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BY BRYAN SMITH
JUNE 23, 2014, 11:35 AM
Josh Marks was a rising culinary talent. But then, suddenly, horribly, his life spiraled out of control.
Dusk loomed a few hours away, but as the young man wandered, vacant eyed, through the back streets of his Chicago boyhood, a different kind of darkness, one that had stalked him for months, settled on him like a fog.
Please, he begged. No, the voices insisted.
The gun had been easy enough to find, even for someone who’d grown up abhorring the destruction that violence had visited on the city he loved.
He hadn’t even had to pay for it. Not that he could have. A thousand dollars plus an iPhone had been the ask. He had eight bucks in his pocket, and there was no way he was giving up his phone, the one on which he had saved every message from his mother as the darkness had descended.
You can borrow it, then. A favor. But you best bring it back.
A few miles away, cheeks wet from panicked tears, hands slapping the steering wheel, his mother weaved through rush-hour traffic, stoplights and speed limits be damned. Her son, she had been told, was wandering the streets. With a gun.
Please, baby. I’m on my way.
That it had come to this, in the space of only a few months, seemed inconceivable. Just a year earlier, Josh Marks, the 7-foot-2 gentle giant with the sweet-tempered smile and almost sappy sincerity, was the breakout star on Gordon Ramsay’s reality show MasterChef. From rival competitors to hardened viewers to the cooking contest’s notoriously hotheaded, impossible-to-please host, the 26-year-old Marks had done the unimaginable: make everyone like him. Even when he didn’t win—he was a runner-up in a season that had started with some 30,000 applicants—he seemed to come out on top. Restaurants wanted him, and his growing legion of fans lavished supportive comments on him. He was on his way. Or seemed to be. Until the first panic attack came.
From that moment, like a thread being pulled from a fine garment, [but more relevant, as with others who are loaded up with psych drugs, see below – SSRI Ed] his mental state unspooled so rapidly that the change in him seemed as impossible as his lightning-strike ascent had seemed charmed. A traffic accident borne of a mind gone suddenly blank; a terrifying scuffle with police that included gunfire, a flurry of baton blows, a cloud of pepper spray; voices torturing him at all hours, voices that he was sure wanted to kill him; weeks of hospitalization to figure out what was wrong. The episodes were alarming and heartbreaking.
And now his mother drove faster. My son. Dear God, not my son.
In the gathering dusk, Marks felt the heft of the gun. The orange sky over him bled into red. Sunset was going to be beautiful.
She rounded a corner. One alley. No. Another. No.
He raised the gun, the metal glinting in the last light.
Please, God. Please.
Paulette Mitchell was relieved. The entire family was. It was early March 2012, and her son, Joshua, who had never taken a cooking class, had grabbed one of the coveted 36 spots on the third season of Fox’s MasterChef. The competition, which offered a $250,000 first prize along with a book deal, would take place in a Los Angeles studio that had been converted into a test kitchen.
As with most such shows, the drama—not to mention the ratings—leaned on the intensity surrounding which contestant would be sent home each week and which would advance. Those not were sent packing. Gordon Ramsay, the celebrity chef most famous for Hell’s Kitchen, one of his numerous reality shows, led the three-person judges’ panel, which also included prominent chefs Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich.
Josh Marks was lucky to even make the audition. He’d been living in Mississippi, where he’d landed a job with the Army Corps of Engineers. He’d come home to Chicago three months earlier to attend a birthday party for his little sister, Danielle, who was turning six, and a high school friend mentioned that a casting call for the show was being held the same weekend at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in the Loop.
Family (which included another sister, Dana, two years his senior) had always come first for Marks, but in recent years his interest in cooking had become a close second. Part of that passion stemmed from a fascination with reality cooking shows. With the family’s blessing, he dropped everything and went to work on his best dish for the audition: shrimp étouffée. “He left my kitchen a mess, but I didn’t care,” Mitchell, his mother, says. “That dish was like velvet.”
Marks was the last person the Chicago judges saw, but he left quite an impression. “I remember talking to him after he went down there, and I said, ‘So how did it go?’ ” his sister Dana recalls. “And he said, ‘Oh, they loved me.’ That was just him: ‘Oh, they loved me.’ I said, ‘I bet they did.’ ”
From the time he was a boy growing up in Washington Heights, a working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s Far South Side, Joshi, as his family called him, had always been likable. He had a round face, an infectious grin, and big wire-framed glasses that lent him a bookish air. He loved sports—basketball and baseball, in particular—but also math and chess. For all his later success in the kitchen, though, Marks as a boy showed exactly zero interest in fancier foods. “We used to call him Cheesehead because he just liked mac ’n’ cheese out the box so much,” says Mitchell, who teaches at a public elementary school in Chicago. Even so, the variety of influences to which he was exposed—from his grandmother’s down-home cuisine to local fare in Panama and Honduras, where he spent summers with his father, Roberto Marks, from whom his mother split in 1988—couldn’t help seeping in.
But Marks’s most distinctive feature emerged during high school. Of average height most of his life, he stood nearly seven feet tall by the time he’d reached his senior year at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy. Not surprisingly, he played basketball in school—well enough to land a scholarship at tiny Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. It was a good fit. Several members of his extended family lived nearby, and Mitchell says that her son “really gravitated to the slower pace of Southern country life.”
Once Marks had settled in, finding a church became a top priority. As part of his spiritual commitment, he looked for ways to help people in need. He hit upon the idea of distributing one of his favorite dorm foods—Hamburger Helper—but not merely the package-instruction version. “He’d really fix it up and go pass it out to people on the streets in Jackson,” his mother recalls.
Suddenly “food was all he talked about,” she says. “He started calling me and asking what was I cooking.” On her frequent visits to Mississippi, she could barely walk through the door of his apartment before Marks grabbed a spatula and skillet. “Sometimes I wouldn’t arrive until, like, 11 o’clock at night, but Joshua would take me to the grocery store and buy everything we needed to make me a late-night salad before I went to bed.” The next day, she says, “he and I would sit around for hours and watch the Food Network or look through the cookbooks my mom gave him.”
After graduating cum laude in 2009 with a degree in economics, Marks took a job as a contract specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers in nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi. But he couldn’t shake his obsession with food. If he was really being honest with himself, the audition in Chicago was more than a lark. In it, he saw the potential for an entirely new life.
Like the other contestants on the show, Marks had never cooked professionally. But he had qualities that made him stand out. His height, for one. His bighearted nature, for another. And his competitive fire. “I think that’s what got him a spot on the show,” Mitchell says, “and what kept him on the show. They got to see his personality. They got to see his charisma.”
The 20-episode competition, shot over the course of eight weeks in the spring of 2012, was grueling. Contestants were routinely roused at 5:30 a.m., and taping often went late into the evening. The producers kept them sequestered in their rooms at night, switching them to new hotels every other day. To keep word of the show’s progress from leaking, producers also discouraged them from calling relatives.
Despite the competitive atmosphere, Marks developed good friends on the show. “He called me his ‘sister from another mother,’ ” recalls Christine Ha, a blind chef who ended up winning the competition. “He is a goofy person with a great sense of humor. When we first met, he thought I was uptight, but then as he got to know me, he realized that I, too, was goofy.”
Ryan Umane, another competitor, recalls how he and Marks would while away their downtime with pushup and arm-wrestling contests. “He just always had a really positive energy,” Umane says. “He was the most well-liked [contestant] by a long shot.”
The final test to determine the winner—an episode shot in late April 2012—required Marks and Ha to each complete a three-course meal of their choosing in two hours. At the end, the duo stood in front of the judges and the cameras as their families waited in the background. After an agonizing pause, Ramsay announced that Ha had won.
A blizzard of confetti floated around them. Ha’s family rushed to her side as the judges, one by one, offered their congratulations. Marks, looking slightly lost, leaned down and gave Ha a hug and a smile. He would lavish compliments on her, calling Ha an “angel” who “can cook to the standard of a MasterChef.”
In a People magazine article published five months after the finale aired, one of the judges, Bastianich, had his own praise for Marks: “Youthful, ambitious and fiercely passionate, he has it all, including the chops to carry him through a very challenging field. I expect nothing but great things from Josh, and will always be proud of his performance on MasterChef, no matter what he goes on to pursue.”
If the loss wounded Marks, he wasn’t showing it after the taping. “He was disappointed, of course, but not too badly,” says his mother. “He took it in stride.” Indeed, at the end of the episode, when the producers pulled each of the contestants aside for a parting remark, a clear-eyed Marks looked directly into the camera and declared, “I will never give up on my dream. It will come true.”
When the show started airing in early June, Marks enjoyed his newfound celebrity, holding watch parties with his college friends and making announcements on his Facebook page about upcoming episodes. But as the finale approached in September, something inside him shifted. Always so self-possessed and imperturbable, he began suffering from panic attacks.
One of the first occurred when Marks and his mother were in New York for a finale-viewing party. Marks had been at a street festival with Ryan Umane, his friend from the show, when several people recognized him and crowded around. Overwhelmed, Marks felt a rising wave of claustrophobia and phoned Mitchell, who was visiting a friend. By the time she arrived at Umane’s apartment, her son was calming down. Both Marks and his mother dismissed the incident, but in the months that followed, such episodes grew more frequent and more troubling. Eventually, they gave way to something far more alarming: spells where Marks seemed to lose touch with reality.
His friends in Mississippi noticed the change. “He was really nervous and restless,” recalls Vincent Durman, a fellow contract specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers. At night, Marks would pace the floor and talk disconnectedly about ideas for new restaurants, new ventures, new recipes, new menus—“multiple businesses at once,” Durman says. “The stuff he was saying didn’t make any sense.” Marks and Durman had been discussing opening a cooking school, but after extensive research Marks would “almost forget the idea,” Durman says. “It was odd.”
Another friend—Derrick Calvert, Marks’s former roommate in Mississippi—remembers a late-night call in which Marks blurted out, “That woman is Satan.” Calvert had no idea who he was talking about and, more disturbingly, “had never heard him talk like that.”
To the surprise of his friends in Mississippi and family back home, Marks suddenly announced that he was quitting his job and moving back to Chicago to pursue a career in cooking. That he wanted to switch careers wasn’t terribly surprising, but it wasn’t like him to do things in such a rash way.
There was more. Marks said that he had met and fallen in love with someone and, after only a few weeks of dating, they were engaged. Mitchell was taken aback: “I felt like he was acting in haste.” Within a few months, Marks would break off the relationship.
When Marks returned to Chicago, any hope that his erratic behavior was an anomaly vanished. One day in January 2013, while at a culinary event in Washington, D.C., Marks called his mother to say that he felt he was battling evil spirits.
The next morning, just before dawn, he settled into a chair, turned on a video camera, and began a rambling 11-minute soliloquy. In the video, framed by the golden drapes of his hotel room, he rocks back and forth, a ski cap pulled down to his eyebrows. “I’ve got a great story that I’m going to tell,” he says before abruptly shifting to a new topic. As he talks, he holds his hands a few inches apart and parallel, like a fisherman showing the size of a catch, as if trying to force himself to stay on track. Suddenly he announces that he will sing “Amazing Grace.” Instead, he launches into a half song, half chant that he apparently makes up on the spot: “Songs unto the L-o-o-rd. Songs unto the L-o-o-o-rd. Songs unto the L-o-o-o-rd.” He sways and grooves and closes his eyes, as if sitting in a church filled with a singing congregation. For the last 40 seconds of the video, he simply stares past the camera, almost in a fugue state. Finally, he silently leans over and turns it off. Continued below
The Rapid Descent of Josh Marks
Things got worse the next day. Having returned to Chicago, Marks was involved in a serious crash that involved several cars. Writing about the incident in his iPad diary, Marks described what seemed like a straightforward accident: “I was approaching a yellow light, [and] as the light turned red . . . a car going eastbound struck the vehicle and catapulted the car into a parked car. Thankfully I escaped the accident with a big scratch on my head and several stitches. I was transported by ambulance and received treatment from Cook County Hospital in the trauma center and stayed there overnight for my aches and pains.”
The reality, says Mitchell, was far more disturbing: Her son admitted that he had blacked out just before entering the intersection and blown right through a red light. “When he came to, he was sitting in the car, and police were coming at him with guns drawn and were yanking him out of the car.” That he had escaped with only a gash on his head was “by the grace of God,” his mother says. “The car was completely [totaled]. The front end pushed in, dashboard cracked in two.” According to the police report, Marks was “yelling, screaming, and attacking” paramedics and was not answering questions “rationally.”
Also absent from Marks’s account is his bizarre behavior in the hospital, which was troubling enough that he had been strapped to his bed and placed on a 72-hour psychiatric hold. That evening, his mother recalls, with her on one side of Marks’s hospital bed and his sister Dana on the other, “was a battle. He was telling me that my father, who is still living, was dead, that Gordon Ramsay was dead. He was saying that he [Marks] had an inheritance. He was babbling things that weren’t rational. I was just holding his hand and rubbing his forearm.”
Later that night, Mitchell says, she spoke to a social worker at the hospital about the options available to Marks, who had no medical insurance. After some phone calls, the social worker was able to arrange for a short stay at Rush University Medical Center. But with no insurance, Marks’s time there would be limited, and then he would essentially be on his own.
A psychiatrist at Rush, Michael S. Eaton, broke the news to Mitchell at the end of Marks’s stay: Her son was bipolar and experienced episodes of psychosis. On January 17, Marks was sent home (at the time, he was bouncing between his mother’s and Dana’s houses) with a prescription for lithium and instructions that his family keep a close eye on him.
“I was bewildered,” Mitchell says. Before these incidents, Marks had never shown the slightest sign of anything resembling a mental health problem. In fact, he was the rock of the family. Now he had been diagnosed with a severe disorder that his mother knew almost nothing about.
‘He was very quiet, very withdrawn. You knew something was working in there, but you didn’t know what was going on.’
Her first step was to find out what they were dealing with. “I started Googling it,” Mitchell says. “I bought a book for myself, and I bought a book for Joshua.” Everything she read resonated. People with bipolar disorder, for example, experience dramatic swings in mood and activity levels. They can be bursting with ideas and energy one day and nearly paralyzed by depressive thoughts the next. That was Marks lately. His mother also researched psychosis. The condition, she learned, included a number of symptoms—hearing voices, having hallucinations, experiencing paranoid delusions.
The information was helpful, but it led to the far bigger and thornier questions of how and where to get Marks help—and how to afford it. She set off on what would prove to be a confusing and frustrating search for treatment to address the complex set of long-term psychiatric issues that come with such a diagnosis.
Making matters worse was the fact that funding for mental health services had been slashed dramatically. From 2009 to 2012, Illinois cut $187 million, or 32 percent, from its mental health budget. Only three states—South Carolina, Alabama, and Alaska—axed a larger percentage, says the advocacy group National Alliance on Mental Illness. (Illinois did restore $32 million of those cuts in 2013, blaming an administrative error.) According to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, Illinois’s per capita spending ranked 36th nationally as of 2010 (the most recent year for which figures are available). In Chicago, meanwhile, Mayor Rahm Emanuel outraged the city’s mental health advocacy community in 2012 when he abruptly closed fully half of the city’s outpatient facilities.
Mitchell knew her son needed further treatment, but “every place I called said that without insurance they couldn’t help.” The number of institutions that turned her down grew so large that she began keeping a list: Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Hartgrove Hospital in the western suburbs, the psychiatric rehabilitation center Thresholds, and the University of Illinois medical center, among others. One facility was so overcrowded, she says, “that I was told it was run like a jail.”
Occasionally, such as after the January accident, Marks’s mother was able to plead her way into getting a temporary hospital bed for him. But then he would be sent home with yet another set of prescriptions (“I had bags of medications,” Mitchell says), cocktails of drugs that would sometimes seem to stabilize him and other times leave him “like a zombie.” Any improvement was temporary, and family members would soon find themselves in search again of lasting solutions.
Mitchell eventually discovered CountyCare, a new Medicaid program operated by Cook County that is an outgrowth of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. It covers everything from X-rays and laboratory tests to prescription drugs and mental health services. To qualify, Marks needed to be at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level, live in Cook County, and not be eligible for regular Medicaid. But even after he was approved, there were problems. Because the program was so new, many providers had yet to start accepting the insurance.
Despite his spotty care, Marks would have stretches when he acted perfectly normal and lucid, and during one of those periods, in February 2013, he made a public service video for the Make a Sound Project, a suicide prevention organization. “Me, personally, I have bipolar disorder,” Marks says on camera. “I get a little anxious sometimes, and how I cool out is I listen to music.” But as spring and then summer arrived, it seemed nothing could stave off Marks’s psychotic episodes.
One evening, he asked his mother out of the blue, “Do you hear all these voices that are in my head?”
“I’m sorry, Josh,” she answered. “I don’t hear the voices.”
“I’m getting a lot of noise,” he said. “I need to go lay down.”
Arriving home with his mother another night, Marks burst out of her car and started screaming. His mother watched, terrified, as he took off running. Not sure what else to do, she called 911. When officers approached Marks, he calmly lay down on the sidewalk. A police van took him to St. Bernard Hospital, where he underwent yet another examination. Once again, he was sent home with a handful of prescriptions and a mother scrambling to figure out what to do in the long term…
Then came a glimmer of hope. After Marks’s release from jail, Mitchell learned that Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in the South Loop would accept CountyCare insurance. The hospital agreed to provide a two-week inpatient stay, followed by eight weeks of outpatient care, at no cost to the family.
The treatment seemed to slow Marks’s decline a bit, if only because he was so heavily medicated. “He was very quiet, very withdrawn,” his mother says. “You knew something was working in there, but you didn’t know what was going on.”
Upon his release from the hospital, however, Marks was hit with something unexpected. His discharge papers included an additional diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenia.
He was shattered. “He couldn’t bear the thought of another diagnosis,” his mother recalls. Adds Dana: “It was like, ‘How can I move forward in my life and adjust to what I need to do if I never know what am I dealing with?’ ”
One October day as Marks was walking down the hallway of his mother’s home, Mitchell reached her arm up to give her son a high-five. It was a silly gesture, a mother being playful, but when their hands met, she felt a connection. “Let’s do that again,” she said. They did. And for a moment, Mitchell says, they both seemed to just admire their hands together, palm to palm. But the moment passed, and her son was gone again.
The next morning, Friday, October 11, Marks rose early. It promised to be a beautiful day—clear and sunny. While his family slept, Marks picked up his cell phone and, at 6:41, sent a text to someone he knew. “Can you bring the tool this morning?”
Mitchell, tortured with worry about her son, stayed home from work with him at her father’s house that day. Something told her she needed to be with him. At one point, she called Dana. “Joshua is not right,” Mitchell said. “He’s still very down. I want you to talk to him.”
When Marks got on the phone, Dana tried to keep the worry out of her voice. “Hey, Joshua, what’s going on?” she said.
“Oh, nothing,” he replied. Bad sign. Anytime her brother said he was fine, she knew from experience that he wasn’t.
“Mom is concerned about you, and so am I.”
“Oh, you guys don’t have anything to worry about,” Marks responded. “I’m going to be OK.”
His mother had to leave the house briefly to pick up Danielle from school and take her to the dentist. That’s where they were heading when Mitchell got a call from Marks’s uncle. A neighbor had seen Marks walking around an alley in her father’s neighborhood with a gun in his hand.
Mitchell raced toward her dad’s house. “Mommy, slow down!” her little girl cried. But Mitchell didn’t dare. She zigzagged through Englewood, down Halsted to avoid the rush-hour traffic on the Dan Ryan. Please, God. Please let him be sitting on a curb crying. Please.
She dropped her daughter off with her dad and began scouring the neighborhood alleys. Where is he? Increasingly frantic, she made one last turn, a mere block from her father’s house. She registered the clothes first: the familiar black Windbreaker with the red and blue stripes, the black jeans her son loved.
She found him lying on his back, staring sightlessly at the sky. A gun was beside him. She saw a small wound, a bullet hole, in his head. But there was so little blood. Maybe, she thought for a second. . . . No.
She stood over the body, trying to form words, but she couldn’t speak. Instead, she screamed.
Condolences poured in from friends and fans. Among those offering sympathies was Gordon Ramsay, who tweeted: “Just heard the devastating news about Josh Marks. My thoughts are with his family & friends at this tragic time.”
The family released a statement that disclosed the bare bones of what Marks had been up against. “Behind that huge smile, Josh was in the battle of his life fighting mental illness,” it read in part. The family refuses to fault MasterChef for having any role in his suicide. Yes, the experience was stressful. And that stress may have triggered something in Marks. But it was his mental illness that led him to take his own life…