Mental Illness Hasn't Stopped Chris Shelton from Becoming a World-Class Boxing Historian

Mental Illness Hasn't Stopped Chris Shelton from Becoming a World-Class Boxing Historian
Photos by Jamie Peachey

About six years ago, a brilliant and troubled soul named Chris Shelton came to realize that methamphetamine was going to kill him.

In 1998, psychologists had diagnosed Shelton with a serious mental illness called "schizoaffective disorder," which causes periods of losing touch with reality and crippling mood problems, including severe depression.

That came as no surprise to the Phoenix man, now 43, who concedes that he had been teetering for years. He couldn't hold a job anymore, couldn't stop his mind from racing, and was living one precarious step from the streets.

Shelton with Queenie, a black Lab 
he considers a dear friend.
Jamie Peachey
Shelton with Queenie, a black Lab he considers a dear friend.
The controversial 1896 San Francisco prizefight that involved Wild West legend Wyatt Earp has captivated Chris Shelton.
Jamie Peachey
The controversial 1896 San Francisco prizefight that involved Wild West legend Wyatt Earp has captivated Chris Shelton.

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Shadow Dwellers: A Series

What's the one image you took away from the Tucson shootings? We thought so. That mugshot of Jared Loughner is haunting. And for the world, it has become the face of mental illness in Arizona. Here, we know that's not true. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the story of what it's like to be mentally ill in this place cannot be told in a single photograph.

Tens of thousands of seriously mentally ill people live in Arizona. Some of them look just like you.

Other stories in the series:

Tucson's Cafe 54 Is the Real Face of Mental Illness in Arizona, Not Jared Lougher, by Amy Silverman

Phoenix's Most At-Risk Homeless Find Their Way, Thanks to a Team of "Navigators", by Paul Rubin

Meet Raven, a Homeless Man with More Community Than Many of Us Have, by Paul Rubin

Why Did the Arizona Department of Corrections Put a Mentally Ill Man in Cell with a Convicted Killer?, by Paul Rubin

Jan Brewer's Response to Jared Loughner: Slash More Than 35 Million in Services from an Already Beleaguered Mental Health System, by Paul Rubin and Amy Silverman

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"When they told me I was SMI [seriously mentally ill], it wasn't like they were saying I had won the lottery," Shelton says. "That's when I officially became one of 'those' people. It was like getting a stamp that said my brain was officially damaged, or whatever you want to call it."

Shelton doesn't appear different from anyone else: He's a nerdy-looking white man who favors well-worn golf shirts and khakis, and seems about as menacing as a friendly, if somewhat wary, dog.

Even when he was doing meth — a drug that can turn milquetoasts into pit bulls — Shelton says he steered clear of the law.

"How did I stay out of trouble? I did not go anywhere or visit anyone," he says. "[A friend] has the best answer. 'You were a speed freak, not a tweaker. A speed freak is an addict. A tweaker steals for the drug.' I never stole and would go days without eating and sleeping."

Shelton doesn't "act crazy," "out of control," "dangerous," or any other phrase often used to describe those who suffer from serious mental illness.

Probably his most off-putting characteristic is his tendency to speak loudly when he gets excited. Inevitably, he apologizes afterward.

"Most of us are a lot like me," Shelton says, the "us" referring to people with mental-health issues. "We are not Jared Laughner. We get hurt a lot more than we hurt. We may be angry and upset about our lives, but we don't take guns and shoot innocent people any more than the 'normal' population does. I'm pretty sure we hardly ever hurt anyone but ourselves."

For sure, the Chris Sheltons of the world rarely make the news, even when they die at someone else's hands.

Shelton says he convinced himself at one point that his life was destined to spiral downward until it ended, which he strongly suspected would be sooner rather than later. His descent into the meth netherworld was an inevitable step along that road to oblivion.

"I have had a lot of anger and rage inside of me and around me," he says, "and I've tried different ways of [dealing] with it, some of them pretty stupid. I just have this mania."

Shelton has written poetry on and off for years, though he calls most of his efforts "lame."

Some — including rowdy limericks about Sheriff Joe Arpaio (Shelton's no fan) — are lighthearted.

Others, such as a self-portrait of his life titled Mental Abuse, are dark:

Knives are understandable

They cut you

Mental abuse isn't understandable

It cuts you but yet it is not visible

If a person is cut on the outside

They are bandaged with tender loving care

If a person is cut on the inside

They aren't bandaged — they are told that the wound is not 'real'

But in 2005, Shelton says, he caught a couple of breaks.

The first was when he decided to heed the words of a young Phoenix woman, a close friend he will identify only as "my guardian angel."

She told Shelton that a tragic end was coming if he didn't quit messing with meth.

"She was a one-person intervention," he says. "She is very loving but can be tough if she is mad." Also around that time, Shelton joined an old pal, John Neal, for a rare night out at the Rhythm Room on East Indian School Road (both are Phoenix Central High School, class of 1983, alumni). A topic of conversation at the club veered at one point to Daniel Mendoza, a late-18th-century British boxing champion who wrote the pioneering book The Art of Boxing, and to another old-time bare-knuckle prizefighter, celebrated American ex-slave Thomas Molineaux.

Shelton is both a lifelong history buff and a boxing fan.

"I worked on boxing research all the time when I did meth," he says, "but I did it purely as a hobby. I would watch videos of [boxing greats] Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Muhammad Ali, 'Jersey' Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles . . . and would write down what was happening in the ring punch-per-punch."

That night at the club, Shelton says, "Something hit me. I guess I decided to become a boxing historian, to do real research and see where it went. It was a 'moment.'"

Remarkably, that moment has evolved into a passion.

These days, Shelton "self-medicates" by doing serious research on boxers, especially those "sweet scientists" who toiled in the 18th and 19th centuries.

"I actually don't miss meth one bit, honestly," he says. "My mind is wild enough as it is."

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31 comments
Carl Toersbijns
Carl Toersbijns

Excellent story and enjoyable to read - sure gives you another opinion of the SMI and how functional they can be and are in many cases. HIs reality with life is both inspiring and educational for those who are SMI and wondering what the impacts are for having the illness. Thanks for a great story and a great read Paul.

odyssey
odyssey

uuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, 'lord' thank you so much, still giving a chance to 'drugusers" to stay alive!!!! we lost so many humans, since earth exist, for many many common sense and worthly reasons, i see, even drug user like shelton want to share their lil crazy thoughts from their mind, and acting and thinking its funny! they' should be thankful to god, that they/he didnt die, by toxicating its own body!

but an article written without positive interest/lust to the public and consumers, like schitzo himself Dave about 'shelton" where every non drug user, perhaps drug user would and lost attention, interest, reading and reading without an ending-statement, ruined morning breakfast and coffee for my ass, I had to smoke one on this shit...

Non profit Editors, they say: " they truely are the best, because the dont profit/use of people... But not in this case, this editor I assume went to school and hated his major/editing, cause he obviously does not know when to stop! gets paid some some good good maybe bad bad money, but thats not how you keep your readers

'Divine Design'

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mat
mat

Hey you guys check out Yahoo news.... they have had a link to this story every single day for the last week. Yahoo likes meth. Either that or this Chris person is givin a BJ to somebody over there so he can sell a book about his trials and tribulations as a meth warrior. LOL

Xide12
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horace pendragon
horace pendragon

Meth heads are in a class all thier own, abased women are thier handlers, if I knew subhumans were held in such high esteem I would of started a religion instead of a Riech!

Ajuliagulia
Ajuliagulia

I have a history of typen1 Bipolar Disorder (aka manic depression). I can tell numerous stories of my stays in psychiatric hospitals with serious delusions of grandeur. Aside from the disasterous effects mental illness took on my emotional well being, one of my biggest concerns was that I wouldn't be able to have children.

Then in 2003, I disovered a multivitamin from truehope {dot} com. It's called Empower and it has enabled me to have two babies. Since going on the vitamins in early 2003, I've taken no psychiatric medication and have had no problems with mania or depression (not even post partum). My psychiatrist told me that it wouldn't work but I'm delighted to report that he was wrong.

A medical doctor is trained to use medication to treat health issues of the mind and body. They have no training in vitamins and alternative methods of treatment. It would be great if someone could coordinate an FDA approved study on the effectiveness of vitamins in treating mental health issues but sadly, that would cost millions of dollars and pharmaceudical companies aren't interested because there's no money in it for them to do studies on vitamins.

Elizabeth Gullikson
Elizabeth Gullikson

I'm not letting my disorder get me either! I have rapid cycling bipolar disorder w/ psycosis, & PTSD. Friday I am going to sign up for boxing or MMA training, Ive been told its a great outlet from your day!

Michele Dahl
Michele Dahl

Chris, I absolutely loved this article. Thanks for sharing your life story and putting it out there for us all to read and relate to. SHAME ON MAT! (If you paid attention Chris lived in seclusion in his meth days and to be quite honest you did not recognize the fact that someone with his disadvantage quit the drug, thats quite an accomplishment. Chris deserves recognition in a positive way here not your critical views. We have seen perfectly coherent people do horrible crimes so you really have no leg to stand on and nothing was mentioned in the article about unkind acts, only the mans trials and tribulations) I had the pleasure of being Chris' classmate at Central High School & he was a most kind and gentle soul. Always pleased we took time out to chat with him and he seems to be a person that requires very little from others than some friendship, I am happy to oblige. Chris is always the first to offer support to me and another mutual friend from high school, he pays attention & it's nice. Nice makes the world go 'round.. For a person to still be so connected with old friends says alot about a person. There are many more positive life experiences for you Chris because you are thirsty for it, so drink up my friend. You need some support just give a shout out...you know how to get ahold of me. We all need to be supported and lifted up at times. You should be proud how accomplished & independent you are given the circumstances of the meds they put you on. You didn't ask for this and you are coping to the best of your ability. Unfortunately the states system is not the best & you get shuffled. For this I am sorry. Rock on Chris!

mat
mat

Hey Michele ...no worries New Times removed my constructive non vulgar comment criticizing Mr. Shelton and the journalist who wrote the article.

mat
mat

I caused you to write all that...i feel so powerful !

John Severs
John Severs

May not have stopped Chris, but it's stopped a lot of folks who are locked up in jail.

ADIS1224
ADIS1224

GOD BLESS U Chris Shelton

mat
mat

Interesting the article quotes him as someone "who didnt hurt people" but he actually did put many people in danger. You mean to tell me this ass klown never stepped into a car during his meth addition? He didnt go anywhere or talk to anyone and you believe it? Does he have children? Typical liberal journalism missing the point that you dont need a gun to be a danger to innocent people. Also, the author finds it necessary to mention this persons race. Liberals always preach lets not judge / identify people by race then they say "hey look at the black man crossing the street"... why isnt he just a man? Very typical hippo sized hypocrisy.

goosemeyer
goosemeyer

Matt, I agree with everything you said. I am going to add something to what you say. He didn't go anywhere or talk to anyone? Did the meth magically appear? He didn't hurt anyone? Other than injesting poison, he also kept a drug dealer in business. The same S.O.B. that supplies meth to children. Just a word to this wonderful and thoughtful SMI gentleman. You are and ignorant self-centered bastard.

mat
mat

Thanks Goosemeyer .. i appreciate it. If you check out Yahoo news they have had a link to this story every single day for at least the last week. Very strange.

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Walter Concrete
Walter Concrete

What exactly is a mental illness? Thinking that is not socially acceptable to all the "normal" people? What are the scientific factors that determine mental illness? There are none. What treatments have been shown to cure mental illness? None. You can't treat or cure something that doesn't exist. So, treat it with psychoactive drugs? There you go. They numb the neural pathways until the symptoms go away. Psychology is not a science nor does psychiatry do anything but push drugs.

mark v
mark v

who wants people to find purpose, in winterhaven ca.and yuma,az where do they want people to find purpose? GOOD for Chris Shelton that he can live unmolested and unhindered, not so in yuma,az and winterhaven,ca where people who are not mentally ill are discouraged from being mentally healthy and alert,and sort of forced into depression and mental illness, GOOD for Chris Shelton, keep up the good work and GOD BLESS

J M
J M

At least he has found a purpose that help him live from day to day. Isn't that all that counts? One day at a time. I wish my son and my grandson could fine a purpose that counts for them, they are still wondering around trying to understand why they are the way they are, different. I tell them that we are all different, that some can manage better then other is what makes the difference. Most of us don't care about the whys, what, where, when and the howcomes it's not a big deal, we just except things the way they are. Which is right , which is wrong? Maybe they are the lucky ones.

Mike Thrash
Mike Thrash

You know, Speakintruth, I found this article to be a breath of fresh air. I suffer from Bipolar ll/Depression, and while I take a mutitude of meds to control it, those same meds do not always work properly. Like the subject of the article, I also did my share of drugs and alcohol in an attempt to control my symptoms, before I was ever diagnosed.

I believe that your comment about having a bullet put in their head is quite insensitive and rather juvenile. Just because you used massive amounts of coke and didn't suffer any long term affects, does not give you the right to bash others who actually have true mental illness. Most of us used drugs and alcohol in order to cope. You just seemed to have used it because you were an idiot.

Actually - let me clarify my last statement - you used by choice: we used because we didn't understand that we were ill. We just didn't know it at the time.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Thank you Mike for the affirmation. I've had my share of alcohol abuse and chose to stop several years ago. And although I've not had the same struggles as my son. As for the comment I won't even respond to about being an ass and my providing my real name; I learned many years ago that mine and my sons problems is no one's business...! And there are too many bullets in too many heads worldwide to even consider answering the post. At least you've walked in similar shoes which is more than I can say for others out there...including my own son!

Bbshop
Bbshop

I enjoyed reading the article, and concidering how rampent Meth is in the phoenix area it's nice to read how someone was able to get of the drug I hope Mr Shelton can stay off the meth and find peace and purpose in his life with his illness

Rorewood44
Rorewood44

Nice comment, ass. Write your real name before you open your pie hole like this. By the way, it's "their," not "there"

Speakintruth
Speakintruth

Ok, this is stupid. I did my share of drugs for a long time. I was buying coke in quantities to do that would make most think I was dealing. But this jackass gets an article because he's losing touch with reality? Whatever retard reads into this should go out back and put a bullet in there head. Hell, this guy should do the same.

listenhere
listenhere

Hey at least he actually doing something with his boxing research other then drugs. He discover a lot of things from the past that boxing historians didn't know of. What about you douche? You still snorting? Is that why your talking a lot of shit about him?

Marykcroft
Marykcroft

Each of us needs to find a passion in life. Mr. Shelton is no different than others who throw all their energy into art, or music, or exploring the desert. This is a lovely story, and I'[m happy to hear about someone who is a historian with a passion for finding the truth! The other parts of his life may still be tough, but he is much better off than someone with a comfortable but dull life with no passion.

Bob
Bob

Mental illness has not slowed the New Times staff.

Anonymous
Anonymous

I'm intimately familiar with this kind of Mental/Nervous disorder that happens to affect my son whose in his 20's. Except he tried meth along with many other substances to "self medicate". His actual diagnosis was "hyper manic". Or some have called it "borderline personality disorder". He's off hardcore drugs, but still struggles with the outbursts, ranting and raving etc. The poetry this gentleman wrote about how a knife can wound you on the outside which can heal, but the wounds inside are much worse, is spot on! Especially with someone like my son who doesn't believe in synthetic/prescription drugs. There's always been a stigma attached to a mental/nervous disorder, however much research has shown a chemical imbalance is present in the brain. It's like an addiction...some people would like to trivialize it a sign of weakness or "he/she's just "crazy". But believe me, it's a disease. After reading this article and having to manage crisis/care/intervention for my son for over 13 years, I have to say it has been one of the most difficult things a parent can struggle with. I appreciate the article and like Shelton, my son is a historian, very well read and a bright guy. Hopefully, one day he'll use his talent for good and make positive changes in others who need help! Anonymous.

 
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