With his gifts for mathematics, art and music, Andre Ellison is the Renaissance man of Momentum for Mental Health. However, he’s still a work in progress, a masterpiece never finished.
“I don’t want to remember,” he said softly at the Recovery Cafe in downtown San Jose, where he supervises the parking lot, food kitchen and overnight rooms for people trying to get their lives back together. Ellison will accept only so much expert help. “The psychiatrists, they dig and dig to a place I don’t want to go.”
The tall, slim 49-year-old Philadelphia native and Air Force veteran with long dreadlocks cuts an imposing figure. Ever since he was a young boy, “there was this something in my head,” he couldn’t subdue.
A child prodigy in math, Ellison grew up to run long distance, play guitar, piano and drums, all to quell the restless something in his head.
“If I don’t stay busy I’ll lose it,” he said. He has taken lately to drawing lovely portraits with pencil on paper.
It’s hard to say for sure, because he adamantly resists psychoanalysis, but Ellison guesses that his torment is related to his first traumatic event, when he and his two brothers separated after their single, drug-addicted mother was institutionalized. They had lived in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
“I was surrounded by a bunch of drugs,” Ellison said. “When they took away my mom…they tried to keep us together but it was just too hard.” He was only four years old at the time and his father was never in the picture.
The young boy became a “loner” who found peace in math as he moved from one foster family or program to the next. After winning a Pennsylvania state math competition for sixth grade students, Ellison said, he went on to excel in the subject at a magnet high school. He describes his attraction to math this way: “I figured out early you could play with it. You can get to the right answer in different ways.”
Getting there in different ways became his approach to his undiagnosed mental illness. He pursued solitary activities in his teens and buried himself in books on any subject he fancied at the moment.
He joined the United States Air Force after high school and was soon stationed in Germany, with the keyboard controls of defense satellites literally at his fingertips. He corresponded regularly with Gina, his high school sweetheart, who had joined the Navy Reserve.
They married in 1988 and transferred to the Bay Area. He went to Onizuka Air Force Base in Mountain View, she to the Navy’s Moffett Field.
“We were happy,” Ellison said. And then it all ended when his wife disappeared.
“All of a sudden, poof,” he said. “I couldn’t handle it, I couldn’t take it, so I got out of the Air Force.”
He spent the next several years alternating between the streets as another homeless veteran and getting remarkable jobs in high technology. It’s as if his brilliance and mental illnesses were locked in constant combat.
One of those jobs was with a biotech company in Silicon Valley, where he operated equipment that inserted human DNA into the embryos of mice to produce cutting-edge antibiotics. That would be a career job for a lot of techies, but Ellison said he quit after four years. He opened an art gallery in Cupertino. The venture failed.
“I lost it again after that,” he said. “It’s a really sad story. “I didn’t let anybody into my world until everything got really, really bad.”
Eventually, while living in his car, Andre was introduced to Heiri Schuppisser, Homeless Outreach Specialist with Momentum for Mental Health. Schuppisser persuaded Ellison to visit the clinic whether or not he would talk with the shrinks.
“I’m kind of afraid of the digging psychologists have to do to help people,” he said. “I don’t even want to remember things my brain forgot.
In his usual style, Ellison has found a different path to the right answer by visiting Momentum frequently to just hang out and chat with the staff and consumers. He has found enough stability and inner peace to earn a modest paycheck, pursue art and music, and to help others recover in whichever way is best for them.
“I was down. They pulled me out of the water,” he said. “You just want to say, ‘Thank you!’”