'It hit me like a broom ...'

By PAUL MENSER

pmenser@postregister.com


UNWELCOME SIGHT: Martha Tanner stares at the entrance that her son, Craig Tanner, used to gain access to her basement in order to set the house on fire. For her, peaceful life is a distant memory. - Amanda Smith / Post Register

Craig Tanner showed the first signs of schizophrenia as a 19-year-old

Although the college student's mother was a doctor, she wasn't able to acknowledge the symptoms.

Last year, Craig Tanner went to jail for setting fire to his parents' Idaho Falls home. It was the low point of a long decline that began before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1997.

He now is enrolled in the

Madison County Mental Health Court program. He is taking his medication, working and writing prolifically.

His parents, John and Martha Tanner, hope the fire was a turning point for their son and are buoyed by the progress he's making.

Only time will tell.

In a special three-day series, the Post Register focuses on the Tanners' struggle in the face of schizophrenia.

UNWELCOME SIGHT: Martha Tanner stares at the entrance that her son, Craig Tanner, used to gain access to her basement in order to set the house on fire. For her, peaceful life is a distant memory. - Amanda Smith / Post Register

Dr. Martha Tanner was first exposed to schizophrenia and mental illness in 1963, while she was attending the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine.

It was during her third year and involved a three-week rotation in the New Jersey State Hospital system.

In the earliest days of effective treatments such as Thorazine, mental health facilities were dreary places. Popular books such as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" depicted them as inhumane, staffed by sadists and thugs.

Martha was alarmed by what she saw: patients with poor hygiene and behavior ranging from maniacal to catatonic, frequently shuffling back and forth with blank looks. The first-generation anti-psychotics were associated with disturbing and painful neurological side effects. Doctors, nurses and orderlies in those days might not always have been the most competent people in their professions.

She remembered one patient struggling and fighting as he was prepared for electroshock therapy. Restraining him, the technician told him, "OK, you're not getting any sedation."

She was relieved when the rotation was over. She chose infectious diseases as her medical specialty, married John, started a family and gave very little thought to mental illness. What she'd seen in New Jersey became an unpleasant yet distant memory.

It stayed that way for almost 30 years.

At age 19, Craig was turning out to be the person John and Martha had hoped to see.

UNWELCOME SIGHT: Martha Tanner stares at the entrance that her son, Craig Tanner, used to gain access to her basement in order to set the house on fire. For her, peaceful life is a distant memory. - Amanda Smith / Post Register

Bright, funny and articulate, he had finished his freshman year at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He was studying organic chemistry -- no small feat as far as his highly educated parents were concerned.

Achievement mattered to John, a nuclear safety engineer, and Martha, a physician. And Craig was on his way to doing that.

Still, something was not right the summer of 1992.

On a trip to Bryce Canyon in Utah, Martha noticed that Craig, in the back seat of the car, was distant and glassy-eyed, muttering to himself.

Had she been able to view it from a clinical perspective, she might have recognized an early symptom of schizophrenia, a devastating mental illness that typically shows up in men in their late teens or early 20s.

But even a doctor can engage in denial when it's her own child.

Up to then, Craig had been a joy. At 5 feet 9 inches, he was slight -- impish almost -- possessed of a dimpled chin and bright gray eyes.

Curious, handsome, charming, spiritual, caring -- all words John and Martha used to describe their youngest son. He was eccentric, but not in an alarming way.

He had a quick mind and broad interests that encompassed the Bible and the game Dungeons and Dragons.

Like his parents, he enjoyed hiking and nature. He enjoyed cooking and often handled Sunday dinner -- pot roast, pizza, chicken cordon bleu, zucchini fettuccine.

Craig's behavior on that trip worried Martha, but she kept her fears to herself.

There had to be a logical explanation.

At least she hoped so.

Craig returned to Boulder in September, taking a heavy load of courses and a position as a research assistant in organic chemistry. His professors noticed the quality of his work falling, and he got a B at the end of the fall semester.

For that kind of job, a B was as bad as an F. Craig could feel the pressure mounting, and booze and marijuana weren't helping to ease it. Nor was he getting along so well with other people.

By February, it had become too much. He'd felt a vague sense of unhappiness his freshman year; now, thoughts of suicide consumed him.

Finally, one day he decided to act. He cleaned the bathtub and sharpened a knife. All that was left was to fill the tub with warm water and do it. Things would be over quickly.

In the hallway, however, he heard a voice. It was male, but one he didn't recognize.

It said, "Craig, if you're going to do this, you'd better think hard."

Craig stopped. He sat down on the sofa, and from there, the sky opened up.

Even now, he remembers it as the most important day of his life, a spiritual awakening, the day he ascended to the First Eternity.

"It hit me like a broom out of the sky."

Craig quit his classes, and for the next two months he giggled and laughed as his mind expanded to a whole new level of existence. He wandered the campus and the town.

He did not tell his parents. The confession could wait until the end of the semester.

Like bipolar disorder, the beginning of a schizophrenic episode may be marked by feelings of elation and omnipotence. From there, the disease's symptoms can be divided into positive and negative categories.

Negative refers to a lack of certain characteristics. They include emotional flatness or lack of expression, inability to start or follow through with activities, speech that is brief and lacks content, a lack of pleasure or interest in life.

Positive refers to a person's actual delusions, characters and situations that seem real.

To be diagnosed with schizophrenia, a patient must have psychotic, "loss of reality" symptoms for at least six months and show increasing difficulty in functioning normally. A doctor also must rule out problems that might mimic schizophrenia, such as psychotic symptoms caused by the use of drugs, bipolar disorder, delusional disorder or autism.

A person doesn't slide into schizophrenia all at once. It happens crisis by crisis, quite often with intervening periods of calm or stability.

For Craig, the crises seemed at first to erupt in odd-numbered years, starting with his "spiritual awakening" in the winter and spring of 1993. He returned to Idaho Falls, spent the summer with his parents and enrolled in the University of Idaho.

That year went by without any problems, and in the summer of 1994, the family visited India, including the three sources of the Ganges River.

It left a profound impression on Craig.

The following year brought new troubles. In 1995, Craig dropped out of UI and drove a catering truck. That same year, a good friend committed suicide, leaving him despondent.

To regroup, he moved to Seattle, where his brother, Bryce, lived. For a time, things seemed to be going well. He had a place of his own, a cat and a job at Lowell's in Pike Place Market, bussing tables. But by fall 1997, the delusions took over.

He broke down in Seattle and returned home on the bus, terrified at what was happening.

He was briefly jailed in Montana and finally diagnosed with schizophrenia at State Hospital South.

There was another stab at UI in 1999. It lasted two weeks and ended with an overdose.

Craig was hospitalized in Davenport, Iowa, in 2000. He made a brief trip to New York City, where he joined the people raving on street corners and in subways.

His sister, Clare, told him to come and stay with her in East Lansing, Mich. By 2001, he was back in Idaho Falls and under the care of the Assertive Community Treatment team.

A minor altercation with an ACT team worker landed him in the Behavioral Health Center, but for the most part, the stretch between 2001 and 2005 was relatively peaceful.

Looking back, it was the calm before the storm.

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