Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Strange and Wonderful Gift

(Thanks to Jim for the support and encouragement to write. I think you'll like this one.)

One of the promises I made to myself in grad school was that if I ever finished, I would find a way to get involved with an organization called NAMI when I did. NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Readers of this blog know that mental illness shapes my life in some significant ways, largely through my brother Paul who has a severe persistent case of schizo-affective disorder.

I have vague memories of my parents talking about NAMI, but what I remember more than anything is all the NAMI folks showing up to their funerals, and, even more so, after my dad died folks from NAMI would email and call to let me know that they'd seen Paul somewhere and he was doing okay. NAMI folks in North Carolina helped me find care and housing for Paul when I had to move him there, and NAMI-RI gave me support and information when I came here with Paul. And now, finally, I'm giving back--in two ways. And you can help with one of them.

First, I want to tell you about NAMI Family-to-Family. This is a program taught by family members of folks with mental illness for family members of mental illness. It used to be called Journey of Hope, and my mom took the class. I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to take the training session, and now I'm helping to teach the class. It's funny, because although there is a lot of helpful information to present, it seems like the real gift of the class is connecting people with others who have similar stories. Imagine sitting in a room of about 20 people and watching a couple of youngish folks who are there because their spouses have been diagnosed with bipolar listening to a couple married almost 50 years talk about having lived through the onset of the wife's bipolar disorder 30 years before; they are coming to class now out of a shared concern for another family member. Think of watching tears in a young wife's eyes as she looks at this older couple and says (very quietly) "Maybe there is hope for my marriage." NAMI connects people like this. My co-teachers and I mostly show up and watch it happen, and they thank us for it like we did something. It's a gift and a blessing.

The second way I'm getting involved in NAMI is that I am captaining a team for their main fundraiser, NAMI Walks. The team is called Paul's Pals, in honor of my brother. We'll have about 15 people walking with us this Saturday. Most of our walkers are colleagues of mine at work, though the Coolpeople (my friends from grad school and former housemates!) will be joining us, and a few of my new NAMI Family to Family friends as well. If you can spare a little cash in these hard times, head over the the Paul's Pals team site and give a little something. And if you have friends looking for a great cause to support with their charitable giving, or if you know someone who would benefit from knowing about NAMI and some of its programs and services, please send this post along.

It's strange and wonderful to be getting involved in these ways. Since August of 2003, when I moved Paul to North Carolina, that relationship really has defined me in some significant ways. Often, that felt like a burden and a distraction from what I needed to be doing. It is, of course, also a gift. It is strange and wonderful to find myself in roles and relationships where I really do remember what a gift it is to be Paul's sister. Not an easy gift, but gift indeed.