Chrisa and Tom, Tim and Erika: An Inspirational Tale

Chrisa and Erika with her OWL hat.

I didn’t intend to become a mental health advocate. I became involved because my son needed my help.  And I certainly never thought there would be any silver lining to what happened to him and to my family.  Yet,  during these past few years, I have come to recognize one.  I have met dozens and dozens of  truly inspiring people.

The lists includes mental health professionals, judges, others in law enforcement and a handful of politicians. However, the bulk of the folks who have inspired me either are persons living with a mental illness or people who love them, such as their parents, brothers, sisters, and children.

These are unsung heroes who spend their time doing everything that they can to improve the lives of persons who have been diagnosed with mental disorders.

Chrisa Hickey is a fabulous example.

I first learned about Chrisa after she wrote a spot-on blog  chastising a Wisconsin high school for sending a student dance team to a state-wide competition to perform as “lunatics.”  The girls wore frightening face makeup and tops emblazoned with the words “Psych Wards.”  In her blog, The Mindstorm,  Chrisa scolded school officials and parents for encouraging a dance routine that stigmatized and belittled persons who had a medical problem.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel picked up Chrisa’s crusade and then she went the extra mile by reaching out to the school’s principal. Since her blog was published, the school has done two mental health awareness programs for its staff and students!

Chrisa began writing her blog after her therapist in Chicago suggested that she journal her feelings and thoughts about raising a child with a severe mental health illness. Her second child, Timothy, was diagnosed with Emotional Disorder Not Otherwise Specified at age eight, Bipolar Disorder with Psychotic Symptoms at the age of eleven and with Schizoaffective Disorder Bipolar Type at the age of fourteen. His illness caused him to become such a danger to himself and others that Chrisa and her husband, Tom, was forced to enroll him in a special boarding facility when Tim turned fifteen for persons who needed additional supervision and help.

Soon Chrisa was not only blogging about the day-to-day triumphs and tribulations of raising Timothy, but  was also writing articles about stigma, how to navigate the our nation’s special education system, sibling issues, and the need for parents to take care of themselves.  Word soon spread about The Mindstorm, it won awards and Chrisa recently was asked to appear on the Ricki Lake Show.  Tim also made an appearance via a taped interview.

Some of you may already know about Chrisa because she has written guest blogs for me.  What you don’t know is about a special relationship that Chrisa has formed with another guest blogger and one of my favorite teenage advocates, Erika.

When Chrisa published her blog about the Wisconsin high school, Erika responded with an open letter to school officials. She lives with a mental illness and, at that time, was residing  in New York. Chrisa was so impressed by Erika’s writing that they began corresponding via emails. I also found Erika to be wise beyond her years so I asked her to write a guest blog for me, which she did. Later, I met Erika when I spoke at the NAMI state convention in New Jersey. She was easy to see in the crowd because she likes to wear a furry hat that looks like an owl!

Recently, Erika found herself going through a difficult personal time at her home.  When Chrisa learned about a death in Erika’s family, she flew to New York to support her Internet friend even though she only knew Erika through their email exchanges. That Thanksgiving, Chrisa invited Erika to Chicago to spend the holiday with her family. Erika agreed to visit so Chrisa arranged it.

I’m happy to reveal that recently, Erika moved to Chicago to live with Chrisa and her family.  Their email exchanged had blossomed into a marvelous friendship. When I asked Chrisa how her husband felt about it, she told me, “He joked, ‘Looks like it’s a girl!”  You see, Erika is not the first child that Chrisa and Tom have invited into their family.  Their son, Alex, age 22, is their only biological child. They adopted Tim, now 18, at birth. Dianna was a foster child who they adopted at age four. She has RAD and frontal lobe epilepsy.

Chrisa said she was thrilled and blessed when Erika, who has Schizoaffective disorder, joined the household.

Chrisa and Tom are not wealthy. They are like most of us. Yet, they opened their hearts — in the case of Erika — to a young teen who needed help.

If you would like to meet them, then you should participate in the NAMIWalks Milwaukee on May 18th. This will be the family’s fourth NAMIWalks and their third as the official BringChange2Mind team for NAMIWalks Milwaukee. Tim is the group’s star fundraiser — his goal this year is $3,000 and if the family hits that mark, Tim will have raised $10,000 in four years for NAMI Greater Milwaukee and BringChange2Mind — Glenn Close’s anti-stigma organization!

If you want to contribute to Tim’s group, you can do so by clicking here.   Please do! Every bit helps.

I told you, I’ve met some truly inspirational people!



About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Cinda Johnson says

    Truly fantastic people. I know Chrisa personally and call Erika “friend” as I have corresponded with her for a number of years. (I actually use some of her writings in my classes for school psychologist-to-be!). Thank you for sharing their story. They are both an inspiration for everyone to do a little more. Start by “seeing” someone on the street; someone who could very well be Chrisa’s children or mine if they had not received treatment and support.

  2. Pete, you and I are in the same boat: I didn’t want my son to have SMI, I’d cure it in an instant if I was given the option, but there are indeed silver linings, and Chrisa and Erika (and dozens of others) are among them. If our families have to endure these horrendous illnesses, thank goodness we are also blessed to be part of this vital community of other people trudging the same road.

  3. We talk about ‘wrap-around’ services for the mentally ill. Chrisa and Erika are excellent examples of true wrap-around. When families and communities wrap their arms around the mentally ill, in love, compassion, with respect coupled with positive actions, real healing change begins. With this communal ‘wrap-around’ at the core, a mentally ill person can become grounded enough to seek and prosper
    from psychiatric treatment and medication. This type of family care needs to be reconsidered as a treatment plan for many who have fallen thru the cracks w/ no family or support. These are the ones ‘on the street’ and in the prisons needlessly,
    and isolated in cramped one room apartments hopelessly alone.
    The experts are wrong to claim that family care homes are not effective for treating mental illness.Living alone in a small apartment further isolates the mentally ill who have no supports to begin with. Paid caregivers then become their family, fostering unhealthy dependant relationships. There is no substiture,
    through government funding or health care insurance, for family, friends, and real love and real support. -a  ‘wrap-around’  caring community, such as Chrisa has initiated.

  4. Sounds like Chrisa and Tom are a blessing to many people. How exceptional they are to care for children and young adults with such misunderstood illnesses.
    Care takers of individuals with RAD and Schizoaffective disorders need an abundance of love, patience and an understanding (insight into) of these difficult brain diseases. Hopefully, they will inspire more people to open their hearts and homes to those in need of TLC.