A is for Artist (A is also for Arsonist)

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It all started the day after Halloween. "I guess you could say I'm the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle," he says with a slow smile. "I had to clean out the acid baths in the print lab that day," he recalls. The chemicals revolted him. The heavy sweet-rotten stench similar to burning sugar cane stung his eyes and coated his lungs. Something in him snapped. "I had to leave. I went home and went into this horrible depression. I couldn't sleep for a week. I thought I was dead."

At 24, he was at the age when mental illness most often strikes young men, yet he was unable to recognize what was happening to him. Alone in a new city, his illness flourished.

His moods became manic, swinging like a pendulum between the depths of despair and the summit of euphoria. "I wished I was dead, then I thought I was God."

Kay Jamison, professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University and author of Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, writes of the sharp contrasts between mania and depression in artists. "In a sense, depression is a view of the world through a glass darkly, and mania is a shattered pattern of views seen through a prism or kaleidoscope: often brilliant but generally fractured." These cycles of despair and elation, Jamison concludes, are common foundations for both artistic creation and mental decay. "The weaving together of these contrasting experiences from a core and rhythmic brokenness is one that is crucial to both the artistic and manic depressive tendencies," she writes.

Indeed, in the months before his breakdown, Martinez was painting more than ever. His work was frenzied, tortured and decidedly more brilliant. His style had evolved from the simpler, more juvenile efforts of his first few years to a stark, shocking sophistication. He was in the grips of a manic high, he says, that was "better than heroin, better than any drug you could think of. A lot of people like to stay manic because the high is so good. But if you go too manic, you go completely crazy. That's what was happening to me."

Back home in Phoenix, his actions were beginning to worry his friends. He sent a fax to MARS, a bizarre message with repeated phrases. "Oh my, I thought, this was a little odd, this wasn't like him," Lopez recalls. "It was like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I thought he's got too much time on his hands, you know what they say about idle hands."

No one was aware of how deep and how swiftly Martinez was falling. Even Moreno, his closest friend, wrote off his unusual behavior as an artistic tangent. "I don't know what happened there. I'd get phone calls out of nowhere with some crazy ideas. I didn't know if it was some new direction he was going in. I worried, though. I would ask him, How are you doing, man?' San Francisco is a pretty progressive, intimidating town. Maybe that's what knocked him off his bike."

Memories of that fall are difficult for Martinez to sift through. Time lost its structure. "It was like a bad acid trip that went on forever," he says. "The feeling of being psychotic is a disassociation with the real world. Nothing made sense to me anymore, and all I could do was read people's minds."

As November progressed, Martinez had lost control. "I was wandering around [San Francisco] with a backpack of old family photographs in a deep depression. I felt like I was going to die and I wanted to have them with me when I did."

His sense of responsibility toward his family was paired with his disdain for them. His grown but not grown-up siblings were squatting in his house, he thought, doing drugs and committing crimes. He wanted to take care of his mother but didn't want to support them any longer. They were after his money, he thought, all of them. It was driving him crazy, but still he would turn to his family one last time for help.

"The street signs were telling me things," he says. In everything he saw signs, or symbols that only he could interpret and respond to, messages from God, codes meant to lead him to his destiny.

He ended up at the train station looking at a Bay Area Rapid Transit map. The last stop at one end, coincidentally, was called Martinez, just like his last name: "I didn't want to go there; that would mean going into myself," he says. At the other end was the Folsom stop. "That meant prison to me, like I was going to be arrested." Martinez opted for the airport, where he bought a plane ticket and flew home to Phoenix. He called his sister from the airport and asked to be taken to the emergency room. "I said I'm not feeling right, there's something wrong with me, I think I'm crazy."

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Susy Buchanan