By Eric Ward
Put simply, I am a single father, who is obsessed with cycling. I travel all over California and Arizona just to ride and race my bike. To get a little more complicated, I am considered a high functioning person with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia. I was not functioning at all years ago, but somehow I managed to pick myself up and become the person I am today. It was a giant struggle and like most people that have a mental illness, I am not much different nor is my story or what I have gone through different. Still, every day it is a struggle. As a friend once said to me, “It seems as if you are always standing on the pedals, climbing that big hill.”
During these past holidays, I was invited to a family function for the first time in years. I was there. It was not an hallucination. I know I was at the family function because I ate and watched people open their presents. Somehow, everybody ignored me like I was not there. Everybody in the house was my family. I took care of some of the younger family members years ago. I even brought one of them home with their mom from the hospital.
I am not grossly disfigured. I don’t stink. I am not loud or rude. I just have a mental illness. Everyone in the room was in their own groups talking. I tried to get into the conversation but it was like I was invisible. It was a huge waste of time. I had so much to talk about. I wanted so badly to say how my bicycle has taken me from just ridding around looking for cans for food money, to racing. And not just racing, but placing in the top three or four, sometimes even winning! I wanted to tell about how it gives me an outlet, how it lets me focus, how it lets me see exactly what this 220 pound body can really do!
Someone from my family was kind enough to ask me what I did for a living. No one believed me when I said I started my own official USA Cycling team. I felt like a fool. It was very strange to me and almost felt like a dream. I was at the family party, yet I was not. I was just a piece of furniture.
I don’t understand. What I have is not contagious. Maybe it is good that I am clueless as to why people view my illness different then if I had diabetes or cancer. I am not a monster. I am not like what people hear on the news or see in the movies. I am just a plain person; a dorky dad who loves to race his bicycle and take care of his kids. If my family took the time to know me they would realize the truth. I have funny stories to tell. My kids and I have been on great adventures, traveling to different cycling events, meeting great people and contributing to something so positive.
To sum it up, I am at a party but I am trapped alone inside my head; trying to get out; trying to be “normal.” Longing to be accepted, yet rejected. I am not sure as to why this is so. I have done nothing wrong. If I were to describe what struggling with mental illness is like for me every day, it would be two simple words, “it hurts.” Like climbing a mountain switchback on a bike, it burns in places you can’t imagine. Yet, deep down inside me I do not want to give up. I will not give up. I will make it to the top and it will hurt like hell! But that ride down the backside will be worth it, and I’ll get to do it all over again soon enough!
Eric participated in the NAMIBikes ride in Sacramento, Calif. on Nov. 10, 2012.