A year ago, Lloyd Hale drove past the four-story building once called the S.C. Lunatic Asylum, now a hulking souvenir to a bygone day when thousands of the state’s most severely mentally ill were locked up on this campus in Columbia.
Where to get help
If you are in crisis or worried about a loved one, help is available:Call the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center, which offers a 24/7 emergency response team and provides a variety of mental health treatment services. 414-2350 or www.charlestondorchestermhc.org.Dial 2-1-1 or 744-HELP anytime for crisis intervention or community resources. Or go to Trident United Way’s confidential online chat service at www.tuw.org.Call 761-8282 or go to www.bcmhc.org for the Berkeley Community Mental Health Center.Find more information about mental illness online at:The National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.nami.org.The National Institute of Mental Illness at www.nimh.nih.gov.The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at www.samhsa.gov.
He passed a string of ghostly vacant buildings and slowed. He stopped at the final building, the one in whose wards he spent 18 months of his young life, the months when the real Lloyd Hale surfaced from delusions that had claimed his reality, his family, his freedom — and another man’s life.
This is the second in a two-part series about Lloyd Hale’s journey through the depths of schizophrenia and the success of his recovery. To read part one, go to http://bit.ly/UZTTrh.
Hale parked his state-issued work vehicle at the building.
In the silence and privacy of his car, he cried, sobbing for his younger self, the one so nearly lost to the delusional grip of schizophrenia. And he cried for the real Lloyd Hale, the one who was rescued, the one who now helps others tangled in mental illness.
Hale mostly grew up in Georgetown’s public housing, where the delusions rooted into his 13-year-old mind. He found he could continue conversations in his mind long after the actual person left.
It was access to a special, secret world. Those he spoke with swore if he mentioned their mental conversations out loud, they would deny it. And they did.
He perfected the ability until he no longer had to speak out loud much at all. Even the devil and God conversed within him. As the conversations intensified, so did his marijuana and alcohol use.
If anyone noticed, they never said anything.
“He’s just high,” they would say, “or drunk.”
And it was true. His father was imprisoned for drug trafficking, but drugs remained easy to get and easy to abuse.
But the mental conversations turned aggressive, the speakers threatening and taunting. His mother spoke in his mind one day. She asked a favor.
Her boyfriend wanted to die, but he simply couldn’t do it himself.
Hale had just turned 16 when he got a gun and fulfilled her “request.”
Charged with murder, Hale spent nearly three years locked in juvenile detention and then adult jail while descending further into a delusional abyss.
Doctors tried to get Hale to take medication. Mostly, he refused.
At the Georgetown jail, he got into fights and was put into lockdown. There, Hale found he could separate from his soul. He ate soap to cleanse his inner body. He no longer needed a real conversation to start a mental one. His brother insulted him from the cell’s mirror.
One night, in the cell above his, a man went on a tirade. Hollering through the vents, he shrieked at Hale: “I’m coming to get you next!”
Hale beat on his cell door until his hands were bloody and swollen.
But the man never came. The next morning, Hale trudged upstairs in shackles to see his tormentor.
The cell was empty.
Hale began taking his medication to treat schizophrenia. At first, he just slept and ate more. Then he calmed. The creativity that fueled his passion for writing dulled.
His soul no longer left his body. His brother no longer spoke from the mirror. The staff stopped poisoning his food.
Hale realized that people cannot hold mental conversations.
And his mother never asked him to kill anyone.
As he re-awoke, Hale returned to the general jail population. Without mental conversations derailing his thoughts, he played cards with the other guys and made friends. His passion for writing reignited.
He especially loved writing to his father, who from his own prison cell became a friend, someone who really believed in him. They exchanged long letters each week.
When Marvin Hale-Bey was released from prison, he challenged his son to be disciplined, to think above self-doubt, to find the real Hale again.
Hale wrote poems and an essay, “The Only Voice in My Head is Me.”
The youngest inmate, he shared his writings with the other guys. He challenged them to rap battles.
And he realized something that would fuel his coming journey: Other guys came to him to vent, to laugh, to right their thoughts through his poetry and songs.
Lloyd Hale found he could inspire people.
But as he approached his 19th birthday, he figured he’d do it from a prison cell for the rest of his life.
Why shouldn’t he? He had killed a man.
It was horribly wrong. But had Hale understood that?
Suffering from a severe mental illness in itself is not a criminal defense. But what if Hale’s illness disrupted his ability to distinguish right from wrong?
As he sat in court, experts testified why they did, or did not, believe he grasped right from wrong when he killed Stanley Sabb.
It was a critical distinction, one that in South Carolina can separate a future in prison from one under psychiatric care.
Hale was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
With that rare verdict, he left the criminal justice system and entered the mental health one.
At 19, he was shipped to a locked psychiatric hospital. Until then, Hale knew the mentally ill as “crazies,” guys who lived on the streets back home, unwashed and stinking, talking nonsense to nobody, usually drunk.
That wasn’t him.
Nor did it fit with what he found at the Columbia hospital. He met patients who had been successful before illness robbed them of their right minds. One man had been a judge, one a professional boxer.
“When you see people who are sick, you don’t think of who they were before,” he recalls. “I met people who’d had a life.”
But who was Hale before he got sick? His delusions set in when he was 13, which, combined with drug abuse fuzzed what was real and unreal over much of his life.
Hale also saw people take their medications and stick with therapies. He saw people meet their goals. He saw them get better.
He wondered: Can I get better?
Hale wanted to, he really did. He spoke with his doctors and counselors. He learned about his illness and its symptoms. He learned about himself.
He also took Clozaril, which treats psychotic disorders including schizophrenia. Later, he would call it his “wonder drug” for quieting the mental conversations.
“Meds don’t get rid of those conversations,” he says. “They quiet them down so you have a choice to listen.”
Yet the drug made Hale drool heavily, especially at night. He awakened vomiting up drool. His pillow was soaked each morning.
He also gained weight, going from 130 pounds at one point to topping 200. It slowed his pace and made him sleepy.
So he studied his symptoms. His doctor adjusted his dosage. Another drug dried his mouth when he slept.
Meanwhile, Hale joined group sessions and completed more than 50 courses in everything from anger management to independent living skills and medication management.
He was learning how to live again.
After two years, Hale was released. No longer would he live behind locked doors.
The state Department of Mental Health moved him to a Summerville group home, where he’d still receive psychiatric care. There, he lived with other men who spent long days sitting around.
He felt trapped in that mind-numbing daily life.
“I’m thinking, ‘I am 21 years old. There has got to be more to life than this,’ ” he recalls.
One day, he asked his counselor to take him to Walmart. The man pointed out a used bike store.
“You don’t need someone to do it for you. You can do it yourself,” he said.
So Hale did.
Suddenly, he could bike around. He could go to the store and walk around freely.
“I can live!” he thought.
He learned his meds, stuck with the facility’s schedule and kept his area clean. He learned to pay bills and ride the bus. He learned to buy groceries. He learned to schedule a doctor’s appointment.
In 2002, he also received his GED.
Then, two guys he knew got jobs washing dishes at Ryan’s. Hale did, too. He loved it and gradually worked up to six days a week.
He set the ultimate goal: He wanted his own place. It would be the first time he lived completely on his own.
He also faced a critical fork in the recovery road. If he worked too much, he’d lose his Social Security disability payments and Medicaid.
So his psychiatrist offered to continue seeing him for free. And Hale found a studio apartment in downtown Charleston. It was barely bigger than a twin bed. Drugs deals and fights occurred beneath his window.
But Hale could afford it. He bid the security of government benefits farewell.
“It was liberating!” he grins.
His neighbors called him Hard Working. As in, “How’s it going, Hard Working?”
“He just kept getting stronger and better and recovering like crazy,” says Deborah Blalock, executive director of the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center, where Hale was a client.
Then, Hale heard about a job opening that would change his life, and those of many others with mental illness.
The mental health center needed a certified peer support specialist. Hale applied.
“Our staff said, ‘He’s fabulous!’ ” Blalock recalls.
But management learned about his history of violence and drug use. They learned about the shooting.
“You’re sure about this?” they asked.
“Then we met him,” Blalock adds.
In 2004, Hale was hired.
“He has soared from the beginning,” Blalock says. “The staff adores him, and he can get clients to adhere to our recommendations when we can’t. He’s walked in their shoes.”
At 32, he often helps young guys in crisis.
Raised in a rough neighborhood, a veteran of juvenile detention and adult jail, and once locked in a psychiatric hospital, Hale can hold his own. He’s not afraid to approach someone suffering a psychotic break or a client with a violent past.
He’s been there.
“I spend a lot of time listening,” he says, “and not judging. I can see a shift while I’m talking to people.”
He also chairs the mental health center’s patient advisory board and leads group sessions. He travels to speak about mental illness, including at the hospital where he once lived.
“People who have been there, done that have better success of breaking through,” Hale says.
In the wide lobby of the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center, dozens of clients wait.
Most sit quietly on benches and chairs. Many nod off, drowsy from their medications, a common side effect. A few use walkers. Several wear Santa hats to celebrate the holidays.
Hale emerges from a locked door, a buoyant burst into the sleepy room that summons the Recovery for Life members. In dark jeans and a red polo shirt, he greets eight clients with hugs, fist and shoulder bumps and his wide, contagious grin.
They settle into a conference room and talk about the past week. One man confesses he accidentally took the wrong medication.
“Anyone else have that experience?” Hale asks. Hands around the table shoot up. Including his own.
“We all make mistakes, and it’s all right,” he assures.
He challenges them to write down the qualities most important to them. All do so, though some struggle to sift through their thoughts. One man mumbles to himself.
They list values common to all people: family, honesty, loyalty, financial security.
“I value peace of mind,” Hale says. “I’ve been through so much with my mind that I really value my mind.”
That brings them to setting boundaries. Hale won’t drink or do drugs. Because his past drug use was so interwoven with his delusions, he must enforce this boundary — no matter someone else’s pressure.
They end with setting short-term recovery goals.
“It’s not something you write down today and then forget about,” Hale warns. “My father always told me, You can’t wait for someone else to set your goals.”
Although Hale is able to recognize and dismiss them, not every mental conversation is silenced today.
And not every relationship is fully mended.
About once a month, he visits his 16-year-old son, who was born while Hale struggled in a violent juvenile justice facility amid his delusions. He missed the teen’s critical younger years. Now, he tries to accept whatever his son is willing to give.
Hale and his mother also have worked hard. They visit and function like mother and son again. Yet she doesn’t invite him to stay at her home overnight when he visits.
“She lost the man she loved, and her baby boy, all at once,” Hale says.
The enormity of what he did hit him hard while attending a family member’s funeral. He thought of the man he shot.
“I did this to a family. There is a girl out there without a father ...” He stops, staring at the hands clasped in his lap.
Hale cannot erase Stanley Sabb’s death. But he can apologize for it.
He recently contacted Sabb’s brother on Facebook. “I know I am the last person you want to hear from ...”
Hale explained what he had been through. And where he is today. He asked for forgiveness.
Two days later, a reply came.
“We forgave you a long time ago. We found God, and we hope you do, too.”
Hale often goes to New York to see his father for the holidays. This year, he has a new reason to stay home.
He and his girlfriend welcomed a baby girl into the world this past summer, giving Hale yet another second chance, this one at fatherhood.
With his new family, he imagines his daughter, Karrington, learning to walk and talk, the things he missed with his son. He is determined not to miss them again — for her sake, for his, for all of those with mental illness. He wants to show them what it is possible, what he wishes more folks with mental illness believed this new year: With treatment, they, too, can lead fuller and more productive lives.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her at www. facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.