Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010 | midnight
In 1977, native Las Vegan Two Lenz was walking down a street in Salt Lake City when she had a mental breakdown.
Lenz started walking slowly, almost in a daze, then suddenly sped up her pace. The world around her became a gray haze; she could not concentrate on any one person or landmark. It didn't matter that she'd walked down the same street many times; soon she came to recognize nothing about her once-familiar neighborhood.
In the week leading up to her collapse of the mind, Lenz hardly ate and hardly slept. The stress of life — sustaining herself solely on monthly military disability checks, being a full-time college student and fighting a lifelong battle with mental illness — had just gotten to her.
"I was lost, so stressed I did not even remember where I lived," the 60-year-old Lenz recalls. Three years before her breakdown, Lenz, a graduate of Las Vegas High and the daughter of a prominent Las Vegas businesswoman, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a mental disorder that makes it difficult to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences. The disease can cause sufferers to become isolated, withdrawn and overly mistrustful of others. On the day of her breakdown, Lenz was so suspicious and disoriented she was afraid to ask anyone to help her find her way home.
In the years following her breakdown, Lenz was diagnosed with various other forms of mental illness — bipolar disorder, clinical depression and schizoaffective disorder. During the last 36 years, she has been hospitalized specifically for mental illness at least two dozen times. Still, Lenz's is a success story. Over the course of many years and many false hopes, she has found her way to recovery. Now she is telling the world how she did it in her autobiography, Walking Through Walls — Overcoming the Barriers of Serious Mental Illness (Outskirts Press, $28.95 hardcover, $15.99 in paperback).
A tall, slender, aristocratic-looking woman, Lenz carries herself with a grace and poise honed by her late mother, who ran a Las Vegas modeling school from which Lenz graduated as a teenager. Lenz has earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's in sociology, and last year published her book, which has won five national book awards, including the 2009 Colorado Independent Publishers Association's Evvy merit award in the autobiography category.
Lenz says she came up with the title for Walking Through Walls from the many hours she laid in bed looking at the walls of her room, envisioning herself passing through them like a ghost. She likens the walls to the other barriers in her world. "Sometimes you cannot break those walls down," Lenz says, "but you can get through barriers and find relief and peace of mind."
At the time of her breakdown, Lenz lived in an apartment in a large off-campus, Tudor-style home near the University of Utah. Although she shared the place with a group of female students, Lenz mostly kept to herself in the big, quiet flat. It was her sanctuary, a place where she locked herself away from the problems of the real world and threw herself into her studies.
Although Lenz had been prescribed medications to help prevent breakdowns from mental illness, at the time of her incident, she admits, she was taking less than her prescribed dosage, if any pills at all. Though she's been fighting her disease for decades, Lenz says she only arrived at an effective combination of vitamins and medication about a year-and-a-half ago.
Lenz's book describes her journey through the mental health system and recounts the early years after her diagnosis:
"I stopped eating for days after running out of food, becoming too frightened to leave my apartment for groceries. ... People outside my window who rushed by seemed to communicate by perceiving each other's thoughts, most often critical of me.
"My brain typically suffered an intense inner pressure, while my body felt as if hundreds of electric wires were shooting off charges under my skin," Lenz writes. "Ultimately, during most every breakdown, I sank into an intense depression."
At birth, Lenz was given the same name as her mother — Brunetta Lenz. To avoid confusion, she also was given the middle name "Two" — as a more feminine version of "Junior." Lenz had difficulty in school, but still earned high marks by working hard to overcome the early symptoms of mental illness.
After graduating from high school in 1968, she hitchhiked cross-country, accepting rides only from long-haul truckers, which she had convinced herself was safer than hopping into strangers' automobiles. In 1971, Lenz joined the Women's Army Corps, but the pressure of stringent military life often was too difficult for her, and she went AWOL four times.
Although Lenz had shown signs of mental illness dating back to early childhood, military officials later determined that her mental illness was directly connected to her military service, because Lenz was first hospitalized in a psychiatric facility when she was in the WACs. Despite the stress of the military, Lenz enjoyed working as a military swimming instructor and wound up staying in the Army for her full term of three years. She was honorably discharged with full benefits.
In 1978, Veterans Administration doctors diagnosed Lenz with bipolar disorder, a disease that involves periods of mania alternating with periods of depression — so-called mood swings that often come on abruptly in bipolar patients. Most of Lenz's hospital stays over the years have been under the care of the Veterans Administration mental health system, for which Lenz counts herself lucky.
"There is no question that I am a lot more fortunate than others," Lenz says, noting that the VA pays for all of her medical needs, including what she calls her "carefully mixed soup of medications," which, without insurance, would cost thousands of dollars a month.
Using the G.I. Bill, Lenz fought her disease and went to college, earning a bachelor's from the University of Utah in 1979 and her master's from UNLV in 1983. That she managed to complete both degrees is impressive; that she did so while battling failed treatments and continued hospitalizations is truly remarkable.
Judy Bousquet, a 74-year-old Las Vegan with bipolar disorder and a member of the Governor's Committee for Co-Occurring Diagnosis (mental illness accompanied by a substance addiction), describes Lenz's book as "quite astounding."
"There are so many courageous warriors out there who so often go unnoticed because they don't — or are not able to — write books about their experiences," Bousquet said. "A book like Two's gives hope to those who seem to have no hope left."
And that is precisely the reason Lenz decided to write Walking Through Walls. "I wanted my book to be more than just my life's story, I wanted it to be meaningful. I wanted it to help other people with mental illness and their families cope with life's situations."
No longer afraid to talk to strangers, Lenz now enjoys every opportunity to address groups about mental illness and her recovery process. Recently, she lectured to a group of nursing students at UNLV on methods of caring for people with mental illness.
Sue Gaines, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southern Nevada, has read Lenz's book. She says the public needs more written accounts from the mentally ill in order to increase awareness and encourage medical science to find cures for various forms of mental illness.
"It is extremely important for people with mental illness to tell their stories, because it puts a face on the illness and helps erase the stigma," Gaines says, noting that Nevada mirrors the national average in that one of every 17 people suffers from a serious mental illness.
While Lenz has become an educator, she still works hard to keep her disease under control. Her average day begins at 6 a.m. with 20 minutes of prayer, a healthy breakfast and a dip in her home swim spa. She also usually performs memory exercises on her computer for an hour or two of and writes down her thoughts — perhaps for a future second book.
Lenz visits doctors for both mental and physical issues at least six times a month. In the evenings, she facilitates mental illness group discussions, does more writing or watches a limit of two hours of television. She insists on going to bed early and getting eight-and-a-half hours of sleep each night. Lenz simply does not allow herself the time to let mental illness win.
Lenz also credits her roommate of 28 years, Debbie, for keeping her in recovery. (Lenz asked that for privacy reasons Debbie's last name not be printed.)
"[Debbie] has learned the cruelties of my disease and seen my pain," Lenz says in her book. "Not only has [her] staying power been unique, but her reasons for staying have made her exceptional. She has identified a collection of qualities in me that she maintains makes my friendship worth whatever extra effort she may make."
Debbie also serves as Lenz's fiduciary for her monthly disability checks, and makes sure Lenz gets to her doctor appointments and takes her medications regularly.
"(She) has been able to see kindness, intelligence, justice, endurance and strength of character in me, where I thought for years I was just crazy."
Thirty-three years after getting lost, Lenz doesn't see herself aimlessly wandering through life ever again. Instead, she shares her story and welcomes the continued challenge of walking through walls.
Ed Koch is a former longtime reporter for the Las Vegas Sun, a sister publication of Las Vegas Weekly.