Friday, August 21, 2009

Tooting From Greater LA

I’m in Torrance, CA - part of greater LA - for a state NAMI convention. A brief recap:

Yesterday, Thursday, 1:30 PM: I arrive at the hotel after three hours of freeways and head straight to a pre-conference leadership training session where advocate Kathi Stringer is rocking the house on a topic called quality improvement (QI). Kathi comes from the aerospace industry, which is big on not having airplanes fall out of the sky. The mental health industry, by contrast, has much lower standards, or no standards.

Basically, if we were to hold our treaters and providers accountable to their own rules - ones already written into law and into contracts - we could change mental health advocacy entirely and actually get things done.

I met Kathi a year ago via my good friend Paul, who is also at the conference. I join up with Kathi and Paul and others in the afternoon. It’s 10:30 PM by the time I feel I better excuse myself for the evening, but it’s midnight when I finally retire.

This morning, 8:15: I run into Bettie Reinhardt at the Starbucks in the hotel lobby. Bettie is the executive director of NAMI San Diego, which is the gold standard for local NAMIs throughout the US. All the credit goes to Bettie. She will be stepping down in January, after 17 years of service. Several months ago, thanks to Bettie, I joined the board of NAMI San Diego.

Bettie and I make sure we’re at least a half an hour late for the opening session, which makes us just in time for the keynoter, Tom Wootton. Tom is the author of The Bipolar Advantage and the Depression Advantage. Back in 2006, I actually spent a week in Chicago with him as he made presentations. Tom is a paradigm-shifting thinker and a brilliant presenter, though his ideas can run ahead of his audience, which he acknowledges.

His main thesis is that the term “disorder” is accurate only in the sense that we lack the skills to manage our “condition” (not illness). Tom’s counter to “Bipolar Disorder” is “Bipolar in Order.”

A PowerPoint of a Ferrari goes up on the screen. A Ferrari has a stable platform so you can go around corners, he explains. But if you try to follow it in a mini-van with stuff loaded on top, you will flip over. Both vehicles are stable in the garage, he goes on to say. But I don’t want to be stable in a garage, he concludes. I want to be stable while I’m driving.

If we better learn how to manage our behaviors, he says, so we are not simply reacting, we can lead great lives within a wide range of emotions.

This is a far different message than what our doctors and therapists tell us, and certainly what NAMI audiences are used to hearing. Tom gets a positive reception. But he also says things such as, “depression can be a beautiful experience,” and I see some faces visibly recoiling.
After the talk, I say a quick hello to Tom’s wife, Ellen, who has been instrumental to her husband’s success. Later, another quick hello to Tom. I’ll catch up with both later in the conference.

More later ...

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