SSRI Stories note: Schizophrenic patients are cautioned about taking antidepressants, especially if they are not covered by an antipsychotic. Ambien is an anti-anxiety medication. The Physicians Desk Reference lists both 'paranoia' and 'psychosis' as side-effects of antidepressant medication.
Luciano: Finding respite after life of anguish
For most of her 39 years, Nicole Major rarely knew peace.
A sad childhood and traumatic adolescence gnawed at her adult years. Bright and attractive, she tried to get a new start a while back but suddenly was hit with paranoid schizophrenia. She spent the last eight years trying to flee demons that refused to let her rest.
The North Carolina woman made a final, desperate attempt to escape her torment by taking to the road and hiding in Canada. But a bizarre detour left her in central Illinois, where she died alone in a cornfield.
"I don't think she ever had a peaceful life," says sister Sharise Nunnally.
Major was born in Connecticut, the youngest of four girls. Her parents divorced when she was 3.
At the time, sister Nunnally had left for college. In an unorthodox split, the second oldest daughter went to live with their mom, while the two youngest went with their father.
Emotionally, Major was a wreck. Though she caused no serious problems at school or elsewhere, she often was angry and agitated.
"She had a troubled childhood because of the situation with my parents," says Nunnally, 53, who lives in Cape Cod, Mass.
Still, Major found solace in a warm relationship with her father, with whom she grew very close. But when she was 14, he died of a brain tumor.
"It was extremely traumatic for her," her sister says.
Rather than reunite with her mother, Major opted to live with her grandma in Florida – mostly because of the sun. After high school, she attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Despite her intellect, grief plagued her heart and studies.
"It was a struggle for her," Nunnally says. "She never got over my father's death."
Nonetheless, she graduated with a major in psychology. But she did nothing with that degree. Instead, she went back to school to get another diploma, this time in teaching. She then took a job as a middle-school math teacher in Belews Creek, N.C., population 2,200, near Winston-Salem.
During this period of her life, Major shared little with relatives. But they knew that divorce and death had left her empty and shaken, so much so she never married or had children.
"She felt abandoned," her sister says. "She felt angry that (her father) was gone."
Still, about eight years ago, her life started taking a positive turn. Major became a born-again Christian. She began dating a solid, devoted boyfriend. And she looked to find a new career.
For reasons she never explained to family, she decided to apply to the FBI, for several possible positions. But she was turned down.
"That's when the illness began to manifest itself," her sister says.
Until then, though emotionally troubled, Major had shown no sign of mental disorder. But she explained her rejection as the work of FBI agents who wanted to sabotage her. During her application process, the agency deemed her a "problem" and a "concern," she would tell her sister.
But denying her application was not enough. FBI operatives vowed to keep close watch on her, Major believed.
"They're watching me," she would tell her sister. "They're following me."
Nerve-wracked, Major sought counseling. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, rendering her delusional. The cause of the ailment is unknown; however, the Mayor Clinic believes it likely is a genetic chemical disorder.
Often, schizophrenia does not manifest itself until adulthood. It can be managed with therapy and medicine. However, once feeling better, schizophrenics often stop with treatment, thus triggering the recurrence of the symptoms, which then can rage unchecked.
Major apparently did not follow treatment. Over the next several confusing, frustrating years, she went through multiple low-end jobs. In recent times, she talked about entering nursing school and starting over.
But, as detailed in e-mails to her sister, Major kept feeling the pressure of tailing FBI agents. Her boyfriend had stuck with her, but his comfort did nothing to ease the paranoia.
"He did everything he could to help her," her sister says.
Last Christmastime, he called Major's sister. Major's mind had taken a dark turn.
"He felt concerned about his and her well-being," her sister says.
As a boyfriend, he had no standing in court. But her sister did. So she filed papers and got a judge to commit her to a mental health center.
Her sister knew the risk. By helping Major, she might alienate her.
Both happened. Major was discharged after three months, mentally sounder – and armed with a plan for therapy and medication.
But she never again would speak with her sister.
Meanwhile, over the next several months, Major would give up on the regimen of counseling and pills. The paranoia burst back.
But she had a new plan: leave the FBI agents in the dust. She would go to Canada and start anew, free from prying eyes.
"It was like her last chance," her sister says.
Her boyfriend tried to persuade her otherwise. Her response, "Either I go to Canada, or I kill myself." He backed off.
Major knew a Christian couple driving to Canada, and they agreed to take her. So, she packed six bags with pots, pans, clothes and other belongings she would need in a new home, wherever that might be.
They left July 3. A week later, they were heading north through Illinois along Interstate 39. They pulled off at a truck stop in Rochelle, about 25 miles south of Rockford.
There, for reasons still not clear, Major decided to leave the motoring couple. Perhaps she worried that they knew about her plan and might squeal to the FBI. Regardless, she lugged her possessions to a Rochelle church and spoke with a preacher. She told him about her quandary and asked him to help her get a bus ticket north.
But during their conversation, she became belligerent. She believed he was in cahoots with the FBI.
"She thought he was trying to interview her, and she accused him of being an agent," her sister says.
Major likely was in a panic, her sister says.
"Her plan was ruined if he knew she was going to Canada," her sister says.
Later, a witness would tell police that she was looking for a ride to nearby DeKalb, to rent a car. But that didn't happen.
Instead, she was seen talking to truck drivers. Her sister thinks she
got a ride south, opposite the direction the preacher, the agents or anyone else would expect of someone aiming for Canada.
Somehow, she got to Wenona, a farm town about 40 miles northeast of Peoria along I-39 at Illinois Route 17. Her sister believes that, at that point, Major gave up on Canada or otherwise fleeing her pain.
She walked 24 rows into a cornfield. There, she died.
She would go unnoticed until Sept. 22, when a harvesting farmer spotted her remains. Empty bottles from two prescriptions – the sleep inducer Ambien and the antidepressant Trazadone – were found at the scene. Also, there were three cans of beer, only one of which had been opened.
Because of tissue decomposition, investigators cannot determine a cause of death. Still, an autopsy did exclude violence or injury as a cause of death. She did not meet foul play.
She died near a motel, but she had not stayed there. Investigators noted that her paranoia historically had prompted her to avoid motels.
But her sister thinks her sister went into that cornfield not out of desperation but intent. She died with her head in her hands, indicating anguish to the end.
"I think she made a conscious decision," he sister says. "… I think she wanted out, because her paranoia tormented her."
Major's remains have been cremated. Later this month, a memorial service will be held at the grave of her father, in Connecticut.
Her sister then plans to take the ashes to Cape Cod, which Major visited several times over the past few years. Her sister recalls those visits as rare respites from her sister's mental agony. The ashes will be cast off the shore onto the Atlantic Ocean.
Her sister says, "She really enjoyed the ocean."
PHIL LUCIANO is a columnist with the Journal Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 686-3155 or (800) 225-5757, Ext. 3155. Luciano co-hosts 'The Markley & Luciano Show' from 5:30 to 9 a.m. weekdays on 102.3 Max-FM.