NAMI's drop-in center offers a safe place to socialize in Oak Park

Stigma-free zone

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Every day but Sunday, people with diagnosed mental illnesses gather at 816 W. Harrison in Oak Park to find a few friendly faces.

There at the NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness) Metro Suburban Drop-In Center, you may find adults with bi-polar disorder or those who daily struggle with the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. All are looking for — and find — a stigma-free zone.

Julie (not her real name) is a 45-year-old, self-employed, graphic designer who is drawn to this open, safe space for the structure it affords, which enables her to integrate into a community of peers who, like herself, suffer from a severe mood or anxiety disorder.

Sometimes she just sits; other times she does more. Julie wants four hours of structure in her day, and she finds it here.

"At first I didn't want to be around mentally ill people, so I said no.

But my mom was part of NAMI before she died, and one day I rode the train into Oak Park and saw the sign and said, 'You know, my mom would like it if I went and just saw what it's all about.'

She ran to NAMI the last time I got sick, so she had people to support her, and because of that she was stronger for me."

Program director John Heumann describes his community space as a place where participants can stop by to "really kind of socialize, feel good about themselves, and make friends," he says.

Together they watch movies, attend an art therapy session, venture out into the community to bowl, attend a baseball game, or go to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

"Every family has someone in the family tree somewhere in the past with a diagnosis of mental illness. So this is normal and part of the human condition," Heumann says. "Accepting that is one of the ways to bust stigma apart, so the more we educate the wider public, which is also what we do with NAMI programming, the less we will hear the hurtful name-calling and the stigmatizing.

We want everyone to know we are here, and when they are ready, they can come and join us."


A way back in


In 2006, Vickey Gonzalez, who has bi-polar disorder, did drop in.

That was the year she was hospitalized for three months. Upon her release, the now 52-year-old Oak Parker says she isolated herself for a very long time — until her psychiatrist told her it was time to gather her courage and start socializing again.

"In this place, we can feel good enough to have a bad day in front of each other, without shaming or blaming [ourselves] for anything," says Gonzalez, now the NAMI program trainer and member of the nonprofit's state and national board of directors.

The former real estate agent says she lost everything but now has found a new professional life and family of choice — the drop-in center's participants and staff.

"I do have a daughter and a son, and I am very close to them," she adds. "I am now comfortable saying that I am bi-polar, and I don't care who knows it. I couldn't have said that a couple of years back."

Julie, meanwhile, says living in her own shoes is becoming a better fit.

"They give you a place to go for a block of time during the day, so when I first came here, I would just sit on the sofa and have people, just bodies, walking in front of me.

"Within a week I started to feel better."

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