Walking and Cycling to End Stigma by Eric Ward

By March 12, 2013Blog

My name is Eric Ward, I’m a single father of 3 teenage daughters and I live with mental illness. I’m considered a high functioning individual with Schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder/Anxiety with a little Depression on the side. To be honest, currently, I do not know if I am considered “High Functioning”. What’s so common with mental illness is that one can sometimes take a step or two backwards. I have done so “again” recently and I have no idea what triggered my slide backwards.

However, I did the right thing. I called my doctor, we talked things through and I am currently undergoing a medication change. This is the first time in years that I’ve had to change my medications – I had a good run for a few years. Now it’s time to start again. One of the major misperceptions people have about mental illness is that you can take a few pills and then you’ll be better. In actuality, it’s an ongoing daily battle that one must never give up.

The misperceptions around mental illness are what drew me to Bring Change 2 Mind. I saw a sign that said: “Imagine if you were blamed for having cancer.”  It surprised me so much. I’d been trying to say the same thing for years to family and friends who did not understand. Some wanted me to hide and live in the shadows or to just disappear. Mental illness is not a simple problem that will go away with a few pills. It unfortunately “in many cases” takes a lifetime of medication and therapy. Someone living with mental illness should not feel as if he or she should ever hide. It just makes the problem worse. Trust me, I know from personal experience that hiding from mental illness does not work.

After discovering Bring Change 2 Mind I wanted to help but I was in no position to donate much money. What I could offer was to take my passion for cycling and bring awareness to BC2M. With the support of BC2M staff, I put their logo on the cycling jersey that I wear when I race. Since I was excluded from being on a cycling team/club I was able to put anything on my cycling jersey. I thought this was a good form of free advertisement for the charity and a good way for me to spread the word and support their mission.

It was not long after I started racing with my custom jersey that I was on Bring Change 2 Mind’s Facebook page and I learned about their partnership with NAMI Walks. BC2M was looking for team captains and I was surprised to see that the Los Angeles area did not have a volunteer leader. I had never done a NAMI walk before or been a team captain of anything! I decided to help Bring Change 2 Mind by becoming their captain. To be honest I was worried a great deal but I volunteered anyway.

Bring Change 2 Mind paired me up with a co-captain. It was, and is, very hard for me to work with other people.  My co-captain, Andrea, was very kind and understanding – she understood me – she has a family member who lives with Schizophrenia. Andrea treated me with great respect, was patient and helpful, and turned out to be one of the few people can get me refocused. My anxiety level was particularly high because I did not know what to expect of the walk.  The fantastic NAMI volunteers helped us check in our team, distribute literature and guide us in our team efforts.

I was also very fortunate that my three daughters were excited to help out at the walk.  All three of them looked so cute in their Bring Change 2 Mind T-shirts.   While I was sitting at the table with my funny, adorable daughters, people started approaching the table and asking about Bring Change 2 Mind.  Because of my illness I am not very social.  However, I soon found myself talking about the charity, that Glenn Close and her family had started this wonderful organization to end the stigma of mental illness and about my own personal experiences. It was a profound moment in my life (and that is putting it mildly). I was around a great deal of people yet nobody was judging or mocking me. Many had similar illnesses. Others had family members that battle mental illness. Some people were at the Los Angeles Walk just because they truly care about others. With so many interesting people to talk to, the walk itself went by really quickly.

It was a wonderful and eye opening experience.  All of these years I had surrounded myself with people who did not care or understand and now I was around hundreds who did care, understand and struggle as I do. I’ve spent most of my life in isolation and I’ve realized that I don’t have to anymore. I can’t express in words how thankful I am to my co-captain Andrea “whom is still my friend” and especially to Bring Change 2 Mind for giving me the opportunity to help them. I would like to say a special “thank you” to Cory from Bring Change 2 Mind for putting up with all of my strange emails and for being so kind to my children.  My children and I truly enjoyed helping out at the walk and look forward to doing many, many more in the future.  Helping out at the walk and raising funds made me feel very useful and gave me a strong sense of purpose.  Finally, I was helping to end the stigma that has plagued me most of my life.

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