Editor's note: The subject's last name was omitted to protect his privacy.
Bill, a 38-year-old supermarket courtesy clerk, is a calendar savant.
I tell him my birthday: May 30, 1958. Immediately, Bill closes his eyes and informs me that I entered the world on a Friday.
"You can look it up," he says confidently.
"No, I believe you," I reply.
(I did look it up later, and Bill was right.)
Bill also tells me I look approximately eight years younger than my chronological age. Coming from him, I'm taking that to the bank.
We were chatting in a conference room in the AIM Center on West M.L. King Boulevard. The AIM Center is home to the Clubhouse, a "psychosocial rehabilitation model" for adults living with serious mental illness. The center serves about 80 people a day, making it one of the biggest nonprofits of its kind in the country and the only one of its kind in Tennessee. Next year will be the AIM Center's 30th anniversary.
Bill came to Chattanooga from Florida after researching the AIM Center online. He wanted to be closer to family members in Knoxville, he says.
"I love this place," he says of Chattanooga. "I consider it to be paradise."
A weekly AIM Center Clubhouse meeting feels like a pep rally. Members lead the weekly meetings, with AIM staff intervening only to keep things from veering off course, like the bumpers at a bowling alley.
There's a "staff member of the week" award, a trivia contest, and a weekly news telecast with singing. Clapping begins when one of the members breaks into an upbeat version of "This Little Light of Mine."
Bill is one of the Clubhouse's top success stories. For big chunks of his life, mental illness held him back, he says. There was one decade, starting in about 2003, that he calls the "big tantrum." It was a hard time. When he was a child, there were periods when things were just as bleak. "My life was chaos," he says of his early childhood.
Name a mental health diagnosis and chances are good Bill has heard it about himself. He has been told, for example, that his condition has features of autism. Neurologists said he would not progress past sixth grade, he says. He has often been hospitalized when his impulses got the best of him.
But that's changing. For the last 16 months, he has held down a part-time job. Earlier this year, he earned a business diploma from Virginia College. So much for that sixth-grade ceiling.
Along the way, Bill has embraced Christianity. He says he manages his mental health with meds.
He has little sayings that keep him centered. One of his favorites is: "There's a time to be a victim and a time to be responsible."
He repeats this several times during our talk, and he's clearly in the middle of that responsible phase.
"He is looking at three years without a hospitalization. He's living independently and now he's a college graduate," says Rodney Battles, president of the AIM Center. "And it all started with the click of [a computer mouse]. With one click he made a choice to come here. Members here have the power of choice."
Bill says he visits the AIM Center two or three times a week. He is also gaining confidence from working at his supermarket job about 19 hours a week. He walks several miles to work, he says, and gets good feedback at the store.
"The customers love me," he says. "The bosses love me. I consider work a privilege, not a right."
Bill is reaching an age when he has begun to put his life in perspective. He sees meaning in his lifelong challenges.
"I believe God made me this way to be an example to others and to bring hope to those who have none," he says.
Turning wistful, he says, "We are only here like a vapor in the wind."
But wind can change direction, and Bill clearly has the wind at his back and a spring in his step.
"You know what?" Bill says. "I'm just me."
Which, with a little help from his friends, turns out to be plenty.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645.