Mental illness does not discriminate. Despite Nathanial Ayers’ talent as a musician, artist, and generally good upbringing, schizophrenia still found a way to enter into his life. Through meeting compassionate journalist Steve Lopez, Nathanial Ayers was able to begin his road to recovery and learn to trust again. Schizophrenia is a chronic and crippling brain disorder. It can be caused by a number of things such as a difference in brain chemistry and structure and also genes. Most men develop schizophrenia in their late teens and early twenties . This is seen in the case of Nathanial Ayers as it slowly became more evident that something was wrong when he entered Juilliard as an early twenty year old as witnessed by not only his teachers and classmates but also by his family as well. Positive symptoms of the illness cause people to enter their own world and by doing so, lose touch with reality. Some positive symptoms that Nathanial Ayers exhibited include hallucinations, delusions and thought disorders. The positive symptom that repeatedly came up throughout The Soloist was the thought disorder as when Steve Lopez would ask a simple question such as why he loved Beethoven, Nathanial would be sent off into answering the question in such a jumbled way that it would be very difficult to understand what he was trying to say. Another symptom that many people with schizophrenia have is substance abuse problems with the most common addiction being to nicotine. Nathanial Ayers was the exception to this common symptom as he abhorred smoking and anyone who smoked. Also with schizophrenia, there is often bigotry and/or hyper-religiosity as evidenced by Nathanial’s preoccupation with race, ethnicity, and sexual preference when describing the Toy District of Los Angeles “Los Angeles is a Beethoven city, but you have Walt Disney, Colonel Sanders, LAPD, the blacks, all the Yo-Yo Man people, Jews, like JEW-liard, homosexuals. They’ve got one, two, three homosexual bars down there” (Lopez 60). Despite these symptoms, Nathanial Ayers was often a charming and charismatic person. At other times however, the symptoms would take a hold of him and create at times a very angry and volatile person. Knowing the challenges facing him, Steve Lopez still wanted to become a part of Nathanial Ayers life to make a difference.
Nathanial Ayers had a generally good upbringing. Things started to fall apart when his parents divorced though, and he was forced to move with his mom and sisters away from his father which devastated him. He especially had a hard time adjusting to his new step-siblings when his mom remarried. One positive aspect of the move was that in their new city, Nathanial was able to access new opportunities to foster his musical talent. He had many different music teachers one of them being William Moon who ignited a fire in Nathanial to continue to improve his music and made him excited for the first time since his father left. His next teacher was Gary Karr who soon realized that “He seemed to be struggling with his racial identity in a nearly all-white environment” (Lopez 164). As Nathanial’s problems with racial hostility became worse, Karr went to the administration to suggest that he might have a mental condition but they dismissed him and Nathanial missed an opportunity to receive the help that he needed. As Nathanial progressed, his talent eventually led him to Juilliard on a scholarship. During his first semester, he did incredibly well despite the pressure that he felt to do well on a daily basis. During his second semester however, after a summer in Aspen, something had clearly gone wrong. His grades began falling, started hearing voices, became jumpy and provocative, and his family barely recognized him. A particularly unnerving experience was when Nathanial began stripping off his clothes while visiting classmate Daniel Spurlock. Alarmed, his guests called for help and Nathanial was taken to a hospital where he was officially diagnosed with schizophrenia. His classmate later realized that at the time, Juilliard as not at all a nurturing environment and because of Nathanial’s background and difficulties, it was probably the worst place for him to be. Nathanial’s complete breakdown led to him dropping out, and ending up on the streets.
When Nathanial Ayers first met Steve Lopez, he was very nervous and leery as stated by Steve Lopez “He’s still suspicious of me, suspicious of everything around him it seems” (Lopez 4). After a few initial meetings with Steve Lopez, Nathanial Ayers began to see him as a less sketchy person, becoming “a little warmer each time” (Lopez 12). As Steve Lopez began to bring Nathanial Ayers music related items such as new violin strings and new instruments, Nathanial’s gratitude towards Steve Lopez began to grow. With the instruments now in Nathanial’s possession, Steve Lopez started to realize that the instruments may be making Nathanial a target to getting mugged and suggested that Nathanial go to the Lamp Community agency to receive help. He soon realized though, that Nathanial was very apprehensive to receiving any treatment. Steve Lopez saw how big a part music was in Nathanial’s life and used that to lure him into bettering himself such as getting him to start going to Lamp, getting him into an apartment of his own, and even attending concerts at Disney Hall which led to even more opportunities for him. Through these opportunities, Nathanial becomes increasingly open and six months after meeting each other, a friendship formed between the two men. As time went on, his illness would seem to be getting better, with his transformation being most evident when he went to Steve Lopez’s house to spend time with his family for Easter as noted by Steve Lopez “The transformation of this man who jumped back in fear at our first meeting is dizzying. At the moment he’s entirely unguarded and free, reveling in his own resurrection. He seems to be savoring the day, the food, the company” (Lopez 222). At other times however, his illness would come in waves of extreme anger, most often when he believed that someone was trying to get him committed to a mental hospital such as when Steve Lopez arranged for a court hearing so his sister could handle Nathanial’s legal and business affairs. Suffering from a delusion, Nathanial believed it was all a ploy to get him committed, became enraged and started screaming expletives at Steve Lopez feeling betrayed by him. Despite the outbursts, Nathanial would eventually realize that he was wrong and would always come around and apologize. After Nathanial received his very own music studio and enjoyed a concert at the end of the book, he comments on how he doesn’t know if he could ever get back to the way it was before his illness, not really realizing how far he had already come not only because of the help that Steve Lopez provided but also because of allowing himself to receive the help.
Mental illness has been the object of many debates because of many people not knowing how to properly address and treat it. The views on how to treat schizophrenia in the book varies greatly. At the agency Lamp Community, they try to help their clients to make social connections in a supportive setting and come up with a goal which Nathanial already accomplished by their standards. Mollie Lowery, who established Lamp, wanted to ensure it would be a place without judgment to make their clients feel more at ease and receptive to help. Similar to Lamp is the Village which is run by Dr. Mark Ragins. He agreed that the first step in treatment is making a person comfortable to come in on his own. Dr. Ragins also believed that making connections with people was more important than making a diagnosis and Nathanial would only get better if he developed enough trust in people to pursue his own recovery. Nathanial had trouble trusting people when it came to his mental health in the first place because of his bad experiences at other mental hospitals where they would give his shock treatment and a plethora of different psychotropic drugs. A completely different view on how to treat the disease came from an anonymous psychiatrist who worked at the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department. She disagrees with Dr. Ragins and his coddling approach to treating patients saying that what they really need is psychiatric counseling and medication. Confused with which side to take, Steve Lopez asked Dr. Prchal and Dr. Shaner which side was right. Their take was that Dr. Ragins and the anonymous psychiatrist were both right as there is no right or wrong and no absolutes in treatment. Dr. Ragins’ approach was what worked best for Nathanial as pushing him only made him want to rebel against any help he could receive.
Nathanial Ayers’ journey through schizophrenia was a long and troubling one. By him finally being willing to accept help for his illness and the generosity of Steve Lopez and others, he was able to finally reclaim his passion as a musician and learn to better cope with his schizophrenia.