Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
NEW CASTLE, Colorado – Cindy Schons smiles as she greets another friend. There’s another hug, as tight as the last.
Cindy reaches up and flicks away a tear.
This day isn’t for tears, but there will be a few anyway.
“Just breathe,” Cindy’s friend says with a smile.
Cindy, 41, is dressed for fun. Her blonde hair in braided pigtails, a ball cap pulled down low, and a smile for everyone, but it’s the message on her shirt that tells the story of this brisk winter day.
The front of her light blue shirt reads “Running to Remember,” and the back says “Remembering Dan Schons.”
“When I saw people arriving and I saw the shirts, it was just overwhelming,” Cindy said, smiling.
Cindy thought about Dan’s brilliant blue eyes when she picked the color for the shirts. Cindy wears a necklace with her and Dan’s wedding rings on it. She touches the necklace and a sad smile takes over for a moment. With the rings is another piece of jewelry from her friend Kelly Griller. The inscription reads “Life is Beautiful.”
Griller came to support her friend.
“I’m so happy this is such a positive day for her,” Griller says. “Cindy is the perfect person to make this a positive event and to raise awareness of this stigma to mental illness.”
Jan. 17 of last year marked the worse day in Cindy Schons’ life. Her husband of 11 years, seven months and 11 days killed himself.
On Sunday, Jan. 16, at the Lakota Canyon Golf Clubhouse, about 100 friends gathered to remember a special man, and to take a run or walk together in a celebration of life, hope and courage.
“We just want to be here to support her,” says Angelique Riddick, Cindy’s long-time friend and next door neighbor. “She’s very strong. She has very strong faith and is a very strong person.”
Suicide is one of those tragic events that are discussed in hushed tones with downward glances. It’s not something that anyone is comfortable talking about.
But the fact was, Dan Schons committed suicide, leaving a wife and two children. And now Cindy Schons is on a mission of education and determination.
In a letter to her friends who came to the Dan Schons Memorial Run, Cindy wrote what needed to be said.
“I don’t want the 17th of January to be a day of sadness anymore. My goal is to raise awareness for mental illness and to eventually raise funds for research.”
In 2002, Dan Schons was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was on medication, but Cindy said his episodes were getting worse. He was delusional and paranoid at times, she recalled He occasionally heard voices and was crippled by debilitating depression.
“He’s not suffering anymore,” Cindy said, her voice cracking.
“My goal is for people to talk about Dan. He was a great guy who lost his battle with bipolar,” she says, her voice now strong. “He was such a bright, successful, great person. He was an engineer, he played college basketball. Dan was not crazy. He had a mental illness, and he lost his battle.”
Cindy pauses and takes a breath, corralling her composure.
“I want this stigma to end,” she said firmly. “I think the whole point is to bring awareness and to let people know that many of these are highly intelligent, successful people who are struck with mental illness.”
She’s done the research and found studies showing there are more than 30,000 deaths a year due to suicide. Breast cancer, by comparison, claims more than 39,000 annually.
The number of victims is close, but the amount of money for research is not.
“Can you just imagine if we could raise billions to go to [mental illness] research? We could do so much,” Cindy said.
Under wintry gray skies, Cindy led the runners and walkers out on a 3.6-mile trek. Friends wearing those special light blue shirts pushed strollers and ran side by side, laughing and smiling. It was a great day for the friends and neighbors who had gathered last year to give Dan Schons a heart-wrenching goodbye.
As each participant trotted or strolled back in, Cindy was ready with high-fives, hugs and enthusiastic praise.
Just a few weeks ago, Cindy was mired in a painful debate with herself as the tragic anniversary approached. She just wanted to get away and hide.
She thought about the idea she and Dan had to take their kids, Toby, 6, and Gabe, 4, to Legoland in California. But instead of hiding from the tragedy, Cindy decided in early January to start pounding away at the stigma of mental illness and suicide.
In her letter to friends, Cindy wrote, “Today is a day to be healthy in mind, body and spirit.”
After lunch, as the afternoon was drifting away, Cindy sat down and talked about the torment of the last year. The pain and anguish still haunt her. The first six months were the toughest.
She admits that two things help ease the pain: remembering the good times she had with Dan, and reminding herself of one thing concerning Jan. 17, 2010.
“I have to think that he was not Dan at that point,” she said about the suicide. “He was not in his right mind.”
As her emotions bounce up and down like a wayward Superball, the largest smile of the day takes over.
“I try and remember his laugh. He had such a great laugh,” she said. “I remember our last good memory together.”
That was Dec. 31, 2009, 17 days before Dan died.
Cindy pauses, closes her eyes, letting the memory wash over her.
“We decided to make appetizers. We put the kids to bed early, and we just danced,” she remembered.
Dan had a great laugh, but he was not a man blessed with rhythm, Cindy explains with a chuckle.
“That night, I finally started to get him in a little bit of a groove. That was funny, he would laugh at himself. He would throw his head back and laugh, that was the kind of laugh he had,” she says.
The nights are still hard, Cindy admits. There are times when she wants to hide, but she knows she needs to focus on the goal, on the future.
Cindy recommended a website sponsored by actress Glenn Close, “bringchange2mind.org” that educates people about the stigma of mental illness.
“What’s really keeping me focused is trying to make something positive happen,” Cindy said. “I have to. That’s my motivation. I can’t just sit back and do nothing.”
She plans to organize some kind of running event every year close to Jan. 17, and she hopes to make it a fundraiser.
Then she thinks about the shirts and Dan’s blue eyes.
“I want people to wear these [shirts]. I want people to start conversations, that’s what I want, that’s why I’m doing this,” she said.
On Jan. 17, 2010, Dan Schons lost his battle with bipolar disorder. He was 38.
On Sunday, Cindy Schons wanted it to be a positive day celebrating the life of Dan, and to raise awareness to suicide and mental illness.
She did that.
There were a few tears, but mostly there was hope and good memories.
The wintry gray sky was no match for all those smiles and light blue shirts.
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UPDATE: Both westbound lanes and one eastbound lane of Interstate 70, according to a 12:20 a.m. update from Garfield County.