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As a teen, Sam stole a handgun and was disarmed by a police officer in an event that could have ended far worse. Later, he landed in prison for a bizarre crime. Now in his 30s, he is gracious, earnest and attuned to his illness: paranoid schizophrenia, which causes disturbances in thinking, emotions, behavior and perception. With medicine, he does well. If not identified fully, Sam was willing to talk frankly about his past. Here is his story.

“The first time I ever had an encounter with the police, other than getting pulled over for a speeding ticket, was during my first psychotic episode. … I thought people were trying to kill me. I was really afraid for my life. My intention with the gun was just to protect myself.

“I was living with a friend in Orchard Park. I basically took his car when he wasn’t looking and drove to my parents’ house. They had just had the big Thanksgiving dinner. ... For some reason they forgot to lock the door that night as they went to bed. The door being open, that just fed into my delusion. I thought somehow my parents knew I was in danger, and they left the door open for me.

“I end up finding a gun that my dad had left out for cleaning. He hadn’t put it away in the safe yet. I ended up in the Village of Akron. I was walking around in the street when the cop encountered me. … You would think if the officer got that same call today – this was before 9/11, this was before a lot of things – he would at least draw his weapon. … He just came up to me, said give me the gun, and I just handed him the gun. …

“The judge decided there was something wrong with me. So if I agreed to go to the mental hospital, they would drop the charges in lieu of this evaluation from the mental hospital (Buffalo Psychiatric Center). … They thought I had some form of depression. So I remember them giving me medications like Zoloft. None of that really helped.

“It was a year later … I thought I was OK, that I didn’t really need to take medication. So I stopped. My parents didn’t know what to do with me. They were doing their best to try to help me, but I got to the point where I was really sick. I was really having another episode.

“That day, my mom, she didn’t know what to do with me. She had a bad feeling from the way I was acting that I was really having a hard time. But she had to go to work. My dad wasn’t home. No one else was home. …

“Something was telling me in my head there is a bomb in the house and someone is trying to kill my family, so I had to destroy the house. I ended up getting gas cans and I set the fire. Right after I set the fire I called the police myself and said, ‘I just set a fire in my house. Could you please send the fire department?’

“When the officer showed up he was just like, ‘What’s going on?’

“I said, ‘I started a fire.’ …

“I was kind of lying to him by saying that I took some acid. I didn’t want to tell him I was sick or mentally ill.” … [He was prosecuted, though his parents did not press charges. Sam served two years in prison.]

“I stopped taking my medication when I got to prison. I talked to the doctor a little bit and said, ‘You know, I am feeling OK. I don’t think I have the problems they say I do’ and everything else. So she agreed to let me stop taking it. … I made it probably about four months before having a serious episode.

“They moved me to a maximum security prison [Sullivan Correctional Facility]. They put me in ‘the box’ when I got there for like two weeks. … I turned 21 when I was in prison. I was released in March 2005 and haven’t been arrested since. …

“I think my last hospitalization was in 2009. I thought the Geodon was making me depressed, so I took it upon myself to cut my dosage in half. After taking half a dose for about six months, I started having problems. … I was hiding in the closet one night thinking that people were going to break in and kill me. I looked at myself and said, ‘OK, this isn’t right. I am having problems.’ So I talked to my counselor right away. …

“Generally, people with a mental illness, like my condition, they are not a danger to other people. My thing is, I don’t want to hurt anyone. I think people are trying to hurt me.

“From my perspective, if you are having a delusion or someone says something to you casually, you can take it way out of context. I had a doctor, before the fire, he gave me a shot, and all he said was, ‘Oh, that didn’t kill you.’ It was a casual-type thing. But after he said that, it set me off. Kill me? It set off a whole series of delusions. …

“I know a lot of people with mental illness, their families abandoned them. They don’t support them. I have been very blessed to have the family I have.”

“I had a wonderful girlfriend I was dating for three years. Probably like a month or two prior to the fire, she ended up breaking up with me. I think that helped my decision to stop taking medication, because I wanted to get back together with her. I wanted to be my old self again. …

“I think: Do I ever want to have a family myself? The thing is, you’ve got to meet somebody first. And then I think: Would I want to pass this on to somebody else? Would I want my child to have schizophrenia? …

“I have been on a few dates here and there, but no one that I really got interested in. … And then there is always the thing: How do I explain my mental illness? …

“I set a house on fire. How the hell do you explain that?”

– Matthew Spina