Drawn to the light

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November 10, 2003 // UPDATED 11:06 am - April 30, 2007
By: Bob Gilbert
Bob Gilbert

Mike Davenport, Downtown employee

Mike Davenport, 49, is a mild- mannered, thoughtful guy. He has worked all his life, for the last three years full-time as a janitor at a Hennepin County office building Downtown and just received a promotion. He has a handsome face, a full head of hair and likes to wear colorful flannel shirts. He is direct -- he looks you in the eye and carefully considers his words. He drives a white Chevy and is often a taxi to his friends, some of whom have a mental illness -- just as he does.

If no one told you Davenport was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic in his early 20s, you might never guess it. Medication and the support system he embraces alleviate most of his symptoms. Yet while his average day may not differ too much from the next person's -- get up, go to work, go home, do some chores, maybe watch a video -- Mike struggles with his mental illness daily.

When diagnosing paranoid schizophrenia, doctors look for incessant suspicion, poor self-image, social isolation, hostility and excessive fear. Medications help keep his symptoms at bay, but Mike also does his part to take care of himself, monitoring and screening his environment for things like violent movies that might trigger paranoia.

For the past five years, Mike has lived in a Southwest Minneapolis "lodge" with two roommates. Their well-kept home fits seamlessly into the neighborhood; it is four bedrooms with beautiful wood trim, leaded windows and a brick fireplace in the living room. Tasks Unlimited, a nonprofit at 2419 Nicollet Ave. S., owns and operates 16 such lodges throughout the Twin Cities, unconventional group homes emphasizing self-sufficiency for residents. Each group of residents maintains and names their lodge, their home has been christened "The Aces Lodge."

Mike says he and his roommates are more like extended family; sharing chores and expenses and supporting one another. If they're down, they talk, and the trio tries to make sure nobody withdraws too far into his shell.

Mike credits Tasks Unlimited and the lodge model with much of his success. He trusts Linda, his Tasks Unlimited counselor, and touches base with her weekly. "What I have had to deal with at times has caused me to hit rock bottom," says Mike, alluding to tougher days and down times, as he often does. "We have counselors who have worked with us to help us get through a lot of this stuff. When things get unbearable, like when I get frustrated or overwhelmed, we go to them."

Mike says he has friends with mental illnesses "who want no part of [such a support structure]; they are against this sort of thing." He avoids arguments, however, and would never tell his system-doubting friends that their inability to trust actually leads to "less freedom and less comfort. What we gain here throughout the years is a lot more than what these other people have."

After five years, Mike says he is beginning to feel a connection to the community. "Now, I am finding that I am starting to settle in and get comfortable. The area is starting to take hold of me, like [where I used to live on] the North side."

He said he likes to walk around the neighborhood. He likes his neighbors' flowers, but he is wary of local dogs, which frighten him. He likes to eat at Curran's, he says, located at 4201 Nicollet Ave. S.

Like most people, Mike doesn't know his neighbors' names. However, a community power failure once gave him the excuse to talk to the neighbor across the street.

A tough life Mike grew up in Edina, the fifth child of 10 in what he called "a strict Catholic family.

"Our parents taught us that when we did something wrong, we were given a good wallop for it," Mike says. Mike also says that if he ever raises a child, he would not strike him or her.

Although he occasionally calls his father or younger brother for advice and encouragement, Mike says he mostly sees his family on holidays. His difficulty trusting and letting down his guard makes gatherings of family or friends a challenge.

Before the onset of his illness, Mike said he had a few run-ins with the law. That was his early 20s, though, and Mike says he hasn't been in trouble since.

After dating for six years, Mike married his high school sweetheart. They soon divorced but not before having a child. Mike says he only saw his son, Adam, once -- behind a hospital glass wall the day he was born. He didn't want to talk about why this is so (who would want to go into this with a reporter?), but he does say his son would be 27 by now. It was during his divorce that his condition sprang upon him.

While research has shown that traumatic personal events are often the catalyst for the onset of a mental illness, don't ask Mike to dwell on the roots of such diseases. Rather than waxing philosophical, Mike prefers the salve of country kings -- Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. "They all lived tough lives," Mike says. "Every time I listen to their songs, I hear something new."

When confronted with questions about more sensitive episodes of his past, Mike leans back in his chair and becomes quiet -- you can tell he is processing a lot of information, but he doesn't articulate what he is thinking. He knows his boundaries and reminds you of yours: "It's kind of a touchy subject, and I'd rather not go into that."

Navigating pitfalls Mike likes to fish with friends on "the big lakes up North" such as Mille Lacs. He likes to read about the Old West -- railroads, pioneers and, as he puts it, "cowboys and Indians." He enjoys movies, too -- especially gangster flicks. Recently, he took his counselor up on her suggestion to rent less-violent movies. Mike says he recently enjoyed the family drama "Terms of Endearment" starring Shirley MacLaine.

At the end of the year, Mike turns 50. He's not one to try to predict the future, but Mike knows he trusts the people with whom he has surrounded himself. His goal, he says, is to learn from his mistakes and avoid the pitfalls (which he would rather not go into) that have plagued him in the past. He senses there is more freedom to be had, and he longs to embrace it.

"I want to be a survivor and be able to do things right," Mike says. "Something clicks in the back of my mind that always tells me to keep plugging along, don't give up, there is still hope -- light at the end of the tunnel."

Such clichs act as ballast, helping him navigate a life more difficult than it seems at first glance. What that light he is heading towards might be, he could not say; but he is walking towards it regardless.