by JENNIFER LIEBRUM
Wendy Norbom, Executive Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness, Wood River Chapter, was named by the citizens of the Wood River Valley as their Woman of the Year, 2012.
Wendy Norbom is the matriarch of mental illness in this valley.
By putting her face out front as an advocate for those dealing with mental illness, she has given a voice to those unable to speak for themselves, and she has brought beauty and authenticity, courage, grace and acceptance to those who deal with two words that for so many conjure negative images and fear.
"Here I am being interviewed for this mind-blowing thing, Woman of the Year, and I have a mental illness," she said as she pasted labels onto brochures for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Wood River Valley chapter, of which she is executive director.
"I hope that people realize the significance of this honor, not for me, but for them, to show them they can carry on, that a diagnosis is not the end of possibility."
In a parallel universe to her mental health work, Wendy Wiltse Norbom, 50, is an adopted daughter with an adopted daughter, a wife, a highly regarded commercial and residential interior designer, a volunteer, a justice seeker and a proud Canadian.
She's smart, with a rich and comedic sense of the absurd. She's prone to thinking out loud, uses a light filter when it comes to her personal life and has a contagious giggle. She says "Oh gosh! Oh, sow-ree," in a deep Canuck accent, whether she's at fault or not.
The front door of the Norbom home in the Chantrelle subdivision in north Bellevue is marked with a peace sign made of colored bulbs. In the garden is a sign saying "Grow damnit." And if by chance something doesn't, well that's the spot where Wendy will put the giant inflatable beaver she's campaigning for to show her national nostalgia. No flags for this girl. She doesn't see colors or borders, and she truly believes we all—with a healthy dose of humor mixed in—can and should get along.
On her MomVan, she has a sticker reading "Eracism" and one for Barack Obama. A window shade reads "Dangerously overeducated. Caring for the health of others, isn't that a moral value?"
Inside, the Norbom home is cozy and intimate. The parlor room encourages getting comfortable, the dining room table has a condiment caddie shoved aside for the day's project. The couple's office is as sleek as any architect/designer team would have in the city. The dogs have a big backyard, but are clearly pampered inside, their designated beds luxurious and complementary to the décor.
On this afternoon, her husband, Gary, an architect, is puttering in and out of the garage ranting about how to ship Kami's promised Girl Scout cookies out of state without costing more than the cookies, and exaggerating his exasperation at his 13-year-old's sloppy bookkeeping.
"I'm going to owe a fortune!" he laments. Wendy just laughs as he exits, still muttering. Later, he emerges to summon Kami to him and embraces her while delivering the great news, "You're only $3 off. I'm proud of you." he says.
"We're saved," Wendy cheers.
In the mid-1990s, Wendy was a 20-something rising star in the Canadian design world, a new wife and a volunteer Big Sister. She was full-on type A, working hard and playing hard. When her husband was offered work in his home state of Idaho at the same time Wendy was hired to set up the design department for one of the largest architectural firms in Calgary, Alberta, she opted for a long-distance marriage. Her plan was to bank a lot of savings and then think about starting a family.
"It of course didn't work out that way," she says with a laugh. "I was working from 6 a.m. to late into the night, I wasn't taking care of myself and I started having panic attacks. I had never experienced anything like it. Ultimately, they became so debilitating that I became depressed as well and decided to take some time off."
She met up with Gary in Sun Valley where he was living with a handful of roommates. Surrounded by strangers, becoming a stranger to herself, she continued to spiral until one of the roommates, the late chiropractor Tom Montgomery, encouraged her to see a doctor and she started on antidepressants.
"I didn't want to take them. I came from a very dysfunctional family, I thought they were the ones who needed pills, not me."
Still, she added talk therapy with Ketchum practitioner Sally McCollum, and slowly things began turning around.
But it was a ritual that stood out to her as having been most significant in her getting better.
"I didn't know anyone, and Gary's family was in Weiser. In my free time, I would wander around Ketchum and go into a bookstore called Main Street Bookcafe. The people there were always so kind to me, it gave me a reason, hope. It made me fight to get better because I could see the friends I could have if I did."
She and Gary decided to stay in Idaho and she launched a business that created unique gift presentations for corporate events. They began trying for a baby.
"When it wasn't happening, we started to go down that road and find out why, but I was adopted and we both always knew we would adopt, so we went with the sure thing."
They got Kamisha straight from the hospital. Wendy immediately reset her priorities, selling her business and cutting back work to devote her time to the bundle.
"It's not an 'either or.' I just kind of think my husband can take care of himself, but my child can't, yet. She is my universe and I want to share every minute of her that I have."
"She's a great kid," she says of Kami, who attends the Community School. "I've lain in bed holding her and the tears leave my eyes and it's all I ever wanted, for myself as a child, and now as her mother. I'm not so dense to think she won't be lying on a therapist's couch one day trying to undo my mothering. No one's perfect. I just do the very best I can."
She found part-time work as a personal assistant to Adam Koffler, hotelier, philanthropist and World Jewish Congress diplomat, and served as a volunteer coordinator for the Sun Valley Arts & Crafts Festival. While maintaining her sister from Big Brother Big Sister of Canada, she started vesting herself as a community volunteer. Daisy Troop leader, ChemoAngels, National Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform, Positive Partners Assistance Training and Crisis Hotline were a few of the extracurricular activities she took on.
"What moves me is social justice work. I was taught to cheer for the underdog by my dad. I was the underdog, but I was smart and that helped me grow and move forward."
Her anxiety was not gone, but it was quieted, for a while, until her husband had a stroke, making her the sole breadwinner for the family.
"It wiped us out. It was devastating financially, emotionally. We had no idea what to do next."
In 2007 she met Gail Miller Wray, the president of NAMI-Wood River Valley. Wray had grant money from the Wood River Charitable Foundation and was looking to hire help for NAMI, which was needing direction to grow.
Norbom told her future employers, "If I get passionate about this, it's really going to change because that's the way I work. Once I get into something, I go deep, and if it needs fixing, nothing will stop me from trying to fix it."
Wendy Norbom and her daughter, Kami, near their home in Bellevue.
The new executive director immersed herself in all things NAMI. She attended classes and conferences, earned certifications and trained to write grants and lead programming, all with the aim of turning NAMI outside of itself and into the community. She found out that a diagnosis of mental illness is as devastating to a family or an individual as cancer, but there are no get well cards for this disease.
Learning about a NAMI program called Connections, a peer-to-peer support group for people diagnosed with a mental illness, Norbom now had a specific target.
"I knew how having that bookstore to go to every day connected me to the community, even when I couldn't embrace it. I also knew what it was like to lose hope. You don't lose your core self when you experience a mental illness—you're still there, it's the piece of hope that was missing. I knew there were others who needed hope and somewhere to go."
And after many late nights and creative letter and grant writing, Norbom was able to establish Connections locally, the first of many peer-led support groups for sufferers of mental illness, their family and friends.
The Connections group launched two years ago amid an unprecedented surge in suicides in the valley. From within the group, Norbom began to better understand the urgency for a reliable community resource. She learned how suicide was almost the last decision many of those who flocked to the support group would have made had they not found the group.
The numbers gathering Monday nights at the Hailey Sun Club has grown from eight to 90 in 18 months. The NAMI-Wood River chapter has a Facebook page that Norbom updates almost hourly with research, calls for support and uplifting or funny posts. It is exclusive to NAMI participants and is a safe forum to share information.
"It's a tricky thing for me, compassion fatigue is a risk in this work," Norbom says, her phone ringing several times on a Saturday afternoon, all calls about NAMI.
"I've made mistakes and I've learned a lot and I know that as much as I want something for someone else, all I can do is be there with the tools for them to take on for themselves. To do anything else would be robbing them of their power over their destiny."
NAMI work has put all the Norboms on the front lines, selling raffle tickets, holding yard sales and, recently, running errands for actress Ashley Judd, who came to speak about her experience with mental illness as a fundraiser for NAMI. Norbom answers calls at all hours, meeting up with the distressed in coffee shops or their homes, helping them finesse the existing mental health-care system and educating them about options.
Norbom hopes that by exposing her daughter to her condition along with her successes, Kami will navigate life better. That she will be better prepared than her mother was when unresolved childhood grief, the loneliness of being a stranger in a strange land and workaholism collided, jerking her off the rails and into the acutely sensitive world of panic attacks and the darkness of depression.
"This journey hasn't been easy, but I truly believe that to get over what you've been through, you have to fully expose your grief without shame. By doing that, I've been able to empower people to share their stories. We need to make it acceptable to be honest about our experiences with this illness. To feel it's all right to ask for love and support when we need it."
A concert earlier this month dedicated to the memory of Dex Gannon, a Sun Valley man who took his own life, is a significant statement about the valley's growing sensitivity on the subject of mental illness. His father, Steve Gannon, used his position with the Sun Valley Artist Series to turn a scheduled concert into a benefit. He also was behind the publication of a resource guide called "Get Help," which was handed out at the event.
There's no question that Norbom's work with NAMI prior to Dex's death had a hand in bringing mental-health issues into the open. NAMI's family-to-family course was being offered when Steve Gannon was looking for a place for answers in the wake of his loss. The enlightenment turned to activism, and momentum was gained.
She deflects any credit, praising the Gannon family for being brave enough to go public with their tragedy to help others.
"I'm incredibly grateful that they are able to come forward with their grief and make such a public statement," she said. "What I love is that people are being honest about what's going on. Do you realize we had eight suicide attempts last week alone? We have to be here for these people."
The night after the concert, where a NAMI member shared his story of having survived a suicide attempt for the first time publicly, Norbom was in the emergency room at St. Luke's Wood River with a peer with bipolar issues.
"This is why I do what I do. To see the will and strength to survive despite such a difficult path. To look for the joy when the path of the journey can bring you to your knees," she said. "To have someone who has come through run to you and hold you tight and thank you for being there. This is why I do what I do. I am so lucky, I am so blessed to know all of these special human beings."
Averting her tearful gaze for a moment she adds, "It's so odd to be talking about me as Woman of the Year when I feel I've gotten so much reward already and I am no role model. I'm flying by the seat of my pants and by the beat of my heart.
"I work really hard and yet I'm losing my house and my car has been hit three times by hit-and-run drivers. These events can truly tear you apart. I can't afford mental health care for myself, but thanks to people who believed in me, I'm able to help people. I understand their journey and their struggles because I am on that path with them.
"I think I can show people too that you don't have to be rich to do something for your community. You hear a lot in mental health circles that you have to be careful who you share your story with. But I believe it's my responsibility to share mine. And people know I'm here for them and that I really care."
NAMI-Wood River Valley
For help with mental illness 24 hours a day call 309-1987 or visit www.nami-wrv.com. For a "Get Help" resource guide, contact St. Luke's Center for Community Health at 727-8733.
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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.