Gary, age 66
On a bad day, especially in the past, Gary described his mental illness as “feeling like a constant storm over him, with impending death and disaster, always looking for the worst” in situations he faced.
A well-dressed and well-spoken gentleman, smart, full of charm and quick to smile—this is the Gary I interviewed. His life today, straight and with family, is a testament to his strength and courage, as his past was full of violence in and outside of gangs. That lifestyle was all Gary knew growing up. Looking back, Gary thinks he turned his depression into aggression because he didn't know what to do with what he was feeling.
When I asked Gary if the gang life was hard to leave, he said yes. But he figured out that the love he was seeking wasn't within the gang. That fact really hit home when he wasn't in the family photo hanging on the wall because he was in jail when it was taken. Not wanting to go back to jail and lose close contact with his family has kept him straight and alive for decades, and enjoying family life.
Gary lives with severe depression and borderline personality disorder. He figures that his mental illness began when he was a kid. But his feelings didn't strike him as different until his wife died in 1986 when he couldn't come out of “that funk”; he was emotionally beating himself up and having suicidal thoughts. This led to him being in and out of mental health wards, and drinking excessively while on heavy anti-depressants. Eventually admitted to a state hospital, Gary was weaned off all the heavy prescription drugs to lower levels, which helped him get to where he is today.
In addition to taking medication, Gary successfully lives with his mental illness by attending group therapy, reading about cognitive thinking, and focusing on family. All of this helps him to ward off his suicidal thoughts in addition to counting his many blessings.
His advice to others living with mental illness is to “look ahead, go forward not backwards, there is life ahead. Do your medication. Don't stop because you think you're cured. Find someone to talk to that you can 'get your ya-yas out.’”
To those unfamiliar with mental illness, Gary says “people that have mental illness, there's a difference between mental illness and retardation. There' s a difference. The more you pick on a person with a mental illness, the more they put themselves down. We're human, too.”