Scenes from San Diego

John McManamy Health Guide
  • This is a story about parking. Hear me out.

    Lisa stops the car. I get in. We're off to a function celebrating San Diego NAMI's 30th anniversary. We get lost only once. We pull into a gated parking lot. Lisa grabs the ticket from a robo-dispenser. We park. We get out.

    It's a warm San Diego evening. We're on a strip of land, surrounded by boats in their moorings. Outside the venue, Lisa immediately recognizes some friends and starts talking. She introduces me as her boyfriend.

    Earlier this year, Lisa received a prestigious local award as advocate of the year. For more than a year, Lisa had been showing up at meetings, making her case for a simple change in how patients seeking help are received at a local facility. Think of a patient in a crisis situation, showing up after hours, waiting for hours outside in the cold, despairing, giving up.

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    The people in charge thanked Lisa, congratulated her, told her they would do something about the situation - then did nothing. Finally, Lisa fought back. Very calmly, she told them she had had enough. That if something weren't done right now, she would turn up at the facility after hours on a bitter cold night with a bunch of patients and a news crew. Suddenly, the people in charge found the money in their budget to install a security camera.

    Thanks to Lisa, after-hours patients at this particular facility can now wait inside, keep hope alive.  

    Inside, I spot Betty Reinhardt, NAMI San Diego's executive director, widely acknowledged as being responsible for one of the most active local NAMIs in the country. I've spoken twice to NAMI San Diego, which is where, in early July, I met Lisa. I congratulate Betty on an award she received at last week's "Meeting of the Minds" conference, put on by the local MHA.

    Flashback to the week before: I arrive at "Meeting of the Minds" after getting lost only once (can you spot a pattern emerging?). A sign directs me to event parking. An attendant asks for five dollars. I only have my credit card. I find a parking spot on the fringe of an adjacent time zone, then rush in to find an ATM. Instantly, I bump into the event's featured speaker, the celebrated author Pete Early.

    Pete's book, "Crazy: A Father's Search through America's Mental Health Madness," was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Pete and I met at a national NAMI conference in Washington DC in 2006, soon after his book came out and just before my book was due to be published. Pete was gracious enough to say good things about my book, and we've kept in touch ever since.

    Pete invites me to join him. I explain I need to get to an ATM. He laughs, hands me five dollars, and I complete my parking mission, then rejoin him. Later, he rocks the house with an impassioned talk.

    Pete's story is the classic parent's nightmare: Several years ago, Pete's son Mike, a college graduate, went off his Zyprexa and flipped into wild psychosis. The doctors refused to treat him, as the patient’s consent was required, even if Mike was too far gone to make a rational decision. A couple of days later, Mike broke into someone’s home and took a bubble bath. It took six police and a police dog to subdue him. The nightmare was only starting ...

  • Back in my car, after the conclusion of the conference, I find my parking receipt. I make a wrong turn and exit into another lot, and am on the street without ever being challenged.

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    Meanwhile, back at the NAMI function: I say hi to Shannon Jaccard, NAMI San Diego's director of making things happen. Shannon, is young, personable, and very bright, with an MBA. The corporate fast track was her destiny, but something unexpected happened: Her brother was diagnosed with a severe mental illness. In no time, Shannon's career spun off in a new direction. She founded an organization, Compeer, devoted to mentoring those living with mental health challenges. She also went to work for NAMI San Diego and was recently elected to the state NAMI board. Earlier this year, she was the recipient of the worst possible news: brother Jeff, while supposedly being treated at a local facility, died while in restraints.

    The reason for the restraints? Apparently, Jeff liked getting down on his knees and praying.

    Lisa and I find our dinner seats at one of the tables. We are surrounded by fellow patients, but, with one exception, our respective illnesses do not come up in any of the conversations. Instead, we talk about doing things, what needs to be done.

    I enjoy listening to other people's stories. But I find it refreshing to listen to people who have moved beyond their stories. It suddenly dawns on me that I have become one of these people. Yes, every day I have to deal with the challenges of my illness, but I am not my diagnosis. These days, in the company of others, I forget that I even have a diagnosis. I don't know if I could have said that a year ago. It is a liberating thought. Very much so.

    Outside, in the car, Lisa asks me what I did with the parking receipt. I reply that she didn't give it to me. I humor her, anyway, by emptying my pockets. Then I spot a piece of paper on the dash. "Ha!" I burst out, totally vindicated. "It was here all the time." She takes it without a word and hands it to the attendant. It is a discount coffee coupon.

    Sheepishly, I pull the parking receipt out of my shirt pocket.

    As I said, this is a story about parking. We struggle, we manage, we exit laughing.

Published On: November 12, 2008