Tag Archives: Mental illness

Roundup: Mental Illness, ABC, WAS, More


Luisa Francoeur — a longtime Westporter, and a sister and parent of people with mental illness — reminds “06880” readers that this is Mental Illness Awareness Week. Local resources include the National Alliance on Mental Illness Southwest Connecticut chapter, and Positive Directions.

A Better Chance of Westport’s “Dream Event” is one of the highlights of our fundraising year. It’s a chance to honor the students, graduating seniors and alumni of the program, which brings youngsters from underserved schools to Staples to study, and Westport to live.

COVID pushed the gala back from June to November 13. However, with restrictions still in place, organizers must cancel altogether.

ABC welcome scholars back last month. Resident directors and tutors returned too. They’re all adjusting to the “new normal,” including hybrid learning at Staples High School.

Cancellation of the Dream Event is a big blow to the organization, which relies heavily on community support. Click here to learn more.

Talenthood is a new app that connects families with children (K through 7th grade) and Staples students with talent in different areas. The focus is on sports, music, technology, creative hobbies and academics. There are also babysitting and lifeguard services.

A portion of the profits goes to charities. Amanda Rowan — a Staples student directing the service, who loves working with youngsters — has chosen the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Pink Aid.

Click here for more information.

Dr. Bob Dempsey — flight director for the International Space Station — Zooms into Westport on October 20 (8 p.m.) for an online talk.

The Westport Astronomical Society-sponsored event is open to the public. Click here for details. It’s also available on the WAS’ YouTube channel.

The online talk is open to the public: we are one of the few things you cando in Westport that is free and greatly expand your knowledge.

After 57 years of broadcasting from the University of Bridgeport, WPKN (89.5) has moved. The new studio — recently renovated Bijou Square, in downtown Bridgeport — will be the new home for Westporters like programmer Ina Chadwick, fundraiser and development director Richard Epstein; Staples graduates like communications guru Jim Motavalli, and the station’s enormous stable of Westport fans.

And finally … we won’t have ABC’s Dream Event this year. But we can have:


Pegeen Gaherin: “Getting Past Madness”

After all these years, my long-ago High Point Road neighbor Pegeen Gaherin remembers many details about our youth.

The gang of kids riding bikes everywhere. Pool-hopping at night. She even recalls my dog’s name: Taffy.

After graduating from Staples High School in 1972, Pegeen remembers fun times waitressing at Viva Zapata, and partying to great music at Players’ Tavern.

But there were darker moments too. Suddenly in 1977, her world crashed down. Manic depression struck. Pegeen’s life has never been the same.

“One day the sun was out. The next day I felt as if the shades were drawn shut, without a glimmer of light peeking through,” she says.

Pegeen Gaherin today.

Her first onset of depression lasted 4 months, followed by a long manic episode laced with heavy drug use.

After a major psychotic break in Hawaii, she worked hard to regain her life. She moved in with her parents on Cape Cod.

“I couldn’t even tie my shoes,” Pegeen says. “My mother nursed me back to health.”

(Her father, John Gaherin, was a well-known negotiator. He represented New York newspaper publishers and Major League Baseball owners in the 1960’s and 70’s, and helped write baseball’s first labor contracts and pension plan.)

A year later, Pegeen felt better. As is sometimes the case with mental illness, she stopped taking medication. She began drinking a bit, and smoking some weed.

Another psychotic break in Miami followed. She pulled herself together again. She took classes at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, but another major dissociative episode followed, in Cambridge.

After trying to work in New York, and living again with her parents on the Cape, Pegeen moved back to Westport. Once again, she drank.

Alcohol and manic depression form a lethal combination. “I knew they’d be fatal,” she says. “I’d end up as a Jane Doe.”

In 1987 she found AA. She’s been sober — “one day at a time” — ever since.

“Medication clears up my mental illness,” Pegeen notes. “But I had to learn to live again. AA gave me that.”

She loved her Westport AA group. Yet when she moved back to Cape Cod in 2003, her experience was different.

They said, “you’re not sober if you’re taking meds. They shunned me.” She is grateful these days for Westport’s AA meetings, which she attends via Zoom. She is grateful too for lithium, which she calls “a miracle drug.”

While still living here in 1998, she took a writing class with David Wiltse. She hung out with a group of writers, who encouraged her to tell her story.

It was not easy. The stigma of mental illness is strong. “Coming out against AA is countercultural” too, she notes.

She finished her book in 2010. But she held on to it for a decade. Over the past few months, she felt compelled to publish.

The other day, “Getting Past Madness: A Young Woman’s Journey from Mental Illness to Mental Health” was published. (Her author’s nom de plume, Pegeen Keenan-O’Brien, is a combination of her 2 grandmothers’ names.)

Pegeen says, “I wanted to stop the judgment that often comes with mental illness. Even in the most healing of environments, there is far less understanding than I would like to see.

“I told my story the best way I could. I’m so glad I started it so long ago. If I can help just one person, that would be great.”

(To order “Getting Past Madness,” and for more information, click here. Hat tip: Kathleen Kiley)

“I Am Justin’s Mother”: The Complexity of Mental Illness

John and Sophie are longtime Westporters. In the late 1990s their son Justin was a Staples athlete — and Block “S” winner. Today he lives in a group home. His life has been shattered by mental illness — a horrible disease that has affected his entire family.

John and Sophie have been upfront with friends and neighbors about Justin’s illness. However, to protect their son’s privacy, all names are aliases. Here is their story.

“I feel like I lost my child some time ago,” Sophie says. “He is physically alive, but he’s not the Justin he was, or would have developed into.  He was such a different person in high school.”

Loss and grief are always with Sophie. But certain events — like the Newtown killings — brings those emotions closer to the surface.

Sophie believes there is more to Adam Lanza than the label “autistic.” “Was there ever a professional assessment?” she wonders. “Autistic people don’t typically react violently.” She thinks there was much more going on in his life.

When she hears that Adam Lanza spent 2 years in his mother’s basement, spiraling downward, Sophie can relate. “People can’t control things that are in their head,” she says.

Mental health silhouetteAs a Staples senior, Justin told his parents that he could no longer concentrate. He thought he had ADD. Tests showed he did not. Instead, he was distracted by thoughts and voices.

“Adolescence is a time of change. You experiment with new friends, and doing things in different ways,” Sophie notes.

“Justin had been a good kid. But every kid needs to separate from his parents, rebel, be assertive. It was hard to tell what was mental illness, and what was age-appropriate behavior.”

Sophie’s sister developed schizophrenia at 20, so she worried about Justin. When she asked directly if he heard voices, he denied it. Eventually, he told her he was having “conversations” with people in his head.

The voices grew stronger. Justin felt “spirits” inhabited his body. He was afraid they would “jump” to his parents and siblings.

Justin decided to commit suicide. That way, he thought, the spirits would die with him. But he believed in reincarnation, so he would be okay. One winter day, he was talked down from the George Washington Bridge. He later said he was glad to be saved.

By that point, he’d already been hospitalized. He’d also run away.

“It’s hard for anyone to accept that they have a chronic major illness,” Sophie says. “It’s especially tough with something that affects your mind.

“The mind is the last bastion. It controls everything. You can lose your limb, and get along. But if you lose your brain, what do you do?”

Mental illness awarenessProfessionals spent years finding the right combination of drugs — ones that made Justin feel better, without side effects.

It took Justin years to accept that he cannot work, or live on his own. He’s been in a couple of different group homes.

“He has problems in large groups of people,” Sophie says. “He thinks they’re saying bad things about him. He’s afraid for his life every day. It’s a constant battle.”

“He was social, he had great friends,” John adds. “And now it’s very hard for him to be with people. He doesn’t remember being well-liked, or a good athlete. The past he remembers is not the one we know he had.”

He has not been back to Westport for 5 years. Too many places hold “psychotic memories of bad things he thinks happened here,” his father says. “This is a hostile place for him.”

The more he stays in one place, the more fearful he becomes. That’s why he’s lived in several different residential facilities.

mental health kidFear is a major component of mental illness, John explains. “When we see people sleeping outside in cities, that’s because they’re so scared of being inside. How can we protect people like that?”

Justin, he says, is very lucky. “He is very loved, and he is provided for. He has supervisors, and professionals who can provide activities and discuss his fears. He has some quality of life.”

Justin’s days follow a pattern. He gets up, and goes downtown for coffee and cigarettes. He returns to his facility for group meetings and chores. He’s usually in bed by 9.

Justin’s care is very expensive. His family has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his care. Eventually, the funds will run out.

Sophie knows that Justin is one of the “lucky” ones, because he is loved and cared for. Her family is “extraordinarily lucky,” because they can take care of him. She worries about all those suffering from mental illness who do not have the resources and opportunities her son does.

mental I can't keep pretendingJohn believes the Newtown murders will advance the discussion of mental illness. However, he wonders how much the “understanding” of it will change. “People like to throw labels around,” he notes.

“It’s easy to put people in a box, categorize them,” Sophie says. “It makes you feel safe. But mental illness is complicated. The more people talk about it, and see the complexity of it, the more they may ‘get it.'”

Living with a mentally ill family member is, she says, “a long slog.” By telling their story, she hopes, people will understand her son and his disease — and all others suffering from and affected by it — just a little bit better.

(Sophie recommends a novel — Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is Trueas an excellent portrayal of mental illness’ impact on a family. She also offers these resources: http://www.swrmhb.orghttp://www.mindsontheedge.org; http://www.nami.org; http://www.ct.gov/dmhas/cwp/view.asp?a=2902&q=335208&dmhasNav=|.)