Bright blue skies — until next storm hits

The annual NAMI Walks Oklahoma event went off under a bright blue sky at Lower Scissortail Park

Living with a family member who suffers from mental illness reminds me of the weather. There are sunny, cloudless days when blue skies make you optimistic about a bright future. Then the clouds gather and an unexpected rain washes away your unrealistic hopes.

I had one of those blue-sky days on Saturday, literally.

I participated in the annual NAMI Walks Oklahoma event at Lower Scissortail Park on a beautiful, sunny and cloudless day.

Sponsored by NAMI Oklahoma, hundreds of people gathered to walk in support of NAMI’s mission to end the stigma of mental health. It was a great morning.

Although I’m a huge fan of OKC’s Scissortail Park, I had my doubts about how well the newly opened Lower Park would serve the NAMI Walks event.

Too isolated. Not enough parking. An unfamiliar venue south of I-40.

Not to worry. Folks found their way to the park with no problems. And while parking was at a premium, NAMI Oklahoma arranged for a shuttle bus that would take people from free parking areas across from the Paycom Center down to the lower park.

Better yet, the weather matched the festive mood. Bright blue skies and warming temperatures.

So, we had a great time as we listened to the beat of the music selected by the DJ, connected with old acquaintances and heard stories of overcoming anxiety and depression from speakers like Ashley Ehrhart. A former Miss Oklahoma USA and a member of the OKC Thunder Girl dance team, Ehrhart advocates for mental health from her own experience.

There was a Zumba exercise class that broke out, games for kids and ‘Mabel,’ the double-decker English bus from Junction Coffee that had a line of customers all morning.

Then at 10 am, the emcee counted it down and the actual Walk began on a 2 kilometer course over the Lower Scissortail walking trails. The sight of watching hundreds of people marching north toward the upper park and eventually back south on the west side was awesome. There were dogs, strollers, children and large groups wearing matching T-shirts.

I took scores of bad photos as I walked along the course on both the east and west sides.

Anyway, my reservations about the venue were totally unfounded. It teemed with life and enthusiasm. And the bright blue sky fueled my optimism that folks living with mental illness and their families can find that better place.

At least until the next storm hits.

It’s NOT your 19th nervous breakdown

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Walkers begin their trek around the Myriad Gardens this morning in the annual NAMI Walks event

‘You better stop, look around
Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes, here it comes
Here comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown…’

— 19th Nervous Breakdown, the Rolling Stones

When I was a kid, I don’t recall anyone around me described as suffering from a mental illness. But I do recall plenty of discussion about little old ladies at my Grandmother’s church or my aunt having a “nervous breakdown.”

I didn’t know what it was, but I assumed it was awful.

Fast forward 60 years or so. Now I realize that my aunt or those little old ladies from the church actually suffered from some form of mental illness.

It’s just that back in those days there was such a stigma about mental illness that no one would ever admit it. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disease or even Schizophrenia were topics that were never discussed in polite company.

Here’s how the Mayo Clinic describes a ‘nervous breakdown:’

‘The term “nervous breakdown” is sometimes used by people to describe a stressful situation in which they’re temporarily unable to function normally in day-to-day life. It’s commonly understood to occur when life’s demands become physically and emotionally overwhelming. The term was frequently used in the past to cover a variety of mental disorders, but it’s no longer used by mental health professionals today.’

Today, my eyes are open.

Every family — mine included — likely has first hand experience with some form of mental illness. I long ago decided that it’s my job to support my loved ones who suffer from mental illness, try to get them professional help and not make rash judgments or punish them for what’s out of their control.

I say all of that because today was the annual NAMI Walks Your Way event down at the Myriad Gardens. It went off without a hitch amid unseasonably cool weather but with no rain to hamper the program or the walkers.

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The important thing about the NAMI Walks event is that it is designed not only to raise money to support the efforts of NAMI Oklahoma — the National Alliance on Mental Illness — but to help end the stigma of mental illness.

When one out of every five people in our society endures their own personal battle with mental illness, It’s important that we be upfront about the illness and support those afflicted in tangible ways.

It’s more than a nervous breakdown, even if we didn’t know what to call it back in 1962.

Thank you, NAMI, for shining a light.

(Full disclosure: my wife, Paula, is employed by NAMI Oklahoma, which introduced me to the NAMI Walks Your Way event and its purpose)

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