[Last month we ran excerpts from Pete Feigal’s keynote speech from the Mental Health Parity fundraising event June 15th, 2007, in Philadelphia. Here are more excerpts from that speech.]
I’m alive today after 35 years of serious and persistent mental illness and MS. You might wonder why I’m not on the street, anymore, why I’m not addicted to drugs or alcohol, why I’m not in the state hospital, the penitentiary or the graveyard, because that’s what happens to people with mental illness today, in the United States of America, if we slip through the cracks in The System, cracks as big as the Grand Canyon. Shame on us. But that didn’t happen to me, not because I’m stronger or wiser, I was just luckier. Why I’m alive today is because I got the absolutely essential medical help I needed, the right medications and therapy for my physical brain disorder. But there are other essential ingredients to recovery, intangibles that have tangible weight: faith, creativity, volunteering, reclaiming our dignity, having a reason to get up in the morning, focusing our lives, not on our wounds, but on what we love. And the main reason I’m still here, and there’s no close second, is that people were kind to me. That I had family and friends to share my sufferings, and offer me love, wisdom and hope.
[I think of] my father who, when in my despair I refused any medical treatment for my illness, sat down next to me on the couch during an argument we were having. He had tears in his eyes. I’ve only seen him cry twice: that day and when his father died. And he said to me, “Pete, I’m not going to fight with you anymore. You are my most precious treasure. I know you’re struggling, you’re hurting, I know that you feel so lost, you won’t even do anything to help yourself. But would you do something for me? Would you take a leap of faith for me? I’ve found a new doctor. And if I go with you to see him, would you do that for me?” What could I do? I was so used to fighting with my dad, but I was helpless in front of his tears. I took that leap of faith and went with him to see that new doctor. I got on a new medication and I started to do better. And that was one of the turnarounds of my illness.
And I had a teacher, Mr. Arel, who taught me about “compassion” back in my little hometown of Pine Island, Minnesota. He came out of the fires of the Vietnam War with a pledge to do something with his life, He became a high school teacher, and he was a good teacher because he taught with passion. And passion wakes us up. It’s no wonder that I’ve become a writer, actor, artist and speaker, because I had a teacher like him. But it was his compassion that saved my life.
When I got back from a year stay in a locked mental hospital in 1972, I had gone from being one of the “Jocks” to one of the “Ghosts.” In that year I was gone and felt so broken and left behind and now stumbled through the halls like a zombie. He’d come up about once a week, touch my elbow with his and say, “Pete, How ya doing? What about that new Harley-Davidson Sportster?” And because I loved motorcycles so much, I’d stand up straight, my pilot light would be lit, I awoke from my pain and loneliness and despair and I’d say, “Wo!, Mr. Arel, is that a cool motorcycle! It weighs 500 pounds., does a flat 14 second quarter mile and has 883 cubic centimeters!” And for the one minute that Mr. Arel had before he had to go to the next class, he gave me those 60 seconds, and he’d say. “Wow, cool, all right” and then he’d go off to class and I’d go off to class, and I’d go down again. A week later he’d come up and go, “Pete, how ya doing? What about that new 500 Suzuki motorcycle?” And I’d go, “Wo!, Mr. Arel is THAT a cool motorcycle.” Even if it was for only one minute a week, he kept me awake, focused on what I loved, not on where I felt broken.
Thirty years later, totally by accident, I discovered that Mr. Arel can’t stand motorcycles. He truly doesn’t know the difference between a Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide and a Vespa scooter. Once a week he’d go shopping for his groceries, and as you’d go in the front door (of a building that doesn’t even exist anymore) there was a magazine rack over on the left. And he’d go over and, totally at random, pick up any motorcycle magazine, open it to any page, and memorize the name of a motorcycle, so that next day he could say to me in school, “Pete, how ya doing? What about that new 750 Kawasaki motorcycle?”
That’s why I’m still alive. Why I didn’t see the face of God for 35 years was because it was so close. It’s just right there. That’s how we see the face of God every day: in the faces of kindness of the people we meet.
Pete Feigal can be contacted at PFeigal@aol.com Now that Pete’s eyesight is failing, he has discovered new careers as a national speaker and writer. Pete’s art is actually selling better now than ever. He says jokingly, when he dies, like all artists his art will become even more popular. “That’s when I’ll REALLY clean up!”Pete’s amazing aviation and motorcycle fine art prints and t-shirts can now be seen on Pete’s fledgling Web site at www.art-that-moves.com