In 1996, I was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, a mental illness.

Undiagnosed, it had dramatically impacted me; my wife, Susan; our sons, family and friends.

I’ve been in recovery since then, working with my psychiatrist, taking medications, committed to therapy, study, prayer and reflection. Despite the daily challenges, I now embrace the many gifts my illness affords me.

I’ve hesitated disclosing my illness for fear of being stigmatized, dismissed and rejected. My fears extended to my family, wanting to protect them from the stigma.

I attend a weekly Connections Meeting of peers sponsored by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Lowcountry. Recently we discussed the importance acceptance plays in our recovery. We spoke of Patrick Kennedy’s courage, raising awareness through his self-disclosure.

As I wrestled with this, I asked myself these questions. If I accepted my illness, would I hide it from others? If I had diabetes, heart disease, cancer or another illness, would I live in fear of being found out?

My answer was no, and this is why I am sharing this with you today.

Too many nights, I witness the pain others share as they struggle to find acceptance within themselves and society – a pain so deep for some that the allure of suicide appears to be the solution.

Too often, mass murderers define the face of the mentally ill. Although a tragedy, it is also tragic many people suffering from mental illness slip through the cracks. Worse yet, it’s thought “these people want to slip through the cracks,” as Donald Trump stated on George Stephanopoulos’ news program.

Later Mr. Stephanopoulos declared, “Every single country in the world has crazy people.”

Are we crazy? No! We have an illness and deserve to be treated with dignity. Our illness affects our brain function and, untreated, can distort reality.

Further into the program Matt Bai, a national political columnist, responding to the question of evil in the world, said “Call it evil, call it mental illness.”

Are we evil people? No! We were once thought to be possessed, demonic. We were burned alive. Today there is more information, yet only through education can this mountain of ignorance be climbed.

There was a day in 1996 when I didn’t think this subject was worth my time. I was wrong. The greatest delusion I suffered from was that there’s an “us” and a “them.” Today, my reality is no longer distorted; I know there is only us. There is no division in God.

I invite you to learn more about this health crisis at www.NAMIlowcountry .org. There are services in our community for those who live with mental illness, their families, students, law enforcement, medical and emergency personnel.

If you know someone or are someone who suffers with a mental illness, you are not alone. Reach out to NAMI, to me or someone you trust. Together we can make a difference.

I invite you also to join the NAMI walk Nov. 7. See page 20A for details.

I thank God for the gift of recovery and the gift Susan and our sons, Ryan and Michael, are to me and the many others through whom my recovery is made possible. To borrow a phrase, “today I am happy, joyous and free.”

Ray Horn, Jr. is a resident of Bluffton. ray.horn@hargray.com