Monday, March 25 2013, late afternoon
I remember the day and date exactly because it was Tom’s birthday. We’d spent the previous19 hours sitting in the ER at Los Robles waiting for a bed to open up in any psychiatric facility located somewhat nearby for my daughter’s second involuntary hold in as many weeks. She had hurt herself again, and they wouldn’t let us take her home. When a bed finally became available at Vista Del Mar, Tom drove his car behind the ambulance that carried my daughter and me the thirty miles between Thousand Oaks and Ventura. Exhausted, he and I sat in the lobby drinking bitter coffee and stale tea, waiting for someone to come and tell us what was going to happen with our daughter, waiting to see her before we left. She was 14 at the time.
Eventually, a social worker did come. We moved to an office for privacy, and she asked us about our story. Over the last seven months, we’d already told it. We’d told it ad nauseam. We’d told it to my daughter’s pediatrician and her therapist and the school counselor and the team of clinicians at the eating disorder clinic and then a psychiatrist and the team of clinicians at the residential treatment center and the team at the first hospital and the new team of after-the-first-hospital-clinicians and the cop that showed up when we called 911 and the ER nurse and the ER doctor and the CIT lady who came to assess whether or not my daughter was a danger to herself which she was, of course, but we hunkered down and repeated it for the record, one more time. Anything for anyone who could help our girl get well.
Finally, when the storytelling was done, when we’d check on our girl and seen that she was doing fine, we thanked the social worker and said our good-byes, unsure what this place would be able to do that none of the others had. I was shell-shocked, still in my clothes from the day before and hadn’t slept in 36 hours. We were going to grab a bite on the way home for Tom’s birthday though neither of us was in the mood to celebrate. On our way toward the automated door, the social worker said, “By the way, we have some flyers for NAMI in the lobby. You might want to grab one and check it out.”
“Sure,” I said, desperate to take my leave of the place even though I was leaving my daughter behind. I had no idea what NAMI was, but I found the kiosk, grabbed a flyer that said something about a fundraising walk, and headed out the door. I couldn't care less about a freaking walk, I thought. Let alone about raising money for some organization I’d never heard of. I didn’t investigate NAMI until my daughter was well on her way to recovery, back in school, and re-engaged in her life.
I sure wish I’d understood NAMI’s mission sooner. Thank goodness I understand it now.
When the wave that was the tsunami of my daughter’s mental illness started to recede from our lives, I felt as if I tumbled and rolled and bobbed my way along with it back out to sea. One day, well into our journey, I realized that I finally felt the tumult stop; it was as if I came to rest afloat, peacefully, on top of the water. I could feel again the sun on my skin and could take comfort from its warmth. That was when I knew I needed to get involved. That’s when NAMI came into my life.
In the time between then and now, I’ve taken NAMI’s Family to Family class, trained to teach that class and also to sit on panels for the Parents and Teachers As Allies and Ending The Silence programs, and I’ve taught two sections of Family to Family, each 12 weeks long. I teach beside the incredible Diane (see our photo below. I love teaching with her so much!) Together, we will teach another section starting in January. I don’t do this because I’m so great. I do it because I’m desperate.
I’m desperate to remember that I’m not alone, that there are people, many many people, in this world who understand perfectly well what my family and I went through, and what we continue to go through: the challenges we face, the obstacles we overcome, the successes we achieve, and the setbacks we endure. I do it because I learned a lot about what it takes to get a family through this kind of crisis, and I want to share the information with as many people as I can. I do it because, during the course of my daughter’s illness, I determined that I wanted to become a better person and being of service is one of the best ways for me to achieve that goal. I do it because I’m afraid. I’m afraid I'll forget where we were and how far we’ve come, afraid to get bogged down again by minutiae that is meaningless and designed specifically to blow us off course, and make us think the wrong things are important. I do it because gratitude is a practice. NAMI let’s me practice my gratitude in a variety of ways. I do it because of the hugs and the tears and the nods when a mother or father or brother or friend comes up to me and says, "Thanks. You understand."
"Yes," I say. "You are not alone." I say it as much to myself as to the other person, to remember that I'm not alone either, and I never was.
If you’re looking for a great organization that needs all the support it can get to spread the word regarding the realities of living with mental illness, to fight for a better mental healthcare system, and to bust stigma, NAMI is for you. You might even get a lovely dinner and few cool pins out of it (see mine below).