"If you don’t tell your story—if you don’t start talking to people—it just stays in the dark."
Founder of the Colby Foundation
Currently living in Edmond, OK
Ted Streuli is a recipient of the 2016 SAMHSA Voice Awards. He founded the Colby Foundation to promote public awareness of issues related to mental illness, motivated by the July 2013 deaths of his 28-year-old son, Colby, who lived with schizophrenia and paranoia, and his sister-in-law Sara Whiteaker, who lived with bipolar disorder.
This year, the theme of the Voice Awards was "Strengthening Families Through Hope and Help." In celebration, SoberRecovery will be releasing an exclusive interview with each of the winners every Friday for six weeks.
Below is our interview with Ted Streuli.
The Colby Foundation is inspired by your son's own battle with mental illness. As a parent, what were your emotions when you first came face to face with Colby’s reality?
It became clear as Colby reached late adolescence that there was something wrong that was more than just adolescent behavior. I had no idea what to do and took a psychiatrist out of the Yellow Pages, and took him. He was an adult by then, 18 or 19, and fortunately, the psychiatrist who gave us that first diagnosis was very candid with me. I remember asking him, “How does this turn out?” And he just told me very directly, “Not good. Most people in his situation either end up dead or in prison. And, you should expect that.” That was hard to hear.
There was a short period where I felt embarrassed, that somehow people would think that I had failed or contributed some way to this disease. Fortunately, I got over that pretty quickly. The other emotion I remember having that was quite startling was that I realized I was physically afraid of Colby—I was afraid that he would become violent. But, saying that all fear is fear of the unknown, once you learn about it, you’re not scared about it anymore. And the more I learned, those fears dissipated pretty quickly.
After Colby got into treatment, was there any positive movement?
In our case, it was really a pretty typical pattern. I was able to persuade him to see the doctor, and they put him on some anti-psychotics. He would take those for a while—you know the story. Things would start to get better, they had unpleasant side effects, but because life was going better, he would decide that he didn’t really need them so he’d stop taking them, and we’d start the cycle all over again.
Actually, one of the times that Colby made a lot of progress was when things were really going the worst for him. He got arrested and was able to call me and have a very lucid thoughtful conversation about interacting with the justice system. He really wanted advice on whether he should take the deal that they were offering and let me talk to his attorney and public defender and was really thinking that through. As it ended up in that case, he spent 6 months in jail. But he would call fairly frequently in jail and—this will sound horrible—but I think he was really happiest at that point in his life in jail because he didn’t have to navigate anything. People told him when to get up, what to wear and when to eat and he didn’t have to navigate the system. And that was a more comfortable way of living for him. Not because it was a jail, but because there was so much structure.
And so after he got out of jail, did everything get worse because he was plopped back into the system?
It stayed better for a little while. But because he was doing better generally, he also got a little more mainstream, had a bigger social network and fostered the opportunity for drugs and alcohol, which ultimately led to his death.
How long did his addiction to substances last?
I’m not really sure. I think he started experimenting and self-medicating in his high school age, and I think that continued at varying levels and with various substances until he died at 28.
And for yourself, did you ever have to find support for your own coping?
I don’t have a lot of family, but I have a handful of very close friends who were very supportive. I could talk to them and be candid about my struggles and how I was feeling. They were very supportive.
What would you advise to family and friends who come to our site and don’t know what to do about a struggling loved one?
Start talking. After Colby died and I started doing some work in the area, I went out to talk to people about supporting this event I wanted to do around mental illness, and everybody I talked to had a parallel story. I mean, every single person I talked to. They were all willing to help because they all had a story—they had a son or they had a cousin or they had an aunt. Somebody in their life who was afflicted in some way. And the epiphany there for me was: everybody has a story, but nobody’s willing to talk about it.
If everybody would just start talking about it, you very quickly find this huge network of people who have already been there, already learned some of the lessons, are willing to help, support and point you to the right program, group, counseling, doctor, treatment center, whatever. But they can’t do that if they don’t know that you need their help. So if you don’t tell your story—if you don’t start talking to people—it just stays in the dark. As soon as you start talking about it though, you discover very quickly that you can get a great deal of support from a wide variety of people.
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