By Jennie Madsen
Change your clothes.
Change your attitude.
Change your major.
Change your name.
Change your address.
Change your job.
Change your mind.
Very few things in life are consistent, unchanged, unaffected. Even fewer when you live with bipolar disorder. And even fewer still when you live with three people who live with bipolar disorder. So, we search. We search for consistency, things in life we can rely on to remain unchanged year to year, unaffected by our personal mayhem, busyness and turmoil.
For my family, that one thing has come to be NAMIWalks. Don’t get me wrong; we know change is inevitable in life. With NAMIWalks, the date has changed, the city has changed, the weather has changed… oh, the weather. But the NAMIWalks experience remains the same.
Year after year we look forward to fundraising, t-shirt creation, face painting, entrepreneur booths and the 5K walk in Texas heat. We’re always exhausted and dirty when we leave, yet it only takes us a few months before we gear up to do it all over again.
Originally, my family started walking for me, when I was suddenly thrust into caregiving for several individuals with bipolar disorder, and I needed help. Then we were walking because we had won the t-shirt contest several years in a row and we had a reputation to uphold. Now we walk because the change we see every year in our family is too great to give up.
We’ve watched over the last six years as our oldest daughter went from not wanting to attend, to becoming a top fundraising teenage co-captain of our team. She was even recently named Youth Volunteer of the Year for the state of Texas. Our youngest, now seven, has never known a spring where she didn’t put on a Madsen Mania team shirt and support her daddy and two older siblings. She has been smashing stigma and talking about NAMI her entire life.
The impact NAMIWalks has had on our family extends to those around us as we openly talk (and even joke on occasion) about the day-to-day dealings of mental illness: the misgivings, the trial and error of treatment and other issues at the forefront of our lives. NAMIWalks has given us freedom of expression for a very dark, suffocating part of our lives. The more years we walk, the more comfortable we as a family—and each as individuals—become with the diagnoses we manage and need to discuss.
My husband grew up battling bipolar disorder for thirty years before being diagnosed. Until NAMIWalks, no one in our family ever spoke about their struggles. Now, though, he teaches medication compliance and self-care to our children by taking his medication where and when they can see him. His voice is strong and confident as he reminds everyone in the family how they can all manage and overcome the symptoms they share, rather than using those symptoms as excuses for poor behavior. Being able to freely express himself is the foundation for this man, whose deepest desire is to lead his family by providing an example for his children on how to live well and love others.
NAMIWalks, an event designed to encourage enlightened discussion about mental illness, has given my husband more courage and support in his efforts to raise our children. Seeing thousands of people publicly supporting themselves and their loved ones each year makes it easier for him to put aside his guilt of having “given” bipolar disorder to our two oldest children, and just be the positive influence he wants to be.
My family is accustomed to the tedious nature of tracking medications, symptoms, side effects, doctors’ appointments and so much more because they’re always changing. In the middle of all that, it’s a beautiful thing to have a place of consistency waiting for us each spring. Our walk season approaches and no matter what is happening in our lives or where we are with everyone’s illnesses, we make the team t-shirt and we fundraise the money. Then an always shockingly large number of family and friends packs up and drives to the park to walk with us. And at the end of that day, we track a different kind of change—one that is within us—as we break free just a bit more from the stigma and silence that has gripped us.
And for that, we wouldn’t change a thing.
NAMIWalks are happening across the country in honor of Mental Health Month.
Find an upcoming walk and get involved today.
Jennie Madsen is a creative writer, watercolor artist and loves to nap. Wife to one and mom to three, she and her family live in Lake Jackson, Texas where they are mental health advocates with NAMI Greater Houston.
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