Perhaps it is because I am acquainted with Nancy Grimes of Winterport and know of the tragedy that befell her and her husband, Ken Grimes, when their 27-year-old son, Tom, committed suicide that I feel so strongly about the volunteer work so close to Nancy’s heart.
For 15 years, Nancy and Ken have been associated with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“I don’t know what we would have done without NAMI,” Nancy told me recently.
Being part of NAMI enabled the couple to share the difficult experiences presented by their son’s paranoid schizophrenia, which led to his death in 2004.
At NAMI meetings, the Grimeses bonded with others in similar situations.
Eleven years ago, Nancy started teaching the course they had been taking through the Bangor NAMI chapter and, six years ago, Priscilla Haley and Nancy “partnered up, and we’ve been a well-oiled team since then,” Nancy said.
NAMI of Bangor Area and NAMI Maine are offering another free, 12-week Family-to-Family Education Course from 6 to 8:45 p.m. beginning Wednesday, Sept. 1, in the Osprey Room at The Acadia Hospital, 268 Stillwater Ave. in Bangor.
You can register by calling Nancy at 223-5686 or Priscilla at 942-3848.
Information also is available from the NAMI Maine contact, Christine Canty-Brooks, at 800-464-5767 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Bangor course has educated more than 225 families from Castine to Millinocket, and Nancy and Priscilla are eager to begin their new class.
The program has been developed for families and caregivers of people who are diagnosed with mental illness.
It includes information about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, panic and anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.
It offers an introduction to brain biology, medication and side effects; discusses problem-solving skills, methods of self-care during worry and stress; and recovery, treatment plans and expectations associated with mental illness along with communication and techniques about how to listen to those in crisis and in recovery.
What should be most comforting to readers who wonder whether this course can help you is that it is taught by trained volunteers who have been where you are.
Nancy told me Tom’s illness began in eighth grade, when the family was living in Queens, N.Y.
He attended a private academy in New Hampshire and graduated from high school in New York.
It took six years to get a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, Nancy said, “and the longer you wait, the worse the illness.”
In high school, when his parents tried to get him help, Tom refused.
When Tom was of legal age, an attorney told the Grimeses there was nothing he could do.
Police refused to take Tom to a hospital. Psychologists refused to make a diagnosis.
In 1995, Ken and Nancy relocated to her home state of Maine but when Tom was with them, in four days’ time he “liberated everything in the house he could get his hands on and sold it. Televisions, computers, you name it,” Nancy said.
He used their credit cards, bought a car and “the best camping equipment money could buy, and then he disappeared.
“But this is not unusual for a person with paranoid schizophrenia. This happens so much. We found out where he was, and he came and stayed with us but, by that time, he was so ill. The worse the illness is, the more traumatic it gets for everybody.”
But help was at hand, thanks to members of the Hampden Police Department who came to the Grimes home.
“They were wonderful,” Nancy said.
Understanding the difficult nature of the situation after Nancy explained to them that Tom “had turned aggressive,” she said, “they took precautions.”
“They put their vests on. They came in with guns drawn, which was really spooky.
“But the policeman who found Tom, out on the porch smoking a cigarette as calm as anything, said, ‘This kid is really in trouble.’”
Hampden officers took Tom to Waldo County General Hospital. Later he was transferred to a Portland mental hospital.
“We tried to get in to talk with him, but we were not allowed. We couldn’t give them any history,” Nancy said.
“This is why NAMI was born, in 1979, because people were ignoring the families.
“We knew they were losing valuable diagnostic material, but the psychiatrists wouldn’t talk with us, only the social worker.”
When Tom was released, “we gave him some money and he finally took a bus and landed here.”
For a while, Tom’s life improved as he helped his parents with extensive landscaping around their home.
Fortunately for Nancy and Ken, they had found NAMI and were attending weekly meetings in Bangor.
For Nancy, just being able to say the words “paranoid schizophrenia” out loud made a significant difference in her life.
“I know those two words scare people,” she said.
“When it’s not said, it’s stigmatizing, and there’s a fear behind it.
“Speaking it and saying it helps destigmatize it. For me and a lot of families it is liberating.”
A recent Bangor Daily News article reported suicide is the 10th most common cause of death in Maine, responsible for an average of 163 deaths each year between 1999 and 2005, according to the Massachusetts-based Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
That makes suicide a more common occurrence here than it is nationally — 13.3 deaths by suicide per 100,000 Maine residents compared with the national rate of 11.6 deaths.
Last week, I reconfirmed that information with a staff member of the Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program.
That is why Nancy Grimes and Priscilla Haley are NAMI volunteers, and why they’re waiting to hear from you if you need them.
Joni Averill, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402; 990-8288.