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San Diego Art Project Reveals Raw Stories Of The Mentally Ill

— A new San Diego-based art project profiles "ordinary” people who apply their extraordinary talents to cope with mental illness.

Chronicles Of The Ordinary (COTO) offers a raw and rare look inside the lives of San Diegans living with mental illness.

People like Nancy Fuller of Alpine. Fuller was a successful businesswoman. Now she spends most of her time straddling a Piaggio 500cc bike.

Fuller was in her 50s when she learned to ride a motorcycle.

“As the medication was starting to work I thought I’ve got to fight this. So, I’m going to do something that really scares the heck out of me—the biggest thing I could come up with was learning to ride a motorcycle,” said Fuller.

She also said her “road therapy” along with medication, and psychological support helps her live with major depression, that wasn’t diagnosed until she was in her 50’s.

“One day, I literally couldn’t get out of bed and I couldn’t stop crying. My husband said you need to get some help and that’s what I did,” she said.

Nancy’s story is one of a handful profiled in the new web-based art project COTO.

Wendy McNeil is the project co-founder.

“COTO is a collection of photographs and stories of people who have mental illness," she explained.

It’s also a personal project for McNeil and COTO photographer Victoria Maidhof.

“The COTO project came about when a close family member of mine had a mental health crisis. Photography is very meditative to me, so in an attempt to cope, I thought I’d look for other people with mental illness and photograph them,” said Maidhof.

McNeil had her own history with mental illness. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1990.

“I was seriously ill and in the hospital for manic episodes about once a year for 10 years, until I broke the cycle,” explained McNeil.

She’s been episode-free for more than a decade. McNeil credits medication, psychotherapy, a steady job and a happy marriage for her recovery.

Her success has made McNeil a role model for the San Diego chapter of the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) and she said it motivated her to start COTO.

“I really wanted to capture the voice of people who have mental illness,” she said.

One such voice is that of musician and rapper Eric Goldman.

From his latest CD, Goldman performed a mellow “trip hop” rap called "New Found Way." An attentive lunch crowd at the Toma Soul Café in Hillcrest seemed to grasp his personal torment.

“'New Found Way' talks about making your way as someone with illness or madness,” said Goldman.

Raw lyrics revealed details of Goldman’s 15-year debilitating illness that included depression, schizoaffective and dissociative disorders.

“I had paranoia, delusional thinking, thinking people were after me and hearing voices. The voices I heard have largely gone away," Goldman said.

Goldman also voiced his story in "Chronicles Of The Ordinary."

“It’s kind of an ironic title, because it’s really the ordinary but it’s really of the extraordinary—they kind of focus on our extraordinary natures," he chuckled.

McNeil explained their message is for both those who have mental illness and those who do not.

“Part of this is about empowering people who have mental illness and to have them recognize their narratives are important and powerful," she said. "The other part is to help people connect to each other—whether they have a mental illness or not."

She also calls the project a “stigma buster."

Fuller, the motorcyclist, said she’s not concerned about stigma. She recommends everyone learn how to smoothly ride on the road of mental illness.

“Mental illness could be in your own family. It could be a friend or a co-worker. We need to know how to help, how to be a friend, how to reach out to them and ultimately realize it’s just like any other illness,” she said as she revved the engine of her bike and rode off.

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