Tag Archives: mental health and community

“Socialization Over Isolation”: Jani, Ben and Community

I am a firm believer in the possibility of Recovery in Mental Illness.

Does “recovery” mean “cure”? How I wish it did – but, at the present time, it means management of symptoms, and it means rebuilding  – of one’s life, and also of neural pathways.

I have watched and guided my son Ben through a decade of recovery – the ups and downs, the crises and the careful restoration afterwards.  What this has taught us is that there are four cornerstones to the foundation of the recovery process:

  • Medical Treatment (whatever that means for each individual)Cornerstone Concept
  • Structure
  • Purpose, and
  • Community. Love.

Since the publication of Ben Behind His Voices two years ago, there have been three additional steps in Ben’s recovery process. One is that he now is employed, and has been for over two years. I’ve written about this in past posts if you want to know more about that (but it has strengthened the Purpose and Structure cornerstones). The second is that he now rents a room from us, his family. After eight years in a group home and then system failure (also a subject of past posts), home is the best place for him right now, as we continue to hold onto support systems for case management and the path to greater independence for Ben in the future. This experience has also added strength to the Medical Treatment (we supervise meds) and Community/Love corners.

The third change is the one that has also been a surprising boost to that cornerstone of Community. Ben’s life now includes friends – including one that currently also rents a room from us, someone Ben met at school. This friendship had brought out a lot in Ben that seemed limited before: talking about relationships, taking bike rides through the woods, hiking, playing card games and video games that are not solitary.  For the first time in over a decade, I hear the sounds of  laughter, cheers, and cars in the driveway as other friends come over to hang out. And, yes, at last, with some of these friends, Ben can say “I’ll be right back. Just gotta take my meds with my Mom.” A miracle.

Wow. Socialization over Isolation. Yes, please.

socializationThe Jani Foundation is championing this cause by planning events for children with SED (serious emotional disturbances) to relate to each other – to provide community where they don’t have to feel isolated. (Jani is the subject of the book January First (written by her father, Michael Schofield), and the follow-up airing of “Born Schizophrenic”. They have created this t-shirt which echoed my feelings about Ben’s recovery. Socialization, especially in places where you don’t have to always feel “different”, is vital to the process. I learned this in 2001, when I was allowed to attend a meeting of Schizophrenics Anonymous.  This excerpt from Ben Behind His Voices tells the story:


“I once attended, in 2001, a meeting of Schizophrenics Anonymous.
This group is based on principles similar to the twelve steps of Alcoholics
Anonymous. After a lengthy conversation with Charlie, the founder of the
local chapter, I was granted permission by the group to sit in. The week I
went, there were about seven or eight people attending, in various stages of
recovery. They asked me to share my perspective as the mother of someone
with schizophrenia, and they spoke of their own paths toward recovery.
Afterward, we all went out for pizza—because, as Charlie told me
with a smile, “We need to practice socializing, you know.” They got
the joke. “Besides, the pizza’s only two dollars a slice,” said Bill, another
group member. I loved these people. They even joked about their past.
They shared a genuine laugh over things they had once believed about
themselves: that they had “known everything,” that they were meant to
be elected president. This was the first time I had ever heard these stories
told with any humor inside the tragedy. It felt like the ultimate acceptance,
being able to laugh with each other about it. They had found community,
and they had found laughter.”

The feeling of community can also happen in Clubhouses,  programs where members are given purpose, and not just a “place to go”. People with mental illness, like all of us, have times where they need to be alone and regroup. But too many are isolated too often – as are their families. I have spoken with Jani’s parents, and even though we have never met, we share a bond. So do Jani and Ben. They just may not know it yet.

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NAMI: How Strong Can an Affiliate Be?

The answer: Very Strong.

NAMI can make a tremendous difference, on levels from personal to political, and ranging from local to national.  I have felt it as a Family-to-Family participant, teacher and trainer; I have, I hope, nurtured it as a NAMI National Convention Presenter, and as a writer.

And, as a speaker and broadcaster, I’ve had the honor and privilege to see NAMI in action, in so many ways.  As a family member, I know that NAMI helped me to:

  • learn about and accept my son’s illness
  • know that I was not alone, and
  • find ways to turn our grief into advocacy and action.

Nowadays, NAMI serves and can represent those who are living with mental illness as well. Some call those affected by mental illness “consumers”, others say “clients”, or “patients”, or “individuals”…and the debate on the right term may go on.  However, the need for respect, individual treatment, understanding and hope remains the much more important issue than finding the right word.

Keynote on Mental Illness: From Chaos to Hope

namiSummitbusLast week, I got to know NAMI Summit County, Ohio, when I served as the keynote speaker for their 27th Annual Anniversary Celebration Dinner/Auction, themed “From Chaos to Hope.” So close to the subtitle of Ben Behind his Voices…it had to be fate.

When I get the chance to speak to groups of those who care about mental illness issues as much as I do, I always feel that I learn more than I teach; once again, in Summit County, this proved to be the case.

The audience was filled not only with those affected by mental illness in themselves or a loved one, but also with Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) trainer officers, judges, lawyers, healthcare and social citlogowork professionals , politicians, and other friends. I learned about the courage, resilience, and actions of so many, by listening to the recipients of the evening’s Awards: Journey of Hope, Community Recognition, Lifetime Achievement, Heroes Make a Difference.

I met people who had lost a loved one to mental illness and turned their grief into advocacy; I met those living with mental illness who now mentor others in the same situation; I met the leaders of this affiliate, including of course Mel and Helen Reedy, who have spearheaded so many wonderful programs that show what NAMI can do when there is a vision, and it’s properly supported. Continue reading NAMI: How Strong Can an Affiliate Be?

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NAMI in the Community: Lifeline for So Many

This video, created by Barmont Productions for NAMI in Connecticut, shows in seven short minutes a smattering of some of the ways NAMI has made a difference in the lives of people living with mental illness, and their families and friends. In it, you will hear a small taste of why Ben Behind His Voices is dedicated in part to NAMI’s wonderful work: education, advocacy, empathy and more.

As the host of this piece, I got to interview so many amazing people, and can only wish that the hours of footage we got might someday get re-edited into a documentary of 30 or 60 minutes, to pay homage to the many stories courage and love that I heard that day. Meanwhile – watch and enjoy!

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Living, and Sharing, with Mental Illness

Sharing Can Shape Our Lives

For what we are, we are by sharing…and it is by sharing that we move toward the light.” These words come from my temple’s prayerbook for the Jewish New Year, and they never fail to re-ignite my sense of purpose each year.

bens beads
Before Ben Had a Job, He Took an Art Class and Made These Beads for Me

Some seem to need this sense of community more than others, perhaps, but the fact is: we are all on this earth together. All of us. Healthy, or living with an illness or disability. Young, old, in between. Introverts and extroverts. Men, women. Different backgrounds, families, sexual orientations, strengths, challenges.

And what we are, what we become, the mark we leave on this world someday – it’s a journey made meaningful by the sharing. And for that, we need each other.

How Stigma and Self-Stigma Can Lead to Isolation Instead

I recently participated in a wonderful panel called “Self-Stigma Solutions”, alongside three people who live not only with mental illness but also with the stigma that can come along for the ride – both external and internal. Each person shared how they were either told, or told themselves:

  • “your life is over”
  • “you’ll never amount to anything now”
  • “you’ll never have friends”
  • “you may as well just give up”

Well – these people did not give up. They were down, but came back up. They not only refused to believe the stigma, they learned to change the messages they were giving themselves.   Continue reading Living, and Sharing, with Mental Illness

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Becoming a Best Seller: The Real Reward

Okay, so not quite a best-seller yet…unless you count being pretty consistently in the top ten in Amazon’s Best Seller list in the category of Health/Mental Health/Schizophrenia.

This day, this hour, a specialized best seller!

Still, the news from my literary agent (Claire Gerus, who is amazing) today, about a year into the book’s published life, is a surprise: She actually has a royalty check for us!  This, from the woman who jokingly said to me not long ago (at least I think it was jokingly): “Royalties? What are those?”.

So. This means the book is actually making a profit for Rowman and Littlefield (after reimbursement for  their publication expenses), and hence for me and Claire as well.  While this check is hardly large, to be honest, it is a delightful surprise in its symbolism: people are buying, and reading, Ben Behind His Voices.

It also means that more and more opportunities are opening up for me to speak to audiences in person, to meet and collaborate with readers and potential readers – families, providers, doctors, nurses, faith leaders, legislators, media, PAMIS (people affected by mental illness.

And at least it’s a start. Someday, I still hope to see the book on the USA Today or New York Times

ny times bestseller

Best Seller List (hey, it can have universal appeal, right? Library Journal called it “A darn good read for memoir fans”…), for now the fact that it is getting into the hands that I suspect need it most is the best reward.

I got a Facebook message yesterday from a woman whose son had suddenly experienced a psychotic break – out of the blue.  She said, Someone sent me your book, and I sat and read it during the 5 hour wait in the hospital emergency room while waiting for a bed to be available for my son. Thank you for sharing your journey. We are struggling, but your book has helped me.

Now,  that means everything to me. That is why I wrote the book; that is the real reward. The fact that someone I have never met was helped by our story, and then passed it on to another “stranger”  who might need to feel less alone and have an idea of what to do next…well, it helps me feel that the messages in our story are getting a life of their own, like a child going out into the world.

So, if you know someone who needs “Ben”, please share. You are the messenger. Thank you. With your help, the book will get into the hands of those who will benefit from its story and tips – and maybe, just maybe, get it to the bigger “Best Seller” lists. For then, I will know that the increased “Sales” means that more people will have been touched, enlightened, and perhaps helped by its messages.

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Living with Schizophrenia: Your Family is not Alone

Best Mothers’ Day gift ever: the Miracle of Ordinary.  Just a simple family dinner for 5, out on the deck, with everyone trying hard to do it all without my help (and me trying hard to stay out of the preparations, not always successfully but close!)  Cute. Sweet. In a MasterCard word: Priceless

Why? So much to be grateful for – happy marriages for both me and my daughter, the end of school finals (i.e. stress) for my son-in-law and son, sunshine, food on the table, etc. – and another Mothers’ Day with my son with us instead of in the hospital.

In the past few weeks, I’ve met many amazing Moms. One of them is Claire, whose daughter Rebecca also lives with schizophrenia, as does my son Ben.  Their story is included in the documentary Living with Schizophrenia (click to view it for free), which is one of Hope and Recovery – when treatment includes the right medications, love of family and community, and healthcare providers who treat the human being, not just the illness,  in a partnership of open communication.

I had the privilege of meeting Rebecca and Claire at the National Council Conference last month in Chicago, along with Dr. Rebecca Roma (also in the film). All of these wonderful women inspire me, and I hope they will inspire you too. Continue reading Living with Schizophrenia: Your Family is not Alone

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Stop Stigma Now!: It May Save a Life

create hope celebrate potential disability flower

Last night I had the pleasure of being the keynote speaker for the Kennedy Center Inc Annual meeting. The theme was inspiring:

Create Hope, Celebrate Potential.

The Kennedy Center staff does so much to do just that, from educational programs to support services

ben behind his voices
Decorated books! for the centerpieces

like job coaching, to residential programs and more, helping families when hopes and dreams have to be adjusted due to a disability diagnosis – in utero, at birth, because of an accident, or (as in our case) as a child develops.

We cry our tears; then, if we’re lucky and well-guided, we wipe our eyes, pick up the pieces, educate ourselves, find a new community, get some support and new knowledge, and learn to understand our “new normal.”  Then we adjust. And accept. And, eventually, appreciate the joys in this “new normal.”

None of this happens overnight. It takes time (and the “SEARCH” elements I talk about – support, education, acceptance, resilience, communication, and hope/humor) to get to that new place.

And it takes time and patience.

But none of this – none of it – can happen without first addressing the problem of stigma. Especially where mental illness is concerned – because we can’t always bring ourselves to see it, visually or emotionally.

Kenton Robinson of the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board wrote a beautiful, heartfelt piece about his experience with family stigma that almost had tragic results for one of his former 7th grade students:

he says:

Depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are illnesses, just as diabetes or heart disease are illnesses, but they are still viewed by many as the victims’ fault. That stigma makes people ashamed and afraid, and it prevents many from getting the treatment they need.


I responded:

Shame was part of our initial reaction until we learned better, through NAMI (I became a family-to-family educator and trainer) and through hearing stories of others. I wrote our book hoping it might save a family as ours was saved – and, possibly, save a life.

Thank you for a wonderful article!

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COME AND CELEBRATE! I am thrilled to be one of the speakers at this event, but the real stars are the young adults touched by mental illness, and their art and writings. After that, I will meet and speak with member of Families Anonymous in Connecticut. Sharing is healing.


The National Alliance on Mental Illnesses of Connecticut (NAMI-CT) and Young Audiences of Connecticut/An Affiliate of VSA join hands to raise awareness and reduce the stigma associated with childhood onset mental illness through the art exhibit, Voices: The Art of Children, Adolescents and Young Adults Touched by Mental Illness. The exhibit features the work of more than 30 artists between the ages of 8-21, all of whom are either living with or are a family member of a young person living with a mental illness. The Voices exhibit will provide these courageous individuals a venue in which to express their feelings and a window into which others can gain access to their personal lived experience. Several of the youth will be present beside their artwork to share their story of how the illness has been a challenge, as well as an opportunity for personal growth and increased self-understanding.

The exhibit will take place from April 2-13th at the Legislative Office Building, 300 Capital Avenue in Hartford between the hours of 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

The Artist Reception will be held on Tuesday evening, April 3rd from 5-7 p.m. and will feature several speakers including Randye Kaye– actress and author of the book, Ben Behind His Voices: One Family’s Journey from the Chaos of Schizophrenia to Hope and Deborah Mendoza and Jana Pietrzyk– two Voices artists and inspiring advocates.

For additional information on either the Voices exhibit or reception, please contact Ann Nelson, NAMI-CT, at either 203-927-1541 or familyresearch@namict.org.

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PBS AZ Opening Question: “Who is Ben?”

The interview for PBS in Phoenix, AZ last Thursday began with this wide-open question:
Who is Ben?

How to answer? Well –

Downtown Phoenix Palms
different trees, same mental health issues

He’s my son.

He is a sweet, loving, bright, caring, 29-year-old.

And – he has paranoid schizophrenia.

Very importantly, he is being treated for schizophrenia.



Here’s how I answered this question, and the thought-provoking ones that followed, in this PBS interview on Arizona Horizon with Ted Simons.

In the same state where Jared Lee Loughner just lost his third appeal over forced medications, this is a very important distinction. My son, Ben, is in treatment.  Loughner, who killed six people and wounded former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others in nearby Tucson just over a year ago, did so as a person whose schizophrenia had gone untreated for too long – and with disastrous results.

Here, in the state of Arizona where many still seem in a state of emotional disbelief over what happened in Tucson, the consequences of inadequate care and services for those suffering with mental illness seems even more obvious – and undeniably important.

In three days, I have made the rounds, courtesy of the Arizona Foundation for Behavioral Health (AFBH) and ASU’s Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy, speaking in a community lecture, two media interviews, and meetings with NAMI as well as university students and educators in the field.

It has been a whirlwind – and I have met so many wonderful people who care about the issues that can make a difference for all of us affected by mental illness: people who have been diagnosed, those who love them, and the community they live in.

I have but one story to tell with full accuracy – our own – but I have heard many more in these few days. I hold tight to the belief that, one story at a time, shared without shame and empowered by education and courage, we can all make a difference in the way services for those with mental illness are funded, and to the laws that need to be passed to increase research, provide resources, and restore dignity and health to those who have been let down by the system that used to help them live a useful, dignified life.

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Open Hearts and Mental Illness: View from both sides

There is so much potential, creativity, intelligence, and a wealth of new perspectives to be gained by being open to those affected by mental illness. One wonderful example is the aptly named Open Hearts Gallery in South Carolina.

Their mission?

One Open Hearts Work


Check it out. You can also order prints by going to their “contact” page.


Can we open our hearts to those with mental illness? Of course, as the mother of a wonderful young man who also has schizophrenia, I am going to say yes – still, as you know if you have read Ben Behind His Voices, there were times when I felt I had to harden that heart in order to survive emotionally. The journey to return to an open heart toward Ben was not without challenges; my book pays homage to the obstacles as well as to the results of the lessons of love, respect, and possibility that we eventually learned.

But, still – there is always another view. I recently has a conversation with someone whose heart was shaped by her own experience as parenting Ben has shaped mine. In his case, he had been stalked by someone whose mental illness was allowed to go untreated. Untreated! That can be the difference between love and fear, between open hearts and a mind forever closed. And I can’t say I “blame” him. How could I?  (for more information about “Eliminating Barriers to the Treatment of Mental Illness”, see the excellent website Treatment Advocacy Center.)

So, while most react to my story with gratitude, this person was cold to the idea of someone with schizophrenia being vulnerable, lovable, capable, and worthy of respect. I hope, perhaps, that hearing our story might loosen his heart just a bit. Stories, and art, can help do that.

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