On the Road: Dancing with the Stars

John McManamy Health Guide
  • I have survived the flight from hell out of Reagan Airport. After 12 days on the road, I finally slept in my own bed. To pick up from where I left off:

     

    Wednesday morning: I notice there are bags under my eyes. I have not had a decent night's sleep since the day before I boarded my flight out of San Diego. Now I'm in Washington on the last leg of my road trip. Thankfully, I have some chill time built into today.

     

    Wednesday evening: A cab drops me off at Andrew Mellon Auditorium, venue for NAMI's annual fundraising gala. Andrew Mellon was a robber baron/philanthropist cut from the same cloth as Carnegie and Rockefeller. His personal art collection forms the basis of the National Gallery of Art. This particular venue is a miniature Grand Central Station, with a ceiling about as high. Maybe it was Mellon's private bath house, or where he stabled his prize stallion. It's the perfect spot for seating more than 300 high-rollers for a gala event. I am dressed for the occasion, in my black business suit. I am here, representing HealthCentral, which sponsors this blog at BipolarConnect.

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    I enter through a side door to an anteroom, where a pre-event VIP function is taking place. I spot Michael Fitzpatrick, executive director of NAMI, and with a straight face tell him that security confiscated my didgeridoo and won't give it back. A few months before, at the NAMI convention in San Diego, I had honked my didge for him.

     

    I pick out board member Fred Frese. Fred is a legendary mental health advocate and a very gracious individual. He enquires about my didge. Clearly, I have a reputation to uphold. Ken Duckworth, medical director at NAMI, greets me like an old friend. Ken has been at the forefront of getting doctors to pay attention to how mental illness sets us up as sitting ducks for heart disease and diabetes and all manner of physical complications.

     

    By now I am reasonably comfortable. Introversion and low-grade depression are my default settings, and I also have a bit of social anxiety to contend with. I would have been voted Quietest in high school, but I was too shy to lobby for the distinction. I am an outsider by nature and calling. The day I become an insider I have no right to call myself a journalist.

     

    This may be a social function, but I have a job to do. Each connection I make, each connection I successfully reestablish and reinforce greatly increases my chances of my emails being answered, my phone calls being returned. Fortunately, I perk up around people, but being sociable drains my psychic batteries very quickly.

     

    The people in the room are performing a change-partners-and-dance routine. We chat briefly, then find someone else to talk to. I ask Suzanne Vogel-Scibilia if she is enjoying her leisure time now that she is no longer president of NAMI. Turns out you can't keep a good advocate down. She has a whole load of new things on her plate.

     

    I am introduced to the individual who founded NAMI's family-to-family program. This is NAMI's flagship production, which has enormously benefited countless family members. We may be the ones with mental illness, but our families are the ones who suffer from it. I consider it a great honor to meet her, but I neglect to ask for a business card, and I'm horrible at recalling names.

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    The top researchers are out in force. Gary Sachs of Harvard, until recently head of the NIMH-underwritten STEP-BD bipolar clinical trials, congratulates me on an award I received a few months ago. I, in turn, congratulate John Rush of the University of Texas and head of the NIMH STAR*D clinical trials for the award he will be receiving from NAMI that night.

     

    Raymond DePaulo, chair of the department of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, greets me, as does Thomas Insel, Director of the NIMH. Kay Jamison pops in the door and we say a quick hi to each other. I talk to Richard Nakamura, deputy director of the NIMH, and get a chance to tell him how the research they are doing there is benefiting me in my recovery right now. I also add that I wish they had more money to fund research.

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    The same amount as cancer, he replies with great conviction. Dr Nakamura has family members with bipolar. Mental illness research receives a bare fraction of the funds that cancer and heart disease and AIDs and other illnesses get. And bipolar research receives mere crumbs next to schizophrenia. Many young researchers, unable to get grant money, are leaving the field, Dr Rush will tell the gathering upon receiving his award later in the evening.

     

    Virtually everyone in the room will tell you the same thing. It's the best of times and the worst of times. The brain science and gene studies and other findings hold out great hope. The lack of money and the broken health care system, on the other hand, is a cause of considerable despair.

     

    It's all about money. It's all about putting in the time. My guess is that nobody in the room wants to be there. These are very busy people, away from their work and away from their families. These individuals have better things to do than walk around sampling the finger food. All the researchers in the room have devoted their time to NAMI. They speak, they educate, they advise, they do ask the doctor sessions. NAMI, in turn, has lobbied very hard on their behalf for more research dollars. NAMI needs money. We all need money. It's all about the money and putting in the time.

     

    Outside, in the main hall, I encounter fellow journalist Pete Early and his wife Patti. I met Pete last year at a NAMI convention, and we quickly hit it off. I can relax with a professional colleague. There are precious few of us working mental health.

     

    Pete is the author of "Crazy! A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness," which made the short list for this year's Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. Pete's college graduate son, Mike, suffered a psychotic episode that got him on the wrong side of the law. As well as recounting their family ordeal, Pete also reported on the appalling conditions that people with severe mental illness face in the criminal justice system and in receiving basic services.

     

    I sit down to dinner at the HealthCentral table. I am at ease in the company of people I work with, but now I feel a soreness in my throat. Is it from talking too much? The air conditioning? Or am I coming down with a cold? I know what fatigue does to my immune system. I have been on the road too long and I have one more day to go. I feel my lower jaw beginning to flare with pain, and discreetly pop a couple of Tylenols.

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    I am smiling, I am laughing, I am joking. I am enjoying the moment 

Published On: October 21, 2007