Former Carbondale family’s national bus tour seeks end to stigma around mental illness, addiction
Tim Harrington is now several years removed from his former life in the Roaring Fork Valley, but it was here that the seeds were sown for his latest mission.
This past winter, Harrington and his wife Robyn Cruze sold their home in Denver, pulled their middle school-aged daughters, Lilly and Chloe, out of school, converted an old school bus into a tiny home and set out on the road.
The purpose: to spread a message of hope for ending the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction.
That means shifting the conversation around those issues, Harrington said. And that’s exactly what they are aiming to do as part of a year-long bus tour across the country.
“Instead of focusing on how badly things are going, or how much things need to change, we need a consistent message of hope,” Harrington said in a recent phone interview from New York City — one of the many Wide Wonder bus stops.
Stigma comes from the negative, and focusing attention on things like criminal statistics around drug addiction, or looking at suicide statistics as a result of mental illness only adds to the stigma, he said.
Instead, Harrington says, why not call attention to the fact that 25 million people in the United States are in remission from substance abuse, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.
“We don’t get to the other side of the story,” he said. “And it’s the same with people who are suffering from mental illness.”
A personal story
Harrington was living the life in the Roaring Fork Valley in the 1990s, where he worked in the restaurant business and eventually ran an Aspen restaurant. But the lifestyle only fueled an addiction that started at a young age.
He lived through trauma as a child, and grew up in a social system in California where drugs were acceptable.
“Alcohol was used in my family to celebrate, and to medicate,” Harrington said. “I always liked to say I didn’t have a drug problem, I had a drug solution … it distracted from and chilled the pain.”
He battled addiction for 20 years, through interventions, treatment, relapse, homelessness, reaching out for help, and recovery.
During his time in the Valley, he said he lost 15 friends to suicide.
“There’s an us and them paradigm when that happens, and feeling bad for ‘them,'” he recalled. “But it should be an us and we issue.”
Harrington eventually went to work in the recovery business himself as a way to give back. He moved back to the Valley in 2008 where, among other things, he worked with the Jaywalker Lodge in Carbondale — a residential addiction recovery program for men.
Now, along with his wife, who is an internationally recognized author on the subject of recovery, the Cruze-Harrington’s are taking their message across the country.
Pulling up roots
“The Valley is still a big part of our lives,” Harrington said. “It’s one of those places you can leave, but you never really leave.”
But it was in Denver that he built his practice as a family recovery support specialist and outspoken advocate for emotional health.
“We’re travelers by nature, and had always traveled with kids,” he said. “We weren’t working in the traditional sense, and so we decided to combine our experiences personally and professionally with mental illness, and take it on the road.”
They spent $60,000 of their own money to convert the bus into traveling living quarters, and turned their passion into an adventure — with a purpose.
Through an ongoing series of TED-style talks and educational events, the Cruze-Harringtons are keeping the conversation around mental health and addiction going.
They’ve gotten national and local media attention along the way, and the momentum keeps building, Harrington said.
“It’s been a real internal exploration, as well as external,” he said. “We couldn’t be more excited about our own vulnerability, and sharing that with others. It’s amazing how many people out there are as passionate about the issue of stigma and wanting to change that.”
But that’s how big change happens, Harrington said.
“We have an army of wellness advocates, if we really choose to use it,” he said. “A big part of recovery is anonymity. But that can sometimes be counter to how we get change going.”
Instead, for those who are willing, the goal is to encourage people to use that voice and share their personal story, he said.
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