From Western State to ‘Open Mic Night,’ Andrew Neil Maternick finds recovery in music

by Michael Martz for the Richmond Times-Dispatch

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Andrew Neil Maternick loosens up like the athlete he once was, as his father, Ray, croons “Christmas in the Trenches” for a holiday crowd of more than 20 people snugly seated at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative.

Andrew, 29, stretches and twists as he prepares to take another public step on a path to recovery he has followed since one dark, fearful night more than four years ago when he stabbed his younger brother, Kyle, in the forearm with a ceramic kitchen knife during a “manic episode and psychosis” at their home near Gordonsville in Louisa County.

He’s become a regular performer at open mic nights here and at other venues in Charlottesville since his conditional release from Western State Hospital in May. He was confined for three years under a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity to charges from the episode on July 7, 2013.

“In a lot of ways, I kind of put myself back together,” Andrew told the audience before performing a mesmerizing rendition of his song “Put Me Back Together,” the last of three songs he would sing that night.

I have super glue, no not to sniff

Put me back together

I saw a shooting star I made a wish

Put me back together

And they say that nothing lasts

Nothing lasts forever.

If that is the case

Then, put me back together

Writing songs and children’s stories was Andrew’s lifeline through nine months of solitary confinement 23 hours a day at the Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange before his commitment to the state mental health system, first at Central State Hospital near Petersburg and then Western State in Staunton, with a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder.

It was at Western State that Andrew used an old battery-powered TASCAM recorder to record more than 70 songs he wrote there as a patient. From those songs, 11 were selected for the album “Code Purple — Andrew Neil,” which his father produced this year through a label he created to support his son’s music.

“I started a company called Tree Heart Records and just did it,” said Ray Maternick, 63, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran who deployed to Iraq twice and Afghanistan three times as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense.

His father, who resembles folk music great Burl Ives with a silver ponytail, took up the guitar himself three years ago so he could write and perform songs with his son, including “Rain,” which they played at The Bridge the week before Christmas.

Where there are thorns

There is pain

My only friend is the rain

Ray provides guitar accompaniment to Andrew’s impassioned vocals. On other songs, Andrew’s guitar playing is rudimentary but relentlessly effective in delivering his lyrics.

“He has no idea what chords he’s playing; it’s all by ear,” his father said after the show.

But it doesn’t matter to Andrew, who suddenly began playing music after a brain injury in a car accident in 2009, when the family was living in Fairfax County. He admires classically trained musicians, but he said, “I’m just me — I’ve got to work with what I’ve been given.”

His lack of musical training also doesn’t seem to matter to a growing group of Charlottesville-area musicians who know and admire his songs.

“His style is smart and different and uncompromising in a way I really admire,” said Brady Earnhart, a singer-songwriter who has featured Andrew on open mic night shows he produces at Escafé in downtown Charlottesville.

“I think it’s really brave writing,” Earnhart said. “He’s not trying to please anyone. He’s really trying to put reality into words as best he can. If it doesn’t make a commercial success, that’s just too bad.”

Just fill my damn prescription

so I can kill my damn fiction

That’s how it use to be

But now I’m free

— “Animals in Zoos”

When Andrew Neil was in jail in Orange almost four years ago, he declaimed poetry for a visitor through a Plexiglas barrier because the phone didn’t work in the interview room.

The Lord provides without fail

the stars are guides to help us sail

away from scars that scream and shout

away from bars jagged with doubt

and to a land where beauty rains

washing away all painful things.

The stars, he explained then, “are my family.”

“In my case, I’m blessed in the fact I have a family that hasn’t given up on me and hasn’t thrown me away. Not everyone in my situation can say that.”

When Andrew was in jail, the medication prescribed by Western State was not on the jail drug formulary. His mother, Connie, received permission to obtain the prescribed medication from a local pharmacy and bring it to the jail, which had little access to mental health treatment or medication. The jail was served by a different regional community services board than the one in Charlottesville that would cover his home in Louisa.

With his father, he wrote a song for her, “You’re the Reason,” that she called “very touching.”

You’re the reason I’m alive

From my depression, I survived

How can I ever pay the bill?

Your love’s stronger than any pill

Connie had borne the brunt of many of Andrew’s mental health episodes because of her husband’s overseas deployments. But Ray was home in May 2009, when his son suddenly erupted less than two weeks after running into an improperly parked car on Fairfax County Parkway and sustaining a soft-tissue injury to his brain.

His parents were awakened in the middle of the night by pounding on the door. Andrew Neil was crying for help and holding his head, questioning whether his parents were real, and then he ran outside. His parents called 911 and police used stun guns to subdue him on the front lawn.

Staunton psychologist Thomas V. Ryan examined Andrew for a lawsuit filed by a paramedic he had struck in the melee. The suit was settled but Ryan concluded Andrew had “experienced a severe, acute psychotic episode resulting in a complete break with reality and thereby rendering incapable of understanding or appreciating the nature, cause or consequence of his actions.”

That was the beginning of a long slide down for a young man who had been recruited to play Division I lacrosse at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Before the car accident, Andrew had withdrawn from the academy because of attention deficit disorder and anxiety, but he had planned instead to join the Marine Corps.

The next episode occurred in the fall at Liberty University in Lynchburg, where a hospital diagnosed an incident of strange behavior as “manic episode, with some depressive features, bipolar disorder 1,” according to records cited by Ryan in his report.

His father was in Afghanistan in late 2009 when Andrew walked away from their Fairfax home in a blizzard and was missing for a week. It was a turning point for Ray, who for the first time acknowledged that his son may be suffering from mental illness.

“I wasn’t very tolerant,” he said of himself during a recent interview at Hawk’s Nest, their home near Gordonsville. “I wasn’t very accepting of others.”

The family moved to Louisa in 2011. Andrew enrolled in a local community college but later dropped out. Ray deployed to Afghanistan again in early 2013, leaving Connie with Andrew and Kyle. Their other two children had grown and left home.

Faced with mounting aggressiveness “building up, building up” in Andrew, his mother sought emergency care at the University of Virginia Medical Center in June and placed him in a psychiatric hospital bed in Harrisonburg. After his discharge, Connie struggled to get medication and then to get him to take it.

Andrew erupted again on July 7, a Sunday evening. He punched holes in the wall of his room and bathroom, rushed outside “like a whirlwind,” his mother remembered. That’s when he stabbed Kyle in the right forearm with the ceramic knife he had picked up in the kitchen.

He later said he thought Kyle was an imposter wearing a metal suit and that he would not bleed.

Andrew was charged with malicious wounding, resisting arrest and assaulting an officer — he allegedly tried to hit one of the Louisa deputies who had responded to Connie’s emergency call.

When he was first admitted to Western State for an evaluation the next month, Andrew said, “This might be a blessing in disguise.”

Andrew had written so many songs in his first year in the state mental health system, “I had kind of forgotten why I was there.”

“I was in my own little world,” he remembered.

But once again, a storm was about to break in him. He had been getting his medications right and dealing with old wounds through six months of talk therapy with a Western State psychiatrist he credits for a breakthrough in his treatment.

“I let everything out. … I definitely faced down my demons,” he said.

But Andrew had stopped eating — he said he was punishing himself for throwing water on a staff member he thought had slighted him — and begun to lose weight. Then he had a seizure for reasons still unknown to his parents, who rushed to U.Va.’s hospital when he was sent there “unresponsive.”

“Connie and I thought he was going to die in there,” Ray remembered.

Andrew recovered, but continued to lose weight and suffer from depression after he returned to Western State. The eruption came when he smashed a guitar his father had given him.

“It wasn’t all smooth sailing — I had some setbacks,” he said. ‘I’m glad I had them there, rather than outside of the hospital.”

Western State gave Andrew the opportunity for prolonged treatment in a safe setting.

“In my mind, they saved his life,” Ray said.

After the breakdown with the guitar, Andrew moved to a different ward and changed medications. He began trying to restore balance to his life instead of relying solely on music and children’s stories. He began to focus on his recovery from mental illness.

“He just got it together after that,” his father said.

His improvement raised their hopes that he would be conditionally released to the community in May 2016, two years after his commitment. But Andrew would have to wait another year to be released and placed in a group home operated by the Region Ten Community Services Board in Charlottesville.

He’s one of five residents in the home. “We’re like a little family,” he said.

Andrew works part time at a doughnut shop in Charlottesville and participates in activities at Blue Ridge House, a psychosocial rehabilitation center operated by Region Ten. He said he takes pride in cleaning his room and shoes.

“I try to be a good steward of all my blessings,” he said.

Always, there is the music, both the songs and, increasingly, public performances, which he enjoys. “When I play in a show, one of my main goals is to remind (the audience) how beautiful they are,” he said.

At The Bridge, Andrew plays “Divide and Conquer,” a song he wrote a few weeks ago in response to what he sees as divisiveness and hate in American public life.

“We’re all children of God, all beautiful support beams holding up the roof,” he said before beginning the song.

It’s divide and conquer

We can’t take it any longer

Together we are stronger

Be the change you wish to see

I love you and I love me.

One of the few times Andrew found himself at a loss for words was when he thought about the Christmas holiday, which was coming up. He would be able to spend four nights at Hawk’s Nest with his family.

He was looking forward to spending time with his six nephews and nieces and playing with his cat, Sakoon. “Sit by the fire, watch some movies, drink a little hot chocolate.”

“Hopefully,” Andrew added, “I’ll write a song or two while I’m here.”