My damp underwear looked forlorn under the blue-gloved hands of the passport control officer at Dulles airport. They spilled from a red silk pocket of my suitcase, and the officer—a woman with impossibly sleek hair and penetrating eyes—groped them without comment. I closed my own eyes, seeing myself as she must see me: a middle-aged woman with a 30-year-old man who was not my son (everyone can please stop asking), and who was grinning under my floppy beach hat, shouting without a trace of sarcasm, “I love you all! Blessings to everyone! Thanks for keeping America safe!”
When I opened my eyes again, my partner’s pill bag dangled from the officer’s rubber-encased fingers. The last name on her lapel was unfamiliar. Reading the letters phonetically produced the word “mirage,” only with a D in it. Could I be having a bad dream—a scary hallucination brought on by too much Mexican sun and snorkeling with sea turtles? The officer’s expressionless eyes scanned my face. “What are these?”
I turned to Mickey, who had begun to bounce up and down while snapping his various joints, which frequently hurt him. I lowered my chin as well as my voice, not wanting to “out” him without his permission. “May I discuss this with her?”
He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his ancient yoga pants. “What do you mean?”
“Sir,” Officer Mirage with a D said, “take your hands out of your pockets.”
A larger, male officer slipped by, eyeballing us.
“I need to tell her what those are for.”
“Yeah,” he said, rearranging his hip-length hair. “I mean, sure, why not?”
I turned back to Officer Mirdage. “My friend has a difference.” The words ricocheted around the sterile U.S. Customs cavern. “That’s his glycine.”
A silence stretched itself thin.
I work in a science field. I’m used to explaining things like how amino acids are biologically important organic compounds. Glycine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in regulating brain signals. “It might help some people with his condition,” I said.
“Why do you have it?” She punched the pronoun. Was she being purposefully dense, or only playing stupid so as to trick us into spilling the beans about the kilo of cocaine we clearly were not smuggling in our bag full of wet bathing suits and swim flippers?
I decided to match her deadpan delivery. “I put it in my purse in case he needed it.”
Mickey’s loud clowning at the first security checkpoint had not gone over well. He had let out a hoot after spotting one of his favorite bands, herding their instruments. The sighting had set off a round of introductions, in Spanglish: “Mi amo Mickey. What’s your name? Yo soy Italiano. Have you ever heard of the band Katatonia? That’s them! They’re awesome!”
Now, he pressed his hands into his abdomen. His pains can be triggered by stress.
Officer Mirdage narrowed her eyes. “Is something wrong with your stomach, sir?”
“He’s okay,” I said. He does not have cocaine-filled condoms in his stomach. “He’s got Bipolar I.”
My shoulders shrank. Now, I thought, she would see Mickey for who he was: a sweet, harmless goofball with a medical disability—one that I had been trying to treat with a natural substance, after reading about research by Dr. Deborah Levy of McLean Hospital. In rare cases, Dr. Levy has found that people with bipolar or schizophrenia may have a genetic mutation that robs their brains of glycine. When glycine isn’t around, a receptor called NMDA can go rogue, like a runaway train, and—voilá!—psychosis may ensue.
This might explain why Mickey starts describing angels and demons and asks me every two minutes, “What’s wrong?” when he’s manic. When Dr. Levy gave glycine to two patients with psychosis, it was “like giving insulin to a person with diabetes,” according to Dr. Thomas Insel, former director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
It’s unlikely that Mickey has the same genetic mutation, but the glycine seems to help him. Anyway, he can’t afford premium healthcare, and he doesn’t like drug-company medicines. One made him feel crazier. Another blurred his vision, freaking him out.
At the Customs checkpoint, the officer cut her eyes to the side, where her backup was standing guard. With a knife, she sliced through a lump of bubble wrap containing a souvenir turtle from Akumal. I was sure she would slice its head off.
Mickey pushed his face next to mine. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I feel like somebody I know must have set me up for this.”
Please God, I thought, don’t let him act paranoid at the Customs checkpoint. “Okay, let’s settle down,” I said, hoping Officer Mirdage had magically gone deaf.
We had seen real turtles in Mexico, too. The first one emerged suddenly through the underwater murk. One of her flippers had been tagged, so I knew she was a female, whose travels to mate and lay her eggs would be tracked.
Officer Mirdage lifted the soles of my wet water socks. “What’s your relationship?”
“We’re partners,” I said.
“In the same household?”
Mickey and I met on a bike path by the apartment where I lived for a year after my divorce. I was writing a short story, sitting on a bench, consumed by a blackness that made me long for the ability to levitate into the sun’s halo. Each day, I spent hours imagining the sequence of sensations this would produce: my body lifting off the bed, floating through the clouds, into a blinding light: relief. A psychiatrist told me this was called “suicidal ideation”—a passive death wish. I grabbed a train and then a taxi to one of the best hospitals in the country, and I asked for help. I could afford it. Mickey cannot.
The first time I saw him, he was wearing green shorts, red tube socks, and an orange bandanna. He tiptoed toward me and asked two questions, “What are you writing?” and, “Would you like my phone number?”
We played badminton without a net. He yelled, “Bring me Caligula’s horse!” for no apparent reason. My building concierge complained: “Your son likes to wheel his bicycle down the hallways.”
Under the inspector’s fingers, a gift-shop sticker fluttered to the floor. “Something fell,” Mickey said, and he moved forward. He had packed his bag with military precision. At home, his belongings—rows of tiny perfume samples, lost-and-found tapestries, and clothes he has worn for a decade—fit into a corner of one room. He treasures each possession. He becomes upset if anything goes missing.
“Step back, sir.” Officer Mirdage froze.
Immediately, Mickey did as he was told. Most of us think of rare horrors—elementary-school shootings—when we think of mental illness, and yet, the vast majority of people with brain disorders are never a threat to others. In fact, research suggests that people with psychosis are two-and-a-half times more likely to be attacked, raped, or mugged than the rest of us.
Consider the case of the late Jason Harrison, a 38-year-old man who lived with psychosis. On a particularly manic day in summer 2014, his mother Shirley Marshall Harrison phoned the Dallas Police Department, asking for help. She wanted to get him to a hospital. When police arrived, a video shows Jason standing in the doorway, cupping a small screwdriver in both hands. In the video, he does not brandish the tool as a weapon, nor does he lunge at the officers, who yell at him to drop it. He looks sheepish, like a kid holding a baseball by a broken window. What happens next is hard to watch. “Within ten seconds of the front door being opened,” as CNN described it, “Jason Harrison lay dying in his own driveway, shot at least five times, twice in the back, by officers John Rogers and Andrew Hutchins.” As he bled out, face-down, Jason Harrison was handcuffed.
Officer Mirdage gestured toward our bags. “You can repack this,” she said, and as quickly as his ticket had been tagged with a big black X, the inspection was over. We raced for the exit doors, and our car. On Route 66, I was careful to stay in my lane, driving slower than the speed limit. I had felt much safer in Mexico, driving a rented car that required an eight-thousand-dollar deposit. “What a blessing,” Mickey said. “I can’t believe I got to see Katatonia.”
At home, finally, I walked into the kitchen and opened his bottle of glycine. I started to pour a glass of juice, but he wanted water. When I put the juice back into the refrigerator and poured a glass of water, he changed his mind. He wanted the juice, after all. Again, I opened the refrigerator.
“Look at my finger,” he said, when I had turned around. With his other hand, he held the finger out for me. It looked about the same length as Jason Harrison’s screwdriver. “I just hurt it, I think because of whatever bad thought you were having when I changed my mind.”
I slammed the glass down, exhausted. “For God’s sake,” I said.
“I’m sorry!” He wrapped me in a tight hug. I hugged him back, penning him into the kitchen. “I’ll take my glycine! I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Notes on photo: Graphic footage, released by the family of Jason Harrison and their attorney Geoff Henley and published by the Morning News, shows officers responding to the home of Harrison’s mother the morning of June 14, 2014.