By Susana Gómez Báez
Eight years ago, Khari Stewart left his house in search of a gun, desperate to do anything to silence the relentless negative commentary of his two companions. Their constant criticism and forceful invasion of every crevice of his privacy almost pushed him over the edge.
Fortunately, he didn’t find a weapon that night. But his struggle began long before he tried to kill himself.
Stewart was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2000, four years after he first heard the voices that exist only in his head.
“When I heard them, I thought I was crazy,” the 35-year-old says. “I thought there was a computer chip in me, that somebody had bugged me or something.”
For the past 16 years, he has lived with two unwelcomed delusions.
Anacron and Anacrona, as Stewart calls them, are demons from Mars, who he says know his location at all times via telekinesis. They communicate with him through torturous commentary of his life and often physically hurt him.
“They torment me,” he says. “They are there when I’m sleeping. They are there when I’m in the washroom. I mean if they can even communicate with me, obviously they have enough power to kill me. I think they left me alive so they can victimize me more.”
In Canada, almost six million people — or 20 per cent of the population — live with some form of mental illness. Of those, one per cent will develop schizophrenia, often projecting itself in delusions or hallucinations in a patient’s late teens or early twenties, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.
When Stewart was 20, he moved out to Vancouver from Edmonton. One evening, a group of men invaded his home and beat him savagely, leaving him for dead. He had always been a little unusual, but since the attack, the voices became permanent.
Now, he has to live with not just the monsters inside his head, but the skepticism and judgment of everyone he meets who doesn’t take the time to understand.
Jonathan Balazs was one of those people. The 2010 Ryerson film graduate met Stewart in Edmonton, where they both grew up.
“He had a rep of being eccentric,” Balazs, 27, says. “A bit of a drug addict, maybe a little bit unreliable — a good guy — but just a guy who’s messed up.”
They came back into contact in Toronto in 2009 through the rap scene, where Stewart is well known by his artistic name, “Conspiracy.”
“We did an interview for a music magazine and we got to talking about all the spiritual stuff he believes,” Balazs says. “I wanted to know more about it, how this thing happened.”
So Stewart became the subject of Balazs’ one-hour documentary, Mars Project. The idea took root during Balazs’ second year at Ryerson, as a five-minute video project for a class, A History of Madness.
His professor loved it and encouraged him to turn it into a feature-length film.
The documentary explores Stewart’s illness, recreating several of the dark moments that have occurred as a result. Many scenes were shot at Ryerson.
It took five years to shoot the entire movie and ideas changed tremendously throughout the process.
Balazs says at first he saw Stewart as a “freak show.” But his perspective shifted. “I realized that people were kind of oversimplifying it,” he says.
Balazs decided it was negative perspectives like his own that he wanted to correct.
“People with these unconventional beliefs and unconventional behaviours don’t fit into the mold,” he says. “But there’s still value somewhere for them. They also humble us. We don’t know everything.”
Stewart’s identical twin brother, Addi, agrees.
“Whether I think he’s crazy or not, whether I believe in Anacron or not, it doesn’t matter,” Addi says. “It’s a garment [Khari’s] been wearing for years. It’s his reality. Do I believe in psychic vampires that maybe live on Mars? No. But I believe that they exist for him.”
He says madness is a relative term.
“Mental illness is everywhere,” Addi says. “I genuinely believe everyone is crazy to a certain degree. People in North America would say ‘Oh it’s so crazy in China, or India. It’s so crazy that girl got raped on a bus in India.’ Well, yeah, but in America, 20 kids got shot in a school. There is madness everywhere. Pick your kind of crazy. The world has 10 billion.”
In 2000, after his diagnosis, doctors found Stewart was the clinical type of crazy. He was confined and medicated for five months, until he decided he wanted to go home. He says his pills weren’t doing anything to help.
“I could hear them in the hospital just the same,” Stewart says. “So I was like ‘Well, if they’re going to talk to me anyway, I’d rather be somewhere I want to be.’ So I just told [the doctors] the voices were gone.”
Professor David Reville, Balazs’ technical director and instructor of A History of Madness, wasn’t surprised. He says mental health institutions are often more of a problem than a solution.
“The thing that I find the most helpful is peer support,” Reville says, drawing from his own experience 48 years ago, when he was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder and hospitalized. “And I think the problem with our system is that it relies very heavily on biochemistry and, of course, biochemistry can’t give you a hug.”
Ryerson announced at the end of last year that a partnership is in the works with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to help combat mental health issues on campus.
“My hope is that Ryerson won’t get totally caught up in the biochemical approach to mental illness,” Reville says.
Stewart certainly won’t. He puts his faith in spiritual healing instead.
But regardless, Anacron and Anacrona have stolen much from him – particularly his boldness.
“He was the most fearless guy in my life before this happened,” Addi says. “When we were teens, he was the leader. Since this happened, it’s kind of taken a lot of his will to live. He’s not a follower, he’s way more of a wanderer now.”
How could he not be, when he says he lives tormented by delusions he can’t walk away from?
“I thought they would just go away,” Stewart says, monotone. “I didn’t know that hearing voices could last so long. In 1996 I didn’t think I’d be hearing them in 2013.”
Dwelling in his anguish, he knows this is his reality and his heart goes out to the only people who can truly understand him.
“God bless anyone who has the same problem as me.”