to spiral out of control. At his worst moments, Staley said, hearing a rude comment directed at another person, or seeing an animal treated in a way he deems cruel can provoke a desperate response. Seeing a dog wearing a muzzle prompted him to throw a small rock at its owner while he lived at the Shady Lawn Motel in Hartford, he recalled.
“It would ruin my day,” Staley said. “It would build up in me. It would make me make poor decisions — I’ve gotten in trouble, like with trespassing.”
Those impulses, Staley said, have been relieved with medication.
“I don’t act like I used to,” Staley said. “With people, I don’t get caught up in day to day things. I’m nicer. Politer. I’m trying to not be so negative about the medicine. I don’t know if I just got lucky this time with who I was seeing (for) a doctor. I don’t know if it’s because ... I don’t want to go to the hospital anymore, and this time it wasn’t such a negative experience.”
Of those, he has had plenty.
Living With Schizophrenia
At 18, doctors told Staley he was mentally ill, eventually refining their diagnosis to paranoid schizophrenia. He said he hated taking medication — it hurt his joints, clouded his mind, left him feeling unable to control his own thoughts — and he often went without it. And, to make matters worse, Staley said he started using marijuana.
When he was in his early 20s, his parents, who had exhausted themselves trying to help their son, asked Staley to leave his childhood home in Rochester, N.Y. He moved into an apartment. By the time he turned 24, his landlord kicked him out. He had few job prospects and he began collecting Social Security disability payments of $1,000 a month.
“I wasn’t in a good position to do anything, really,” Staley said.
So he did the one thing that has always felt natural: He found the nearest trail, and started hiking.
He spent the next few years in the Adirondacks, where his parents had taken him on vacation, periodically wandering into towns when he needed to buy food, or collect monthly Social Security disability payments.
Once, he took a bus to North Carolina — he can’t remember why he wanted to go there — and, after he was hospitalized there, he hiked back to New York, on the Appalachian Trail. It took him five months, he said, and may have been the happiest time of his life.
“I was hiking so I wouldn’t have to take the meds, so I wouldn’t be hospitalized,” Staley said. “You know how you can get momentum going? If you walk long distances, you can keep going because your body is conditioned. Along the Appalachian Trail, I didn’t have a lot of difficulty. I met a lot of people, people I didn’t have problems getting along with. Along the Appalachian Trail, I didn’t feel like I had schizophrenia. I would meet people, have nice conversations — nice people. The day to day things that can build up in people, that can eat at you, after a while on the trail my mind didn’t race. I enjoyed the hike. I didn’t have the constant stress. All the stresses went away.”
Much of his story is impossible to corroborate — Staley’s has been a solo journey, and, though his parents keep diligent notes when they receive periodic phone calls from social workers or police officers in towns they have never heard of, they say many chapters of their son’s life are a mystery. They confirmed that he had been held in a hospital in North Carolina and reappeared several months later in upstate New York, after apparently hiking there.
Around 2010, Staley said he decided to return to Vermont, and bought a bus ticket to Montpelier. He spent the winter of 2011-2012 living outside, in Hubbard Park, on a hill overlooking the Statehouse.
Surviving the winter outdoors was one of his proudest accomplishments, he said. He looked forward to trying it again, the following winter, but would become too entangled in the criminal justice system to try. It was in Montpelier that his string of trespass arrests, incarcerations, and abrupt releases began.
After prosecutors in the Montpelier area dropped a trespass charge against him for a second time, Staley bought a bus ticket and headed to Hartford, and then walked across the Connecticut River to Hanover. He knew the Appalachian Trail ran through town, and thought he could live there, undisturbed.
For a couple months, he made a home off the Velvet Rocks Trail in Hanover.
But he needed food, and he started making trips into town every few days. He meant no harm, he said, but the no-trespass orders kept piling up — barring him from the CVS pharmacy, Six South Street hotel and other places in town. Staley, who didn’t think he had done anything wrong, became frustrated. Then police got involved, jail stints ensued. Haverhill police took him to the White River Junction bus station and Staley felt he had lost all remaining control of his life.
A Difficult Disease
Staley’s is not a unique story. In many ways, his journey is typical of many of the estimated 2.4 million Americans who suffer from schizophrenia, according to Doug Noordsy, a psychiatrist and director of psychosis services at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Many people with the disease — suffering from paranoia and delusions, and struggling to fit into society — set off wandering as Staley has done, Noordsy said. It is the reason officials believe significant segment of the homeless population is schizophrenic.
And many come into contact with police just as Staley has.
“It is the most common reason for a person with mental illness to get arrested — trespass,” Noordsy said. “People get picked up for minor incidents and end up getting held.”
But, Staley’s adherence to the typical pattern could hold some good news, Noordsy said. Schizophrenics often display the worst symptoms in their 20s, and sometimes begin to mellow, stop wandering and accept help as they grow older.
“You keep moving and moving, and eventually you realize it’s you,” said Suellen Griffin, executive director of West Central Behavioral Health. “It’s so hard to accept that reality and you fight it. Think about being 20 years old, and not being able to manage your mind.”
A New Start
Staley stands about 5 feet nine inches tall, has blue-green eyes that seem permanently tired, a scraggly red beard that covers the lower half of his face and hair that flows down over his ears. He is broad shouldered and solidly built. He wears wicking T-shirts, waterproof pants and boots — trail gear — even on the hottest summer days.
He has an ethos that is not out of place in the Upper Valley: Staley tries to be vegetarian, can talk for minutes at a time about sustainability and the ills of the big box stores, and swears he isn’t cut out for city life. He has stories of finding dead animals on the side of the road, picking them up, wrapping them in plastic and trying to give them a proper burial.
“The more I go to huge sprawl areas, Walmart, JC Penney, the more I don’t want to be — so many people in the parking lot, so many people in the aisles having trouble moving, elderly, obese people. It gets me down ... They don’t care for people in health care. Have you seen elderly people in nursing homes?”
He is unfailingly polite: He eagerly shakes hands, savoring the brief ceremony, and ends his conversations with several “thanks you’s.” He provides full, formal titles of places and people that have marked his life — Staley was incarcerated not in prison, but in the ‘Southern State Correctional Facility,’ and cared for not at the Rutland hospital, but ‘Rutland Regional Medical Center’ where he was seen by ‘Dr. Gordon Frankle’ — as if filling out what must be hundreds of medical forms in his life has somehow seeped into his speech.
Joy and Harry Staley couldn’t agree about how to treat the news that their son, instead of wandering the woods or sitting in jail, was being cared for in a group home, was taking medication and was lucid.
“He’s a wonderful young man,” Joy Staley said. “He really is. It’s just the illness messes up his life…”
“We’re not getting our hopes up,” Harry Staley chimed in. “We’ve gone through this 100 times. Once he gets his own apartment and nobody is responsible for him taking his pills, things fall apart.”
“I’m hoping this time will be different,” his wife said, her voice firm.
At his temporary new home in Woodstock, Staley has been following the news about the federal government monitoring communication records of Americans. He hadn’t heard of the National Security Agency before, and wonders what other capabilities they might have. He’s taken trips to the nearby Woodstock Farmer’s Market to buy pumpkin seeds and has walked the carriage roads at the Pogue, on Mt. Tom.
And he has spent some time researching a fix to the problem that has vexed him on previous hiking trips — the need to come into town for food. Staley believes that perhaps he could introduce a variety of mollusks into a local pond or stream, and then return and use them as a private food source. Each mollusk produces nine grams of protein, he said.
“Sustainable food source,” he says with pride.
Though he would like to land some kind of job helping animals or the environment, Staley thinks it unlikely. And he knows he doesn’t want to move back to Rochester, N.Y.
Instead, he and his caseworker are trying to find an apartment, in West Hartford, where he could live off his disability check. But, he admits to some skepticism about living a domesticated life, so he is trying to think of an apartment not as a home, but as a base camp, a clean, well-supplied place to return to after long hiking trips.
After all, he noted, the Appalachian Trail runs right through West Hartford.
Mark Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3304.