Photo by Marisa Padilla
Glass. Glass everywhere. Glass and gas.
Pepperdine junior Jacob Norte woke up sitting in his car, upside down, that fateful September night. He crawled through the door, staggered and sat down on the pavement with pain shooting across his neck and head. His passenger, a female student, was screaming in fear. He still remembers her screaming, the kind “that makes your blood curl.”
He looked up and saw his car completely destroyed and on its roof — its wheels were still spinning.
He stood back and thought, “Oh my God, what’s happening? Why?”
As he is seated retelling the story, his eyebrows tighten and he struggles to get out the words he was thinking when he realized the severity of the accident: “I wish I was dead. I wish I had died.”
He tightens his lips shut, his eyes focused on the napkin about to rip in his fidgeting hands. After a minute he looks back up.
“The crash wasn’t intentional, but for a good two months after that I genuinely wished I would’ve died in that crash,” he says. “I could have, and I know I should have by the looks of the car, too.”
It wasn’t the first time he had wished he had died.
Growing up in Los Coyotes, a small and impoverished reservation in San Diego County, Jacob experienced the difficult conditions that most Native Americans living on reservations face today.
A Pew study last year found that one in four Native Americans live in poverty. These harsh living conditions take a toll on the quality of life of Native Americans across the country, giving way to problems such as alcoholism and mental illnesses.
A report from the American Psychiatric Association in 2014 also showed that Native Americans experience 1.5 times more psychological distress than the general U.S. population. The report also states that in the Native American population, “The most significant mental health concerns today are the high prevalence of depression, substance use disorders, suicide, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder.” In addition to this, the report claims that suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native Americans between the ages of 10 and 34.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) found in its most recent study that Native Americans have the highest prevalence of heavy drinking in the nation. A study from 2001 to 2005 also found that alcohol-related deaths among Native Americans are more than double the number of the general U.S. population.
When Jacob was 15, he noticed his parents had started to drink more than usual.
“My father is a good man; he is not an alcoholic,” he said. “But just living in the reservation, being in that environment where drinking was so common and accessible just makes you more prone to drinking.”
When he was younger, his parents would take Jacob and his two siblings to eat pizza and run around at the restaurant’s indoor play area. As a kid it was amazing, he said. He enjoyed eating pizza and playing around, until he started to notice that his family would stay longer than normal and his parents would drink throughout the entire time they spent there.
“I remember we used to shut the place down every single weekend,” Jacob said. “Until like two o’clock in the morning, they’d be drinking and we’d be playing.”
The nights would turn sour when they had to drive back home — after drinking for many hours, his parents would start to fight in the car. When they made it to the house, he would wake up to see holes in the walls of his house the next day. When they didn’t, it was because one of his parents had gotten out of the car on their way home because of an argument. He remembers clearly when one day, very late at night as they were driving back home from the pizza place, his father got out of the car in the middle of an intersection. He started walking away and didn’t get back in, so his mom drove somewhere else.
Doctors first diagnosed Jacob with bipolar stage I disorder when he was in high school. The Mayo Clinic website explains that “Mania symptoms cause significant impairment in your life and may require hospitalization or trigger a break from reality,” which is known as psychosis.
Jacob’s condition is characterized by frequent psychosis episodes. When an individual is undergoing a state of psychosis, the website explains that the individual experiences a “detachment from reality [that] includes symptoms of false but strongly held beliefs (delusions) and hearing or seeing things that aren’t there.”
He described what it is like for him to have an episode.
“Ninety-five percent of your brain is completely on an autopilot that is listening to whatever emotional, carnal, deep-seated thing that it wants to do,” he said. “And there’s this little corner in my brain that’s kind of looking at it like, ‘Oh shit, stop doing that, what are you doing?’ So I’m completely aware of what’s happening at the moment. I know that I’m out of control. I know that I’m hearing things, I know that I’ve lost it, but you can’t do anything about it. That’s the worst part about it.”
His bipolar disorder led to suicidal thoughts, alcohol and drug abuse. Living on a reservation can be difficult for anyone, and he said his mental health issues made it that much harder.
For Jacob, attending Pepperdine as a Political Science major was a way off the reservation. An education was a chance at a new life — not just for him, but for his people.
“The plan is, build something that my children and people’s grandchildren can say, ‘Look, he did something with his life. He didn’t just fall.’”
That night the weather was clear. There was no rain, no wind. You would’ve seen the stars if you looked up to the sky.
Friday, Sept. 19 was his free day from school. He didn’t have any classes and he worked an entire day shift at a bakery in Pacific Palisades before returning back to campus to meet friends and go to a party later that night. He hadn’t slept in 30 hours, a result of his demanding work schedule and time-consuming academic obligations.
Jacob, 20, said he drank the neck of a bottle of sparkling wine at the party. He meant to stay longer, let the booze run out of his system. But a friend needed a ride home.
Their conversation grew animated on the way home and Jacob felt an episode of psychosis coming on.
He pulled his old Honda Civic over in Malibu Canyon.“I was sobbing, breaking down,” Jacob said.
His passenger offered to drive. “I said I would.”
When asked why he didn’t let her drive the car, he responded: “I just wasn’t there.”
Jacob pulled back on to the road and drove for a mere 10 seconds before crashing his car into a wall.
Lost Hills Sheriff’s Department arrested Jacob Norte under suspicion of DUI at 1 a.m. on Sept. 20 after his car hit the side of the moutain on Malibu Canyon Road and rolled across the lane. His car was totaled. Jacob and the other passenger were taken in an ambulance and airlifted to the UCLA hospital in Santa Monica.
That night he was wearing a green Bitcoin startup T-shirt he had gotten at a Hollywood event while networking for Malibu Bitcoin, the company he had started with two friends five months prior to the accident. They had just started gaining traction and had hired two people.
Hospital workers cut that shirt in half to examine and treat him. They later gave him a gray prison sweatshirt, at least one size too small, to wear home. He had no car, no phone and no way home. He had just enough cash for a cab ride back to Malibu.
Nobody talked to him for a couple of weeks, even students didn’t talk to him at all. The first person who did speak to him was Religion Professor Dyron Daughrity, whom he hadn’t ever had a class with, but had read his story in the Online Graphic.
“He came to me in the hall and stopped me and told me he read what happened online and asked me if I was OK. Just then I realized he had been the first person to ask me that. I told him everything.”
The DUI story had a cascading effect on social media and campuswide conversation, leading him to become the most recognizable face on campus for some time.
A few weeks later, people started making little side remarks to him in class. He remembers a student once whispered “drunk” to him. Jacob would hear students whispering about him during class, saying “Look at that kid,” and pointing at him.
He knew people were angry at him for what he had done; he said he didn’t understand what he had done to them.
“A lot of friends wouldn’t even talk to me after that. I found out who actually cares pretty quickly.”
The crash didn’t bring back bad memories, but good ones. He thinks it was just his own strange way to cope with the situation.
“It brought back memories of when I had been around my mother and things were good. Memories of when I had been around my father and he was there.”
His father is a firefighter; he would go out and help with wildfires, leaving the house for days and even weeks at a time.
He remembered the time he was 5 years old and he had been sitting behind the couch looking out the window all night and into the early morning, just waiting for his father to come home the next day. “I sat there all night. I said I wouldn’t move until he came back. Then I saw him, and I just felt happy,” he said, smiling. “I remember it was just so nice to see him after that. I loved that feeling.”
His mother didn’t grow up on a reservation. “She looks like a typical Malibu blonde,” he said smiling as he tapped the screen on his phone to zoom into a photo he had of her. “She’s beautiful. But she’s white. She’s always struggled with living on the reservation and fitting in.”
After the crash, memories with his mother from when he was 6 took over his thoughts. He particularly remembers the nights he spent with his mother watching TV. Jacob would sit in her lap on a chair in the tiny living room of the tiny house that he grew up in. “There was this specific cheese, I think it was Gouda cheese, and I loved that stuff. She’d sit back with me, cut out little slivers of it and hand them to me as we watched TV,” he said, mimicking the hand motion his mother would make as she picked up the cheese and sliced the pieces for him. “And I don’t know what we’d watch and I don’t remember much more than that. But after the crash, those memories came back to me. Memories of moments where I was simply happy.”
Ultimately, he realized these memories just made him feel worse. He explained there are certain thoughts that still go through his mind, like, “Look what you just did, Jacob. You just destroyed all of that. You threw it all away.” He turned his face away and, with a sigh, said: “Too often I feel that whatever wings I was given, I just cut them off myself.”
The first time Jacob became addicted to a drug was when he got mononucleosis in the eighth grade. He got a secondary breathing infection and was prescribed massive amounts of Codeine syrup every day. He became addicted to this drug to the point where he lied to his parents and told them he still had throat pain just to get more cough syrup. His addiction lasted for almost a year, until one day he tried to overdose with the medication.
“I took a lot and I just said, ‘OK, I’ll just go to sleep, and if I wake up then I wake up.’ I went to sleep and woke up 48 hours later feeling like death,” he said.
His first manic episode happened soon after his first suicide attempt. The Mental Illness Policy Organization explains on its website that bipolar disorder consists of mood swings that are either severely high states of mania or extremely deep states of depression. These episodes, according to the website, are “out of proportion or totally unrelated to events in a person’s life” and they “affect thoughts, feelings, physical health, behavior and functioning.”
Although the cause of this neurobiological brain disorder isn’t yet known with exactitude, studies have found many common factors among people who suffer from the condition. An imbalance in the brain’s neurotransmitters is common in individuals with bipolarity. Most cases of bipolar disorder also appear to be genetic; individuals who suffer from this condition are very likely to have an immediate relative who suffers from bipolarity as well.
Unexpected, uncontrollable mood episodes are the burden that people with bipolarity must bear every moment of every day. Bipolar disorder is a disruptive, incurable disease that, while it may be treated to improve the quality of life of those who suffer from it, still impacts these individuals’ lives significantly and indefinitely. The Mental Illness Policy Organization reports that suicide is the main cause of premature death among individuals who suffer from bipolarity.
“Taking medication, popping pills, kind of just numbs you out, whether you were feeling bad or good,” he explained. “Having bipolar disorder and going through your mood being up and down so ridiculously, you end up finding it helpful at some point.”
Up until the night of the crash, Jacob had abused prescription drugs and narcotics, especially during the months preceding the crash. “It just numbs you, and I liked that. I liked being numb,” Jacob explains. “That’s a big reason why I abused my medications and why I drank, because it made me forget, and I didn’t have to feel anything.”
Jacob has been clean since the night of the accident and he has been seeking therapy, treatment and counseling for his condition as well. He shared documents to prove this.
Jacob finished the 2014 fall semester, enrolled and started spring classes before he learned of any disciplinary proceedings from the university. The Student Disciplinary Committee, led by Dean of Students Mark Davis, had suspended him for a year and a half.
Jacob appealed the university’s decision to suspend him under the standard requirements for sanctions involving DUI violations. He wrote a letter to Davis and the judicial committee in which he provided doctors’ diagnoses and recommendations, asking that the university treat his case independently due to the nature of his illness, which he said was the primary cause for his lack of sane and coherent judgment that night.
Jacob said he had hoped that by presenting the university with this information, along with evidence showing that ever since the accident he has followed a treatment plan and taken the necessary recommended steps to regain and maintain his mental health, the university might agree to reducing the length of the sanction or to giving an alternative sanction. He said he would be willing to undergo monitoring and continue treatment to remain at Pepperdine.
The university reviewed his appeal and sustained the original sanction. He cannot return to campus until fall 2016.
Going back home and living off his parents is not an option; Jacob already has plans for the time he’s been suspended. His first priority is to recover financially. The university allowed him to take out loans to pay for spring semester and then only allowed him to attend a little over a month of classes before being suspended.
“I’m financially entrapped. I paid for this semester, I earned new debts from the loans required to pay it, and now I’m losing all that money because I was suspended and not allowed to return to my classes.”
Regardless of his situation, Jacob has made up his mind about his struggles and looks forward to find ways to overcome himself and move ahead.
“There’s so many times where I know I’m not the only one that is going through a difficult time. I know I’m not the only one that comes from a rough background, and I’d like to help other people. But I’m still learning how to help myself.
“I don’t want to be remembered for what happened,” he said.“I want to be remembered for how I handled the situation afterward. Just because I got kicked out of school doesn’t mean I’m not going to come back. I’m going to finish. I’m going to work my ass off and try to make something. I just have to start my life early. I didn’t expect to start out so quickly, but I just have to tough it out.”
It’s a typical Thursday in March. Jacob is at the front desk of the Malibu Inn hotel, the closest job he could find to his new home — without his car, he has to plan his meetings and work hours around how long it takes him to walk from his house to his destination. Every night he returns to a small apartment he moved into with two acquaintances from Pepperdine.
The apartment’s couch-less living room is his new home and, while this new life is a drastic turn from his previous, comfortable one, he still manages to smile as he reminds himself that, while thoughts of glass and gas may have marked his past, the hope of recovery and redemption give him strength to wake up every day, reminding the rest of us that temporary darkness is often just the prologue to a life of light.
Follow Maria Prada on Twitter: @Chuzac