Hope and help

Jim and Joanne live with mental illness every day.

One day last year, they nearly quit living with it - when Jim became suicidal.

"I was within an hour ( of killing myself) when she convinced me to tell her where I was," said Jim.

"It was as close as I ever want to get."

Joanne knew what to do that day because she had completed three sessions of Family to Family Education through the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"They give you all the numbers to call," Joanne said. When she started taking the classes last fall, Joanne didn't know much about the support that was available to her.

The classes cover a wide scope of mental illnesses, which sometimes are called brain disorders, a term with less stigma associated with it.

The stigma of mental illness haunts Jim and it's is the primary reason he wanted anonymity in this article.

"I don't want to walk down the street and have people go to the other side," Jim said.

Jim's concern is not unfounded. Former friends wanted nothing to do with him when they learned of his condition.

One longtime friend said, "Call me when you're all better."

Before Jim and Joanne married a couple of years ago, he told her about his struggle with major depression. At that time, Jim said, "I was doing pretty good. I was on medication, in therapy. Life was good."

Jim started therapy after three major life crises sent him into a crushing depression. After hearing his story, Jim's therapist said he thought Jim had been depressed all his life, but never dealt with it. A family history of mental illness had been kept secret from him.

Although medication has helped stabilize his life, Jim is unable to return to work in management.

"I was a top student," he said, and went on to a career with heavy responsibility. Now, Jim said, "I don't have the passion for life that I had."

Joanne works full time, but she is also Jim's caregiver. She learned a lot about that role in the Family to Family classes last year.

"I didn't know about support," she said, before she went to the classes. During the 12 weeks she learned coping skills for herself and a great deal about mental illnesses, the medications and therapies used to treat them, and how to handle emergencies like Jim's suicide attempt.

"I learned more compassion for him," she said. "It helps to know people who are in your boat."

"At the end, they get somebody to talk to us and we can ask questions," Joanne said.

During the course of the classes, the families formed strong bonds and some of them have continued meeting in a support group.

"They teach you that you have to take some time for yourself. Sometimes I don't have time for me," she said. "I look at the meetings as my own time."

Jim and Joanne both have read widely about mental illness, but both also recognize the value of sharing.

"If caregivers don't take care of themselves," Jim said, "they can't take care of the person they're trying to care for. It's comforting to know she has some support."

"What I would like to say to family members and caregivers," Jim said, "is don't give up."

Joanne couldn't agree more.

"I would suggest anybody that has family, friends - anybody with a mental illness - go. The classes are more than what's in the book," she said.

Their marriage bears a weight of tension because of his illness, but they have a strong commitment to one another in spite of it.

Their mutual effort - and what they learned from the classes last year - helped them intervene successfully when Jim's daughter became suicidal recently.

"We all go through depression," Joanne said, "but theirs is different. There is a black hole at the bottom."

Many people dismiss depression as a character flaw, and Jim did his share of blaming himself. "Anything I can construe to be my fault, I do," he said. "Now I understand that it's an illness."

"I would rather be without my legs than have this."

Reach Sandra Frykholm at sfrykholm@sequim

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