This is a guest post from the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition and Charan “Birdie” Bird. It’s the second in a three part series for Mental Health Awareness Day on Oct 10.
Having moved to Tacoma to visit my ex-husband at a Corrections Center, I found myself for the first time homeless and sofa surfing. Shortly after, I was in the psych ward after my seventh suicide attempt. It was then that the Mental Health Agency came to me.
The Agency asked me in the hospital if I was willing to go into treatment “for the long haul”, willing to quit going on and off my medication, which I had been doing the last eleven years. During those years I’d been hospitalized six other times and been given a diagnosis of chronic paranoid schizophrenia with major depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I agreed to treatment. The hospital social worker supported me in accessing resources, public assistance and Social Security Disability. They only held me in the hospital long enough to get me stabilized on medication and find a group home for me to live.
I was in the group home for six anxious months. I began group therapy four times per week, four hours per day. For me it was a new, blessed, painful, form of intense therapy. I learned so much about myself. It was not an easy experience.
I moved into another type of group home with four consenting adults. It was in a very nice community, a lovely split-level home, run by the Agency connected to my therapy. We shared this home for eight years. During this time my ex-husband said I had been “brainwashed” by the Agency, which of course was not true! I was a very passive person and lacked confidence, and they helped me to learn to make my own choices and learn that I was a good person, just being controlled by my chronically ill alcoholic partner. My therapist kept encouraging me to be independent, which was very scary to me. Needless to say, my choice was NOT to give up the therapy, and a new lifestyle that was helping me to find out who I was. I had always been so flat in affect, this was the first time I was actually happy with my life.
In the year 2000 I found my ultimate form of independence: I was able to have my own apartment, and a year later my Miss Kitty found me (and she and I are still together after 18 years)! Life from then on had its bumps, but I worked at learning about my diagnosis. I went to many different conferences and learned the newest treatments available. Just pure education!
After volunteering for three years at the Agency café they put me on the pay roll, part time. The supplemental income was giving me a better quality of life than I’d ever imagined! I joined NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health) and later was voted in as secretary. I was also chosen to take trainings to become a Peer Support Specialist. These all gave me good feelings about myself, like “mmm, maybe I do have self-worth and value”.
My medications after ten years had finally become established and I was no longer doing the “Thorazine Shuffle”. A new medication had come on the market that I was willing to try. A new reality for me finally took place. I was seeing life in a whole different way. I witnessed sunsets, flowers, the sweet smell of fresh cut grass.
I made great strides while employed at the Agency. I worked one-on-one with my peers, those who I had gotten to know very well. They called me a social butterfly. I went table to table as I listened to their stories and where they were in their day-to-day issues and struggles. It was so rewarding when I, as a peer aid, could assist them. I was thrilled to have my own office space and “cubie” as I worked beside Agency staff who had treated me in the past. They encouraged me in my work and assisted me in working with complicated programs on the computer, which was Greek to me outside of e-mail. I was also on the Agency Executive Board of Directors for eleven years as a consumer voice and as board secretary for three years. Structure was so important to me because it gave me purpose and meaning.
I’ve told the story of my life at different stages during my recovery. This is the very short version. I now take personal responsibility for all my choices. Yes, I may have been a victim of child sexual abuse and neglect but that does not define who I am today!
By way of excellent therapy, meaningful work and what I call my “cocktail” of meds, Miss Kitty and I are very happy and are comfortable and thriving in our sanctuary here at home! Yes, there were people that had to hold hope for me when I had none. I was grateful for them to do so until I was ready to take that hope back and live life with a real sense of empowerment! I am still doing Peer Support, both professionally and personally. I want people to know that they are not alone, you are walking with those who have also walked the road.
Healthy Minds is a monthly column coordinated by Ketchikan Wellness Coalition as a way to share positive stories from people living with mental illness, offer information from local mental health professionals about maintaining mental health in your life, and provide details on tangible activities or actions you can take to strengthen your mental wellness. If you would like to contribute to the column, please contact Romanda Simpson at firstname.lastname@example.org