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Michael Mayo: Davie man’s cross-country bike ride to raise bar on mental health awareness

Go ahead, kid Allen Giese if you want. He plans to ride 3,000 grueling miles over 60 days on a bicycle from San Diego to Florida, including long stretches through the Arizona desert and brutal Texas heat.

“People say it sounds a little crazy,” said Giese, 54, a financial planner from Davie.

He can joke about himself, but Giese knows mental illness is no laughing matter.

Not when it affects one in four American adults, including his son, Andrew, 23, who suffers from schizophrenia. Allen Giese is tired of the stigma, the misunderstanding and the lack of funding for mental illness, so the avid cyclist came up with the idea for his cross-country tour. It’s called the Ride to Awareness, and he hopes to raise more than $100,000 for mental-health organizations.

Giese won’t begin his two-month ride until September, but he has started promoting the event now; May is Mental Health Month and National Bike Month. He’ll hold fundraising events throughout South Florida in coming months, including at a Marlins game July 12 and a launch party on Labor Day weekend before he drives out west in a donated RV that will serve as his crew’s roaming base.

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“A lot of people are still in the Dark Ages when it comes to mental illness,” Giese said. “They think you can cure depression by just putting a smile on your face or snapping out of it. They mistakenly think that schizophrenia means split personalities.”

I know where Giese is coming from. My late brother David had schizophrenia – a disease marked by a break from reality, imaginary voices and hallucinations – and spent most of his adult life in a New York psychiatric hospital. He died of esophageal cancer at age 50 in 2009.

Mental illness can be frightening and confusing for those afflicted and their families. Conditions are often misdiagnosed. There’s often denial and a reluctance to take medication, which can have harsh side effects.

“When Andrew got sick, people said, ‘Oh, you’re such good parents, you’ll figure it out,’ “said Allen’s wife Gayle. “It’s tough because you can’t just pull out an MRI and show them what’s wrong. People have a hard time understanding.”

Andrew had his first psychotic episode at 17, as a high school senior, but his parents said there were warning signs earlier. He had been a star tennis player, but became withdrawn and had trouble focusing on school work. Andrew wasn’t in a talking mood when I met him on Friday. A high dosage of a new medication made him sleepy, so he crawled into bed while his mother showed me his paintings and a thick Shakespeare collection he reads.

Allen Giese said he is pleased by the response the bike ride has gotten so far, with organizations and sponsors eager to get on board. One-day biking events are planned in cities along the route, including Austin, Tex., and Gainesville, with proceeds going to local chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America.

In 2011, Giese biked from Key West to Maine, just for the sport of it. He wrote a blog that attracted 50,000 followers. He figured if so many cared about that journey, he might as well do something bigger and more meaningful for charity.

“Given what my family’s been through, it had to be for mental health,” Giese said.

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Michael Mayo
SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL
mmayo​@sun-sentinel.com

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