Collision Course

Drugs Can Control Bipolar Disorder

Former teacher Harold Holstein may have been retired but he had a genuine zest for life. Though he lived in a small town south of Los Angeles his whole life, he traveled a lot. He sang in the church choir, jogged, fished and skied. "He stayed in touch with everyone," said Holstein's daughter Teri Luke.

In September 1998 Holstein flew to Des Moines, Iowa, for a reunion of buddies from World War II. Holstein's life was about to intersect with that of 41-year-old Dan Ellis, and in one split second, nothing was the same. Correspondent Susan Spencer reports.

That morning Ellis, an award-winning graphic designer, was on his way to work. He thought he had overcome his two-decade struggle with bipolar disorder, a mental illness characterized by wild mood swings, paranoia and delusions.

Until that day, life had been pretty good for him. He had fallen in love with Haleh Niazmond, who lived next door.

"I found him very attractive. He seemed very stable," Niazmond recalled.

"One of the problems has been that while on medication I am (a) very high-functioning person," Ellis said.

And when things are going well for people taking medication for bipolar disorder, they may think they are well. Because of the stigma of mental illness, Ellis says it has been hard to accept that he is not a well man. Ellis hadn't taken his medication for two weeks when he got into his truck the morning he killed Harold Holstein.

"I never would have consciously taken myself off the medication," Ellis said. "I loathe the illness, and the mania. But once you are in it, you can't see beyond it. And when you are out of it, it is embarrassing and humiliating and in this case quite tragic."

"I felt this sense of panic come on," Ellis recalled. "I got into my pickup,...trying to contain it, trying to fight back."

But he couldn't fight it. He drove faster and faster. At 70 miles an hour, Ellis plowed into Holstein, who had paused at a stop sign.

Holstein died instantly.

Ellis was not hurt. "I just remember the impact," he said.

This was not Ellis' first incident. Five years earlier, he checked himself into a mental health facility after overdosing on his medication. At that time in a psychotic state, he ran out of the hospital through some woods. He ended up at a play area where he grabbed a 3-year-old boy who was on the swings. He dragged the child into the Des Moines River.

Scott Hamrick was eventually rescued. Prosecutors charged Ellis with kidnapping and assault. The verdict was not guilty by reason of insanity. The events of 1993 should have been a tip-off that Ellis needed close supervision.

"It wasn't a conscious choice to stop taking the medication," Ellis recalled. "Once the mania got a grip on me, I honestly don't believe that I need the medication."

"There is nothing I can do to bring back the loss they have suffered, he said of Holstein's family. "But it was an accident and something that I would do anything to reverse."

The state charged Ellis with vehicular manslaughter, but his lawyer argued he shouldn't be held criminally responsible.

Holstein's daughter Luke challenged this point of view. "We all have to be held responsible for our actions," she said. "Do we continue to let people with mental illness who are dangerous go free because they have mental illness and can't help it?" Luke asked.

The court found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Ellis was not sent to prison but to a locked mental health unit. There, whether to take his medication would not be left up to Ellis.

For Holstein's daughter Luke, an indefinite stay in a mental hospital did not feel like justice. "When you kill somebody, you need to be punished; you need to be where you can't hurt other people," Luke said.

The family's fear was that since Ellis was not in prison, he eventually would negotiate total freedom. Luke was wary. "Maybe part of me would like to see a person who has used the insane defense more than once be punished," Luke said.

Ellis himself once described his condition in the following way: "There can be a lot of delusional ideas; you begin to think that you have a special relationship with God or a superhero type of role. It's embarrassing and humiliating once it is over. But while I am experiencing, it is completely real."

Yet medication usually can control such symptoms.

Back on medication and functioning, he found coping with life in the hospital a challenge. As a graphic artist, he took solace in his painting and tried to accept that he could be in the hospital indefinitely.

"Indefinitely" was just fine for Luke. "I understand that he is bright and intelligent, and locked up, and on his medication he behaves normally, but if you let him go how do you stop him from hurting someone else?" she argued.

After three months, Ellis asked the court to be let out of the hospital.

Little in Ellis' past hinted he would ever hurt anyone. Brought up on an Iowa farm, he was one of five kids and an overachiever. "He is very very good at what he does," said his mother Mary Jo. "Dan made the dean's list his very first semester. He had everything going for him."

When Ellis began to show signs of mental illness, doctors were at a loss, putting him at times on drugs that aggravated the symptoms of disorientation and mania.

"Just being psychotic is an excrutiating experience, horrifying beyond your imagination," Ellis said.

Finally with a correct diagnosis, the right drugs and family support, he put his life back together; he got a good job and was married for a while.

"Outwardly it is very deceptive," Ellis said. "I don't look crazy."

After three months in the state psychiatric hospital, Ellis asked the court that hbe released. He understood, though, when the judge said no.

"The weak link has been when the mania starts, I miss my medication. I have to be put into a program where it's no longer my stewardship of the medication," Ellis reflected.

A month later, Ellis tried again. This time a group home, the Abbe Center, had offered to take him in free of charge and be fully responsible for his medication.

Director Pete Zevenbergen explained to the court that his medication would be monitored twice a day.

Prosecutor Odell McGhee was satisfied. "I don't have a problem with the plan as it is outlined," McGhee said. Ellis was allowed to leave the hospital for the group home.

At the Abbe Center, Ellis jumped at the chance to once again rebuild his life.

He set up his art studio and a computer and started working, picking up some freelance jobs.

After three more months, Ellis had his eye on moving into his own apartment - much to the consternation of the Holstein family.

Luke flew all the way from Texas to testify against giving Ellis total freedom.

"The proceedings are always about Dan Ellis and his life, and it is easy to forget that a life was taken here," she said. "The reason why I travel from Dallas to Des Moines (is) not out of malice; it's out of concern that this won't happen to somebody else, that somebody('s) life won't be taken prematurely."

The Abbe Center director promised his staff would deliver Ellis' medication every day.

In the end, the court gave Ellis yet another chance.

Said prosecutor McGhee: "We know there is a chance he will go off his meds, but any time a criminal walks out of jail he may commit another crime. And we take risks everyday; this is just another one."

When the hearing ended, Ellis and his family for the first time found the courage to approach Luke. Outside the courtroom, Ellis' mother hugged Luke.

"I am so very, very sorry for what I did," Ellis declared.

"We forgave you a long time ago; we really did," Luke says. "We have no ill will toward you."

"We just don't want this to happen again," Luke told him.

"No, I can't let it myself," Ellis said.

Niazmond says that when Ellis is on medication, he is "a lot more interesting; he has a kindness all the way through. Even in his illness, I don't believe he ever wants to harm anybody."

August 2001 Update:

In the last year and a half, Ellis has started his own company, and he’s taking his medication every day.

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