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Her sentence complete, Naomi Gaines-Young wants to talk about mental illness

“I want people to know my story,” she said. “It’s important to do that. I want people to know about serious mental illness and what can happen if it isn’t treated.”

Naomi Gaines-Young
Naomi Gaines-Young: “The true acceptance of my having a persistent mental illness didn’t happen until very recently.”
MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner

If she wanted to, Naomi Gaines-Young could keep a low profile. Now that she’s completed a 15-year sentence for the 2003 death of her 14-month-old son and the attempted murder of his twin brother, she’d have every reason to keep her head down and just fade into the background. But Gaines-Young is determined to do just the opposite.

“I want people to know my story,” she said. “It’s important to do that. I want people to know about serious mental illness and what can happen if it isn’t treated.”

Today, Gaines-Young is a self-possessed, warm and open 40-year-old, but on the night she threw her infants, Sincere Understanding Allah and Supreme Knowledge Allah, some 60 feet down into the Mississippi River from St. Paul’s Wabasha Street Bridge, she was a frightened and desperate 24-year-old mother of four who thought that her family was the target of government operatives.

After tossing the twins into the river, Gaines-Young followed them, jumping off the bridge in an attempted suicide. Bystanders rescued Supreme and Gaines-Young, pulling them from the river to safety, but Sincere died. Two days later, his body was found 11 miles downriver.

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The incident drew national and international attention. Gaines-Young, who now understands that she was suffering from untreated schizophrenia and postpartum psychosis, believed that she was saving the babies from a world that had turned hostile to Muslims since the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Gaines-Young had been hearing voices and experiencing delusions since the twins’ birth. Her concerned family sought help when she began behaving erratically, refusing to care for or feed the children, or, alternatively, holding them for hours at a time without letting her mother or sister Natalie intervene.

“She was having episodes,” said Gaines-Young’s mother, Florida Doss. “She was acting out, looking at the sun, having the babies in the front yard sitting in a pool of mud. She was talking nonsense, wouldn’t let us help her. It was just a lot to take in.”

When they couldn’t reason with Gaines-Young, Doss, or family members and neighbors, called 911.

When police officers or an ambulance arrived, Doss said, she would explain that her daughter’s behavior was out of the ordinary. “I tried to tell them that she’s not herself,” she recalled. “I said I wanted to have her assessed.”

Looking back on that time, Gaines-Young can now see that psychosis had taken over every aspect of her life. At the time a practicing Muslim who wore full Muslim garb, she experienced discrimination at work in the days after Sept. 11. As her psychosis took hold, Gaines-Young expanded those incidents until she was convinced that government agents had targeted her family.

“I was thinking that any day they were going to knock on my door and take me and my twins away,” she recalled. “This was the psychosis part of things.” As she spent hours watching cable news reports and reading conspiracy books, a sense of panic settled into her bones.

Her concerned family tried to step in. “My mom and sister were taking shifts at my house, helping with the twins, helping around the house,” Gaines-Young said. “I wouldn’t get out of bed, I didn’t want to feed them, I didn’t want to see them.”

Other days, she behaved in a different manner: “One day I held my twins for eight hours in my arms, didn’t want anybody to take them. My mom said, ‘Let me feed them. They’re crying.’ I said, ‘No. You’re going to hurt them.’ I wouldn’t let her touch them.”

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Desperate for help

To Gaines-Young’s loved ones, the situation felt dire. They knew that she needed help, and they reached out in the only way they knew how: Gaines-Young said police records show that in the year after the twins’ birth, 21 calls to 911 were made from the house.

Doss explained that it was clear that her normally “funny and full of life” daughter had lost her grip on reality. Some of the 911 calls resulted in Gaines-Young being taken to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation.

The hospitalizations were brief, Doss said. “They’d take her for 72 hours and hold her and then let her go. That’s all they did. Every time she was released, she’d go right home to her children.”

After one of her daughter’s hospitalizations, Doss said that she was told that Gaines-Young had bipolar disorder with psychotic features, but there was limited follow-up about her treatment options.

And, most important, Doss said that no one informed her or other family members that Gaines-Young posed a threat to her children. While some health-care providers noted that her psychological symptoms made it unsafe for Gaines-Young to be alone with her kids, the information wasn’t shared with her family because of the HIPPA privacy rule.

After Sincere died and Gaines-Young was in police custody, Doss recalled, “I was cleaning out her house we found a letter that says, ‘Naomi should not be around her children.’ If they had let the family know how dangerous she was and how she shouldn’t be around her children we would’ve kept her away from them.”

In the aftermath of Sincere’s death, members of Gaines-Young’s family reached out to NAMI-Minnesota. Sue Abderholden, the nonprofit’s executive director, said that her organization often provides assistance in these sorts of cases.

“We have a help line,” she said. “We take over 4,000 calls a year in situations like this. If someone has died or was killed due to someone’s psychotic state, we tend to get more involved.” In the chaos following the death, Gaines-Young said that Abderholden served as a spokesperson for her family.

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All these years later, Abderholden still sounds frustrated when she talks about that time. “The system did not support Naomi or her family,” she said. “Her family tried everything to get her help.” And Abderholden thinks that the judicial system also failed Gaines-Young when she was required to serve part of her sentence at Shakopee Women’s Prison:

“I think the system failed her by sending her to prison and not just to St. Peter,” which, with its established programs for patients with mental illness, “would have been a more appropriate setting for her,” she said.

Diagnosis and treatment 

After she and Supreme were rescued from the river, Gaines-Young was taken to the psychiatric ward at Regions Hospital. She was eventually moved to Ramsey County jail in downtown St. Paul. The jail overlooks the river where the incident occurred.

“It was horrible,” Gaines-Youn said. “I was thinking of that night over and over. I continued to decompensate.” She was sent back to Regions, where her lawyer suggested she waive her rights to protest civil commitment as mentally ill and dangerous. Gaines-Young agreed. “I just had to get out of that room and get help,” she said.

For the next decade and a half, Gaines-Young spent time at Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter and Shakopee Women’s Prison. At St. Peter, she was prescribed Geodon, a medication that helped her psychotic symptoms subside. “It’s my miracle drug,” Gaines-Young said.

At the beginning, Gaines-Young said, she couldn’t accept the fact that her son was dead. “One time my mom came to see me and I was like, ‘Where is Sincere? You’ve got to go get him,’” she recalled. “My mom’s like, ‘He’s gone, Baby.’ I’m like, ‘Gone where?’ The gravity of the situation did not come to me until I was stabilized on medication. Once I came to grips with what happened and everything I’d been through, that’s when I actually started mourning my son.”

As her body began to adapt to the medication, Gaines-Young slowly came back into herself.

“At first I felt like, now that I’m away from this situation, I actually started to feel like I felt before the onset of my illness,” she said.

For a time, Gaines-Young believed that her psychosis was “situational,” that it was a one-time incident that she could put behind her. She even stopped taking her medication. But then she relapsed, and she began to see her mental illness as a chronic disease like diabetes that required ongoing maintenance. She went back on the medication: “The true acceptance of my having a persistent mental illness didn’t happen until very recently,” she said.

Throughout Gaines-Young’s incarceration, Doss was always there, reminding her of their strong family connection. “I went and visited,” she said. “I wanted to do that because I knew she wasn’t right. If I thought she hurt her children on purpose I wouldn’t be talking to Naomi. I was witness to all of her episodes. I knew how sick she was.”

Doss is aware of Gaines-Young’s deep intelligence and draws a connection between that and her mental health. Many artists and intellectuals struggled with mental illness. Gaines-Young, she believes, fits into that category.

“There is a line between genius and fool,” Doss said. During her daughter’s period of psychosis, she theorizes: “She was balancing between the two. She was trying to cross the line to genius.” Doss thinks her daughter is naturally “smart and intelligent,” but before she found the right medication, she was held back by her serious mental illness.

While she was in Minnesota Security Hospital, Gaines-Young rehearsed and performed with The Therapeutics, a band made up of patients and staff from the facility. She found the opportunity to collaborate with other musicians to be significant in her recovery.

In The Therapeutics, “A particular kind of magic happened,” Gaines-Young said. “The dynamic of the band helped me to realize that I’m important. By having doctors and staff in the band as my equals I had one of the rare opportunities to critique them, to say things like, ‘That’s not the right chord. Can you try going up?’ Being able to have that dialogue and exchange was important. It was key to developing my sense of self.”

Gaines-Young believes she has emerged from her years of incarceration healthier than she was when went in. She considers herself to be in remission from mental illness, crediting the range of support she received at St. Peter and Shakopee with much of her recovery: “It was therapy, it was groups, it was classes, it was community that helped me,” she said. And she also found healing in meaningful work. “I recovered thanks to my skills as a writer and my job for seven years in the prison library.”

Last April, Gaines-Young completed her sentence, and was released from Minnesota Security hospital. At first, she felt vulnerable being in the outside world — but she was buoyed by the steady love and support of her mother and family.

“My mom is my spiritual and intellectual foundation,” she said. “While I was incarcerated, I spoke to her a lot. She visited me. She gave me wisdom through the phone. She said, ‘Don’t  worry about anything. Just get ready, so when that person, that opportunity shows up at your door, you can get it. Because you’ve been preparing yourself for this very thing.’”

Inspired activism

Gaines-Young now feels prepared to take on any number of roles. The first may be that of mental health activist. After spending several months fruitlessly looking for her first steady post-incarceration job, she found a part-time position at NAMI, as a marketing assistant.

She visited the nonprofit’s St. Paul office to find out about volunteering and met Abderholden, whom she corresponded with during her incarceration.

“After all these years, I didn’t even know what she looked like,” Gaines-Young said. “When we finally met, Sue was like, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ I hugged her. There was a little tear. I asked her about volunteering, and I came there to volunteer. After a while she saw that I stable and I could come to work and get the job done, and she gave me the job.”

The job at NAMI gives Gaines-Young a platform for her activism. She continues to volunteer an “In Our Own Voice” speaker, telling groups about her experience with mental illness. That experience has led to other speaking opportunities; earlier this summer, she spoke on a panel, titled “The Criminalization of Mental Illness” at Hamline University. She’s enthusiastic about other speaking opportunities, eager to use her own story to help others navigate serious mental illness and make the struggle easier for their families, especially for members of the African-American community.

Gaines-Young has always been a writer. She began working on a memoir a few years into her sentence, and then, when she was at Shakopee, she tested into an advanced writing class, taught by a celebrated Minnesota author, the late Cheri Register.

In the three-month-long class, students worked on a short story. Register reviewed and commented on students’ work, and after the final class, Register sent Gaines-Young a note.

“She said,” Gaines-Young, recalled, “‘This story is amazing. If you turn it into a novel, I can get someone to help you cultivate it for free.’” Gaines-Young expanded the piece, which tells the story of a dystopian future world where hip-hop is illegal, to novel length, and worked on it with the help of Mary Gardiner, an author and instructor at The Loft Literary Center.

“Mary was paramount to getting this to where it is now,” Gaines-Young said.

The finished product: “Illegal: A Hip-Hop Tale” was released by Page Publishing in 2017. When a representative from the press called her at Shakopee to say that her book had been selected for publication, Gaines-Young was thrilled.

“I was not expecting anything,” Gaines-Young said. “I expected a rejection letter. But I got them on the phone and they said, ‘We want to publish your book. It is so good.’ They said they would send me a contract. It was a glimmer of hope that one day when I get out I will have this completed book.”

Future focused

Gaines-Young married in 2017, near the end of her incarceration, to Tim Young, a man she met while they were both patients at St. Peter. Young, who has a traumatic brain injury from a gunshot wound, was at the hospital for evaluation. He was later transferred to Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center.

The couple began as friends, but eventually fell in love.

“He said, ‘You are going to be my wife one day,’” Gaines-Young recalled.

As a person with a long prison sentence, too many times she’s heard people say that they’d stay in touch once they got out, but they never did. “I said, ‘You’re going to get out and do your own thing. I’ve heard this a million times.’” But Young was different. “He came back almost every weekend for a whole year,” Gaines-Young recalled. Their courtship was different from any other relationship she’d ever known.

“We spent a lot of time talking and just being friends,” she said. “We were together for a whole year before we could be physical with each other, and that is a kind of relationship I never had before. My relationship with my husband is so phenomenal.”

Gaines-Young’s children are now 23, 18 and 17. Her oldest son, born when Gaines-Young was just 16, lives in his own apartment in the Twin Cities. Her daughter lives with Gaines-Young’s sister.

Under court order, Gaines-Young is forbidden to have any contact with Supreme until she completes her probation in 2022. “I haven’t seen him since that day,” she said. While she understands why she isn’t allowed to see her son, Gaines-Young said she still feels a deep, visceral pull when she thinks of him.

“It will always be a wound,” she said.

Recently, the twins’ father made contact with Gaines-Young’s family.

“I know Supreme has questions about that day, but they need to be answered by me and only me,” she said. “His dad did reach out to my sister. He said, ‘How can we fix this?’”

Gaines-Young said that she and her ex haven’t spoken since two weeks before Sincere’s death, but she believes that he has the boy’s best interest at heart: “He knows his son is hurting and he wants to try to help that.”

With her prison sentence behind her, Gaines-Young can finally dare to feel optimistic about her future. She said that she considers her mental illness to be like any physical illness that can be controlled with with medication.

“Just like cancer, there is a chance of it coming back,” she said, “but there is even a lesser chance of it coming back once you’re healthy and you change some of your habits, rethink things about your health and start to live your life like every day is your last day. I think that is a recipe for all recovery.”

Since she accepted a chronic-illness approach to treating her mental illness, Gaines-Young has been diligent about staying on her medication and seeing her therapist for weekly visits. “I’m committed to staying on my medication, living healthy, reaching out when there is an issue but not waiting in the silence and the suffering of my own mind,” Gaines-Young said. “I’m also OK with saying I’m not OK.”

Doss couldn’t be happier to have her daughter home. “I really do I feel like she’s back now,” Doss said. But, as a mother, she can’t help but be concerned for her daughter’s long-term well-being.

“I worry about her medication,” Doss said. “If you’ve been taking it for a long time, does it stop doing you any good? I worry that her medication is going to run out. I worry that she might not be able to get it someday. If she had diabetes, it would be the same thing: I’d worry then, too.”

Abderholden said she sees every reason to feel hopeful about Gaines-Young’s prospects for a healthy future.

“I think that’s part of Naomi’s nature to find something good in what happened,” she said. “I don’t think many of us would be able to do that. At some point you have to come to peace within yourself on these kinds of things, and she’s figured out a way to get there faster than many others ever could.”

Gaines-Young believes that a carefully nurtured combination of activism and art keep her grounded and hopeful. Her novel’s publication was the start of a positive future that she now sees stretching before her.

“Life these days has been really, really great,” she said, her eyes bright. “Good things have been back-to-back happening for me. I feel like everything is finally headed in a positive direction.”

At 7 p.m. on Oct. 8, Gaines-Young will be part of a Mental Illness Awareness Week panel discussion (MinnPost mental health and addiction reporter Andy Steiner will also be participating) at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis, 3038 Hennepin Ave.