Joe Pickering Jr. spent most of his adult life working in the mental health field, including decades as the head of Community Health and Counseling Services, a Bangor-based agency that serves thousands of clients across eastern and northern Maine.
In spite of all that experience, it was still a shock when Joe’s own son, Christopher Pickering, was diagnosed in his early 20s with schizophrenia, a severe brain disorder that can leave an individual seemingly lost from reality and that can be especially debilitating when left untreated.
At the time, the bright young man was studying at the University of Maine, just a few years after helping Bangor High School take home its first state basketball championship in decades. He then received a mixture of hospital and outpatient treatment over the years.
But, gradually, Christopher Pickering changed. “The sunlight that he had all throughout his life, with many, many friends, turned into cloudy skies,” Joe Pickering said. “Then quite a bit of times, stormy skies. It was very, very, very difficult.”
In the last few months, at 46, Christopher Pickering seemed to be “declining” even more rapidly, according to his father, who noted that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated a previous shortage of community mental health services and cut many of the social connections that help people with mental health troubles lead stable lives.
Then, early on the evening of Nov. 12, police and firefighters were called to Christopher’s two-story apartment building at 57 Essex St. in Bangor, where he lived on the first floor and a family lived on the second.
State fire investigators have said that Christopher Pickering probably fell asleep in his bedroom after leaving a stove on, which caused something to start burning. He then may have collapsed from smoke inhalation after he got up, according to his father.
Joe now hopes that his family’s tragedy might prompt Maine to improve its treatment of people with similar disorders.
He doesn’t think the fire was any direct result of his son’s disease, because he never heard Christopher express any intention to harm himself or others, and because any person could mistakenly leave a stove on.
Nevertheless, Joe thinks the death of his son and damage to his building could have been prevented if Maine had a more robust set of community services and if its involuntary treatment laws gave some more leeway to agencies such as Community Health and Counseling Services to intervene when they think a patient is so sick he’s in danger of hurting himself.
Joe Pickering has offered various remembrances for his son since the fire, including in an obituary and, before his burial, during a mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bangor.
One mark of Christopher’s insightfulness was that when the disease first came over him at the age of 21, he correctly guessed he might be suffering from schizophrenia after reading through his mother Theresa’s old social work textbooks.
Joe is not aware of any history of schizophrenia in his family, although one of his great grandmothers did have to enter a state hospital once.
He started working in the mental health field after serving in the Air National Guard in his home state of Massachusetts. He had jobs there and in Washington state before moving his family to Bangor for the job at Community Health and Counseling.
But his work never prepared him for the toughest task of all.
“When Christopher got to be 21, what I learned was that I didn’t know a hell of a lot, even though I’d been in the business of mental health services for several decades,” he said. “When he had that onset of schizophrenia, I learned what brain diseases were, and how they were so damn devastating.”
While Christopher was a good student, some of his happiest memories involved basketball, such as the time he and his father caught wind that Reggie Lewis of the Celtics — his hero — was due to play golf at a course in Bar Harbor, and they tracked him down for an autograph.
As a 6-foot-1 forward, Christopher also excelled on the court, first starting for the Rams as a sophomore, then heading to the state finals during his junior and senior years, according to longtime former Bangor High School coach Roger Reed.
The team couldn’t win the first of those, in 1992, although it was one of the most memorable events in Maine sports history. Bangor lost to South Portland in an 81-79, five-overtime game.
Christopher then helped Bangor not only avenge the loss to South Portland a year later, but was the team’s top scorer as the Rams ended a 34-year state championship drought in boys basketball.
His legacy within the program was as much about attitude as athleticism, according to Reed. “Chris never had a bad day,” he said. “He was positive in every way. You’d be walking down the corridor and see him and the first thing you’d see was that great big smile on his face.”
In addition to advocating for more robust mental health services, Joe Pickering is now pushing for less use of the term “mental illness” to describe diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression.
Though the term is widely used in the medical community, he argued that it furthers the impression that such diseases are somehow less serious than “physical illnesses” such as diabetes and asthma and less deserving of public resources.
But while Joe wants people to recognize the gravity of the disease that so seriously shaped the second half of his son’s life, he hopes they’ll remember the rest of the picture, too.
He recently rewatched a recording of the 1993 championship game, in which a TV broadcaster at one point declared that Christopher had “put on a one-man show,” he recalled in his remarks at his son’s mass.
“That sums up what our family feels about Chris: he put on a one-man show, in the sunshine days of his early life and the cloudy days when he bravely lived through his illness,” his father said. “You see, Chris was so much more than his illness.”
BDN sports writer Ernie Clark contributed to this article.