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calming the storm

The voices had been bad that morning, angry and insistent, screaming through Justin's head. He sat behind the reception desk at Vincent House, swiveling in the chair, trying to concentrate on the phone he was supposed to be answering.

But the phone didn't ring. The quiet was too loud.

The voices kept shouting.

Justin Shea, 21, had been coming to Vincent House for three months. Of the 50 regular members at the clubhouse for people with mental illnesses, Justin was the youngest - and brawniest. In high school, he had played baseball and football.

Which is why, just before lunch on that Wednesday in March, the director of Vincent House asked Justin for help. A woman in St. Petersburg had an old piano she wanted to donate for the clubhouse rummage sale. Could Justin help pick it up?

Justin jumped at the chance. Anything to distract him from the noise in his head.

He followed the director out the door, neither man knowing the power of that piano.

* * *

Justin has a square jaw and kind eyes. A gold hoop hangs from his left ear, pirate-style. Dark sideburns frame his face. His handshake is hard, his voice soft. Even as a child, he said, he was always sort of sad.

It didn't make sense. He had a mom, dad, big brother and three huge chocolate Labs who loved him. He had his own room in a nice house in St. Petersburg, with a window overlooking a shady lawn. He just knew, one day, he would play professional baseball.

The voices started soon after high school. Softly at first, then louder and more fierce, Justin's mind began turning against him, telling him he was a terrible person, trying to get him to do awful things. Justin knew he shouldn't hurt himself or eat dog feces or do any of the things his head was telling him to do. So he started yelling back at his brain, pacing his house, raking the air with his arms.

His parents had him committed. Doctors initially diagnosed bipolar disorder.

For more than a year, a combination of medications helped hush the voices. Justin found a part-time job as a security guard.

He felt so good, he stopped taking his pills.

The voices came back meaner and louder. Sometimes he saw pictures, movie scenes playing across his mind. One night, Justin was so scared he ran from his house wailing, trying to escape himself. His parents called the police, who came armed with Tasers. Justin screamed at the cops, shouted at his parents, railed against the noise in his head.

He felt the Taser sear his flesh, an electronic staple shot through his back. He woke up in the psych ward at St. Anthony's Hospital. Besides being bipolar, doctors told him, he had schizo-affective disorder.

A woman in one of Justin's support groups introduced him to Vincent House. There, he met Elliott Steele, the director who founded the nonprofit clubhouse along with his wife, Dianne. Justin also met dozens of other people living with mental illnesses and learned how many of them had lost jobs, homes and hope.

He started volunteering at Vincent House, washing dishes, raking gravel in the garden. But even after three months, Justin remained reserved. He'd smile at the other members, but he seldom spoke.

On the drive to pick up the piano that day, he sat in the truck's passenger seat, swathed in silence.

* * *

They hoisted the instrument out of the woman's living room, across the yard, onto a flatbed trailer. Then Justin climbed behind the piano to strap it down.

It was a Yamaha, real wood, not laminate. Oak, Justin thought, or maybe maple. He could tell someone had loved it.

Grandma Tess, the woman who had owned the piano, played it for endless hours, said her daughter-in-law, Edna Davidson. Edna was donating the piano in honor of Grandma Tess. She hoped the sale would bring Vincent House much-needed money.

Justin couldn't figure out why anyone would give such a beautiful instrument to a rummage sale. He stood before the Yamaha, admiring its rich wood, the yellowed ivories. Then he cupped both hands over the keys and closed his eyes.

Strains of Beethoven filled the flatbed, spilled into the street. Rapid arpeggios and long, languid scales. The music kept coming. Justin kept his eyes shut.

From the sidewalk, Elliott listened, amazed. No one at the clubhouse knew Justin could play. He'd never even talked about music. "Wonderful!" Elliott cried.

Justin didn't hear him. He only heard the piano. When he played, he discovered, the music muted everything - even the voices.

* * *

He had taken lessons years ago, back in middle school. His mom had made him. After he got sick, he had dabbled a little on a Casio keyboard at home.

But it wasn't until that spring day in the truck, standing at the old piano, that Justin realized what the music could do.

It was more than just sound drowning the noise in his head. It was channeling that energy that made him pace and flail his arms, focusing the excess into creating something textural, combined with the physical act of striking the keys.

Justin lost himself in the music, physically, mentally and emotionally. It freed him.

He played on for 10 minutes, Bach, boogie-woogie, blues scales.

The woman donating the piano stood beside Elliott, weeping. "Don't sell it," she said. "Keep it at Vincent House. For him."

* * *

In some ways, we all feel like outsiders. We spend our lives struggling to make connections, searching for dignity, trying to fit into at least one small corner of the world.

For Justin and other people with mental illnesses, that need to be accepted is even greater. He had suffered for years, feeling he would never belong, or even be comfortable in his own skin.

In the 88 keys of that donated piano, he finally found what he'd been looking for: himself.

He started showing up at the clubhouse at 7:30 a.m., an hour and a half before he had to be there, so he'd have plenty of time to play the piano. He played through lunch, entertaining the other clubhouse members while they ate. With his income tax refund, he bought a new Yamaha keyboard with a CD recorder for his room. Every afternoon, after working a custodial shift at an office building, Justin would hurry home to play the keyboard while his mom made dinner.

Since March, he has written 42 songs. Four of them have lyrics. Themes range from school gyms to true love.

He has even ventured out to perform in public, where he'd often felt so unsafe. Wherever he heard there was a public piano, he played it. While a dozen guys shot hoops at the USF activity center gym in St. Petersburg, Justin serenaded them with Chopin. The cleaning man at Grace Lutheran Church stopped vacuuming to hear Justin's hymn. One Sunday, Justin spent two hours entertaining residents at a nursing home.

"Now, instead of screaming, I sit down at the piano and play to the pictures in my mind," he said. "I play mostly so the voices won't come."

As the voices get louder, so does his music.

* * *

On a September Wednesday, six months after he'd gone to pick up the piano, Justin walked into the lobby of Vincent House, clutching a satchel of sheet music.

"You want to eat?" the cook asked him.

"I'll take it to go," Justin said. "Right now, I'm going to play the blues."

He rocked as he talked, side to side, back and forth. His hands sliced small circles in the air.

He slid onto the wooden piano bench, his back to the crowded dining room. "This first one is an original," he called over his shoulder. "I hope you all like it."

After a few bars of rollicking blues, the clubhouse quieted. Sounds of silverware clicking, ice plunking into plastic cups, even conversation died away.

A gray-haired woman in a cardigan carried her lemonade into the lobby to listen. The cook came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on his apron. "Oh man, Justin's smoking," he told the woman. "I was back there just shaking my booty."

Justin sat perfectly still while he played. No swaying, no twitching, his back ramrod straight. Eyes shut. Show tunes, love songs, long classical compositions.

At 12:20, a staff worker called, "Hey guys, time to go to work."

Justin kept playing. He turned the page in his songbook. "This one," he announced to his audience, "is on just the black keys."

He knew the music wouldn't cure him. No matter how much he played, he still faced a hard road. He knew what happened to so many people who had mental illnesses, who didn't have family to support them, who didn't have a job - or a muse to quiet their mind.

Justin knew, no matter how loudly he played, the voices would always be with him.

But music had become a balm. It had given him a way out of the maze. Mostly, Justin said, he felt like he owned his mind again. Mostly, it was filled with piano music.

"It's like medicine," he said, when the staff worker finally made him close the piano. "It's better than medicine. It shifted the noise in my head."

Since he started playing piano, Justin said, the voices had become softer, kinder, like whispered encouragement from his parents and friends, sometimes even himself. Now, instead of scaring him, the voices cheered him on.

"You're a good person," they kept saying. "And a great piano player."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at (727) 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com.

On the Web

To hear a sample of Justin playing his original piano compositions, go to links.tampabay.com.

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