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Schizophrenic son’s death leaves legacy of agony for Morningside woman

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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Joann Bowlin, 65, of Morningside, with a photograph of her son, Kenneth Saylor, Thursday, July 21, 2016. Taylor hanged himself July 18, 2015 and Bowlin lights a candle for him every day. Taylor had schizophrenia.
ptrmentalhealthPartII02073116
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Joann Bowlin, 65, of Morningside, looks at a Bible verse marked in her son, Kenneth Saylor's Bible, Thursday, July 21, 2016. Taylor hanged himself July 18, 2015 and Bowlin lights a candle for him every day. Taylor had schizophrenia.
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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Kenneth Saylor, is shown as an adult and as a child. Saylor hanged himself in Eric Kelly Park, July 18, 2015. He had schizophrenia.
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Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Photos of Kenneth Saylor, sit on his Bible. Saylor hanged himself in Eric Kelly park, July 18, 2015. He had schizophrenia.

Editor’s note: The following story is the second in a two-part series on schizophrenia and the life of Kenneth Saylor, Jr. Part 1 can be found here bit.ly/2aosUTZ

I am a beat up, broken, lonely boy in a man’s body, screaming inside to be heard.

The voices I hear come out at night; the ones that make my heart pound and make me break out in a sweat; the voices that make me feel like I am going to die. …

This past winter, several months after Kenneth Saylor walked off his mother’s Morningside porch and drove away for the last time, Joann Bowlin sat at her dining room table with pen and paper.

She wanted to write a letter.

In Kenny’s voice.

She wanted to do so, she said, because she knew what he would say. Nobody understood Kenny better; she alone knew what her son was thinking, his pain and confusion.

I am a believer but make poor decisions. I go to three churches, trying to find hope in God, trying to see a future.

But it isn’t in the cards for me to have a good life. I never got the green lights in life, just the red ones.

She wrote it because she wanted others to know her son “not as a monster,” or as the man who shot at police, drank too much and heard voices.

She wanted them to know him as the sweet boy he was and the well-meaning but tortured man he became.

I am sleep deprived and the voices are coming back, the hallucinations.

I just want to end the pain, not my life.

I am useless and lost and there is no cure.

It took Bowlin three months to finish.

···

When Kenny walked away, Bowlin wasn’t worried.

But as time passed, she grew anxious.

She called his cell. No answer. She texted him repeatedly. He replied once, at 3:30 p.m. July 18, 2015:

Everything is going to be just fine.

Bowlin could not sleep that night. Against her will, she began writing her son’s obituary in her mind. Her eyes would snap open, and she’d tell herself to stop. But the moment she closed them again, her grim undertaking resumed.

Finally, daylight.

Bowlin and her daughter Kimberly split up and searched for him. Lawrenceville, Oakland, Bloomfield …

Then Kimberly spotted his van at a park half a mile from the house. It was locked. Kenny’s tattered Bible sat on the dashboard, open to the Book of Job and its dark poetry of faith and suffering.

He had outlined a passage:

“Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Bowlin walked down a hill to the edge of dense, dark woods. She called his name. She stepped into the tree line but did not see him.

Only later did she realize how close she came. She just never thought to look up.

Police fanned out in the woods. Bowlin waited near a playground, praying they would find her son alive.

Instead, they emerged with a body bag.

In those lonely woods, Kenny had climbed a sturdy tree with a 70-foot rope. He tied the rope to a limb and placed the noose around his neck. He put in ear buds and hit play on his iPod. He listened to one song only, on repeat, over and over again: “Down in a Hole” by Alice in Chains.

Bowlin needed to see him.

Reluctantly, medical examiners unzipped the bag.

She screamed, then reached out for the rope around her son’s neck.

“All I wanted to do was loosen it,” she said. “They said, ‘Stop it, ma’am.’

“But it was so tight.”

···

The life of a schizophrenic can follow a somewhat predictable arc.

Childhood is often normal, even happy, as was Kenny’s. Onset typically occurs in the late teens for boys, early to mid-20s for women.

What follows is a period of “deep perplexity,” said Dr. Rohan Ganguli, a University of Pittsburgh professor of psychiatry and schizophrenia expert at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. The sufferer knows something is wrong, but they don’t know what. Symptoms include visual and auditory hallucinations. Paranoia is common.

Once diagnosed, patients’ lives often stabilize. They find counseling and take medication, with a majority of patients showing decreased symptoms, Ganguli said. Treatment does not work at all for about 15 percent of schizophrenics.

But stability brings another danger: clarity.

Suddenly, patients realize the seriousness of their disease. They see that their lives have been hijacked, that they will likely never have a family or career or acceptance, Ganguli said.

“And that is profoundly depressing,” he said. “Before clarity, they still have hope. It is a dangerous time when they accept it.”

···

A year after Kenny’s death, Bowlin sits at her dining room table, staring at old photos.

In the dim light, he looks back, smiling always as a boy, never as an adult.

The urn sits on a mantel nearby. Next to it is a photo of Kenny in North Carolina on his boat, his dog’s head resting on his leg. Draped over a chair in the corner is Kenny’s shirt, the one reading FORGIVEN. Medical examiners cut it down the side when they removed it from his body. Bowlin sleeps with it every night now. Her son was just 36.

In the silence of her home, she begins to cry.

The tears are ever-present, a new way of life. Her family does not know where they come from, they are so many. Bowlin always finds more.

“If it wasn’t for my daughter, I wouldn’t be here,” Bowlin says. “I have no purpose anymore.”

All she has are memories.

Memories of Kenny as a boy, growing watermelon in the garden; as a young man, playing guitar on a deserted North Carolina beach as storm clouds gathered above; as a haunted adult, finding calm by sitting with eyes closed and his arm around that dog.

The memories haunt her, she says. Every day.

But there is one memory that carries at least a grain of comfort.

It’s of her son, the last day she saw him alive.

She closes her eyes and summons that moment on the porch. She sees his face as it was when he looked out calmly on the world, as if to say: I am no longer afraid. I am going there now.

Only when she loses herself in this memory can she tell herself that although he died alone, Kenny escaped to a place where the voices cannot follow.

“I never saw him look so beautiful and innocent,” Bowlin says. “Like a little boy again.”

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