The police officer said “an incident had occurred in a subway station” concerning my brother Zack, but he wouldn’t say what exactly had happened. They had called his mother, who had then called my father, who then called me. “You know it’s really bad when they won’t tell you on the phone,” my dad said. I knew there were only two possibilities: Zack had either jumped onto the tracks or he had pushed someone, and honestly, at that moment I was praying for the latter because it would mean my brother was still alive. It would mean that if he were deemed unfit to stand trial, he would spend a long time in a hospital instead of a prison. Maybe there would be a doctor who cared, maybe they would try a new cocktail of medications that would work, maybe he could find some relief from all the pain of agitation, fear, and delusion.
But it turned out to be the former. Zack took his own life in 2013 by jumping in front of an oncoming F train in Queens. When he died, he was 39 years old and had been suffering from schizophrenia and paranoid delusions since he started showing symptoms about 20 years earlier. He had had enough. They said he probably died on impact, but they probably say that to all the grieving families — the alternative would be too much to bear. We went to identify his body, and they unzipped only enough to show his face. The desire to protect us from seeing the rest only made me wonder, as we left, how banged up the rest of him was.
My father had named him Zachary Flash Lynn, after Flash Gordon, and said that when Zack was a little boy, people would stop in the street to say “what a good-looking kid he was.” He was seven years older than me and grew up in Park Slope, a 20-minute skateboard ride from me in Brooklyn Heights. As a Jewish kid in Brooklyn in the 1990s, he immersed himself in hip-hop and Black culture, always checking his fade in the mirror before meeting up with friends — whom I all had crushes on — to test their freestyling skills. Under a gigantic poster of Malcolm X in his bedroom, he played for me Nice & Smooth, KRS-One, and Eric B. & Rakim. He must have thought it was hilarious to have his skinny, braces-wearing 9-year-old sister memorize the lyrics to “A Children’s Story,” by Slick Rick. And when I spoke, he really listened; it was rare for me at that age to be heard, let alone without condescension. He would follow up with “And why do you think that is?” or “Let me explain something to you” with a half-smile. He spoke to me in plain language about our father being incarcerated for trafficking drugs and how it meant that when he got out it was going to be hard to pay attention to two parents instead of one. He also said he would never feel quite as tough or as tested as our dad unless he were put in jail, too.
When he went to college, Zack seemed to find even more passion and energy. His letters to me were long and bright. He was exploring all the concepts he had mulled over in high school with his friends, like systemic oppression and the differences in privilege he had as a white man. It seemed he was able to perceive more about his surroundings, make connections, and articulate himself quickly and precisely. I’m convinced that his illness comes with a sharpness of mind that works almost too fast for its own good — he spoke like a comic killing a stand-up routine. Before we knew what was coming, the beginning of his breakdown was honestly fun.
In 1993, during his freshman year, Zack wound up in an emergency room after having intrusive thoughts. We didn’t know how he got there, and my dad drove out to bring him home. A day or two later, he found Zack clenched up in a ball on the floor. An ambulance took him to Bellevue, where he was involuntarily committed for a 72-hour observation period. Hoping that first stay wasn’t indicative of long-term mental illness but a single breakdown from the pressures of starting adult life, Zack returned to school. Within a year, he was back in the hospital. This time, he was refusing to eat or take his medication, and both his parents and the hospital petitioned a court for an order to put in a feeding tube and forcibly administer the drug.
Zack started to think everything was connected — messages on the radio, a seemingly knowing glance from a passerby. At times, he believed that a divine war was being waged all around him and that he was an integral part of it. If he did the wrong thing, if he picked up on the wrong signals, it would spell doom for not only himself but everyone he loved. “Alexandra,” he would tell me, “it may not be true, and of course I’m probably crazy, but it feels real. Can you imagine if something like that was true and you were one of the few people that knew what was really going on? You would fight for your life, wouldn’t you?” He lived with the feeling of a panic attack as his baseline and would try to locate a trigger; there was no clear connection in reality, so he searched for a metaphysical one. During his last few months in school, he found a cultish group of Christians up near Binghamton who urged him to quit taking medication, and he thought fasting would prove his worth to God. By the time my dad picked him up, he was 90 pounds and sustaining himself with water and chewed-up Bible pages.
In time, we knew every hospital with a decent psych ward in the city: Creedmoor in Queens, Bellevue, Beth Israel (if it had the beds), Harlem Metropolitan, Jamaica, St. Vincent’s, Long Island Jewish Hospital, and Staten Island University Hospital. We were always on high alert, ready to leave work or school anytime to go look for him when he hadn’t called as expected or when he called at 2 a.m. and sounded a little off. So many other families I knew couldn’t drop everything at any time. When I called 911 for help, the operator would send the police first before the EMTs, and I would stand in the stairwell of our apartment building and announce with as much authority as my 16-year-old self could muster that the sick person was unarmed and nonviolent. The shopping list for the next day was always the same: sweatpants, soap, clean long-sleeved shirts, slippers. And the paperwork, insurance chasing, and outpatient responsibility were daunting even for a sane person.
At the start of Zack’s illness, a hospital bed was somewhat easy to come by, and the stays, in our experience, were at least three weeks long, enough time to let the medication work and for doctors to put together an outpatient plan. But by 2005, under Governor George Pataki, state-run hospitals had been consolidated, shuttering Cabrini and North General in the city. At the same time, the private hospitals that accounted for the bulk of psychiatric beds were also closing, and by 2010, St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village was gone. New York had also cut reimbursements to hospitals for mental-health stays of more than 12 days, following a long decline in federal funding for inpatient care. The hope was that community services and supportive housing would be the safety nets that long-term inpatient care had previously been.
Those services never fully materialized, and more and more mentally ill people ended up in psychiatric facilities through the carceral system, though fortunately my brother was never jailed. He was white, which afforded him a certain amount of safety from the police. I’ve talked with other families who’ve said prison is like an atomic bomb in the mind of schizophrenics as they are attacked by uniformed figures that confirm their paranoia. Zack was also educated and more than apt at shouldering the immense administrative burdens of his condition, keeping almost every piece of paperwork he ever got in plastic tubs. His parents also had the resources to follow him through the system.
After a few years in and out of hospitals, Zack fell under the purview of Kendra’s Law, named for a woman who was killed in 1999 by a schizophrenic man who pushed her in front of a subway train. It allows for a court to mandate “assisted outpatient treatment” that requires people like my brother to check in with a team of state-appointed medical professionals who oversee the administration of medication. If my brother didn’t do it, a team would go to his residence. (He had fought the order in court and lost.) AOT wasn’t funded or staffed enough to help him, though, and if one of us wasn’t trying to renew a court order, it would usually just lapse.
“The medication doesn’t really do anything about the things I know, I know,” Zack would say. “It makes me slow and sad. I can’t really think.” Once, the drugs made him look like a different person, 75 pounds heavier and swollen all over. This was also when he decided to grow a mustache, which I told him was the real sign of his mental illness — ballbusting was the love language of our family. Perhaps that’s what he was expecting when he announced to me one day that he was going to try electric-shock therapy. “What do you have to say about that, Xandi?” he said, almost laughing. My heart dropped. I hadn’t even realized it was something doctors still did, and I told him I didn’t think he should. “I need to do something,” he replied.
By my 20s, hanging out with him had become tiresome. He wanted to watch old tapes of Led Zeppelin being played backward to point out to me the hidden satanic messages and preach to me about the perils of witchcraft and how I was worth saving, which made me roll my eyes. Still, we could find our old rhythm here and there: doing our poor interpretations of beatboxing; debating which was the better movie, New Jack City or Deep Cover; and his scoffing as I told him about my newest boyfriend or latest breakup. Sometimes I thought he could see through me, as when he would suddenly ask if I was still doing coke when indeed I had been. He never stopped giving me the older-brother treatment, either. One afternoon, he wanted to show me how to use my keys to create little claws by placing them between my fingers and making a fist and how to punch someone without hurting myself. It made me wonder how often he was worried about someone hurting him.
After a stint at Creedmoor, Zack had a short stay in supportive housing with counselors and social workers where, according to my dad, he thrived. “But when he got well enough,” my dad added, “they kicked him out.” And he wasn’t willing to fight and stay. “Your brother didn’t want to take the room in case someone else needed it.” With his disability allotment and some money from his parents, Zack moved into small apartments at the edges of the city, spending most of his time alone. For a while, he worked for our dad, who owned a chain of Mexican fast-food restaurants called BurritoVille, and later at an AutoZone, then a Pathmark. Once, he told me that he was lonely and that he had tried to talk to the guy who sold weed in front of his bodega. “Man to man, don’t you ever get lonely?” Zack said to him. “Don’t you ever wonder if there’s more to life than just this?”
Following a breakdown in the summer of 2012, Zack was released from the hospital after two weeks. His mother begged the hospital to keep him a little longer since he was having suicidal ideation. It let him go anyway. She was powerless — the law even prevented her from knowing which outpatient service he was in. Meanwhile, she and my father had spent years fighting for every little thing concerning Zack’s care. It wasn’t just navigating the system that was tough; it was advocating and insisting that my brother receive help, period. We were armed by knowing our rights, his rights, and the hospital’s responsibility. It was a constant argument. If you gave an inch, the system would deny you everything.
On February 21, 2013, Zack climbed out of his converted basement apartment in Kew Gardens that would flood when it rained. He shared it with other men like him who had recently been released from one of the three major hospitals nearby with psychiatric wards. Then he walked to the Briarwood–Van Wyck Blvd. subway station. The Daily News ran a three-sentence blurb about “an unidentified man” who had “died at the scene,” causing “several trains to be rerouted.” At his funeral, I said I supported his decision to end his life, not because I liked it but because I would never truly understand the pain he was in. I suspected that if any of us had to live for one moment with his illness, we would all be running for the nearest train station — and not after 20 years. His fortitude and the fortitude of those similarly afflicted inspired in me a sense of awe.
Zack died unnoticed by the city at large. Men like my brother, the ones who get harmed or harm themselves, don’t make the front pages, and their stories don’t further the disparate fair-weather agendas of every mayor-come-lately. If Eric Adams wants to expand the parameters of involuntary commitment so that “a danger to one’s self” includes smelling bad, then the policy is clearly aimed at the homeless, who make up only a small portion of the New Yorkers with severe mental illness. Zack was never homeless. What’s more, even if the state succeeds in funding the psychiatric beds the mayor and the governor have promised, it will restore only the losses from the pandemic, not from decades of cuts and closures. Any plan without the money or willingness to create affordable, supportive housing and a better paid and better staffed mental-health workforce will address only the optics and only for a short time.
A month before he died, Zack gave me a comic book called The Killing Joke about the origin of the Joker, the maniac clown who started out as an ordinary guy who was “one bad day” away from villainous insanity. I spent weeks after Zack’s death trying to figure out what he was telling me when he handed me that book. Was he warning me about what he was going to do? Had he managed to escape death like Batman and the Joker? I wanted to believe Zachary Flash Lynn was too important a character just to kill off. I took his diaries and his two goldfish from that basement room, and I listened to voice memos he had put on cassettes that were catalogued like mixtapes. They were the thoughts he hadn’t wanted to forget when he wasn’t on his medication, when he was speeding out of control. I might have been trying to drive myself into madness, I don’t know. I thought if I could decipher his thinking, map the way he made connections, I could figure out what he wanted me to know. “What if you really believed this was real?” his words kept repeating in my head. “What if you knew you had something important to do and it was life or death? Like really, Alexandra, do you know what I mean?”
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for free, anonymous support and resources.