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Schizophrenic Morningside man found solace in music, dog

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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Kenneth Saylor Jr. is shown with his beloved Dalmation, Hercules. Saylor was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 26.
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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Joann Bowlin, 65, of Morningside, lights a candle for her son, Kenneth Saylor Jr., Thursday, July 21, 2016. Saylor was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 26.

Editor’s note: The following story is Part 1 in a two-part series on schizophrenia and the life of Kenneth Saylor Jr. Part 2 will appear next week in Our Stories.

The tree grows in a stand of dark woods near Joann Bowlin’s home.

Its canopy reaches 40 feet or more. Thick, sturdy limbs reach out in all directions; she does not know which one her son used.

A year to the day after Bowlin and her daughter found his van in the small park up the hill, Bowlin stepped into the tree line. She slipped photos of him and his beloved dog into a plastic bag, then added a handwritten letter of apology. Church bells rang in the distance. She nailed the offering to the tree’s base.

“What gets me most was him being alone that night, in lonely woods, listening to that song over and over again,” said Bowlin, 65. “I think he wanted out of here. I think he had no fear. I think he believed in God — he went to church that day; he had his Bible — but I think he was a very sad, lonely man.”

Kenneth Saylor Jr. had a normal, mostly happy childhood.

Growing up in Pittsburgh’s Morningside neighborhood, he learned to play the piano at 4 and later taught himself guitar and drums. His dad took him camping and built him a tree house. He was a standout baseball player who, at 10, won a Little League home run contest. He had lots of friends.

But there were signs.

At 11 months, he began “screaming in horror — just blood-curdling screaming” every night at 11, Bowlin recalled. She would rush in to console him and find Kenny standing in his crib, shaking and pointing to a dark corner of the ceiling, terrified at what was there. But nothing was there.

The pediatrician said it would pass, and it did. And in all likelihood, the episodes were not an early sign of Kenny’s schizophrenia, which affects about 1 percent of the population. The brain disease typically does not manifest itself until late adolescence in boys. Kenny wasn’t diagnosed until he was 26.

But Bowlin wonders.

“My mom had a history of mental illness,” she says. “I guess he got it from her.”

Kenny’s teen years were more tumultuous than his childhood.

Bowlin and her husband, Kenneth Sr., divorced. She remarried, and Kenny did not get along with his stepfather. Bowlin didn’t either. The couple fought constantly, and at 17, Kenny had had enough. He moved out and got an apartment with friends in Penn Hills, then moved to North Carolina to work as a house painter.

Down South, the changes came quickly.

He was quick to anger. He struggled to communicate. He had several roommates, fought with them all, and eventually got his own place. He bought a boat and went sailing alone for hours. He knew something was wrong with him, but he couldn’t understand what or why. He found solace only in alcohol and music, posting videos on YouTube of songs he wrote with titles such as “Shun the World” and “One Day Closer to Death.”

In 2002, he got a Dalmatian puppy and named him Hercules. He adored the dog, telling his mom: “I walked in his shadow, and he walked in mine.”

The dog brought Kenny comfort. But Hercules could not fend off the voices.

Late at night, he would call his mom and ramble about the presence of evil in his home, intruders pacing the rooms. He couldn’t find them, but he was certain they were there.

Paranoia settled over him like a straitjacket. Bowlin begged him to move home, but Kenny refused.

Then on a Sunday night in early December 2004, Kenny went out drinking. He became intoxicated and was tossed out of several bars. After the last rejection, he went to his truck, grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun, and began walking down North Front Street in Wilmington, N.C.

Police arrived. Kenny began shooting.

He blew out storefronts and injured an officer’s foot when he shot at the ground near him. Kenny dived into and swam across the Cape Fear River. Police arrested him on the other side.

“He wanted to end his life,” Bowlin said in a 2004 interview with the Wilmington Star News. “I’m not saying he shouldn’t be incarcerated, but he needs psychiatric help. He has been crying out for help every day. … I’d like to be able to talk to him. No one else is close to him.”

Kenny served five years in prison, including a stint at Dorothea Dix Hospital, a mental institution. There he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Bowlin brought Hercules to Pittsburgh. During their weekly phone calls, she placed the receiver to the dog’s floppy ears. Hercules howled into the phone at the sound of his lost master. Every week.

Bowlin was there when Kenny was released in January 2010. She hugged him, then brought him home. The first thing he did in Pittsburgh was take Hercules for a walk.

Kenny tried. Lord knows, he tried, Bowlin says.

He looked for work painting, but jobs were scarce, in part because everyone at home knew what Kenny had done, and nobody wanted a part of him. He went to church — three of them — and read his Bible daily. He met with psychiatrists and took the pills they prescribed. He listened to his doctors, except the one who suggested shock treatment. To that, Kenny and his mom said no.

It was a daily struggle. But Kenny fought it.

Then in April 2013, Hercules died.

Kenny was never the same.

He stopped taking his pills and began drinking again. He spent hours alone in his bedroom, emerging only to tell his mom that he thought he was dying. The voices returned, if they had ever gone, and he talked constantly about death. The prospect terrified him. But he also began to see no alternative.

In April 2015, he hung a rope in his room. Bowlin caught him before he could do anything, and Kenny was livid that his plans were ruined.

His family called police, and Kenny spent 10 days at Western Psych. He started going to Alcoholics Anonymous. He spent 45 days sober.

But that July, he was pulled over in Lawrenceville. Police found heroin. He wasn’t using, his mom said; the toxicology report days later showed no drugs in his system. But a judge revoked his license and placed him on a year of probation.

For Kenny, the ruling caused him to lose all hope.

“I’m losing my mind,” he told his mom. “I’m talking to myself and hearing voices.”

For a week after the hearing, he drank heavily — a case of beer, perhaps two, a day. He walked into walls and spoke incoherently.

When Bowlin tried to talk to him, he held his hands up in the air and said: “Everything is going to be just fine.” He said it as if in a trance. He said it repeatedly. “Everything is going to be just fine.” Bowlin had no idea what he meant.

She found out on July 18, 2015.

It was hot that day, Bowlin recalls. Sticky and humid. Bowlin sat on the porch, smoking a cigarette. Kenny joined her but did not speak. He wore a navy blue shirt with white letters across the chest, spelling out the word: FORGIVEN.

He looked so peaceful, Bowlin said, calmer than he’d been in years. She looked at her tormented son’s face in profile and said to him: “You look beautiful.”

Kenny did not respond. He hoisted a leg up on the porch railing and stared off into the distance. He finished a cigarette, dropped it to the ground and walked down the stairs.

Bowlin called after him, but Kenny just raised his hands, as he had the in previous few days when he assured his mom that “everything is going to be just fine.”

He got into his van, then peeked up at her.

In his eyes and in his expression, she read a final message:

I’m sorry, Mom. I love you, and I’m sorry.

Then he drove away.

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