Article 25

Just a Group of Friends

In Uncategorized on 10/22/2011 at 1:56 pm

Ronald Williston leads a support group for people who have mental illness. Photo by Gregory Flannery.

Mental illness is nothing to be afraid of

By Gregory Flannery

Ronald Williston of West Chester is unabashed in saying he contends with mental illness. He says he has dyslexia and hyperactivity disorder and “a little bit of obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

“But I’ve got the good kind of hyperactivity disorder,” he says.” I clean, sometimes with a Q-Tip. But it’s sanitary. I hope you’re pleased with the way the apartment looks. Everything in my house is clean. There is no dirt, no bugs. The misconception is that people with mental illness are homeless or can’t take care of themselves.”

Williston, 46, knows firsthand the trials endured by people with mental illness.

“My whole life I was picked on, bullied and made fun of,” he says.

Far from feeling a victim, however, Williston spends his days working to advocate on behalf of people with mental illness. He is the moving force behind the Friends Group, a support group in Hamilton, Ohio, for people who have mental illness. Now in its seventh year, the Friendship Group meets at St. John Methodist Church in Hamilton.

“They let us use a room,” Williston says. “We do all kinds of activities. We do arts and crafts. We do some physical-fitness exercises. We go on outings.

The group meets in the evenings on the second and fourth Thursdays of every month. Businesses donate food and other gifts for the group’s gatherings. Frisch’s Restaurants, for example, donated placemats.

“When we’re doing arts and crafts, we’re not getting glue on the table,” Williston says.

The Friendship Group accepts donations of silverware, dishes, toiletries and other household goods. Members compile a wish list to say what they need. The local chapter of the National Association for the Mentally Ill offers many items.

“We play games,” Williston says. “Our biggest game is bingo. My friend got very excited about winning a bottle of shampoo.”

‘Don’t get it’

By stint of his plain goodwill and friendly demeanor, Williston has attracted support from government agencies as well. He likes to cite the fact that he has the cell-phone number of Hamilton Mayor Pat Moeller. The Butler County Emergency Management agency donated 22 weather radios to the Friendship Group, Williston says.

“My city takes care of me left and right,” he says. “I know every predominant person in it. Nine of my best friends are police officers. Four of my best friends are judges. They have a message for you: Ronnie’s friends aren’t dangerous. They’re just misunderstood.”

Misunderstanding is not just a concept to Williston – it is part of his personal experience. He says he once spent 10 days in jail after letting two homeless teenagers stay in his home. They took his medicine to get high. He quotes his lawyer’s argument to prosecutors – “Do you really want to prosecute a handicapped man with mental illness?” – apparently without understanding that mentally ill people are imprisoned all the time.

That near-tragedy changed the course of Williston’s life, leading him to work for broadening understanding about people who have mental illness.

“Nine of my best friends have died – seven by suicide, two by natural causes,” he says.

Williston works with the nursing coordinator at Miami University to help students understand that people who have mental illness aren’t necessarily dangerous and that they need not call police every time someone behaves differently from others.

“A lot of college kids don’t get it,” he says.

A restaurant owner also thanked Williston for helping him understand that the presence of mentally ill customers doesn’t require calling police.

Williston, who has lived in an apartment subsidized by federal Section 8 funds for the past six years, acknowledges the support of his family. He points to his Ford Taurus, a gift from his grandfather.

“My nut job of an uncle sent me not once but twice to Paris,” Williston says. “The second time, he wanted to see if a mentally handicapped man could make it all the way from Greater Cincinnati Airport to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. I say ‘nut job’ because I never thought I’d see Paris in my wildest dreams. I have a very loving family. They support me with a lot of assistance.”

That includes finding a way to support himself.

“I can’t work,” he says. “There’s just no way. I work with my Mom. We clean houses.”

Williston, in turn, supports others.

“I have a lot of friends who are young moms,” he says. “My friend Jenny was a victim of date rape. She spends her days in a group home with schizophrenia.”

‘You’d be amazed’

Williston has a special affinity for teenage mothers. He says his own mother was 18 years old when he was born.

“Being a German Catholic has made me strong,” he says. “But having a teenaged Mom has made me stronger. It gives me the backbone to do what I have to do. If you went to some of these teenage mommies’ homes, you’d be amazed at what’s in their refrigerators and pantries – nothing, absolutely nothing. It makes me so angry. This problem needs to be fixed.”

Williston is trying to find a van for the Friendship Group’s outings. He is also trying to find a donor for a grave marker for a friend – a teen mother – whose mother died.

“If you had told me 10 or 12 years ago I would be doing this work, I’d tell you you’re nuttier than a fruitcake,” he says.

Williston’s apartment is conspicuous for its seasonal decorations.

“The reason for all the Halloween decorations is because this is a poor neighborhood, and the kids don’t see much,” he says. “I do it for the kids.”

He says he sets up 6,000 Christmas lights each year and offers candy canes to neighborhood children.

Among his many positive influences is a late cousin, who left this note to Williston: “This is your cousin, Daniel. By now you’ve figured out that I’m dead, dumbass. Do God’s work.”

That, Williston says, is what he aims to do.

“The people I meet on a regular basis are God’s children who just need some love,” he says.




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