Chris Damrosch, 36, is neither rude nor shy, yet he has trouble meeting people. He suffers from a mental health disorder that handcuffs him when he tries to interact with others.
Before he started taking 11 pills a day, Damrosch got nervous riding the Metro to his job as a clerk at the Library of Congress. When he was briefly off his antidepressant medication, he could not walk anywhere: He was afraid he would bump into others and hurt them.
So finding a girlfriend was as daunting as reading every book in the Library.
But two years ago, all that changed. He met Molly Gleeson, 34, at a dinner arranged by the Bethesda Beatniks, a group that organizes events for people who have mental illnesses. She suffers from depression, anxiety and delusions. Before she started taking her four pills a day, she was paranoid that people around her were talking about her, she said.
They were a perfect match.
"Chris and I can talk about it. He's very understanding," said Gleeson, a management analyst with the National Institutes of Health. "Even my family, who is very supportive, doesn't understand what I go through."
The pair were among 50 people with mental health disorders who came out yesterday to a cookout arranged by the Beatniks in Seneca Creek State Park in Montgomery County. It was a social gathering that was also partly therapeutic: to build self-esteem among people who often find themselves isolated, misunderstood and unaccepted.
"They see they can function and enjoy life like normal people do," said Cecilia Thonet, a nurse psychotherapist with Suburban Hospital, who was at the picnic.
The event was also part activism. "Beatnik Pete" Warner, 50, the chief organizer, described the group's goal as "stigma-busting" -- to eradicate the "dislike" and "outright fear" that people have toward the mentally ill.
"The fact you are mentally ill doesn't mean you need to be locked up like they did 50 years ago," Thonet said. "Today, having a mental illness is like having an ulcer or high blood pressure. You take your medication and you function."
As burgers broiled on the barbecue, friendships were forged under a canopy of trees. Some chatted about the Bible while others sang songs. Some came alone; others brought their children.
Virtually all are on some form of medication for schizophrenia, bipolar illness, depression or other disorders, Thonet said. Some spoke slowly or walked stiffly. Some came to learn about new medications to help treat their illnesses. Others simply came for a dose of comfort and understanding.
"If this were a group of any other strangers, there would be no common bond," said Jeff Matheny, 32. "No one feels like an outcast. Because most of us have similar experiences, it's an icebreaker.''
"It helps me to understand on an emotional level that the rest of the world is not a faceless mass of people that are all highly functioning and don't have mental problems," Damrosch said.
The Beatniks began having dinners more than six years ago. They chose the name because they say the Beatnik intellectuals of the 1950s were on the margins of society.
"By some people's definition, we're also on the margins of society," said Warner, who wore a black beret.
Soon, they hope to launch a singles club because "mentally ill adults prefer dating other mentally ill adults," said Warner, who takes medication daily.
It worked for Damrosch and Gleeson. They dated for a while, helping each other cope with their illnesses. They have since broken up, but they remain close friends.
"We're going to a movie afterward," said Gleeson, flashing a smile.
For more information about the Bethesda Beatniks, call Pete Warner at 301-279-2578.