Kinda cool

My old editor, Tom, e-mailed today to tell me that he received a call from the director of National Alliance on Mental Illness-South Carolina. He said NAMI Beaufort County had nominated me for the state's Reporter of the Year award, and I won. How cool is that?

I'm touched because that's the best part about my job -- trying to impact someone's life in a positive way through words. And I guess the folks at NAMI thought enough about the stuff I've written about their organization to throw me a bone. So this is a totally self-congratulatory pat on the back, which I know is lame. But I was happy and wanted to share.

Here's a column I wrote last year that focused on what the local NAMI chapter does....

Mental illness group helps family get their lives back

By Robyn Passante
Published Sunday, September 9, 2007

Thad Cooley probably isn't fully aware of where the last 10 years of his life went.

His father, Ted Cooley, knows all too well.

In 1997 Thad was a bright young professional. Having graduated from college with honors, the 28-year-old had a job, an apartment, a life of his own. His parents, Ted and Betty, lived in another state but saw their son regularly, and about that time they began to notice some things Ted calls "strange." Thad began having strange moods. He sent strange e-mails. He talked about strange things, such as how the FBI and the CIA were watching him.

Still, two years went by before Thad's disordered mind got to the breaking point and his parents truly saw the downward spiral their son was on.

"It takes a long process for (people with mental illness) to accept that they are mentally ill," Ted said. "They fight the process."

In 1999 Ted went to Charlotte, where Thad was living, and found his son's life in total disarray. He had racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

"He hadn't paid a bill. He hadn't paid a tax," Ted said. A major part of mental illness, he said, is the difficulty patients have managing money, jobs and relationships.

The Cooleys brought Thad home with them, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But there would be more years of ups and downs, medications tried and hopes dashed, as Thad struggled with the battles being waged by chemical imbalances in his brain. All the while his parents struggled to understand what was happening to their son.

Finally, in 2003 Ted and Betty saw an ad in the local newspaper for a Family-to-Family class on living with mental illness through the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI is the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of persons living with serious mental illness and their families.

Going to that first meeting, Ted said, was like switching on a light in the darkened room they'd been sitting in for so long.

And to their surprise and relief, they weren't the only ones in that room.

"That class changed our lives," said Ted, who used every NAMI resource available to educate himself and advocate for his son.

NAMI has been a lifesaver, literally and figuratively, for the Cooleys. It gave Ted and Betty the knowledge and the strength to support their son through "tough love," even allowing him to go to jail instead of continuing to pay his bills for him.

"You've got to be tough," Ted said of how family members have to stop bailing out and making excuses for their sick loved one if they want them to get better.

Two and a half years ago, Thad hit rock-bottom, and his parents admitted him to Beaufort Memorial Hospital. There he got more intense care and a clearer diagnosis -- schizoaffective disorder.

According to the NAMI Web site, "schizoaffective disorder is one of the more common, chronic, and disabling mental illnesses. ... To diagnose schizoaffective disorder, a person needs to have primary symptoms of schizophrenia (such as delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, disorganized behavior) along with a period of time when he or she also has symptoms of major depression or a manic episode."

Thad's story is heartbreaking but not at all uncommon. Statistics show that about 6 percent of the U.S. population, or 1 in 17 Americans -- suffers from a serious mental illness. It is estimated that mental illness affects 1 in 5 families in America.

More and more of these families are being helped by NAMI. NAMI Beaufort County boasts about 200 members, and the need for more support is there: Each week the local office gets 15-20 calls from people wanting help or needing information on mental illness.

Today Thad lives in one of five apartments on Hilton Head Island owned by NAMI Beaufort County and rented out to people recovering from mental illness. He receives disability benefits, and Medicare helps to cover the cost of the five daily medications he must take for his brain to remain stabilized.

Passionate about the need for more education about mental illness and advocacy for those suffering from it, Ted now serves as president of NAMI Beaufort County.

He and Betty also lead a couple of caregiver support groups in the area, where, Ted says, there's always a new face looking as bewildered and relieved as they once did.

Ted retired eight years ago, yet this month will mark the first time he and Betty have been able to take a trip away from Thad for longer than just a couple of days. Thad is doing so well that he is looking to get a part-time job.

Still, Ted is a realist when it comes to his son's disease.

"Something could go wrong tomorrow -- that's just the world we live in," he said. Gone are the dreams of his once-healthy son marrying and having a family, or climbing the corporate ladder.

"Our dreams now are that he can have a job, he can live independent. He can have friends," Ted said.

Whether he knows it or not, he already has several -- every member and supporter of NAMI Beaufort County, which has helped Thad and his parents, and so many like them, get their lives back.


Heather said...

OMIGOD! That is awesome, Robyn. You rock. BTW, you are one of my favorite writers. Love ya, H

Sheila said...

It's a gift to be able to tell someone's story like that (and fit in all the statistics and other pertinent info we need to know). It made me think of how many people's stories you've told over the years and how well you've done it. Can't be easy. I know you take a lot of it home with you, and I know Thad's success means a whole lot more to you than the award. (Congrats anyway though =)

Robyn said...

you guys are too sweet. Thank you both. :)

Cris said...

You are a good writer. This touches a personal note. I grew up with Thad Cooley. Although perhaps a success story of the institution reported on, it is extremely difficult to read this. He was, and I am sure still is one of the nicer guys around. I hope this message finds him doing well. We only have have each day.