May is Mental Health Month.
What May Means To Me…
Fifteen years ago, May became the meanest month. Jimmy was broken- hearted from his separation and looming divorce, he had torn his labrum and could not surf for one of the first prolonged times in his life. He was feeling a bit over-whelmed with the success of Camp Surf and the huge responsibility he felt towards his students, their parents and the City of Manhattan Beach, as Camp Surf was (and still is) the official Surf School of the city.
There had been many factors leading up to Jimmy’s break with reality on Memorial Day Friday. What we do know now is that Jimmy used his love of surfing and the physical action of being in the water and catching waves, as a form of personal therapy for most of his life. He followed his passion and was able to build a career centered around surfing, helping others, traveling and teaching kids. Those things remained constants in his life. As a world traveler, Jim taught hundreds of people to surf. From Africa to Ireland, and from Fiji to Tahiti, he brought his special brand of laid back and “pure surfing” to kids and adults all over the world. He was “living the dream” and it appeared to all of us that despite some personal and physical set-backs, his life was pretty golden. There was no known mental illness in our families, and Jimmy had never shown any indication of a serious mental illness or depression. He followed the beat of his own drummer, but that was just “Jimmy.”
On that Memorial Day Friday, Jimmy calmly told us that people had been spying on him and gone into his trash to get personal items. He firmly believed that he had broken laws and that his company was in jeopardy. He was worried about people “getting in” his computer and leaving him messages. This was definitely not the Jimmy we knew, and the intensity of his insistence of guilt for everything that touched him, frightened all of us and moved us into taking some type of action.
Living in a community like Manhattan Beach, one would think we would have resources to call when a loved one becomes delusional. We realized we only knew one person in the mental health field, and we immediately called her. As a working psychologist, she just happened to be her office on this holiday weekend. She counseled us to bring Jimmy in to speak with her immediately, and thus began our first experience with the odyssey of finding mental health help.
She did an assessment of Jimmy, speaking with him privately and then asking him if it would be OK if his parents came in to hear what she was thinking about next steps. As an adult, Jim had the right to refuse, but he quickly said he wanted us to be in the room with him. Her suggestion shocked us, but also gave us a glimpse into the world of the mentally ill.
It was suggested we get Jim to UCLA Medical Center, to be evaluated by their psychologists and psychiatrists, and make a plan. He was delusional and had a break with reality, and was in danger of harming himself.
We followed through with her advice and spent a long and ultimately frustrating day at the ER at UCLA. The final verdict after 10 hours in the ER, was to take Jimmy home, keep an eye on him, give him some medication, and find a psychiatrist as soon as possible. Not the easiest thing to do on a holiday weekend.
The reason I am sharing this story with you is that I want you to know that so many people are at risk for mental illness. And it happens in families just like yours. Even the most well adjusted “golden boy,” who seemingly had it all, was harboring fear and depression. From his initial trip to the ER on Memorial Day weekend to his death in August, we raced from expert to expert, Jimmy stayed in Cedars Sinai psychiatric ward under his own choice for two weeks, and started intensive out-patient therapy and medication that made him drowsy, gain weight, and ultimately, he discarded.
We firmly believe that if Jimmy had kept surfing and he continued to use the release of endorphins and the joy he had experienced almost every day of his life, that he would still be alive. We understood much later, that when people give up the things in life that have always given them the most joy, that they are in serious danger.
This is one of the many reasons we formed the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation. We knew we needed to help others experience the joy and release of surfing. And we wanted to give them a safe place to express their feelings about their experience. When Carly Rogers approached us a few months after Jimmy died, and shared her thesis for her concept of Ocean Therapy for at-risk kids, we knew that this was a way to help the mental health of everyone who could participate. And in the past fifteen years, we have helped thousands of people feel the joy and release that Jimmy felt every time he stepped in the ocean.
We celebrate JMMF and Jimmy’s legacy on Saturday, May 18 with our BeneFiesta. Benefit +Fiesta! The funds we raise will go to our continued efforts to enhance the mental health of every participant and volunteer that joins us. Our Ocean Therapy Program has grown from 4 sessions to more than 50 sessions a year. The need for alternative therapies like Ocean Therapy keeps growing, as we face new challenges of mass shootings and the devastation of the drug and opioid disasters. We have started on the road to help these new populations and need your help to keep sharing the live-saving grace of surfing and therapy. You can change the meanest month to the most meaningful month when you join us at the Benefiesta.
This Mental Health May, I hope all of you take time to take care of your own mental health, and reach out to those you believe may need help.
There are so many happy endings that are available to everyone. And in the meantime, we will just keep helping ourselves and others heal, one wave at a time.