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Originally published September 24, 2009 at 12:06 AM | Page modified September 24, 2009 at 12:36 AM

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Jerry Large

Help, hope for mental illness

Most mentally ill people haven't just escaped from a mental hospital. They're just people dealing with a disease.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Most mentally ill people haven't just escaped from a mental hospital.

They're just people dealing with a disease. Richard Irwin is one.

Irwin is recovering from a nasty, drug-fueled ride that lasted years and destroyed his previous life.

"I didn't know how bad it was until it was over," he told me one afternoon.

He also didn't know at first, and was reluctant to accept later, that he was ill, mentally ill and susceptible to addiction.

Social stigma keeps too many people from seeking or accepting help. These days Irwin is trying to help other people see their disease can be treated.

Irwin, 54, is at the start of his second life. He works for Seattle-based Sound Mental Health, where he leads a support group and visits clients in hospitals and jails. He's mended relations with his brothers and his children, and this week he's on his honeymoon with his new bride.

We talked about the life he lost.

Irwin grew up in Boise, Idaho, the third of four brothers.

They loved skiing, and he got good enough to think he could make the Olympics. One day he was ski jumping and landed wrong, breaking his leg.

He has a sharp memory of his first shot of the painkiller Demerol. "It was the most glorious thing in the world. I couldn't wait for the next one."

That would have been a red flag if he'd known what to look for. Instead he lay in the hospital for weeks listening to music his older brother sent him from Vietnam, learning to love both music and drugs.


He followed his brothers to Seattle and in 1983 turned to music, with some success. Their band, Moving Parts, played to an audience of 15,000 during Bumbershoot in 1987.

For years, Irwin says, he drank too much and used drugs while he went to school, worked, got married and had kids.

In 1993, he moved back to Boise with his wife, son and daughter. That's when he was introduced to meth. In 1996, he was divorced and arrested for DUI.

Irwin said being busted probably saved his life because it made him wonder whether he was an addict.

He had a parallel track of troubles.

Irwin had been having bouts of clinical depression, seeing a doctor for it, but also turning to drugs for a lift. In 1996, a psychiatrist diagnosed him with bipolar disorder.

"I was relieved," he said, "Bipolar explained everything." Research shows addiction and mental illness are often intertwined.

Irwin got medicine to treat it, but only took the meds off and on, usually not when he was on one of the manic upswings. "I thought what's wrong with me being in a really good mood."

Irwin said he eventually rejected the diagnosis because he didn't want to think he was mentally ill.

Ignoring his diseases didn't make them go away. He gave himself over to drugs and checked out of life before his ex-wife and brothers rescued him. His brothers brought him back to Seattle, where he was able to get the services that supported his recovery — counseling, housing, education.

Irwin said he wants the rest of us to know two things: People can change. And the state of Washington helps people stand up again.

"I get to see people completely transform their lives," he said about his job. "I am in awe of the resiliency of the human spirit."

Some diseases mental or physical are beyond our ability to cure, sure, but most people can be helped.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays. | 206-464-3346

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