Jay Knight spent the better part of four decades angry, anxious and depressed. He never talked about it though. That is, until he stuck a .38 revolver under his chin and pulled the trigger.
Today, Knight freely shares his story, hoping to inspire others to seek help before they hit bottom like he did.
Knight, 50, grew up in a military family moving all over the country until, at 14, he ended up in Safford. He remembers feeling angry all the time. He started smoking marijuana at 9, which led to other drugs. He was constantly in trouble in his teens.
“I thought I was owed things,” he said.
At 17, he went into the Job Corps, where he learned construction and handyman skills. At 19, he found himself in prison for assault and theft and remained there until he was 28.
“I still carried a lot of anger and resentment and bitterness coming out of prison. I think I was angrier coming out of out of prison than I was going in,” Knight said. “I blamed the system. I blamed everybody but myself. It couldn’t have been my fault.”
Over the years, Knight drifted from one construction or landscaping job to the next, but would end up quitting or getting fired because of his anger. Even when he became a certified automotive mechanic through Eastern Arizona College and had a wife and daughter, he couldn’t keep a job for long.
In 2017, he was a 47-year-old divorced ex-convict with no transportation and living with his parents. Construction jobs were scarce and relationship prospects were slim.
He spent all of his time wallowing in feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.
“I hide out in the bedroom with blackout curtains. I don’t go outside. I quit going to town. I stay in bed clothes all the time. I come out of my bedroom to get food. I come out of my bedroom to use the restroom and I am listening to very dark, depressive, gloomy, heavy-metal punk rock.”
He thought many times about calling a crisis line but he always stopped himself when thoughts of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Nurse Ratched took over.
“The thought would come across my mind, ‘If they knew the thoughts you were thinking, they will lock you up for the rest of your life. You will never get out. You’ll never see anybody you love,” Knight said. “I never called anybody. I never asked anybody for help. It got to after three or four or five months people quit calling me. People quit looking me up and that confirms everything that I’m thinking. Nobody cares about me. Nobody gives one iota what I’m going through. If they did, they would be here asking questions. Nobody cares. My parents don’t care. My brothers and sisters don’t care. So obviously everything that I’m feeling has to be true.”
In March 2018, Knight and his father got into an argument. His father told him if he didn’t like the way things were going he could walk out the door. Knight retrieved his mother’s gun.
“As I was walking outside, I asked my father, I said, ‘So, this door?’ And he said, ‘Yes, that door,’ and I walked outside and I stuck the gun under my chin and I pulled the trigger,” Knight said.
The bullet took out all of the teeth on the left side of his jaw, shattered his mandible, crushed his maxilla and came to rest in his nose after separating his septum.
His jaw wired shut and facing months of reconstructive surgery, Knight was placed on suicide watch at Tucson Medical Center. Someone was in his room 24 hours a day. He got a visit from the hospital’s mental health team, which asked him if he was ever depressed and if he was ever anxious. Looking over at one of his “babysitters,” Knight saw she was nodding her head emphatically. Taking his cues from her and unable to speak, he wrote down, “Yes” on a pad of paper he’d been given.
“Without her, I probably would have said ‘No.’ I was scared to tell anybody what was going on in my head. I was really terrified about the turmoil that I was feeling. I didn’t want anybody to know,” Knight said.
He soon found himself on anti-depressants and anxiety medications.
Once out of the hospital and stabilized on medications, Knight realized he was ready for a change. A friend referred him to South Eastern Arizona Behavioral Health Services in Safford and he began to attend group and individual therapy sessions. Around the same time, he learned he was being charged in connection with the shooting. As a felon, he wasn’t supposed to be in possession of a weapon, let alone fire one.
Knight was feeling far better than he had in years, but he once again found himself angry. All of his doctors knew he shot himself because he was depressed. His therapists understood, why couldn’t the courts? Hadn’t he already been through enough? Why was he once again facing prison time? Knight wanted to know.
He demanded a meeting with Graham County Superior Court Judge Michael Peterson.
Having dealt with police officers, judges and parole officers in the past and coming to hate all of them, he came away from the meeting in shock.
A couple of years after starting Graham County’s drug court program, Peterson was ready to take on a new challenge. He’d come to realize many people turn to drugs and alcohol because they have unaddressed or even undiagnosed mental health issues.
“There are times when it’s absolutely heart-wrenching,” Peterson said. “You’ll read a report about someone and you’ll see their childhood and you’ll think, ‘My word, this not right what they’ve been through,’ and it’s often the case they’ve been abused and sometimes by people who should’ve been protecting them. There are other times where they’ve been victimized when they’ve been older or they’ve inherited mental traits or they’ve had injuries that have caused them to suffer trauma to the brain that have caused them to start acting in ways that are not consistent with what we expect from law-abiding citizens.”
With the blessing of Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert M. Brutinel, Peterson created the Community Wellness and Veterans Services program in August 2019.
Once convicted, people with mental health conditions can volunteer to be placed on the caseload of specific probation officers who are tasked with making sure they are properly assessed by a mental health provider and follow rules all other probationers follow, plus a few extras. For example, they’re required to stick to their prescribed medications, make all of their counseling sessions and meet with the judge as often as once a week or as little as once a month.
While holding them accountable is important, Peterson said everyone involved in the specialty court is committed to making sure their clients know they are loved and supported.
Just that little bit of extra attention, “in some instances, has proven to be miraculous,” Peterson said.
“There have been literal miracles of people that you would not recognize” after a few months in the program, he said. “They are now, effectively, a different person.”
Cory Hoisington was the program’s primary probation officer through January. One year shy of getting his doctorate in psychology, Peterson hand-picked him for the job.
There are a couple of misconceptions about the mentally ill and probation officers, he said.
First, many think people with mental health challenges can’t live successful productive lives when the fact is many of our neighbors, co-workers, family and friends suffer from a range of such issues and are quite productive, he said. Second, people think probation officers exist to punish people.
“It’s our job is to teach them and to provide them with additional tools to help keep them out of prison if they will embrace it, if they will apply them and if they want to be able to help re-assimilate back into society and be a functioning member,” Hoisington said.
In order to develop a rapport with mental health patients and to gain their trust, Hoisington said you have to understand they perceive and process things differently and find ways to help them.
For example, when one of his probationers was struggling, taking his library privileges away worked when the threat of jail didn’t, he said. In another case, he had a probationer who was afraid to apply for jobs because he didn’t know how to tell prospective employers about his mental health issues and being on probation. He went with him to turn in resumes and to speak with prospective employers and the man soon landed a job.
There’s also the veteran population, Peterson said. They are not the easiest people to convince to accept help, nor are they often willing to talk about their issues.
“As a trained warrior, you’re trained to be a tough guy. Half your job description is, ‘I’m a tough guy and I’m going to take care of myself and my buddies,’ and that’s a good mentality when you’re in a war against an enemy. But when the war becomes within yourself and in your own mind and you’ve experienced things or seen and done things that have later haunted you, how do you deal with that?” Peterson said.
Hoisington, an Army veteran, was able to develop such so much trust that he not only got veterans to agree to seek services, he sometimes gave them rides to the VA Hospital in Tucson when their needs exceeded the capabilities of the VA in Graham County.
Hoisington believes the specialty court has also been successful because of Peterson, who meets with the probationers without his judicial robes in the jury room instead of the courtroom, he said.
“It removed a lot of tension that was found in the courtroom. It removed a lot of those concerns and it brought him down to earth and put him on an even footing with these folks,” Hoisington said.
Jessie McCoy, who took over the program after Hoisington left, agreed.
“I have learned so much from Judge Peterson,” she said. “He’s a great person. He just sits down and interacts with them. He’s just a down-to-earth person who has found a really good way to approach people.”
Those in the program have just blossomed, Hoisington said.
“It was like taking a flower that was wilting and dying and putting this steroidal dose of Weed and Feed and water and sunshine and just watching them bloom and bloom, blowing through the pot that it was in. They just grew so quickly,” he said.
About 100 people have been through the wellness program since its inception and at any one time there are 35 to 40 people on the caseload. Some participants do so well they are released from probation early, others simply transition to a regular probation caseload. While a few have failed to complete probation and have been sent to prison, none of those who successfully finish probation have been back in trouble, Peterson said.
Many of his probationers would rather stay involved in the program than transition to regular probation, he said.
He remembers telling one participant he no longer needed to see him once a week. He later learned the man was quite upset. He didn’t understand that by cutting his court appearances from once a week to once a month Peterson was rewarding him.
“He told his counselor, ‘I don’t know what I did, but I made the judge mad and he doesn’t want to see me any more than once a month,’” Peterson said.
People in the wellness program don’t have a graduation ceremony because “people don’t magically get past their mental health challenges” when they flip a page on the calendar, Peterson said.
“It’s for a variety of reasons, including our fear that someone may feel that if they do graduate that they are no longer going to have access to their medical providers and their medication,” Peterson said. “In drug court we incentivize people to have future success in abstaining from drugs, but most of the people in our Community Wellness program are going to need to have continuing care and medication beyond probation.”
When Knight sat down with Peterson he expected to despise him just as he had all of the other people he’d met in the criminal justice system. Instead, he was impressed.
“Judge Peterson came and met me as a human being. He didn’t come and meet me as a judge. He came in and met me as a human being,” Knight said. “This man showed me compassion. I saw humility in this man. I didn’t see a judge. I didn’t see somebody who wanted to condemn me for me being me. I saw somebody who was upholding the law because that was his job.”
Still, Knight didn’t sign up for the program until he discussed it with his therapist and others at SEABHS. Once he learned his counselor was also involved with the program, he agreed to participate.
Just like the staff at TMC and SEABHS, Knight learned he could trust the people at the courthouse.
“I learned that there are genuine people. There are human beings. There are people with a devout love for the human race that went into a profession because they wanted to help people,” he said.
His plea agreement called for three years’ probation.
Peterson released him in September 2020 after just 18 months.
He is now in a healthy relationship, active in his church, has transportation and works full time. He still lives with his mom, but not out of necessity. His father died in December 2018, and he takes care of her.
He feels fortunate he was able to resolve his issues with his dad before he passed away.
“I forgave him and he forgave me. I told him that he was not the cause of any of my childhood indiscretions. He wasn’t the cause for my suicide attempt. You know, none of it was his fault,” Knight said.
Because the folks at SEABHS and the Wellness Program earned his trust and he was able to openly discuss his issues, he gained much needed insight and tools, Knight said.
“Do I still get angry? Yes. Do I still get depressed? Yes. Do I still have anxiety issues? Yes. But I can see them for what they are and I automatically dismiss them. I don’t live in them anymore. I won’t let them overcome me and that’s awesome. I know if they do, then I’m gonna go down a bad road,” Knight said. “I just wish for myself personally, I just wish I would have done this before I was 48 years old.”
Watching Knight flourish while in the program has been exceptionally rewarding, Peterson said.
“I really respect that man because he had gone as low as you could go, committing an act of self-harm in an attempt to take his own life, to the high of being a self-sufficient, employed, contributing member of society and active in his church congregation,” Peterson said. “It’s very rewarding to watch that evolution of his life. It was really, really special.”
Knight is a few chapters into a book about his experience and his new relationship with God.
Holding his hand to his nose, Knight said, “The hand of God was there that day. He slapped that bullet down. Of that I have no doubt.”