NAMI gathers families, friends of those dealing with mental illness
Kelsey Eastman, 9, sells homemade crafts made with colored tape during the National Alliance on Mental Illness Walk in Concord on Sunday, October 6, 2013. Kelsey's brother Brandon, 17, has been dealing with mental illness since a traumatic brain injury three years ago, and Kelsey, along with her parents Chuck and April, has raised over $500 for NAMI by selling crafts.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness Walk stretches along Warren Street in Concord on Sunday, October 6, 2013.
Kelsey Eastman, 9, walks with her friends Amanda Parrotto (left), 8, and Lexi Stevens (right), 9 during the National Alliance on Mental Illness Walk in Concord on Sunday, October 6, 2013. "We never do the short walk. Ever," Eastman said. Kelsey's brother Brandon, 17, who was not at the walk, has been dealing with mental illness since a traumatic brain injury three years ago, and Kelsey, along with her parents Chuck and April, has raised over $800 for NAMI by selling crafts made with duct tape.
Nine-year-old Kelsey Eastman wore a bright pink raincoat and carried a Disney princess umbrella as she marched down South Fruit Street in Concord yesterday morning – a red, green and blue rainbow painted on her cheek.
Among the dark raincoats of those taking part in the National Alliance on Mental Illness Walk, Kelsey was impossible to miss. But the person who was her reason for walking, the reason she has raised more than $800 for NAMI and the reason she skipped through a 5K in the rain, was nowhere to be seen.
Kelsey was just 6 when her older brother Brandon had a seizure and fell down the stairs of her family’s house, but the memory of that day is burned into her brain forever.
“I will remember that day till I die,” she said. “My best brother fell down the flight of stairs and turned into a monster. It’s just sad.”
Unlike Kelsey, Brandon’s recollection of that day is barely there, a string of blurry memories from passing in and out of consciousness. He doesn’t remember much of the day that changed everything for the Eastman family. He doesn’t remember the way his mother, April, held him on the stairs or the way Kelsey had to open the door for the EMTs and then hid under a blanket so she wouldn’t see her big brother taken away. He doesn’t remember his father, Chuck, rushing from work to meet his family at the hospital.
“It kind of all ended at the moment where I fell,” he said in a phone interview.
Brandon, now 17, came home that night with staples in his head. Then, during the months that followed his injury, he and his family struggled to manage both his epilepsy and the dramatic mood swings that started to throw him into depression, violent anger or mental breakdowns. Over the course of three years, his parents took him to the emergency room five or six times, where he sometimes had to wait days for a treatment bed at the state hospital. On one occasion, Chuck Eastman, 43, said Brandon waited nearly a week to be admitted to a room.
“We’ve had a lot of different labels put on Brandon,” April Eastman, also 43, said. “The newest one is ‘traumatic brain injury.’ . . . I would say the biggest change was that he was an honor roll student in school, and it just went to that he didn’t even want to go to school. He hated school.
“He was never really an outgoing kid. He was kind of that shy, smart kid. (But then) he just isolated himself and really gave us a hard time about really going anywhere. He had a hard time in crowds, he had a hard time socializing. Just getting up in the morning was a challenge for him.”
Brandon doesn’t live at home in Penacook with his family anymore. Instead, he has chosen to live in a group home run by Child and Family Services in Concord. His parents still control his prescriptions, and his mom drives him to doctor appointments. But he doesn’t have contact with his family often, and he doesn’t want to.
“I’ve kind of stepped out of their life mostly because of Kelsey, because I brought in so many negative influences into her life,” Brandon said. “So it’s easier for me to not be there, to not start fights, to not have police all over me, to not have my medical problems going on. . . . I try not to be around much anymore ’cause I don’t want to let her see the bad sides of me anymore.”
NAMI is just one of the local organizations the Eastmans turned to in the months after Brandon’s injury. They’ve worked with Riverbend Community Mental Health and Community Bridges. Once a month, the entire family goes to counseling together, and they participated in the NAMI Walk for the second time this year. Then, at the beginning of this year, Kelsey started making colorful duct tape crafts and selling them to benefit the work NAMI does in New Hampshire.
By the time she set up her table at the walk yesterday, she had raised more than $800 for NAMI by selling wallets, bags, flower pens, headbands, bookmarks and other crafts made out of duct tape. Her parents have gotten involved, too, and the crafts are a coping mechanism, a chance to sit down together and keep their hands and minds occupied with something fun.
“I can’t explain how proud I am of her,” Chuck said as his daughter helped a customer at her table yesterday. “She has the biggest heart. . . . If anything, I think it’s made us stronger.”
Kelsey has made items out of duct tape for Brandon, too. A red-and-black wallet, a bookmark with a gold music note on it.
“I love her to death,” Brandon said. “She’s my little princess, my little angel. Anything good that can be in this world is what that little girl is composed of.”
But he keeps his distance, his silence. He stays away from the rest of his family as they stick pieces of duct tape together, as they just try to stick together through it all. He didn’t come to the NAMI Walk, where Kelsey ran through the rain, singing a One Direction song with her best friend and holding a little neon sign that read “Recovering from mental illness is POSSIBLE.”
‘Not just us’
Kelsey’s team was one of 75 participating in yesterday’s walk, and her donations will contribute to NAMI’s fundraising goal of $125,000 by the end of November. Before the walk, Kelsey watched the crowd gather and sold her headbands to participants who gathered on the fields near Concord Hospital.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, I never ever would imagine this many people had a sibling or a family member that has a disability, or is just helping support them,’ ” she said.
For Chuck, connecting with NAMI introduced him to an adult support group he attends with other parents of children who suffer from mental illness.
“It’s not just us that are going through it,” Chuck said, also staring out at the crowd gathered to walk for NAMI’s cause. “It’s a very personal experience. That’s what NAMI is about, to be able to share your experience to reduce that stigma.”
The Eastmans walked with a handful of family members and friends, including Jennifer Stevens and her family. Stevens’s daughter Lexi, 9, is Kelsey’s best friend, and her family has often watched Kelsey when Chuck and April needed to take Brandon to the emergency room.
Stevens said she brought Lexi to the NAMI Walk yesterday to continue supporting Kelsey and her brother, and to continue the conversation about mental illness she has started with her young daughters.
“We explained to our kids that (the Eastman family) is going through a hard time right now. . . . Kelsey needs a place where she can come and hang out and be her normal self. We encouraged our kids that if she needs to vent, let her vent and be a good listener. . . . I think it’s important that kids start to understand what other kids might be going through,” she said. “I think this is important for my kids to see there are other ways you can support whatever it is you want to support, whether it’s mental illness or cancer or whatever.”
Brandon is a senior at Merrimack Valley High School, and soon he’ll turn 18. His parents don’t know what’s next. They don’t know whether he’ll ever come home or whether he’ll ever independently turn to organizations like NAMI for support.
“The emotion of the whole thing, we call it a roller-coaster ride in our house,” April said. “And we never know if the roller coaster is going up or down.”
Brandon wants to do something – anything – in music when he graduates from high school. He also just wants his sister to know he’s not a bad guy.
“Based on what I’ve gone through, a lot of bullying, a lot of anger, a lot of sadness, I just want (my music) to portray happiness,” he said. “I want to be something that Kelsey can look up to.”
And Kelsey just wants Brandon to come home. She talks about him as a child who has a hole in her life where her “best brother” used to be, a child who walked in the rain yesterday because she hopes he’ll be her best brother again someday.
“I want my brother to be my brother again and stay home with us,” she said. “Because my brother is the best, an awesome part of my life. He’s really kind when you think of it. Even though he’s a little mean sometimes, he’s still pretty nice. You just have to look into him and see it.”
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)