A bigger than expected crowd–more than 2,000 energized, smiling people–showed up Oct. 3 on a glorious, sunny Saturday morning in Santa Monica for the NAMI Walk.
NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is a national grassroots support and advocacy organization serving the needs of all those whose lives are touched by mental illness. About 70 Walks for the Mind of America were held Oct. 3 all over the country.
The Walk’s purpose—besides raising funds for research, resources, and services—is to raise awareness of improvements needed in the mental health system and to advocate for the millions of Americans who suffer not only from brain disorders but from the stigma society holds for the mentally ill.
It was my first NAMI Walk, and I picked a good one: I’m told this was the largest turnout for NAMI Walks Los Angeles County since the event started in 2003. I don’t know if the overall financial goal was reached, but at the NAMI Pomona Valley meeting Tuesday night I learned that our chapter raised over $15,000. Donations were almost twice as much as last year, and this in hard times!
With my sponsors’ support, I raised $425. My goal was $300, so I was elated and blown away by the generosity of people who know about my wife Lizzie’s struggle with schizophrenia.
[UPDATE: As of Oct. 15, NAMI Walks Los Angeles County has raised 91% of its goal of $300,000. Donations will be accepted on-line or in the mail until December 2. Go to www.nami.org/namiwalks/ca/los and make a small donation to top our goal!]
Thanks to all my sponsors. From what I learned at the NAMI Walk, your money will be well used to help the mentally ill and their families in Los Angeles County. I know that I have benefited from the NAMI Pomona Valley meetings. I’ve found resources and information that helps me take better care of Lizzie.
We came for relatives and loved ones suffering with brain disorders. We were there for ourselves, to encourage one another as caregivers. And we showed up to smash the stigma of mental illness that shames and prevents so many people from seeking treatment and discriminates against those who are ill with a brain disorder.
You could feel the energy and enthusiasm. We were itching to do something about the suffering of the mentally ill. Whenever you see people smiling and laughing who day after day face the challenges, heartbreak and frustrations of caring for someone with mental illness, you know something special is happening.
It’s no walk in the park dealing with a brain illness in a loved one, but today was different. We were taking a walk, in beautiful Palisades Park overlooking the Pacific.
Signs were everywhere: THERE IS NO HEALTH WITHOUT MENTAL HEALTH… I LOVE SOMEONE WITH A MENTAL ILLNESS… END THE STIGMA.
I saw banners from NAMI chapters all over LA, and found my group from Pomona Valley NAMI. Lots of college students, from Santa Monica City College, UCLA, USC, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Northridge. God, it’s great to see young people getting involved in mental health service, gives me hope for the future! People of every age and ethnicity came from all over Los Angeles County for the Walk.
Walking from the parking structure and then down Third Street Promenade to the event, I felt out of place among the upscale stores, tony restaurants and well-heeled, affluent shoppers. This is one of the premier shopping destinations in LA. It might as well have a sign posted, “No Unattractive People Allowed.”
I lived and worked in Santa Monica in the ‘70s, when the Santa Monica Mall was in steep decline (bums and panhandlers outnumbered customers). Santa Monica, we joked then, was the city of “the newly wed and the nearly dead.” I once saw Mae West near the Santa Monica Mall. She looked incredibly old, a grotesque caricature of the movie star she once was. Santa Monica in the 1970s was a faded caricature of what it once was, too.
All of what I remember from those dismal, dowdy days is gone, except for the Sears at Colorado and Third, just up from the entrance to the Santa Monica Pier. That Sears, which was built about the time I was born–we were both products of the post World War II boom–looks as out of place in its now chic surroundings as I must have among the Beautiful People sipping their lattes at the Promenade’s sidewalk cafes, who radiated youth, wealth and privilege. Even their dogs were beautiful.
But when I came upon the NAMI event, I immediately felt comfortable and unselfconscious. So reassuring to be with people who understand my life, my challenges loving someone with schizophrenia. Who care for someone like my wife Elizabeth and know about the voices, the fears and rages. And the joys and good times, the sweet days, too. I felt good seeing so many people turning out for the NAMI Walk.
The speakers who opened the event reinforced the positive energy emanating from the crowd. Speeches were short, sweet and right to the point, with an emotional bang, just the way I like them.
LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky stressed advocacy: “Mental Illness, despite all the progress, is still in the shadows politically, nationally and locally. Mental illness is not a weird thing, it’s an illness and should be treated just like any other illness.”
Another speaker reminded us that mental illness affects one in four families and that 5- to 7-percent of the population has a serious mental illness. In LA County, with a population of close to ten million, that could mean as many as 700,000 people with a serious brain disorder, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.
“There should be 100,000 people walking with us today, a million,” he said. “Too many live in silence, suffer in silence. We walk to be seen, to be heard… to give voice to the silent.”
“The bottom line is Hope,” said Dr. Marvin Southard, who heads the LA County Dept. of Mental Health. “Our work makes a difference.” An example is his son, who has long battled schizophrenia. Today, according to Dr. Southard, “My son has a striking level of recovery, of engagement in life.” And he echoed Zev Yaroslavsky, “Mental illness is just like any other illness. There is no shame to mental illness.”
LA Times columnist Steve Lopez spoke about the frustrations of both finding help for the mentally ill and trying to help them (they must be the most difficult patients in the world), frustrations he experienced firsthand when he befriended Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic homeless man, who happens to be a musical prodigy.
Nathaniel, who trained at Juilliard until his schizophrenia forced him to drop out, ended up homeless on LA’s Skid Row, playing classical music on his violin for spare change from passersby and dreaming of playing at the nearby Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Lopez came across Nathaniel on a downtown LA. street corner, began an unlikely relationship and helped Nathaniel realize his dream, but it was a rocky road. Lopez documented the ups and downs in a book that eventually became a movie, “The Soloist.”
Now that I think of it, “Soloist” is a good description of someone with schizophrenia: withdrawn, lost in a world they cannot share with anyone, without the slightest empathy for others, and further alienated by paranoia and unpredictable anger… totally a solo act.
Lopez had a surprise for us. Nathaniel Ayers, he said, may make an appearance and perform for us, though Lopez wasn’t sure he’d make it. Lopez anxiously scanned the crowd then concluded his talk. The next speaker had just finished when Lopez jumped back on stage and announced, “Here he is!” and Nathaniel appeared.
I recognized him. Shortly after I arrived at the event, I saw what looked like a homeless street musician strolling by. I thought he was someone who usually plays for change at the Third Street Promenade. He appeared distracted, a little confused and slightly amused by the crowd that had taken over his spot. How Nathaniel got to Santa Monica, I don’t know—he came alone. He travels solo.
Nathaniel Ayers played his violin for us right before the Walk began. I couldn’t tell what the composition was—a mishmash of classical music played in fits and starts, but played well. I had the feeling he was not playing his violin for us but for himself and the sheer joy of making music. He doesn’t need an audience. He doesn’t need anyone. He’s a soloist.
Nathaniel played on and on; he has no sense of time. Finally, someone on stage came up behind Nathaniel and began to applaud. That was our cue to clap too, and released, we began the Walk.
A NEIGHBORHOOD STROLL
The walk first crossed through the Santa Monica Farmers Market. A man at the Santa Barbara Pistachios booth gave me a handful of samples as I walked by. (Delicious, best pistachios I ever had, but today their company slogan was a little offensive: “Not Your Ordinary Nut”!)
Then we proceeded down a residential street, lined with trees, parked cars, apartment buildings and small hotels. I thought we’d be walking down the Third Street Promenade, but I guess that would have disrupted commerce and scared shoppers away.
The residents seemed nonplussed as we filed by, they must see these mass walks often. Still, I thought we were delivering a message–we couldn’t have been very visible to the public strolling down this quiet street.
After a few blocks of this, we turned left on Montana Ave., towards Palisades Park and the ocean.
Palisades Park is on a narrow strip of land between Ocean Blvd. and the edge of high cliffs, the palisades. Below is Pacific Coast Highway, the wide beach and the ocean, today calm and sparkling in the sunlight. Incredibly high palm trees line the park.
The narrow neighborhood street had stretched the walkers out for blocks. Now, as we crossed Ocean Blvd. into Palisades Park, we were making an impression, though the people in the yoga class at the park near the rose garden ignored us.
All along the pathway were dozens of lawn signs, like those old Burma Shave signs, some remembering a loved one with mental illness, others bearing messages of support from the Walk’s sponsors.
We first walked north along the Ocean Blvd. Side of Palisades Park, then doubled back on the palisades side, where the view of the beach and ocean was spectacular. It was one of those sunny days when everything, and everyone, looks great, when it’s good to be alive.
All the walkers kept up the enthusiasm and energy they had when we launched off on the Walk. But I have to admit that I grew a little tired. My feet began to hurt. I’m out of shape and getting old. And I admit it: I took a short cut in Palisades Park.
We crossed Ocean Blvd. and walked the last few blocks to Third Street Promenade and where we started.
Because I cheated, I was one of the first to return. We lined both sides the last stretch of the Promenade and cheered the walkers as they came to the end of the 5K walk.
I noticed with no little chagrin that walkers came to the finish line not even winded or limping or even appearing at all tired.
After awhile of this, knots of people began to leave. It was pretty much over.
I had to get back home to Lizzie, who is in an episode, hearing voices, and she really can’t care for herself. I make the meals, bathe and dress her. She has trouble getting around, so I worry when she’s by herself for a long period of time.
On the long drive home, I had a chance to think of all the things I heard, the people I met, the oneness I felt with two thousand strangers—all our lives touched by mental illness.
And I remembered what Dr. Southard had said, “The bottom line is Hope. Our work is making a difference” He said his son is in recovery from schizophrenia.
“Recovery,” that magic word.
Until today, I thought there was no chance for Lizzie’s recovery. No treatment or meds that could defeat her schizophrenia. The best I could hope for is it wouldn’t get worse.
Now I dare to hope that Lizzie will get better.
That’s a big hope, and reality keeps pulling me down. She’s too old, I tell myself. Lizzie’s been schizophrenic a quarter century. The damage is done and can’t be undone. Still, I hope and pray one day she’ll be well, that the demons will leave her and we can enjoy our last years in peace and happiness.
And I also hope and pray that some day all people with a brain disorder will get the treatment they need to lead happy, productive lives and not be stuck in the shadows.
The NAMI Walks For the Mind of America were steps in that direction. Thanks again to all who sponsored me.