The National Alliance on Mental Illness has developed a program called In Our Own Voice that aims to break through some of the stigma that surrounds mental illness. The free presentations are offered by people who are living with mental illness. On Wednesday night, two NAMI members, Tom Raposa and Brian Ramsay, shared their stories at the Oak Bluffs Library.

A video accompanied the presentations, setting up the conversation and breaking it into components: dark days, acceptance, treatment, coping skills and successes, hopes and dreams. The stories shared in the video depicted people of all backgrounds living with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, anxiety disorders, panic disorders and other mental illnesses.

One man in the video said that in the middle of his darkest days, he would get up and prepare for work and then drive to a parking lot where he would call in sick to his workplace. He waited until he knew his wife was gone to her job and then he’d go home and go back to bed. One of the women in the video said she spent most of the day in a closet because she did not want to experience what she called “all the stimuli” going on around her. There were stories about feeling worthless, like an alien in the world and stories of hearing voices and seeing things that no one else saw.

Tom Raposa is a 47-year-old Coast Guard veteran with a degree in sociology. He lives in the Bedford area where he’s active with the VA, volunteering his time helping other veterans who deal with mental illness and substance abuse issues. Mr. Raposa said his own problems began back in eighth or ninth grade with drinking and smoking marijuana with his friends. He said he had a paper route and made about $60 a week, which he promptly spent on partying.

“Me and my buddies would go out into the woods and party a lot. I barely made it through Catholic high school,” Mr. Raposa said. “I was put there from the public school and I didn’t know anyone and I just kept drinking.”

He said he had a good upbringing and his family has always been important to him, but the drinking and drugs took their toll. Mr. Raposa experienced a breakdown and ended up in Walter Reed Army Medical Center, eventually diagnosed bipolar with schizoaffective disorder. “Not a pleasant experience,” Mr. Raposa said.

Presentation included videos, books and support materials. — Mark Lovewell

He was hospitalized three times he said, before he found the help he needed. His journey brought him to Bedford where he landed a good therapist and psychiatrist directing his care. “I have a lot of friends who are supportive and some friends who are still doing the same thing, but I can’t even have a sip, so I concentrate on my sobriety,” Mr. Raposa said.

Brian Ramsay’s symptoms came on when he was in his second year at Northeastern University. “I stayed in bed for three days. I saw a psychiatrist, went to the hospital, heard voices. They put me on medication. I thought I could sleep it off. I couldn’t speak. I knew what was going on in my head but I couldn’t vocalize. They called this a mute stage,” he said.

Mr. Ramsay has been in and out of the hospital several times, but like Mr. Raposa, he has support through his family and through NAMI. Mr. Ramsay has worked at a supermarket in Orleans for 23 years, and has lived in his own apartment there for just as long. He plays tennis, goes to church, attends support group meetings and joined Weight Watchers, losing more than 60 pounds. Weight gain is a common side effect of many medications that help with mental illness. Both men said keys to their recovery are keeping busy, staying on their medications and family support.

“I’m just trying to be myself. Trying to be happy and it’s working right now,” Mr. Ramsay said. “Coping to me is living day to day, week to week, month to month taking care of my needs.”

After the presentation, Mr. Raposa said the most difficult part of coping with the aftermath of his mental illness is the feeling that he isn’t normal anymore. “Going from being a normal person to not being a normal person. Losing credibility, not being looked at like I was looked at before, like I changed and no one else did,” he said.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 26 per cent of adults in the U.S. struggle with a diagnosed psychiatric condition in a given year. The most serious conditions affect about six per cent of those diagnosed. The illness doesn’t affect a particular socioeconomic, race, religion or other demographic. It can happen in any family.

NAMI has numerous resources on the Island. Support group meetings for families and friends of those coping with mental illness take place on the third Wednesday of the month in the chapel at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital from 6:30 to 8 p.m., and on the first Sunday of the month at Daybreak Clubhouse from 6 to 7:30 p.m. A support group for those who have a mental illness meets the second and fourth Sunday of the month at Daybreak Clubhouse from 6 to 7:30 p.m. All meetings are confidential.

For information about family supports, call 508-627-5249 or 508-693-5872. For information about support coping with mental illness, call 508-693-5565.