A window to the lives of the mentally ill



Clutching his cup of coffee, Ryan Meyer peers down Chestnut Street outside The Rising Sun Clubhouse on a chilly spring morning. Meyer spends some time at the clubhouse with friends and looking for work when he does not have a job. Friday, March 23, 2012

I'm so happy to live in the Walla Walla Valley. When my family returned to our roots in 1994, I was gratified to discover how many more opportunities a small town afforded all of us, especially my children.

Geographically, we could attend more events since we were no longer driving long distances to parking lots crammed to capacity. Educationally, we enjoyed excellent access to teachers and administrators. Although our district lacks some bells and whistles -- and updated buildings -- we have over-the-top dedication from district staff.

Culturally, we could sample 100 flavors of art, music and drama in a single season if we chose.

And it is ever-so-nice to be surrounded by neighbors who know our names, even our birthdays.

Yet we've come to, unhappily, also be familiar with what this Valley doesn't offer, and that's comprehensive treatment for some of those who live with mental illness. For one of my six children, that meant going to live on the west side of Oregon at the tender age of 10 -- when she was still playing with dolls and sleeping with stuffies. When Santa Claus was a "maybe" and she was thrilled with a new hair clip. The more glittery the better.

That was where the right treatment for her could be found and where she continues to live today.

I wish you could know her. She has so much to offer. Yet even those who once know her here no longer do. Most of her classmates have forgotten she ever existed, accusing her twin of making up an imaginary sister.

I wanted to talk to others who are mentally ill, those who have been able to stay in this community, in order to know a little about them.

My goal was not to promote an organization or rally for a cure. My objective was to present profiles of four Walla Walla residents who struggle with disease. Just like this newspaper highlights cancer patients and those who need a heart transplant.

But this is about mental illness, which is still a shameful secret for far too many sufferers. As it was in my own family until my daughters begged me to change that, which I did in a series of columns about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder last summer.

I found four brave souls -- more than four, actually -- willing to expose their lives to us. So that maybe things can change.

In today's Health & Fitness section, you can read the first profile, and I'll have three more on subsequent Fridays.

Altogether, four opportunities for readers to see the people beyond the disease. Four chances to change perceptions surrounding those who battle this every day.

Let's get started.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.


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