June 08, 2023

Voices of Recovery: Episode 11

This Pride Month, we bring you the story of Nick Emeigh, a member of the LGBTQ+ community. By day, he is a mild-mannered leader at a NAMI affiliate. But on special occasions, he dons a mask, a cape and big, green boots to become… NAMI Man! Unlike Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne, Nick doesn’t keep his identity secret, nor does he keep his mental health story hidden. In this episode, he talks with NAMI’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ken Duckworth, about his substance use disorder, the loss and grief that fueled his breakdown, and his time spent in inpatient facilities. He also explains the origin story of NAMI Man, and we hear how his affiliate runs 100 support groups a month, including groups for the LGBTQ+ community.

This conversation was part of Dr. Duckworth’s research for the book, You Are Not Alone: The NAMI Guide to Navigating Mental Health–With Advice from Experts and Wisdom from Real People and Families. Hear more episodes of this and other podcasts at nami.org/podcast.  




Episode Transcript:

Ken Duckworth: [0:00] A note for our listeners. This podcast includes discussion of suicide that some people might find difficult.

[0:06] [background music]

Ken: [0:10] This is "You Are Not Alone ‑‑ Voices of Recovery." Hi, I'm Dr. Ken Duckworth. I'm a psychiatrist and the chief medical officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. I'm the author of NAMI's first book, "You Are Not Alone ‑‑ the NAMI Guide to Navigating Mental Health with Advice from Experts and Wisdom from Real People and Families."

[0:29] I talked to over 100 people for that book, and I want to share some conversations that I found truly inspirational. I've got to say that one of the people I talked to happened to be an actual superhero.

[0:41] Nick Emeigh is, by day, a mild‑mannered mental health advocate who serves as associate executive director at the NAMI chapter of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but, for special occasions, he transforms into NAMI Man, full costume ‑‑ cape, mask, the whole deal.

[1:01] He does appearances at NAMI events, he visits children in hospitals, and he's an icon at NAMI walks. There's a wonderful video at nami.org. Just search NAMI Man when you get there. I wanted to talk to Nick about where NAMI Man came from, but the conversation ended up being about so much more.

Nick Emeigh: [1:25] We had a NAMI walk every year, and I was brand new. I was still new to recovery. Debbie said, "You know what?" They had weird mascots every year. They had people dress up like Disney characters and stuff and walk around. We had the Philly Fanatic and everything. Everybody said, "What does this have to do with mental health?"

[1:52] Debbie said, "You know, we don't have like a mental health superhero." I said, "People in recovery are all mental health superheroes…

[2:03] [crosstalk]

Ken: [2:04] Yes.

Nick: [2:04] survived a suicide attempt or anything like that." I said, "I survived three suicide attempts. I feel pretty powerful, even though I wasn't happy when I woke up from some of them." I said, "You know what? It should be somebody who's in recovery as a superhero."

[2:27] People were taking pictures of me and stuff. When I went to Seattle for that conference, I went up on the Space Needle in the NAMI Man costume. Random people wanted to take their picture with me. I don't know who they thought I was.

[2:42] Then I thought, "You know, they have no idea who I am, and they're gonna go home, and they're gonna look up. And then they're gonna talk about mental health." Then I was invited to read a story to kids at the Horsham Clinic, which is a facility…

Ken: [3:00] Yes.

Nick: [3:01] Mm‑hmm. I said, "Why don't I come as NAMI Man and read to the kids?" NAMI Man was invited to come out to visit the Horsham Clinic. I first visited the adolescent unit. I told them about NAMI Man, the adolescents. They said, "Please, please put him on and come back in." It did, and they loved it.

[3:28] Then I went over to the children's unit. Honest to God, Ken, I did not know that kids quite that young were hospitalized. I was shocked just walking in there, and I was sort of out of sorts. I come onto the unit, and the techs and the nurses come out. They warn me that some of these kids are not going to be into this. They have behavior issues.

[4:02] I said, "Yeah, well, me too." I'm nervous, so I walk in there, and just a bunch of kids. Some of them are like, "Who is this dude?" I said, "I'm your mental health superhero." I said, "Do you read comic books and stuff, and you watch cartoons, and you know Superman, Batman, and all that stuff."

[4:25] I said, "Well, what do they do?" [laughs] They're like, "They save the day, and they kill bad guys and stuff." They said, "Do you kill bad guys and hurt bad guys?" I said, "No, I don't hurt anybody. I don't touch anybody," so I crushed the stigma.

[4:42] They're like, "What is that?" I said, "Do you like being in here? Do you like being in the hospital?" They're like, "No, we don't know why we're here. This sucks." I said, "Well, you know, a lot of the reason that you don't know why you're here and what mental health is and that no one ever talks about it is stigma."

[5:05] When I was in the hospital, my parents weren't happy that I was there. They never talked about it to anybody, and we never talked about it. My life would have been a little bit easier if we did. I crushed the stigma so that it's easier for us to talk about this stuff.

Ken: [5:20] NAMI Man crushes the stigma. You don't kill bad guys.

Nick: [5:24] No, I don't hurt anybody. The room was separated by these bookcases, and there's this really little guy over behind the bookcases in the corner. He was literally rocking back and forth. The director of business development is the one who brings me there.

[5:46] I looked at her and I said, "How old is he?" He really was four or five years old. He was tiny. I walked over, and he was literally talking, like whispering to things that weren't there. I didn't even think about what I was doing.

[6:14] I knelt down, and he said, "Are you a real superhero?" He said, "Are you my superhero." I was like, "Oh, my God." I said, "Yeah, I'm your superhero. There's no superheroes for us." I said, "I went through tough times, too." He said, "Really? What do you do?" I told him, and then I said, "Superheroes are real people too. Did you know that?"

[6:44] He said, "No." I took off my mask and said, "My name is Nick, and I work for a place called NAMI. The reason I turned into a superhero is 'cause…" I was in that hospital. I was a patient there. I said, "I came here to Horsham Clinic, and I got the help that I needed, and I lived. And I grew up and I…Now, I do good things, and my superpower is crushing stigma and helping other people like you."

[7:17] I said, "So, technically, you're a superhero too since you're here getting the help that you need. And I want you to help people one day too when you get through this." I said, "So, what would you look like as a superhero?"

[7:33] I asked the staff for pencils, crayons, and stuff. I said, "I want all of you to draw yourselves as superheroes, 'cause you are." We sat and we talked about them having troubles in school, troubles at home, that their parents don't like them, that they all think they're there because their parents sent them there because they're bad.

[7:58] I said, "You know, it really helps if you understand why you're here." We talked about it while they drew. The boys all drew NAMI Man with my hair and everything.

Ken: [8:13] They got with the program right away. They wanted to be you. Let's shift gears a little bit. Let's go back to your experience. Second grade, you're having intense thoughts of a wish to die.

Nick: [8:27] Yeah.

Ken: [8:28] How do you understand that as you look back on it now? Do you think you had an illness process? Were you being bullied, as you mentioned?" What was the driver? Something at home?

Nick: [8:40] I was an anxious and paranoid little kid. It started before school. I would have panic attacks ‑‑ My mom was so cute. Her name was Candy ‑‑ what she called magic moments. I would dissociate. I didn't know what was going on when I was a little kid.

[9:11] I was so freaked out about weird things like the weather, natural, like tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and stuff. We live in Pennsylvania, so that doesn't happen a whole lot. I was unnaturally scared of that stuff as a really little kid. There was no reason I should have been.

[9:34] Then I went to school, and it got worse. I was tested in school. I had a high IQ, and so everything from then on was blamed on that I was a smart kid. I understand that I was a smart kid, but that doesn't explain everything else that was going on, so I just held it in.

[10:03] The wanting to die thing, I didn't have the words for that. I never actually said, "I wanna die," but I said things like, "I'm a mistake," and "I don't really belong here, and I don't fit in anywhere." That was partially because of the bullying and partially because I was weird when I was little because I couldn't control the stuff that was going on in my brain.

[10:31] I didn't have any language to talk about that. I had none. People blamed my mom. It wasn't like the NAMI story where they blame the moms for schizophrenia. They blamed my mom for coddling me, that's why I was like I was. I got picked on mercilessly.

[10:56] I discovered that eating could help. I didn't have drugs or alcohol that early, thank God. Eating was like a drug. Every time I would come home and have a terrible day, my mom would make me food. I learned that made you feel better.

[11:14] I ate a lot, and I gained a lot of weight. I was a fat kid, so I got bullied even more then. By the time I was in middle school, none of this stuff went away. I just got a lot better at never talking about it or saying anything.

[11:35] I got really good at changing myself to adapt to other people and what I thought they wanted of me and everything like that. I would have panic attacks, and I would make myself sick. My dad thought that I was just trying not to go to school and stuff. When I was little, I had ulcers from keeping all that stuff inside.

[12:08] By the time I got to the end of middle school, start of high school, I had no control over anything. A way to get control over things was to not eat and exercise a whole lot. I did stop eating altogether to lose weight. I wanted one person to like me for who I was and to think that I mattered in some kind of way.

[12:39] I stopped eating, and I wouldn't eat until I was going to pass out. I ended up getting some friends that way. I did change. I lost a lot of weight, and people did like me. I didn't know any better than to think that was the right thing to do ‑‑ all that positive affirmations and the rewards for losing weight ‑‑ so I kept doing it.

[13:08] When I got to Emerson up in Boston, [laughs] my mom was my best friend. I was far away from here. I had zero idea what I was doing. Emerson's an artsy‑fartsy school, [laughs] but I was weird there too. All those kids are weird, and I was the weirdest one.

[13:34] I would go to a party and stuff like that, and I would need to leave. All of them had more money than my family did. They would have wine and cheese parties up on rooftops and stuff. I'd be in the corner freaking out. The voices and the hallucinations and everything like that didn't start for me that I was aware of until I got to college.

[14:11] I was 17 when I first got there, so I was about 18 when all that first started. I made myself sick. I wasn't sleeping at all. I wasn't eating because I was so afraid to be fat and lose control. I was sick as a dog. I went to the wellness center, and they thought I had mono.

[14:39] They sent me home. I flew home. I sat down with my mom, and I said, "I don't know if this is a physical thing. I know it seems that way, but I am pretty sure I am not going to make it through this." She said, "What do you mean?" I said, "I'm either gonna kill myself or something is gonna happen. Something isn't right."

[15:09] My mom put her head in her hands and she screamed and cried and took me to the family doctor. The family doctor put me on Paxil and Xanax. I remember taking Xanax for the first time and thinking, "OK, this is great."

[15:30] [laughter]

Ken: [15:32] I feel better."

Nick: [15:34] Yeah. That was the only time I felt like I could literally control the brain. I was like, "You know what, though? I need to share this with other people." I went back to school, and I had a party with it. Then, I was cool. I could talk at parties. Then everyone else was like, "You know, if you like that, you'll love this." It was off to the races.

[16:16] When I do the Ending the Silence presentations, I tell them. I said, "Everyone told me in school 'say no to drugs. Just say no.' They're addictive. You get addicted to them." No one ever tells you why. If you have been bullied your whole life, struggle with anxiety and depression, drugs and alcohol are super effective, temporarily, to make you feel like you do belong somewhere.

Ken: [16:43] Yes.

Nick: [16:44] You control the crap that's going on in your brain. Had I known that…No one told me anything. I graduated. I came home. I got a job. I did an internship in Boston. I also realized there at that internship that I didn't want to be a writer. [laughs]

[17:20] I thought I was going to become a famous author, change the world, and make everybody want to read again. I was the only one who felt that way. [laughs]

[17:31] Then I got a job working for a pharmacy chain. I don't know. I didn't know what I was doing. I was OK for a little bit. The drug stuff let up. I was like, "All right. Now, it's time I grow up." I got into a graduate program. Eventually, I got to be one of their regional managers.

[18:01] It was a lot of responsibility. I was 23 years old. I couldn't take it. There was nothing I could say or do. All that…

Ken: [18:14] What was your use of substances at that point?

Nick: [18:19] It slowed down. I was just drinking and smoking pot to maintain…Not drinking a ton. It wasn't problem drinking. It was what people, I guess, would say is social drinking. It wasn't anything like it got to be later. The marijuana was excessive. It always was.

Ken: [18:44] How old are you now, Nick?

Nick: [18:47] 39.

Ken: [18:49] When did you stop everything?

Nick: [18:50] Getting old. Not until it was six years ago my dad died. It's been six years since my last hospitalization, suicide attempt. I've been sober since then. I had that job. I made a lot of money. Well, a lot of money is relative. I was in a graduate program for business at Temple, and I just didn't know what I was doing.

[19:23] I was like, I don't think I want to do business, I don't think I can be a writer, I'm good at writing. I was lost. I'm doing this job, and I was in New York City at the time at one of my offices there. I remember I just snapped and I was like, I know I can't do this anymore. Something's going to happen, and I don't know what to do about it, so I drove home to Bucks County.

[19:53] I came home and I saw my mom. She was sitting in the living room, and I said, I think I'm going crazy. I said I don't have multiple personalities, [laughs] before I knew anything about any of this. She said, well here, I'm going to make you a nice grilled cheese, you're going to go to bed, and you're going to feel better, and I did. My room was just like it was when I left.

[20:19] I went to bed, I woke up, and I did feel better. I woke up in the morning. I heard my mom cleaning and stuff, because that's all she did. Then, I heard her make a noise and I knew that something was wrong. I went out into the hallway and I said, "Mom?" She didn't answer me.

[20:39] I went out and I said, "Mom?" She was face down on the ground. She'd knocked her teeth out. I pulled her teeth out of her throat and I gave her CPR. She just threw up everywhere. I thought she was having a stroke. My dad was there. He called the ambulance. They came and they took her to a hospital locally.

[21:10] Then, they flew her to Jefferson in the city. We drove down. The doctor took us into the little room. He said, "Your mom had a brain aneurysm. She's in the right place. We're going to do this, this, and this." All I remember is that they kept saying that they were going to put a copper coil in her brain where the aneurysm ruptured. I was like, "Oh my God."

[21:40] At this point, though, because I couldn't deal with everything that was going on, all that pressure and everything, the drugs were not good. I never did heroin, or meth, or crack, or anything like that. I did pills, painkillers.

Ken: [22:02] Opiates.

Nick: [22:02] Mm‑hmm.

Ken: [22:05] Pain pills.

Nick: [22:08] I don't know how much time this was from when that happened until I was at my office one day and I got a call that we needed to take my mom off life support. Then, I passed out in my office. Someone drove me to the hospital. I got there just in time. They were saying last rites around the bed. They did the oil thing.

[22:38] The priest opened the window so that her soul could leave. I remember, though, that she didn't die right away and that there was a nurse in there who told us…Recommended that we didn't stay to watch that. We didn't. I don't remember how I got home. I don't remember anything.

[23:07] What I do remember is that all my friends just thought that I should not be sober, and I wasn't. My mom died in January, and I knew that I was going to kill myself.

Ken: [23:24] This was when Nick made his first attempted suicide. It involves stealing from one of the drugstores where he worked and getting arrested.

Nick: [23:33] Eventually, they remanded me to a drug and alcohol facility for professionals in upstate Pennsylvania. [sighs] My God, I don't know. I was in there with doctors and nurses who were in there because they were taking IVs out of patients and putting them into themselves.

[24:03] I knew, though, that my problem wasn't just a drug problem, but I was so afraid to say anything because, in every movie I saw, state hospitals are horror movies. I never said a word, and they figured. I was having panic attacks there.

[24:31] Then I got fired while I was in treatment, and I lost my insurance, and so I paid out of pocket for the rest of my treatment. Then I came home and I tried to kill myself again because my life was over. There was no way I could come back from this.

Ken: [24:49] You had lost your mom and she was your best friend. She was the person who understood you, right?

Nick: [24:59] I couldn't figure it out as it was, so to try and figure this out without my mom was just not possible. After I tried to kill myself that next time, I was in the hospital, they diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. I was like, "Whatever." [laughs] "Just get me out of here. This is ridiculous."

[25:33] I tried to work after that, and then I realized I couldn't work anymore. I was put on disability, which was a difficult, painful process. I was just not doing anything. I was on Risperdal, and they had me on Thorazine too. I was taking Thorazine, Risperdal, I don't know if I was on Lithium yet, but I was on a bunch of stuff and it was not working.

[26:14] I didn't know what to do. I lived in a recovery house for a little bit. That's why when I do Ending the Silence, I say it's not enough to save somebody from suicide. You have to help them find their purpose. I was like, "Why would you try and keep somebody alive if they don't feel that there's a reason for them to be here?" It just was not fair to me.

[26:40] I thought, "I'm going to live like this forever. I'm going to live with my dad forever." Nothing was working, and so I started drinking again. I knew I couldn't do the drugs because that would just mess everything up for everybody. I just knew that alcohol would either just temporarily make me feel better, or long‑term, it would kill me, whatever. I didn't care.

[27:13] I went on like that for a little bit and then I tried to get sober. The time I tried to get sober was my first full‑blown psychosis where I was hearing voices, talking to things. I don't know if a lot of people that you talk to…

[27:35] I had random flashes of reality. I knew that some of the stuff I was doing was not OK. I remember waking ‑‑ well, I wasn't asleep ‑‑ but waking up from that. I was outside kneeling in the garden talking to a bush or something. My dad turned the lights on and said, "Nick, get in here."

[28:05] Then, I don't remember a lot. My sister filled me in on a lot of what went on. I have a brother and a sister. They're both younger. They saw all this stuff. I don't remember anything until my dad called the police. Police officers came out. I don't know what happened with that. I wasn't here.

[28:31] Then, I remember I was at the hospital. I don't know what I was saying. They made my dad leave the room. I don't know. That's when I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder first.

Ken: [28:51] How old were you at that time?

Nick: [28:53] 29. They tried Zyprexa first. That wasn't working. I don't remember when I started remembering. I remember being in there. I remember that before I went into the hospital, I swear to God my dad's hair was brown. When he came to the family meeting, his hair was turning white. I thought, "I'm doing this to my family."

[29:32] After the arrest and everything, nobody trusted me. I tried my best to get it together. I really did. The Zyprexa wasn't great. It wasn't helping a lot. I was in an intensive outpatient program after a partial hospital program. I said, "Nothing is really working for me." They tried a bunch of other stuff too. The doctors would get frustrated.

[30:08] The doctor in the partial program was great. Then I moved to a different psychiatrist on an outpatient basis. I remember that nothing was working, so I was drinking again. The psychiatrist knew it. I was lying to him. He was saying, "I can tell." I said, "Well, nothing is working. I need something that works for me, and I don't know how to tell you what I need." [laughs]

[30:38] He said, "Well, you got schizoaffective disorder. One of these things should work. Something I'm doing should be working." He said, "Do you know what? Let's try this. I'm going to take you off everything and see how that works out for you." I remember thinking, "Well, this is it." I was hospitalized again, as you can imagine. Then I came home. It was no bueno.

[31:02] This was six years ago. I'm 39. I was 33. I was living with my dad. I woke up one morning and he…My dad was a chef. He owned restaurants in Bucks County and New Jersey. He didn't go to work one morning. One of the cooks came to my house to check on him. Next thing, my bedroom door flew open, and he said, "Nick, Nick, your dad is dead."

[31:28] I went and I saw my dad. He had a heart attack in his sleep. It looked like he was getting ready for work. He was half‑dressed. He was in a chair in his bedroom. I knew that my life was over then. I knew that that was it. I can't take care of myself. I don't know what I'm doing. I don't have anything. I'm never going to.

[32:09] My brother and sister came home. They said, "You know, Nick, there's a couple things you're not going to do. You are not going to drink and you are not going to kill yourself." I said, "Sure."

Ken: [32:22] This was when Nick made his third suicide attempt.

Nick: [32:28] She sat with me all night while I laid on the couch in the living room so she could watch me. The next morning, she said, "So, you know what we're going and what we're doing." I said, "Yeah." I packed a bag. I went to the hospital for the last time. My dad died on December 7th. I was in there for Christmas and New Years. I was in a psych ward for, it was like 45 days.

[33:07] The doctor sat me down. He said, "So, these little suicide attempts that you have aren't doing anything, but what you're doing to your body is totally going to kill you." He said, "You're not doing a good job of killing yourself, but you kind of are behind the scenes."

[33:30] He said, "So, we are going to try a medication for you that is a lot of maintenance and it's a lot of work, but it should really help you." I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat right. I couldn't think. I was talking to things. If you met me then, Ken, honest to God…It's hard to talk about. I am not even close to who I am. Clozaril, or clozapine. I started to feel better.

[34:14] On Christmas Eve, my brother and sister came. It was so weird that I felt better almost…That wasn't right away, December 7th, Christmas Eve. That's a few weeks. I was sleeping and everything. My brother and sister came up.

[34:33] They said that our dad's estate attorney, who knows nothing about mental health, recommended that since I'm such a problem, he would help them get me into Norristown State Hospital. I was like, "Are you kidding me?" I'm in the psych ward. We're in the little lounge thing. They have all this paperwork.

[34:59] My friend Sarah was a notary. She comes with them to notarize this paperwork, signing my rights to the estate over. I'm the oldest. I just did it. We later found out that none of that is binding since it was a psych ward. I couldn't believe that my brother and sister would do that to me, put me in a state hospital.

[35:25] I talked to my doctor. He said, "You're not a candidate for a state hospital, and plus there's the lawsuit against Norristown State Hospital. They're not accepting any civilian patients." I was so relieved by that. I had nowhere to live when I got out of there. I looked around at everybody.

[35:51] I always kept thinking, "Why did they put me with these crazy people?" Then I looked around, and there was this one woman who thought she was Jesus and God. I looked around at the other people there, and I thought, "Some of these people are never going to be able to talk about what they went through, and I still can, and I would like to. And I would like to do something, and I don't know what."

[36:20] I was released to a recovery house, and I lived in that recovery house. About two weeks into living there, my friend, Vicki, was at the outpatient facility, and she said, "You should tell your story for a program called Ending the Silence."

[36:42] I was a little bit on the older side of Ending the Silence, so I only had a couple of years. She said, "It's a place called NAMI," and I just thought, "I'm really not into that at all."

[36:58] My idea of recovery, honestly, was that I could walk down the street and have a normal job. Shake somebody's hand and then not have any idea that I went through all this stuff. That is what I wanted. I wanted that, and I wanted…

Ken: [37:16] Was that your definition of recovery?

Nick: [37:17] That was my [laughs] definition of recovery, is that you never knew anything ever happened to me, or what I used to say, what was wrong with me. That anything was wrong with me. I was just going to try and fake it until wh…

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