If it's OK to talk about a disease like cancer or diabetes, Charlie Ross says, it ought to be all right to talk openly about mental illness.
"I have bipolar disorder," he said. "I was diagnosed in 1984, and found out last year that I also have ADD (attention deficit disorder)."
He's also battled depression. A medication mix-up put him in Osawatomie State Hospital for eight days last year.
"I just want people to know what it's like," said Ross, who lives in East Lawrence.
That's not as easy as it sounds.
"It's sort of like trying to tell someone who doesn't drink what it's like to be drunk," he said. "But until you've been drunk, you really don't know what it's like."
He's had episodes when his mind raced so fast he felt invincible, all-knowing, incapable of wrongdoing he said. Other times, he's contemplated suicide.
"I've been to the bottom," he said. "Several times."
His illnesses have cost him several marriages, more friendships than he cares to remember, a career in computer programming and, most of all, peace of mind.
"Even today, after all I've been through, I still feel like the world I'm living in is different from the world everybody else is living in," he said. "But I'm on good medication now. I'm fortunate."
Ross, who has a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in computer science from Kansas University, started the local chapter of the national Depression Bi-Polar Support Alliance three years ago. The group meets at 6 p.m. on the first and third Wednesdays of every month at the Community Health Facility, 200 Maine.
"We've had as few as six and as many as 24 show up," he said. "It gives us a chance to be around people who understand, who know what it's like, who realize we're all human beings."
Ross works part-time at Independence Inc. He also serves on the governing board of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Kansas, an organization that reaches out to family members of the mentally ill.
Class designed for families
"Family to Family," a popular 12-week course for relatives of people with mental illness, will be offered in Lawrence this fall. "We don't have an exact date yet," said Alan Miller, who will teach the course with his wife, Vickie. "We're working on it." Sponsored by NAMI Kansas, the class will be limited to 12 to 18 people. For more information, call (785) 594-6648. The Millers' adult son has schizophrenia.
"It's given me a new perspective on what family members go through," Ross said. "I used to think 'What are they so worried about? They're not the ones who are suffering.' I know better now."
NAMI Kansas' annual fundraiser, "NAMI Walks for the Mind of America," begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Petro Allied Health Building at Washburn University in Topeka.
After-walk events are expected to last until about 1:30 p.m. Organizers are expecting 1,000 walkers from across the state.
A portion of the walk's proceeds will support NAMI Kansas' 12-week "Family to Family" workshops, which are designed to help family members understand mental illness.
Liz Smith is president of the NAMI Kansas chapter in Douglas County. She'll be at the walk.
"Most families today have experienced chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes or Alzheimer's," said Smith, who has a brother who is mentally ill.
"For us, the experience is similar, but with all kinds of things - stigma, misunderstanding and difficulty in accessing services - stacked on top of it," she said.
Smith called the walk "very liberating," noting that for many Kansans it's a first-time opportunity to be around people who know what it's like to be mentally ill and aren't reluctant to talk about it.
"It so stigma-busting," she said. "I wouldn't miss it."
Ross will be there, too.
"It's a great experience," he said.