Into the Light: Mac Stilec

Mac Stilec walks along the Yampa River Core Trail. (Photo by John F. Russell)
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Running out of gas while traveling from Denver to Steamboat Springs just might have saved Mac Stilec’s life.

The Steamboat Springs man was 24 at the time, and he was in the middle of what he would later recognize as a psychotic episode. He thought somebody was following him and was going to try to kill him, so he got in his car and started driving to Steamboat, where his mother and stepdad lived.

As the gas gauge got lower, Mac pulled over on the side of the road and asked a man, who was fishing with his daughter, for a ride to the gas station. Mac then called the police and told them someone was following him. Officers met him at the gas station and talked to him about what he was experiencing. Mac said they were very nice to him, and it was eventually decided that Mac needed to be transported to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Lakewood.

Mac didn’t put up a fight, because he said he had been having visions of being bathed by angels, and he had become obsessed with the spirituality of what he was imagining. The fact that St. Anthony’s was a Catholic hospital made him feel like it was a safe place to go, and so he did not resist. From there, Mac was transferred to an inpatient psychiatric ward at Boulder Community Hospital.

“It was a 45-minute drive, and the whole time I was in the back of the ambulance, I thought aliens were feeding me manna from their fingertips,” Mac said.

Mac was diagnosed with schizophrenia and ordered to take medication, something he initially refused to do until a judge told him he had no choice.

At that point, while being transported back to the hospital from the courtroom, Mac said everything came crashing down around him. He realized his dream of serving in the Marines was not going to happen. He was not going to boot camp, which he was scheduled to do the week he was hospitalized, and everything he had worked so hard to achieve was crumbling before his eyes.

“I just went straight to my room, and I started crying, and I’m not a crier,” Mac said.

At that moment, a man who worked at the hospital was ending his shift and came by Mac’s room and asked him if he was OK.

“I said, ‘No.’ I told him I am going to have to find something else to do with my life, and I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

The man then told Mac about his failed attempt to become a black belt, and the man’s story and his kindness made a lasting impact on Mac.

“He shook my hand and said, ‘See you on the outside,'” Mac said. “And I’ll never forget that — just him caring.”

And from that day on, Mac began taking his medications, and he has responded to them.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Mac said. “To a certain extent, I knew what I was experiencing wasn’t normal, but I didn’t know how to stop it.”

Visions of seeing shadow people and angels and demons all around him ceased with the medication as did the voices that told him to go on dangerous undercover missions in the middle of the night in downtown Denver. And he began sleeping, again.

“I haven’t stopped taking my meds,” Mac said. “I don’t want to do anything to hurt myself or hurt anybody else, and I don’t want to put my family in a position where they have to go through what they went through, again — seeing me deteriorate.”

That was 10 years ago, and since then, Mac moved to Steamboat permanently and is now an electrician after working in the health care field for several years. His mental health diagnosis was changed to bipolar disorder with psychotic episodes, and he’s been sober for seven years.

Mac’s mental health journey has not been an easy one. He said medication can be expensive, and he initially had a hard time finding a local prescriber. Before he had good insurance, he paid $1,000 per month for just one of his three medications.

“I don’t know if we have the best approach to mental health as a society, but it’s getting better,” Mac said. “Twenty years ago, I would have been in a straight jacket in a padded cell.”

Mac said he was at first ashamed of needing medication and being diagnosed with a mental health disorder. He said he felt self-conscious and insecure, but now, he’s more comfortable talking about it, and he hopes someone might recognize themselves in his story and seek help.

In addition to staying on his meds, Mac has found relief in doing yoga and reading self-help books written by others who deal with bipolar disorder.

“Those books taught me that I’m not the only one with this,” Mac said. “And if I’m getting stressed out or anxious, I just do a couple of deep belly breaths that I learned through yoga, and it helps.”

He also would like to see more people put themselves in someone else’s shoes when dealing with a person who might be struggling.

“Just because somebody is acting differently than you doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing,” Mac said. “Give people the benefit of the doubt, and gain knowledge before you judge somebody.”

And even though this isn’t exactly the life Mac had planned for himself, he has accepted it, and his outlook for the future has become more hopeful and less bleak.

“I enjoy being an electrician, and I like working with my hands,” Mac said. “I’ve always liked helping people. I’ve always liked leaving things better than I found them, and I want to do the right thing when nobody’s looking. And I think it’s important to be very mindful of who and what you surround yourself with.”

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