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.
"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.'"