Sunday, March 24, 2013

Do SOMETHING about the mentally ill !!!

One of the things that I have found very interesting in the news lately and in the current media discourse, is the attention to mental illness.  Of course, much of this is coming out of the gun debate, and while this particular blog is not about that, the references to the mentally ill have generally been a concern to me.

The mentally ill.

What comes to your mind immediately when you read that?  Be honest.  Crazy guy with a gun?  A woman with wild hair in a straight-jacket screaming in a rubber room?  A homeless man shuffling along mumbling to himself?

Something needs to be done about them!

Let's face it, if you don't think about people with mental illnesses this way, a lot of people do.  The fact is that the majority of the time -- the great majority of the time, mental illness is not like this at all.  For every portrayal of someone who is in an extremely animated psychotic state, there are many more who suffer in silence, or even worse, know there there is something wrong, but are too afraid to see a doctor, or simply don't understand what is going on.  For the record, when referring to mental illness, one must understand that mental illness has the same breadth of severity as other forms of illness.  That is to say, a cold is a virus, and so is the Black Plague, but they are two vastly different things.  A person with schizophrenia who has learned to cope with its symptoms is mentally ill, but is still functioning and succeeding in life. In a physical comparison, a person with diabetes who deals with his or her disease effectively, does the same.  A person with diabetes who ignores the symptoms will likely die from the affliction. In other words, when the media or policy makers decide that something "needs to be done" about, or as they term it "help" the mentally ill, it is very important to examine if they are making decisions based upon knowledge or ignorance.  Policies and attitudes need to be educated and thoughtful, and definitely not extremist in thought.  Would we support amputating someone's leg because they broke a toe?  No way.  Should someone with a diagnosed mental illness be denied certain rights or jobs or credit because he deals with a particular illness?  The answer to that is "no" as well.

Look, I am very outspoken about having depression.  The reason I am outspoken isn't to trumpet it to the world.  Rather, it is to show others who have, or think they might have a mental disorder to know that they can survive and thrive in the workplace.  This includes a work environment that includes significant stress and responsibility.  My very existence and success in law enforcement serves as an example that while having a diagnosis is a burden, with some smarts and some attention to self-care, an illness can often be controlled and pushed back to a manageable state.  Let me be clear.  There is not a day that goes by that I am not reminded that I have depression, but the fact that every single day I knock it down and push on shows others that if I can do it, so can they.

So remember when you hear debates, or see portrayals about people that have mental illness, listen carefully and discern what is really being said.  What you will find very often is the speaker, whether it is a journalist, a politician, a lobbyist, or an activist, really has no clue about what mental illness really is.  In fact, let's take this to the next level.  You never hear about "what to do" with people who have other illnesses.  If we are saying that mental illness is in fact an illness, probably at its root based on some physical brain abnormality on some level, why don't we just call it an illness, like any other?

So when policy makers talk about the mentally ill, delete the "mentally" part.  How do they sound now?

The conversation should never be based on what to do about, it should be based on what to do for.

And finally, on a somewhat unrelated side note, some time ago, a friend of mine who has schizophrenia and is a cyclist, was told by a bike club that he couldn't ride with them.  Apparently he made them feel uncomfortable.  They decided to do something about him by rejecting him.  Now this friend, I might add, in addition to having schizophrenia, is also smart, resourceful, a dad, and driven to help others who suffer.  So, he made his own bike team, and entered races, and consistently places and wins.  He just finished a double-century.  (That's 200 miles in a single ride, folks)  He is the example not to count someone with a mental illness out. They have learned to fight and win battles every day, and they more often than not become experts at meeting life's challenges face to face - and conquering them.

Here is his blog - check it out!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Be Nice to Your Crew

This last summer I had the privilege to serve as crew chief for Team Kinema (pronounced Kin-eh-ma) at the Race Across America (RAAM).  To those of you who may not know or be familiar with it, RAAM is undeniably the toughest, most grueling bike race in the world.  It is 3000 miles, non-stop, from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland.  Teams and solo riders take on this incredible challenge and if fortune is upon them, they complete the race between 6 and 12 days.  Sleep is a foreign concept during the race, and the stress upon individuals physically, and even more-so, mentally, is incredible.  I'm not kidding that RAAM can cause otherwise sane and sound people to be driven into psychosis and hallucinations.  If you ever wanted to experience a psychotic break, race RAAM as a rider or crew member.  I personally enjoyed 60 hours of no sleep.  A fellow crew member was sure that she was being stalked by an otter when she snuck off away from the car to pee.  The issue was that this otter apparently lived in the Arizona desert.  RAAM has been described as something more than a race and this fact is true.  It is beyond a race.  It is a descent into the ultimate in human endurance and it is no joke.  RAAM has collected its toll in broken bodies and broken minds. 

Racers have died in RAAM.

Solo racers and teams launch on different days, as teams invariably overtake soloists a few days into the race, and the organizers prefer everyone finish within a reasonable spread of one another.  So, our team headed down to the start line to watch the solo riders begin their race.  Before each rider would leave, they were interviewed with a mic on a loudspeaker by the ride director, so they could say a few words to the crowd.  I remember one racer in particular who was asked by the director, "Do you have any advice for the other racers and teams during the race?"  The answer was short, concise, but incredibly meaningful.  Five words.  "Be nice to your crew".

This may at first sound simple and trite, but consider a solo racer a couple years earlier who had recruited his family members as crew.  About 500 miles into the race and deep in the boiling desert, he was coming apart.  The story is that he continually berated the crew and let out an endless assault of stinging criticism.  Bear in mind that crew is also mentally and physically exhausted, often going sleepless, without food, without showers, and more, and they are tasked with encouraging the racer.  At some point, as the follow vehicle crawled along behind the racer, the driver got too close and tapped the rear wheel of the rider.  The rider hit the deck, but luckily was unharmed, and he had enough energy to once again verbally blast the crew.  This time his chastising backfired.  Big time.  The crew had had enough, and this time, they simply turned the support vehicle around, and headed west, abandoning their rider in the desert.  His race ended right there, and suddenly he learned a hard lesson that he could not continue his journey alone.

Now, I have to say, as a crew member, that you must NEVER abandon a rider.  The racer in this case, although he was a complete jerk, was put into a very dangerous situation.  The desert can get to 120*F, and it wouldn't take long to get into real, life-threatening trouble.  As it turned out, he was okay, and got home, albeit probably not a very happy home.

"Be nice to your crew."  It suddenly speaks volumes.

In the mental health arena, you may be a "racer" or "crew".  As a racer, you are the person with the affliction.  You are the person driving forward against a challenge and internal enemy that is relentlessly striving to put you out of the race and crush you.  You find ways to manage your energy and will, and drive on with the goal to achieve ultimate victory.  The crew are the racer's family and friends.  Those that provide support, encouragement, guidance, refreshment, and a push when needed.

My blog tonight isn't an admonition for someone with a mental illness to be nice to their support system (although it's not a bad idea).  Rather it's intended to highlight just how important the "crew" is, and to prompt those of you who are crew to someone, to know how critically important you are.  Just as in RAAM your racer will not make it without you.  Unlike RAAM, you may find yourself to be support crew completely not of your choice.  Your loved one may have been affected by a mental illness after several years of marriage, or perhaps you saw your brother, sister, or best friend slowly feel the advance of the disease.  Maybe your war-fighter has returned with images in his or her mind that just will not fade.  Whatever the case, welcome to the toughest race in the world.  Like RAAM, this is for real.  People can die.

If you are somebody's crew member, the number one training task for you is to learn about your loved one's disease.  Immerse yourself in literature, blogs, advice columns, and books about it.  Why?  Because when your loved one is coming apart, turning inward, lashing out, or suffering, the success of the entire race falls on you.  In RAAM, crew chiefs were instructed that as the race wore on, they would be more and more responsible for making simple decisions for exhausted racers who would lose huge chunks of cognitive ability.  These simple decisions, and the inevitable complex ones can only be made based upon a foundation of knowledge.  When you understand the illness, you understand what can and should be done to help get your racer to this finish line as a victor, and not a victim.

And just to put a stamp on it, here is a really good music video about support in hard, lonely times...

Ride on.  You can do this.