WashPost: Behind the yellow door, a man’s mental illness worsens

Everyone is worried about the man in the house.

His ex-wife, his mother, his father, his neighbors, the psychiatrists he has seen and no longer sees, they are all concerned because he has been alone in the house in suburban Maryland for two years.

No one knows what he is doing. No one knows what he is thinking, what he is eating or how he is surviving. In two years, since his frightened wife took their three young boys and left him there alone, he has not spoken to anyone for more than a few minutes. He has not let anyone beyond the front door, which he has fortified with a new lock, a piece of plastic bolted over the window, and a piece of plywood bolted below that, all of which he has painted a bright shade of yellow. He keeps the living room curtains shut.

The man in the house, a 42-year-old who once earned six figures working on Capitol Hill and was a devoted husband and father, tells his family that he is not sick, even though a psychological evaluation found he had “a schizoaffective disorder, depressive type with persecutory delusions.”

As far as they know, he has stopped taking the psychiatric medication prescribed after he told police that God was speaking through his 3-year-old son. He has quit his job and stopped paying bills. His family doesn’t know what to do.

His mother leaves bags of groceries on the porch. His ex-wife sends text messages, and his responses are increasingly worrying, such as when he refers to his sons as his “suns.” His father is always leaving a version of the same phone message — “Hey, this is dad. Let me know if you want to come out and talk. We love you. We care about you.” — which his son never answers.

Once, the man’s family might have handled the situation by having him involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution. For decades, it was a routine and simple procedure: If a doctor agreed that the patient had a mental illness, he could be institutionalized even against his will.

The problem was that it was a process with few safeguards, and during much of the 20th century, all kinds of people who didn’t belong — from free-thinking women to gay people, minorities and rebellious children — wound up locked in hospitals where abuse was common and conditions were often bleak.

So the system changed, with one catalyst being a 1975 Supreme Court ruling that effectively restricted involuntary commitment to instances when a person becomes a “danger to self or others,” a phrase that now appears in one form or another in state laws across the country.

But 40 years after that standard was established, some people are asking whether society’s concern for the constitutional rights of people with mental illness has led to their abandonment. At a moment when about one-quarter of the homeless population suffers from severe mental illness, when the number of mentally ill prison inmates is higher than ever and when mass shootings are often followed by stories that the shooter had heard voices, the people asking questions include the family of the man in the house. Their concern is growing every day.

Because he does not think he is sick, voluntary treatment is not an option.

Unless he threatens to harm himself or someone else, or is so sick he cannot keep himself alive, he cannot be deemed dangerous, particularly in Maryland, where commitment laws are among the most stringent in the nation.
And although there are days when he wears bright yellow from head to toe, or all white including sandals he sprayed with white paint, he appears well-groomed and healthy, so he is unlikely to meet even the most lenient legal definition of dangerous.

On day 730 of being alone in the house, he still tends his lawn. The few times he has opened the bright yellow door to get groceries or money from his worried mother, what she could see of the living room appeared clean, if bare — the family photos removed from the walls.

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