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Mental Illness in Steve Lopez’s “The Soloist”

The plight of people suffering from mental illnesses often goes unnoticed, and a good number of them end up homeless or in correctional facilities across the country. One of the main symptoms of schizophrenia is the withdrawal from social relations (Izydorczyk et al. 26). The patients are terrified of their own delusions and often avoid human contact. The symptoms of schizophrenia make the patients withdrawn and distrustful of strangers. They are terrified of their imaginations in some instances. One of the main motifs in the novel The Soloist is mental illness and society’s failure to protect and treat people suffering from mental health issues.

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The novel is the story of a special relationship between Los Angeles (LA) times columnist Steve Lopez and a homeless schizophrenic musician. Nathaniel Ayers, the protagonist and mentally ill musician, has severe schizophrenia, which warps his perception of reality. The novel offers its readers a sobering glimpse into the challenges people encounter when trying to lend a hand to people with psychological challenges. Therefore, it is difficult for family and friends to intervene and improve the quality of life due to the many challenges associated with mental health conditions.

The story begins with the meeting of two main characters in the street. Ayers is playing his violin in a busy street in the downtown of Los Angeles, while Lopez is hurrying back to work. Lopez observes that the man is talented and that there is a unique refinement about him. Beside him is a cart full of the worldly belongings of Nathaniel Ayers, dirty clothes, and drumsticks, which he uses to chase rodents away at night (Lopez 36).

Nathaniel’s only real connection to the world appears to be music, and his friend Lopez helps to unlock his potential. It is achieved through securing him a home and the opportunity to create a network in the local music scene. Despite showing the signs of selfish interests, the readers see his compassionate side when he makes an effort to get Ayers off the streets and convince him to get medical treatment for his condition.

Nathaniel Ayers was a talented musician and student at Juilliard before the onset of his schizophrenia. When his condition aggravated and became acute, he was hospitalized and treated using electroconvulsive therapy (Lopez 21). This approach worsened his condition, and he dropped out of school. He moved to Los Angeles to look for his estranged father, only to find the city being a dead end in his search. Without proper financial and medical support, he became homeless, regularly playing his musical instruments near Beethoven’s statue (Lopez 22). When LA Times journalist Steve Lopez heard Ayers playing the violin, he wanted to know more about him. They develop a friendship that prompted the journalist to help his mentally challenged associate to grow his musical talent.

Lopez brings Ayers’ mental issues in the story to the readers’ attention when he recounts his delusions. The musician began experiencing challenges with his schizophrenia soon after moving to LA and isolated himself. He is more peaceful when playing his musical instruments than when staying with his family and friends. Additionally, his behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and he gradually becomes detached from reality. Before going to live in the downtown LA’s streets, he would burst into laughter at odd times, such as when his mother offered him a sincere compliment about his talent. Paranoid schizophrenics have been known to avoid treatment and these efforts by his mother to socialize with him ended in frustration (Jönsson et al. 1). This detachment from his family and other people makes it harder for them to help him.

When his condition worsens, Ayers develops paranoia and experiences hallucinations which make him believe that people are trying to kill him. In the early stages of acute paranoia, he envisions a car speeding the streets, engulfed in flames. The delusions worsen with time, but Ayers makes no effort to receive professional help because he keeps these visions to himself. Further, his paranoia escalates in that he thinks his sister is trying to kill him by poisoning his food. Once, when she brought him something to eat, he demands that she tastes the food first and observes her for some time to see if she is suffering from any effects (Lopez 166). This instance illustrates how difficult it is for other people to be primary caregivers for their loved ones suffering from mental health issues.

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However, this incident was not the red flag that prompted a medical intervention. It took a psychotic episode during a rehearsal for people around him to realize how serious his condition was. The fact that it was a severe display of psychosis for his family to seek therapeutic involvement is a common observation in many families (Lopez 189). Most of the time, parents and siblings of a psychologically unstable person know that there is something seriously wrong with a patient, but they fail to notify the relevant mental healthcare workers. Many people stay silent, hoping that their loved ones will recover, only to realize that the problem is more exacerbated than they thought.

The social support systems around the patients are a great determinant of their recovery and quality of life (Domenech et al. 245). This is because people only seek medical intervention when they think that schizophrenic patients pose a danger to themselves or others.

As Ayers’s paranoid schizophrenia increasingly worsens, it takes a spiritual turn. He struggles to maintain his spiritual contact with the people he holds dear and his higher power to comfort himself. Spiritual delusions are a common symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. Having disconnected from the world, it is normal for mentally sick patients to seek god’s intervention and spiritual powers to ‘protect’ them from their perceived assailants. In the book, Ayers manifests these symptoms by repeatedly referring to Beethoven as his god (Lopez 143). He ardently believes that the journalist is his god that he is upset when his music teacher disputes it.

He confronts the teacher and asks him if it is his duty to guide him in spiritual matters. Further, the musician cherishes the ‘spiritual’ connection that he feels with the people passing by in the street. He thinks of his music practice as being powerful enough to connect him to his listeners in the street. While these thoughts are delusional, they are important because they are the ones that give his life any meaning at all, considering that he had broken ties with the most important people in his life.

The comfort of his spiritual delusions is only as relevant as is the severity of his hallucinations. As his condition deteriorates into acute psychosis, the illusions become so powerful that he hears scary voices in his head. This symptom is one of the most common in many patients of paranoid schizophrenia. These voices begin convincing him that he may never get better and that he should always be on the run to avoid being disturbed by the voices (Lopez 30).

The voices grow louder and keep reminding him that there’s nowhere to run and that eventually, the illness will overwhelm him. The delusions periodically exacerbate his paranoia making him think that the world is against him. He believes that people are out to persecute him, and eventually, he will fall victim to those after him. In The Soloist, the reader gets an inside view of the challenges facing mental health victims and their caregivers.

Another characteristic of paranoid schizophrenia is the formation of incomprehensible sentences. Sometimes, patients with this illness can speak fluently, but they are not articulate enough to make coherent sentences. It is not difficult to decipher the meanings in his sentences, but the meanings often are not sensible. Ayers uses word salads to convey his messages. In mental health discipline, paranoid schizophrenics such as Ayers are considered to be higher-functioning patients than other schizophrenics. They can communicate eloquently even when they cannot transmit their ideas effectively.

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For Ayers, his illness did not greatly diminish his talent for playing the violin and his ability to hold conversations with other people for sustained periods. The resultant deterioration in familial and social support systems makes treatment for this condition more difficult (Domenech et al. 245). This barrier to effective communication poses a considerable challenge for the people who want to help him, as it is difficult to know what the patient needs.

Many people with mental illnesses are often inhospitable and thus require specialized care for their safety and the people around them. Paranoid schizophrenics’ situation is much worse because they will develop a sense of insecurity that is so strong that they cannot trust anyone enough to share a home with anyone. In The Soloist, Nathaniel Ayers alienates himself from his friends and gets the delusion that his blood sister is trying to kill him. Just like most paranoid schizophrenics, he prefers the ‘safety’ of the streets to having to share food and his possessions with people he does not trust (Izydorczyk et al. 26). Such notions will drive people with schizophrenia and other mental health patients into the streets, even when offered a home. After acquiring many musical instruments for his friend, Lopez has a hard time convincing him to move off the streets.

Lopez knew that it was unwise for Ayers to move around with expensive equipment in the unsafe streets of downtown Los Angeles (Lopez 39). Besides attracting thieves, the instruments are bulky, and it would be inconvenient for Ayers to move the instruments through downtown Los Angeles when he could have a home. Having a safe place to keep these items will eliminate the need for him to worry about their safety, and it would free him up more to concentrate on building his musical career. Lopez attempts to introduce Ayers to the Lamp community, where he would get medical treatment and a home semblance. However, the patient himself does not trust the medical community due to his extreme paranoia (Lopez 32). He thinks that admission into the facility will compromise his freedom, and he would rather wallow in his self-imposed seclusion.

The only way Lopez could help Ayers lead a more productive life was to convince him to move away from the streets. Thus he secured him an apartment at the Lamp community and introduced him to the Los Angeles Symphony group (Lopez 39). However, every time he seemed to help the patient get his life back together, Ayers relapsed. After so much work, Lopez manages to get Ayers the opportunity to perform a recital, but again he blows it. However, through persistence that is borne of true friendship, the journalist manages to get Ayers to accept medical treatment and be part of the LAMP community.

In conclusion, Steve Lopez’s novel The Soloist tells the story of a gifted man who also has paranoid schizophrenia and his journalist friend. The two strike a friendship that sees the mentally ill Ayers become attached to Lopez to a point of referring him as his god. The novel’s central theme is the challenges people face when extending help to people suffering from psychological conditions. Perhaps because real-life events inspire the novel, it accurately portrays the hallucinations that make life harder for his family and friends. Ayers alienates his family through his actions and almost drives Lopez away due to his constant refusal to accept help when it becomes available.

Other underlying issues, such as social stigma, impact the ability of Nathaniel Ayers to blend into the a community in which he is offered accommodation and medical attention. Nonetheless, through his friendship with Steve Lopez and his love for music, he accepts to get off the streets and to advance his music in the company of other professional musicians.

Works Cited

Domenech, Cristina, et al. “Health-Related Quality of Life in Outpatients with Schizophrenia: Factors That Determine Changes over Time.” Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, vol. 53, no. 3, 2018, pp. 239–248. Web.

Izydorczyk, Bernadetta, et al. “Family and Peer Resources in Relation to Psychological Condition in Patients with Paranoid Schizophrenia.” Archives of Psychiatry & Psychotherapy, vol. 21, no. 3, 2019, pp. 25–40. Web.

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Jönsson, Linus, et al. “Identifying and Characterizing Treatment‐resistant Schizophrenia in Observational Database Studies.” International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, vol. 28, no. 3, 2019, pp. 1-11. Web.

Lopez, Steve. The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. Random House, 2009.

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