Ohio Valley Unsung Heroes: Gamble made the choice to help other people

WHEELING — Amy Gamble had a choice.

As she sat in a Montana jail cell almost five years ago, she needed to make a decision.

”I asked myself to choose,” she remembered. ”I could either choose to give up or choose to make something good out of what I’d been through to help other people.

”I chose to help other people.”

In late 2012, the mental illness demons inside Gamble’s mind took over like never before.

She thought her mother was trying to kill her.

Gamble got into her car in Marshall County and started driving.

”I ended up in Montana,” Gamble recalled. ”I went into a house thinking it was mine. Then, I ended up getting lost in Idaho National Forest.”

After three days, she was rescued and taken to a psychiatric hospital. After being stabilized, she was sent to jail for three weeks. There, she pondered her future.

”That was a turning point in my life,” she said. ”I literally sat in my jail cell and wrote in a journal.”

From those writings came Gamble’s mission — helping others overcome mental health challenges.

And that’s what’s she’s doing today as executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health) of Greater Wheeling, a position she’s had for a little more than two years.

”We focus on three major things — education, advocacy and support,” she said. ”I look for ways we can serve the community.”

And they’re many. But the road from that Montana jail cell to NAMI was a long and challenging one.

Actually, though, Gamble’s journey began during her days as a basketball player for Coach Pat Summit at the University of Tennessee. The former John Marshall High School Parade all-American said she had many markers then of what would eventually be diagnosed as bipolar disorder — depression, suicidal thoughts — but she didn’t really start to challenge the illness until much later. And, even then, it wasn’t enough in her eyes.

”My problem with the system is they give you a diagnosis, they give you a bunch of pills, stabilize you and kick you out the door,” the former United States Olympic handball player said. ”Five days after a major, what I would consider, trauma to my brain, you’re kicked out the door and not educated about your illness. Something has to change within that system.”

Following her episode in Montana, Gamble started reading about advocacy groups and discovered she wasn’t the only person facing challenges with mental illness.

She also realized she needed stability. So she got a job at a local retailer and started rebuilding her life.

”That was huge,” Gamble said. ”Being part of something was important. I had had a position at a Fortune 500 company. But, that’s where sports helped me. You’re not going to win every game. You’re going to have losses. You have to pick yourself up and get back on the court and try your best the next day.”

Gamble later started a blog and become involved in various online communities where she shared her story with others.

”I had always wanted to be a mental health advocate,” Gamble said.

And, through her NAMI position, she believes she’s gained as much as she’s given.

”When we have a sense of purpose that sense of purpose drives us,” she said. ”The fact I can share my experiences that have been rather tumultuous at times and take that knowledge and help other people is empowering.”

Recently, Gamble authored a book entitled ”Bipolar Disorder — My Biggest Competitor,” of which details can be found by visiting www.amygamble.com or her Facebook page. It details her struggles with mental illness, something she was hesitant about doing at first.

”I’d write one chapter and then another,” she said. ”It was somewhat hard to tell that I was in a jail cell. That was enormously difficult for me because that didn’t line up with the image that I wanted to have. I’d never been in trouble with the law. I didn’t have to tell it. I told it because it’s part of a platform for advocacy.

”There are a lot of people that end up incarcerated and it’s not because of necessarily criminal behavior, it’s because of mental illness. We have to do something about that.

”I wanted to be able to share that hope with other people that no matter what your struggle is, no matter how difficult life can be sometimes, you, too, can get back up. You can recover. You can get well. You can recover.”

Gamble said the best way to attack a mental illness is to understand it.

”If you’re playing basketball, you know the other team’s offenses, you know what defenses they use, what they’re out-of-bounds plays are,” she said. ”You need to know about those to have the best opportunities to win. It’s the same thing with bipolar disorder. I needed to understand it well enough so I could manage it.”

And Gamble has done that through medications, etc., something she had gotten away from during her Montana episode.

”That was a hard way to learn that,” she said.

Education is part of Gamble’s work with NAMI. Nowadays, she said the stigma of mental illness has lessened, especially amongst younger adults and kids.

”What I’ve found, when you start to share your challenges others share,” she said. ”But we still have a long way to go.”

Gamble said her family, friends and former teammates have all been supportive in her challenges. She said she recently attended an event in Knoxville celebrating the life of Summit and her former Volunteer teammates provided plenty of positive feedback.

”They just embraced me like a family,” she said. ”They’ve all been incredibly supportive.”

And being a former college player and Olympian has helped reach people.

”The one thing I understood was, I had a platform,” she said. ”I’m not famous by any means, but there were enough people that knew me — the Olympian, the all-American, the basketball player at Tennessee. I have all of these circles I’ve touched and people have touched my life. So, I knew there was a platform that if I was judicious I could use that platform to help a lot of people.”

Gamble has no regrets in her life, noting it’s best to reconcile past choices.

”I don’t hold on to them too much,” she said. ”I use all of those energies around those regrets to help people.”

If you know of someone in sports in the Ohio Valley whom I could feature as an Ohio Valley Unsung Hero, drop me a line at rthorp@timesleaderonline.com or via Twitter @RickThorp1

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