At 19, Jason Hockenson had everything going for him.
A star athlete at South Lake Tahoe High School, he was attending his first year of college in San Diego on a football scholarship when his world came crashing around him.
A popular, scholastic young man one moment became a young man burdened with debilitating bipolar disorder.
"There are lots of highs and lows," Hockenson, 34, explained. "When a person is manic, they have thoughts like the speed of light. You can't slow down. When you're depressed, you're more down and out than normal. It's really difficult."
During one of his most serious breakdowns, he stopped his car on a California highway, left it and wandered off. He remembers voices in his mind, and rapid thoughts about so many subjects that he couldn't handle it anymore. He has been hospitalized, but is now trying "to stay on keel with with medication."
When a loved one suffers from a mental illness, family members suffer, too. After years of knowing next to nothing about the illness from which her son suffered, Nancy Stewart, of Carson City, found a group that could help her begin to understand what he was going through.
"When he started going through the mania phase, he talked in circles and didn't make sense. What do you do as a parent?" Stewart said.
"Family support is key," Hockenson said.
Stewart found help through the 12-week Family to Family program of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, a national association offering education and support services to people with mental illnesses and their families.
"After a few classes, I learned how afraid he was when he was going through it," Stewart said. "We learned so much.
"So many people just walk off and leave (the mentally ill). It's hard to see them suffer and have a stigma -- these people have enough going on without that. They have to live with (mental illness) because it doesn't go away."
Sisters Jeanne Paquin and Ruth Paxton are more than familiar with mental illness. Both have children who suffer from different mental illnesses. Paxton, director of Carson's NAMI chapter, and Paquin, state trainer for the Family to Family program, act as advocates for the mentally ill who often have problems navigating the state mental health system.
"We really want people who don't have any place to go to come to us," Paquin said. "We will handhold if we have to."
NAMI members all have stories about the inadequacies of the system, and Paquin said the organization is trying harder to partner with area agencies to improve the quality and timeliness of care for the mentally ill.
"Mental illness isn't just about being crazy," said Anji Moon, who is bipolar. "They need someone who can help them, and NAMI goes to bat. Here's this group who says they will help, and then they do. NAMI stood up for me when I didn't have anyone. NAMI saved my life when I was suicidal. They advocate for those who fall between the cracks."
This Christmas, Carson residents helped make the season special for about 40 NAMI members, many who have meager means and some who have little to no contact with family or friends. Tuesday, members, with family on hand, enjoyed music from the Home Schoolers Choir, a Christmas dinner and gifts, which were donated by people who took tags from the Candy Cane Tree at the Carson Mall. The dinner was held at the Nevada State Library and Archives.
Hockenson received a watch, something he needed.
It wasn't much, but Gene Gandee, of Carson City, was thrilled with his blue sweatshirt.
"It's something special because it came from the heart," Gandee said.
Paxton said she knows there are more mentally ill and their families who could use the support and services NAMI offers.
"We need more community support, and we we need more families," Paxton said. "There are families out there and we're missing them."
For information on the Carson City Chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, call 885-7768 or e-mail NAMICC@yahoo.com.