Larry Euell Jr., who lives with schizophrenia, spoke about how his time at Pilgirm Psychiatric Center in Brentwood helped him. Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware

When Larry Euell Jr. was 18, he was convinced voices coming out of the radio were talking about him. Three years later, while in a rage, he started a fire in his bedroom and almost burned down his family's house. 

That fire culminated in him being sent to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, where four years of treatment left Euell, now 34, of Hempstead, happier and optimistic.

“What Pilgrim did was transition me to come back to the world, the real world,” he said.

While at Pilgrim from 2011 to 2015, Euell was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. "I thought I was going to be institutionalized for the rest of my life," he said. 

He is now studying fashion design at Nassau Community College — something he never thought would have been possible.

College attendance is “very obtainable by many people with this disorder, more people than we can probably appreciate,” said Dr. Lisa Dixon, a professor of psychiatry at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in Manhattan and an expert on schizophrenia. “For some people, this illness is highly disabling, but there’s a significant number of people who have this illness who are able to live very fulfilling lives.”

Public perceptions of individuals with schizophrenia often are inaccurate, research shows. About 60% of Americans incorrectly believe violence is a symptom of schizophrenia, according to a 2008 survey commissioned by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy, education and support group based in Arlington, Virginia.

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In reality, Dixon said, even though people with schizophrenia are slightly more likely to commit violent acts than the general population, the large majority of people with schizophrenia are not violent toward others.

The scarring on Euell’s face and arms are lifelong markers of when he was at his nadir. The paranoia was intense, the depression deep.

“I thought people were out to get me,” he said. “I thought everyone was against me. I didn’t feel I had any love. I didn’t think anyone loved me, even though my mom was very loving and supported me the best she could.”

One day when he was 19, he stayed up all night writing random words on a piece of paper and then started talking gibberish to his mother. She panicked and called the Nassau County mobile crisis team, which comprises social workers and nurses trained to help people with mental health emergencies. Following that crisis, he spent more than two weeks at two community psychiatric hospitals and, upon release, was prescribed medication, which he didn’t take because it made him drowsy.

Larry Euell Jr. received treatment at Pilgrim Psychiatric Center. 

Larry Euell Jr. received treatment at Pilgrim Psychiatric Center.  Credit: Chris Ware

As his paranoia increased, he said he stopped hanging out with some friends, thinking they had it in for him. In November 2006, he took 30 days of prescribed medication he had stashed in his drawers. It provoked a frenzy, causing him to shout, throw and break things, as he ran around the Hempstead house he shared with his mother, grandmother and three younger brothers.

“Everything kind of got to me,” he said. “The paranoia, the distorted thinking, thinking people were out to get me.”

While trashing his bedroom, he knocked a lit incense burner onto the carpet, starting a fire that consumed his bedroom, he said. Firefighters pulled him out of the charred room.

Euell was arrested and pleaded not responsible, by reason of mental disease or defect, to second-degree arson and reckless endangerment charges, according to court records. He was sent to the upstate Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center, which provides mental health treatment for people sent by court order. At the time, he had a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder; the diagnosis was changed to paranoid schizophrenia at Pilgrim.

He referred to his four years at Mid-Hudson as “my wake-up call.”

“That was the beginning of me realizing I had a problem, and I needed to find a way to deal with it," he added. "Before that, I felt I was just a regular person mad at the world.”

After Mid-Hudson, he spent the four years at Pilgrim. Therapists at Mid-Hudson made him realize his paranoia was a symptom of an illness, and that others were experiencing the same types of feelings. Euell said Pilgrim taught him how to use that insight and the anger management and other coping skills he had learned at Mid-Hudson to prepare him to live outside the walls of a psychiatric center.

“I had to learn how to actually put my coping skills into action, to calm my anxiousness,” he said.

He began understanding how to not let distractions get to him.

“With the paranoia, it all kind of hits you,” he said. “You could be in a crowded area and [feel that] everybody is just looking at you or something. You just have to focus on what you’re doing and get your task done.”

Medications — he takes the antipsychotic drug Haldol — help but they're not enough, he said.

Euell took poetry and art classes at Pilgrim and began writing music, which gave him an outlet for his creativity. He felt confident enough to set a goal of attending college for fashion design, and that motivated him to study for the GED diploma he earned at Pilgrim. He hopes to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.

“I have a real good focus now,” he said. “It’s like a beam. Nothing can penetrate the beam.”

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