Saturday, February 19, 2011

You go, Guy!

Today Guy Fessenden, of, completed his 100th marathon in 140 days across the U.S.A. to raise awareness of, and funds for, mental illnesses. Actually, I haven't seen any confirmation online, but I have no doubt that he reached the Santa Monica pier this afternoon as planned. His daughter Suzanne was diagnosed with schizophrenia 12 years ago, and he is determined to do whatever he can to improve the lot in life for her and others like her.

I wish I could have been with him and everyone else who came out to run that last mile of the Journey. My thoughts were with them as I went out for my run this morning. It actually helped motivate me to hit a personal record of 13.3 miles in 1:39:20.

One of the points Guy drives home is that we need to end the stigma of mental illness. Things cannot get better if nobody is willing to talk about it. Schizophrenia is more often the punchline of a stupid joke than a topic of serious conversation. That needs to change.

To that end, I would like to make a departure from the normal topic of this blog and talk about the worst day of my life. I wish this story wasn't so much about me, but I can't know or convey what things were like for the person in the story who really mattered.

It was December of 2001. It was only a couple of days before I was going to be taking time off from work to go visit my family at my sister's house. My parents and brother were back in the States from Germany, and so the whole family would be there. I was finally going to get to introduce my girlfriend, C, to the rest of them.

I was so excited, I was feeling on top of the world as I sat there at my desk at work, counting down the hours. When the phone rang, I saw the Alabama area code on the caller ID and was certain that it was someone in my family calling, perhaps to verify our travel plans, or maybe just to say how they were equally anxious for us to be there. I answered with a cheerful "Hello?"

It wasn't anyone from my family. It was the local police department telling me that I needed to call home.

My little brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia a year or two previous. He had gone through a lot growing up, and when my dad got an assignment in Germany, my brother moved with my parents, hoping to get away from a bad scene and unhealthy circle of friends. But it was too late. All of the drugs had done their work on whatever underlying proclivity had been lying dormant in him, and he started exhibiting obvious symptoms soon after they moved.

He suffered unimaginable torment. Voices in his head constantly berated him and wore away at his will to live. After a couple of suicide attempts, he was sent to a hospital in London for a brief period. He had been such a bright, fearless kid, and I was certain that despite his troubled teenage years, he had great things in store for him. So it was really difficult to know that he was in such pain, and I was so many thousands of miles away. He was 20 years old, and was planning to stay in Alabama when my parents went back overseas after the holidays.

When I called home on that December afternoon, my dad answered the phone. He was so distraught, he didn't even recognize my voice. After I told him it was me, the conversation was very short.

Dad: "It's your brother."

Me: "Did he..."

Dad: "Yes."

Me: "Oh Fuck!"

Dad: "He shot himself."

Me: "I'll be there as soon as I can."

When I hung up, everybody around me in the office was looking at me. I told my supervisor that I had to leave, and walked out the door. On the drive home, I called one of my oldest, best friends. Her family had gone through precisely the same thing in the mid 1990s. I felt bad for dumping that on her, and I wasn't really in any shape to drive, let alone talk on the phone at the same time. But she had to know.

I got home and told C that we had to go. I pulled out a suitcase and just started dumping things in it. Somehow she managed to make sure we were reasonably prepared for a 1300-mile drive, funeral, and a trip to Michigan the following week; and we were out the door in, I could swear, 15 minutes. After dropping off a house key with my other oldest, best friend, we hit the road and drove straight through the night, arriving at my sister's house the next day in a state of complete emotional and physical exhaustion. The days that followed were full of tears which, after these 10 years since, never feel too far away.

Anyway, there we have it. No more stigma. Mental illness is a serious problem, and there are entirely too many stories just like my brother's, and like mine, but most of them are never widely told. There are others who survive, but their quality of life is nothing like it should be. Things have to get better.

The day my brother died was the worst day of my life, by far. But it's impact has been kind of unexpected. After that, I determined that I was going to lead a more positive life and focus more on the good and beautiful things around me. I wanted to be a better person. And I wanted to make the lives of those around me better as well.

One of the few direct approaches I've found to try to help in the fight against mental illness is to support NARSAD - the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression. It's a non-profit which helps fund research in hopes that we can understand the problem better, improve the quality of life for those who suffer, and maybe some day find a cure.

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