Thursday, March 30, 2006

keynote speaker

I went to a luncheon for the National Association for Mental Illness today, kind of a fancy kick-off to an annual fundraising campaign they hold, to raise awareness and dispel the stigma of mental illness. It’s a great cause, and I’m happy to support it, and identifying with the need generated by the cause. The food was pretty good, there was a few produced videos that demonstrated the fundraising in the years past, and the result of the funds raised, programs for awareness and understanding to help people directly affected (effected?) by mental illness, be it individuals or supporting family or friends, to help and support the person(s) in need of some additional support, education and understanding.

There were a few different speakers, who came to the podium and shared personal stories with the audience, about ways that the association has helped enhance and improve their own struggle. One young man, in particular, sticks out in my mind and I can’t stop thinking about him.


His name was John, and I noticed that when he approached the stage he was using a cane, the kind usually used by visually impaired people. He accepted some assistance onto the podium, and folded his cane up and took out some notes on big pieces of paper. My first thought was that he had some kind of macular degeneration disease; my friend Michele has macular degeneration and from what I have learned she has limited low vision that steadily decreases as she ages. It has been predicted by her ophthalmologists that she would experience total blindness in about 10 years. Anyway this young man started to tell his story for the assembled 350 or so supporters.


John started telling the crowd how he has had dark days and had good days. John is active in his church, and active assisting others with mental illness. He appeared a little nervous, a little shaky and started speaking with a small voice that reminded me of a jelly bean at the bottom of an empty tin can. As he started recounting what brought him to the association today, his voice became stronger, filling the room and settling over the silence like a blanket of fog.


John explained that he had experienced his first awareness with mental illness at the age of 19, and it was in the form of a mania that produced a euphoric high with no origin. He felt indestructible, stopped sleeping and eating, and after a short while he started hearing voices. Some, he said, were barely audible, and some were more distinct. He lost awareness of the things he was doing, just functioning in a borderline paranoid excited state. One day, he found himself driving down a major one-way road in the wrong direction, at high speeds. It was a hellish trip, which ended in a head-on collision.


As a result he was convicted of assault, and subsequently incarcerated. The frequency in the voices he was hearing increased, and became more distinct. He said one voice, which he identified as “Michael” spoke louder then the rest and started telling him things he couldn’t ignore.


While in jail, “Michael” told John which of the guards were bad, and which were good. “Michael” told John that his family was in danger, and he was the only one who could save them. This threw John into such a feeling of hopelessness and despair; he loved his family and wanted to do anything to help them, truly believing his auditory hallucination. “Michael” told John that he could help him get out of jail to help his family, but John had to follow his directives.


John believed this.


So, trusting “Michael,” John was told to stop taking his medication, and to stop sleeping and eating. After about 3 days of following these instructions, “Michael” told John to gouge his eyes out.


When John was discovered, he was rushed to emergency surgery at the Casey Eye Institute. Today at the luncheon, John explained that one of his eyes is a prosthetic, and the other has 20/2000 vision.


The still silence filled me up, and I was hypnotized by John’s story. It took all the will of my being to not cry, to feel for someone’s suffering. After he was done speaking, he received a standing ovation. It was an overwhelming emotion, and 10 hours later I still can’t shake the feeling and put the incident on my mental back burner.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

whoa - heavy shit. thanks for brightening my day.