A man in a tree made a whole city laugh. Then his mom spoke out, and the laughing stopped.
On March 22, Seattle resident Cody Miller climbed a sequoia tree outside Macy's and refused to come down.
The police were called, and a minor standoff ensued. When authorities tried to coax Miller out of the tree, he pelted them with pinecones.
Pretty soon, a hashtag started and the jokes started rolling in.
Comparisons to similarly bearded fictional characters were made.
Someone started a parody Twitter account for Miller.
Complete with delightful tree puns.
Some wondered if Miller had a future as a professional "Man in Tree."
...and the story traveled around the world.
On and on it went. T-shirts were made. Tribute songs were written. "Arrested Development" jokes were tweeted.
For a few days, it all seemed like a bit of lighthearted fun. Miller became something of a mascot for the city to rally around, a delightfully tease-able, harmless oddball.
Then, an interview with Miller's mother changed everything.
Lisa Gossett, who was unaware Miller had climbed the tree until her sister sent her a YouTube video, revealed that her son had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
"He's my son; I gave birth to him," she told Seattle's KUOW. "I'm frustrated about not being able to do anything. It’s not like I can take him somewhere. I've got to get help."
Gossett told the station that she had asked the authorities — including the Alaska governor's office — to assist Miller again and again, but to no avail.
"They just put these people back on the streets,” Gossett said. “I feel hopeless. It’s so frustrating because I see his brothers and sisters crying for him. People are scared of him. He’s paranoid and violent. I’ve pretty much prepared myself for his death."
Far too often, we deal with people who have mental illness by criminalizing their behavior and locking them up.
A 2012 study found that prisons house roughly 10 times the number of mentally ill residents that state psychiatric hospitals do.
Nearly 15% of all prison inmates display signs of psychotic disorders.
Sure enough, rather than be funneled into a treatment facility to get help, Miller was jailed following the incident and held on $50,000 bail. He was charged with malicious mischief and third-degree assault and ordered to stay away from the tree, which sustained $8,000 worth of damage.
Suddenly, people saw Miller's story in a whole new light.
There was an outpouring of compassion for the man in the tree. (Even as the story was developing, there were people speculating about Miller's mental health.)
Others commented on the injustice of his arrest.
An impassioned Facebook post from U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania blasted law enforcement for charging Miller with a crime and urged his fellow representatives to support H.R. 2646, which expands protections for people — and families of people — living with mental illness.
In a few short weeks, Miller went from punchline to unwitting advocate.
By using Miller's story to illustrate the urgent need for more effective mental health care, Rep. Murphy's bill is suddenly receiving a burst of attention on social media.
Miller remains in jail today. But by climbing that tree, he achieved something kind of extraordinary.
The Seattle man managed to shine a light on what happens when effective support systems and treatment options for people with serious mental illness are inaccessible or simply don't exist.
His saga, alternately odd and devastating, should force the thousands who followed it to wake up to a critical point:
People with mental illness can't be cured by sending them to prison. And they don't deserve mockery.
They need support.