“One day,” says Gabe Howard of Columbus, Ohio, “the world is bright and awesome and the next day the reality of mental illness washes over everything.”
In 2003 – alone, depressed, delusional, and suicidal – Gabe was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. A bipolar diagnosis followed, along with anxiety disorders. Both he and his family had to mourn the life he lost, or the one he thought he had.
“My expectations changed a lot from when I was diagnosed,” he told HealthCentral. “I made a lot of money and was on the front lines of the information technology boom. I was really poised to be a major player. But, it didn’t happen because I was sick and couldn’t work.”
Gabe has since reinvented himself as a mental health advocate, speaker, and writer. In addition to being a professional speaker, he is the Director of Development for The P.E.E.R Center – a provider agency in Columbus, Ohio, serving people with mental illness, addiction and trauma.
Gabe credits NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, with helping him find his way after receiving a life-altering diagnosis. His parents, who live in Memphis, attended groups and took a family-to-family course. They also recommended he contact his local NAMI affiliate. NAMI offers a wide range of support, education and advocacy services to those living with mental illness. One of these is NAMI Connections, a support group that Gabe led for three years.
Gabe’s experience is a classic example of a person-in need finding self-worth by assuming the role of the helper. As he describes it, “We help each other. When I needed help, people were there for me. I pay them back every time I help someone else. And all the people who I help will someday help someone else.”
He adds that it is often hard to find the help we need, and that money and resources tend to be in short supply. “But we support each other. And that is beautiful.”
Recovery, of course, is nonlinear, “always moving up and down,” he says. Gabe’s lowest points included waking up in a locked psychiatric ward, getting fired from his job at a Fortune 100 company due to his illness, being judged by society, and having others attribute everything he did to his illness.
Before coming to terms with his disease, Gabe did a number of things to stop the pain. The most socially acceptable was eating. “We celebrate with food,” he relates. “Food is cheap. In my town, you can go to an all-you-can-eat buffet at lunch for $8.”
At his heaviest, Gabe weighed 550 pounds. Realizing he couldn’t simply try to lose the weight, he engaged in therapy, attended support groups, and consulted nutritionists. A year later, he had weight loss surgery and dropped to 220 pounds. Marriage and middle age have taken their toll, but after more than 10 years, his weight is holding steady at 265.
Admitting he had a problem, he says, was his first step. Then came taking responsibility for that problem, seeking help, then doing the work. “That is the hard part,” he adds, “whether it is weight loss or mental illness. This is hard and it takes a long time. There are no quick fixes.”
Some days, life seems to be going really well. Other days, though, “I hide under my covers and shake from fear.” His life is hard, he will tell people, “but it is my life.”
This is the lot for many of us living with mental illness, whether we are fully functioning or not. As Gabe describes it: “I’ll never be happy with the person I am because I’m eternally pessimistic. I am, however, extremely proud that I became the person my wife loves.”
As well as leading a NAMI Connections group, Gabe has been involved in the organization’s Peer-to-Peer program, helped plan NAMIWalks, done public speaking, and served on the Board of Directors for NAMI Ohio. In addition, he lends his time to other nonprofits, such as the Ohio Empowerment Coalition and Mental Health America.
As a mental health advocate, of course, he acknowledges he can talk about mental illness forever, but “in truth, I could never cover it all.”
This is because, he says, mental illness affects everyone differently According to Gabe:
Our illnesses may be the same but our experiences will always be different. This is just life. My sister and I went to the same school, but just because the school was the same doesn’t mean we have the same memories. People living with mental illness are people first, and we’re all different. We have to stop treating all people with mental illness exactly the same.
He believes that many more people can reach recovery. “The suicide rate for people living with bipolar disorder is 15 percent. That number is just entirely ridiculous given what we could do to both save lives and give people the chance to live well.”
Gabe credits those who have supported him along the way, which has led to many enduring friendships. In particular, he singles out Julie Furj-Kuhn, who used to be the Executive Director of NAMI Franklin County. She’s the one who got him started in his advocacy career. “She was supportive and kind,” he explains, “but most of all, she had faith in me. That was the spark that propelled me forward.” Without her support, and all those others, “I might not be here today. I certainly wouldn’t have had so much success.”
Once an advocate, of course, always an advocate. “Someday,” he confesses, “I want to change the way the world views mental illness.”
Organizations such as NAMI, of course, were founded by people with the same attitude, visionaries and dreamers who refused to take no for an answer. But. those who dare change the world are bound to encounter disappointment, and Gabe has certainly had his share. So, while dreaming big, he still acknowledges, “I need all the help I can get.”