WINCHESTER — Keygan Mullineaux was 15 when he first started hearing voices in his head. Two years later, he attempted suicide and became catatonic, leading some doctors to speculate he would never make a full recovery.
But thanks to a loving mother and a passion for video games, the 17-year-old Winchester resident is moving beyond his potentially crippling mental health issues and looking forward to a bright future.
Keygan has already endured a great deal in his young life, including the death of a young sibling and seeing his mother sent to prison on charges stemming from her former drug addiction.
In March, Keygan swallowed two handfuls of Tylenol. He survived the suicide attempt, but his kidneys sustained permanent damage.
Dodson, who has been out of prison for nearly a decade, having regained her sobriety while behind bars in 2008, was focused on helping her son.
She didn’t know, though, that Keygan was suffering from something called schizoaffective disorder, which can trigger hallucinations, mania, depression, delusions and disorganized thought processes.
She also wasn’t aware that he was self-medicating with marijuana.
In April, Keygan smoked some weed that had been laced with DMT, a potent drug that causes hallucinations. Since Keygan already suffered from schizoaffective disorder, the DMT’s effect was so powerful that he became catatonic and was hospitalized at a psychiatric facility in Maryland.
“His was the most serious case [involving a DMT-related mental breakdown] in that unit in the last 20 years,” Dodson said.
Keygan slowly emerged from his catatonic state about three weeks after being admitted, but there were few reasons for optimism.
“Keygan at that point thought he was communicating with his sister that was deceased,” Dodson said. “They told me at one point if he didn’t start recovering, they were going to send him to long-term care.”
Dodson refused to believe the doctors and nurses who doubted her son’s chances of ever having a normal life. Thanks in no small part to her dogged persistence, Keygan was healthy enough in June to return home to Winchester.
The 17-year-old now suffers from significant short-term memory loss, so his mom works with him every day to make sure his medications are working and his surroundings don’t become overwhelming. Dodson even got her son a support dog, Alexis, who has become Keygan’s constant companion and is learning to recognize when the teen becomes confused, agitated or overwhelmed.
“He’s come a long way but he has not stabilized yet,” Dodson said.
Two of the people Dodson reached out to during her quest to help Keygan were Tina and Rodney Culbreath, founders of the Winchester-based nonprofit organization I’m Just Me Movement. The Culbreaths agreed to talk to Keygan, which is when they learned how much he likes playing online video games.
“That’s a community that he connects with,” Tina Culbreath said.
Coincidentally, a summer esports camp was being offered at Shenandoah University in Winchester, which is one of the first colleges in the country where students can earn degrees that qualify them for lifelong careers as video game producers, creators, artists and writers. The Culbreaths contacted Joey Gawrysiak, director of SU’s esports program, and covered the cost of Keygan joining the camp hosted in the university’s Esports Arena on Millwood Avenue.
“We had students work together to understand what goes into esports and gaming as an industry ... and how to be a healthy gamer,” Gawrysiak said on Monday. “Keygan took part in all those lessons.”
Through the camp, Keygan realized he could turn his passion for video games into a high-tech career. He has set a goal of going to college to learn skills such as computer coding and video production that he can use to work in the video game industry, which Variety magazine says generates nearly $200 billion per year in revenues.
“I want to stick with esports,” Keygan said on Monday, with a particular focus on producing live streams of competitive gaming events such as the World Cyber Games, the League of Legends World Championship and anything involving his favorite Xbox game, “Call of Duty.”
Meanwhile, Keygan has decided to share his story in an attempt to reach others who, like him, are silently suffering with mental illness.
“He wants to help other people,” Dodson said.
One of the first people he hopes to help is his mom. Keygan said he wants to get his driver’s license soon so he can drive his 20-month-old sister to preschool and give his weary mom a break.