Stories & Perspectives
Overcoming the Impossible
The Story of Ron Bassman
This is a short excerpt about the story of Ron Bassman. Ron was admitted to a mental facility twice in 1969 and he recieved treatments that would be declared inhumane today. After many years, he overcomes the impossible, gets well, and writes a book about his experience. Click here to read the story on Ron Bassman.
A Good Place To Be!
Keris Myrick’s Story
From Esperanza by Michelle Roberts, Spring 2008
One day nearly nine years ago, a girlfriend asked Keris Myrick if she wanted to go to Disneyland.
“Our birthdays fell within days of each other and she noticed that I was not my cheery self,” Keris says. “What better place to go when you’re feeling down but to ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’?”
But on that sunny Southern California day, Keris was so distraught that she couldn’t enjoy herself.
“There is no place worse than Disneyland for a person who is in the throes of depression,” says Keris, 47. She remembers posing with Mickey Mouse and later ripping the picture to shreds. “Being at the happiest place on Earth is no fun when you realize you are the saddest person on Earth.”
Days after her theme park visit, Keris was hospitalized for clinical depression. In the years that followed, she would be hospitalized, voluntarily and involuntarily, at least five more times.
“The word depression occurs in our everyday language,” says Keris. “Everyone gets depressed, right? But when I get depressed, it lasts for very long periods of time. It is completely devastating. My cognitive function can become so impaired I can’t even read. When I talk about depression, I’m not talking about being a little sad and blue.”
Struggling, but understanding
Keris was in her 30s, attending her second year of graduate school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, when the word depression first entered her vocabulary. “I like to say I was in ‘oneness’ with my bed,” she says.
She recalls lying in the dark with the television turned low. “My back was to the TV and there was a commercial for a depression study. They listed the symptoms and said if you had five of the seven, you were depressed. I answered yes to every one.”
Keris called the number on the screen and signed up for the clinical study. Coincidentally, it was being conducted at Case Western.
Clinicians accepted her into the research trial and gave her antidepressants and therapy. But neither was a panacea. The pills made her thirsty and nauseous. She didn’t feel as though she understood what her assigned therapist was trying to accomplish.
“She’d ask me what I felt about X, Y, and Z. She gave me homework assignments. But I didn’t have the time or the patience for it.”
Keris’ symptoms improved, but only gradually and slightly. Even so, the study helped her understand that they were biologically based. “For the first time, I saw it as an illness. It helped me understand I wasn’t lazy when I couldn’t get out of bed or do my homework.”
But understanding the illness wasn’t enough to keep it at bay. Keris still struggled in school and at work. “I was calling in sick more than I would normally,” she says. “Or I showed up, but that’s all they got: me showing up.”
Making a move
Keris decided that a warmer climate might help. In 1997, after receiving her master’s degree in organizational psychology, she moved west. “California was my answer because it was sunny here,” she says. “I felt more alive here than I did in Cleveland. I thought I’d be healthier.”
That wasn’t the case. Two years after her arrival, an organizational change at the college where she worked as an administrator caused her enormous stress. “It was just too overwhelming,” she recalls. “I was out here by myself. My family is all on the East Coast. They are my support piece, and they weren’t here.”
Keris admits she wasn’t totally upfront with her loved ones about the level of pain she was experiencing. “In a well-meaning way, they thought that because of our background we had the resiliency to stand up to anything,” Keris says, referring to her family’s ability to overcome racism and other institutional discrimination. “They thought I needed to muster up the necessary equipment to stand up to what was happening at work. They weren’t understanding the disease portion, and neither was I.”
At one point, Keris could no longer face going into work. “I knew something was wrong. I thought if I went in they were going to literally kill me.” She went to her psychiatrist and leveled with him. He summoned an ambulance to take her from his office to a psychiatric hospital on an involuntary hold.
She remained hospitalized for three weeks.
After her first hospital discharge, Keris was given a list of organizations to contact for support, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
One evening, she walked into a NAMI Care & Share meeting, only later realizing that it was a group not for individuals with mental health disorders, but for the friends and family who support them. “That was the start of my involvement with NAMI. First, as someone reaching out for support and then, shortly after, as someone providing assistance to others.”
As Keris became more involved with NAMI, she found that she was not alone. Despite her hospitalizations, she learned to consider herself “one of the lucky ones.” She had a good job, an advanced degree, and she lived independently. “Many people my age and older fall into the third of those diagnosed with a persistent mental illness who may not recover fully. Some live at home, others live in (group homes), some have conservators, yet others are hospitalized for long periods of time—or, worse yet, incarcerated.”
Keris also discovered that medication and therapy would only take her so far. Her healing was in helping others and learning to cope with her illness as it ebbed and flowed.
For a while, she was so ill she received disability benefits. Eventually, she decided to return to work as an administrator in higher education and pursue a PhD in industrial organizational psychology, which she will receive in June. “I just couldn’t afford to be sick,” she says. “And I found that I did better with my depression when I was working toward something.”
Two years ago, Keris found further success: after noticing that many of her peers led isolated lives, she started an art club through her NAMI affiliate.
“The art was just a vehicle, a means to what I call a beginning rather than an end. It created social opportunities by meeting once a week to work on various art projects together.”
After developing the art club, Keris wrote a guide to help other NAMI affiliates and community healthcare centers re-create the program. She also serves as a board member for NAMI California and works as an organizational consultant and mental health advocate.
Last year, Keris submitted an essay about her art program and was named a finalist in the “Find It. Do It. Share It.” contest co-sponsored by California Volunteers, the agency that promotes volunteering in the state, and The Walt Disney Company.
As a prize she received, of all things, a set of four Disneyland passes. She hasn’t used them yet, but she’s actually looking forward to it. “Maybe this time I’ll get the mouse ears hat with my name on it,” she says with a laugh.
Michelle Roberts is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. A recipient of a 2004-05 Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, she specializes in mental health and family issues.
Find your bliss. I’m a person who likes to work, read and learn, and be involved. Those things keep me healthy, even though some would argue they’re going to stress you and make you sick.
Avoid negative stressors. I have a low tolerance for sitting in traffic. So whenever possible, I take public transportation.
Set aside “me” time. I use my time on the bus to listen to my favorite music or read a fun book. I used to dread commuting. Now it’s an important part of my wellness routine.
Get a pet. My dog is my biggest support. He knows when I’m “one with my bed.” During those times, we’re “two with my bed.”
Network of Care
The Network of Care website provides a wealth of information and resources for most counties in California, particularly focused on health care, mental health and mental illness. Information is also available in translation in many languages. Click here to go to the Mental/Behavior Health page for California. Click on your county for more information.
Us and Them
Living with bipolar disorder, she wonders about picking sides.
From Minnesota Public Radio by Alison Bergblom Johnson, April 15, 2010
Yes, I really have a mental illness. And I am just like you.
Last fall, I was talking with a mental health staff member about “passing for normal.” I wanted to make the point that some people with severe mental illness still pass for normal. I brought the issue up because I am one of those normal-seeming people. In 2000, I was diagnosed with unipolar depression; however, my diagnosis changed to bipolar disorder in 2009.
Still, I meet friends for lunch. I shop at Target. I fall in and out of love. I design websites, write essays, walk in the park. And, yes, every day I take medication to ensure I keep doing those things, keep showing up for life and lunch dates. The fact that I have a mental illness doesn’t blink on my forehead like a warning light, declaring, “Stay away. Mad crazy person.” If you met me on the street, you wouldn’t clutch your purse. If you met me at a mental health clinic, you’d wonder how long I’d worked there. I pass for normal.
George-George doesn’t. You may have seen him hanging out on Nicollet Avenue. He looks like a homeless man. But he’s not, he actually has housing. George-George is called George-George because he says everything twice. I think he forgets to bathe, and his hair sticks up. He’s not dangerous. But he has a mental illness.
One day, my then-boyfriend and I were walking in George-George’s neighborhood. I’d forgotten about George-George for the moment, lost in happiness and the touch of my new boyfriend’s hand in mine. I really liked this guy, which was why I hadn’t explained the extent of my illness. Sure, he knew I had one, but the conversation ended there.
I was terrified to see George-George. I wanted to be normal for my boyfriend. I didn’t want to explain my now long-ago hospital stays or the day program I used to go to where I met George-George. I didn’t want this man to look at me the way someone does when he’s in the presence of someone strange. I just wanted to hold hands and walk.
But I couldn’t be normal Alison around George-George, because George-George knew me and where I had been. He and I got along. We had played adaptive volleyball together. On this day, though, I wanted to walk the other way. I didn’t want to be outed by George-George, as I would be should he call my name. I’d become one of “them.”
As human beings, we have an us/them mentality. “Us” as Americans vs. “them” as Iranians. “Us” the perfectly normal, and “them” the mentally ill. “Us” is fine, but you never want to be “them.”
I’ve heard there’s no such thing as normal, that to buy into the concept of normal is to enhance the stigma of mental illness; still, I pass as normal all the time. I do it so well that I’m sometimes confronted with a situation like the one I found myself in with George-George.
So what did I do? Did I turn my boyfriend around and give him some lie about a scarf I’d forgotten in the Vietnamese restaurant? Or did I walk up to George-George and introduce him to my new boyfriend
It doesn’t matter. What matters is that even as someone diagnosed with a major mental illness, I sometimes feel the pressure to separate myself from “them.” I like the option of standing on a street corner and not being the one everyone tries to avoid. I blend in, at least on the outside. But why do I think I need to wrestle between these two worlds, us and them? Should I be ashamed because I don’t always know where I stand? Should labels even exist? Or do they serve a purpose, helping us find our identity? And what are the consequences when one doesn’t want the identity of being either one of us or one of them?
Source: Minnesota Public Radio
Significant Number Of People Recover From Schizophrenia
Book Review of Recovery in Mental Health: Reshaping Scientific and Clinical Responsibilities
From Psychiatry Online by Richard Warner, M.B., D.P.M, April 1, 2010
This rich and stimulating book covers a broader field than we would ordinarily consider the “recovery” concept to encompass. There are sections dealing with health promotion, resilience, the effects of stigma, and the involvement of consumers of psychiatric services in the design and conduct of mental health research. There are a number of definitions of the recovery concept, but the following example, in which the authors summarize Davidson and colleagues (1), is particularly illuminating: “Recovery does not necessarily imply an improvement or elimination of symptoms and deficit, but rather relates to a learning process that enables people to live with long-term limitations and teaches them how to cope or compensate for them and to participate in community life as actively and satisfactorily as possible” (p. 45).
The authors, a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist, reveal their enthusiasm for the topic of consumer-oriented services throughout the book (and in the postscript, they describe what drew them to the subject). They present a wealth of information from around the world, referenced with care. The book, originally in German, has been beautifully translated and updated for the English-language edition. As we read about consumer-developed recovery programs from the United States, Australia, and several European countries, recovery-oriented treatment systems from Scotland to Ohio, and the global involvement of the World Psychiatric Association, it becomes apparent that the recovery concept has had a significant impact on service delivery in a large number of developed countries, often with government support. America’s earlier consumer-driven reform movement, the Mental Hygiene Movement of the early 20th century, did not have this broad an impact. This is something we cannot afford to ignore, particularly since, as with the Mental Hygiene Movement, the stimulus for the recovery concept has been the perception of widespread deficits in the adequacy of psychiatric care.
The authors are not biased reporters, and they deal with each issue with balance and thoughtfulness. They are appropriately cautious about recent attempts to prevent psychosis through early intervention. Issues such as consumer empowerment and involuntary treatment are handled with delicacy from the perspective of both the patient and the clinician. Nor do the authors recommend, as some mental health policy makers have done, that we rely on subjective reports of quality of life or related measures in designing treatment programs, pointing out that subjective and objective data of this type are often at wide variance with one another. They do endorse, however, the expanded use of qualitative research and suggest, somewhat caustically, that psychiatry’s emphasis on evidence-based research might be better regarded by consumers and family members if the results of, say, rehabilitation intervention research were more widely adopted in practice.
Although the recovery concept has diffused as a social movement and hence will not necessarily be based on scientific evidence, this book offers ample research data on the central components of the model. We are shown the evidence for the substantial recovery rate from schizophrenia, and we recognize the reason for the optimism that is fundamental to the approach. One of the most robust findings in schizophrenia research since the time of Eugen Bleuler is that a significant proportion of those with the illness will recover completely and many more will regain good social functioning. We learn about the merits of consumer empowerment in improving outcomes from serious mental illness and how we can help it happen. We discover how consumer involvement in treatment benefits both the peer-provider and the recipient. A growing body of research supports the concept that empowerment is an important component of the recovery process and that consumer-driven services and a focus on reducing internalized stigma are valuable in empowering the person with schizophrenia and improving outcomes from the illness.
As practitioners, what should we take from this book? The authors would want us to offer hope rather than unfairly negative prognoses. They would encourage us to eschew paternalism and to partner with our patients in making treatment decisions, offering them choices as a route to empowerment. They would expect us not only to treat our patients with dignity and respect but to insist that our coworkers do so, whatever the setting. And they would want us to bear in mind that psychiatrists have been criticized by a distinguished leader in the field as being sources of “iatrogenic stigma” of mental illness for ignoring some of these very precepts (2).
The author reports no financial relationships with commercial interests.
1. Davidson L, Harding C, Spaniol L(eds): Recovery From Mental Illness: Research Evidence and Implications for Practice. Boston, Boston University, Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, 2005
2. Sartorius N: Iatrogenic stigma of mental illness. Br Med J 2002; 324:1470–1471[Free Full Text]
Recovery in Mental Health: Reshaping Scientific and Clinical Responsibilities
by Michaela Amering and Margit Schmolke, translated by Peter Stastny. Chichester, U.K. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009
Source: Psychiatry Online
From the Edge of Suicide to Recovery
New York woman with bipolar disorder joins step-by-step walk for National Alliance on Mental Illness
From The Daily News by Patrice O’Shaughnessy, April 13, 2010
She’s a youthful, attractive 38, with dark, spiky hair and big brown eyes. She’s petite and personable. She has a mental illness.
And Andreanna Magnotti is not afraid to tell people.
“There’s a large stigma about mental illness, but I’m a human being with an illness – I’m not an illness,” she said.
Next month she will take part in a very public walk to raise awareness of mental health issues and to raise funds for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ New York office.
“If you said to me two years ago I’d be doing this,” Magnotti said, her eyes wide, “I’d say ‘Oh no!'”
Magnotti, from New York, has suffered from bipolar disorder for years, although she was not diagnosed until 2007.
“I was suicidal, I made several attempts,” she recalled.
Her life was a torment of depression. She said she had emotional problems since she was about 8 years old. But she tried to live a “normal” life.
She was born and raised in New Jersey and worked for years for Hoffmann-La Roche, the big pharmaceutical firm. She married and had two sons.
Her disease escalated.
She got divorced. When she attempted suicide, her younger son was taken from her.
Her older son also has bipolar disorder, and is in a special school. She said she was adopted, and doesn’t know if her biological parents suffered from the disorder, which tends to run in families.
She lost her job. She couldn’t function. Getting out of bed was a major accomplishment.
“The disease was sabotaging everything, destroying life,” she said. “I needed to start from the bottom.”
She was in and out of day treatment programs, put on medication for depression, seeing a therapist, but nothing helped.
She went on the Internet looking for assistance, and found the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides free support, education and advocacy for some 13,000 New Yorkers each year.
The organization’s name represents the subtle difference between saying you have a mental illness, and saying you are mentally ill.
“When someone in your family has cancer, people ask you how they’re doing,” said Wendy Brennan, executive director. “If a family member has a mental illness, no one asks about them.”
Although the stigma has decreased over the years, say, with depression, it is still very strong for those with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, Brennan said.
She said the mental illness agency tries to help people establish a life with meaning.
Magnotti spends two or three days a week volunteering at its office in midtown Manhattan. She is taking a peer-to-peer course.
The organization “is the only place that helped me,” she said. “Here, I can talk to people with the same experiences. I met the best of friends here.”
Magnotti’s improvement led her to get partial custody of her younger son, Nicholas, now 13.
“I told him everything a few months ago,” she said. “He understands.”
Her son designed the T-shirts her group will wear on the walk on May 8.
“They’re black, with a brick wall with ‘Knock Down Stigma’ in graffiti letters,” she said proudly.
She said she jumped at the chance to get involved in the organization’s annual walk from the South Street Seaport over the Brooklyn Bridge and back.
“I have a team, I set a goal of 30 people to walk with me, I have 32. My son is walking, too,” she said with a smile. “I set a goal to raise $1,500, and so far I have $775.”
She said she couldn’t see herself organizing anything before she came to the organization.
“I had no desire to speak to people, no self-esteem, the littlest things escalated, like if the mail didn’t come on time,” she said. “I can spend eight hours a day crying.
“I have been feeling good the last three months,” she said, due to the right medication, and seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist.
But having the support of her friends at the agency on mental illness and being best friends with Nicholas are what got her to where she is today.
“I’m proud,” she said, “when I see where I was and where I am now.”
Source: The Daily News
This Month’s Spotlight on Recovery Story!
“The Baby Monkey” written by Suzanne Bowler
I heard a story once a long time ago about researchers who took a baby monkey away from his mother and put him in a cage with a fake mother made of chicken wire and carpet. The baby tried so hard to get a response out of that fake mother. He tried everything he could to get some affection, some reassurance. When nothing worked and all hope was lost, the baby literally went crazy. He started circling the cage, screaming and biting himself.
I don’t know what happened next. That’s actually all I remember, but the story stuck with me. I thought, “That monkey has been permanently destroyed. He will never recover.” But I have good news. I was just like that baby monkey, and my recovery has been dramatic. Even though I was nearly destroyed by abuse and neglect, was diagnosed with a severe mental illness, lost my mind, spent a good deal of time in the mental hospital, experienced homelessness, extreme poverty, severe chronic depression, and was declared totally and permanently disabled… I am now 90-95% recovered (I’m still shooting for 100%). I work full-time now. I have plans to go to school at night. I’m healthy, most of the time.
My mother was depressed. Not only that, she was mean-spirited. Cruel. Some people think mental illness is passed down through the genes. Maybe, but I know that my mother passed on more than her genes. I was diagnosed with schizo-affective in 2003, when I was 26. Schizo-affective is a combination of Schizophrenia and Bi-Polar. One moment I’ll be fine, and then all of a sudden random things that I see or hear will start triggering bad memories and fears. I start feeling paranoid and thinking that everyone is looking at me. I try not to let my panic show. I try to concentrate on what people are saying to me, and to respond intelligently, but I’m paranoid that they can see through me. I’m convinced that everyone is reading my mind. I feel super self-conscious, as though I am standing in a room full of people, naked. It is a humiliating experience. All of a sudden, my mind doesn’t feel private. All my thoughts are amplified and loud, so loud that I’m convinced everyone can hear them and that they are all laughing at me. I keep thinking, “It’s not funny. Stop laughing at me.” It goes on and on and I can’t take the abuse. I start shouting in my head, “Leave me alone! Shut up! Shut up!” Usually no one is even looking at me. I have to talk myself through it. It helps if I can go into a quiet room and turn the lights off, shutting out all stimulus. If I’m at home I turn the lights off and pull the covers over my head. Anything to feel privacy. I reassure myself that no one is looking at me. The scared part of me says, “What if it doesn’t go away?” I remind myself that it always goes away, and that it’s all in my head and I’m actually safe and that no one’s actually paying any attention to me. I look around and say, “See, everyone’s minding their own business. No one’s even looking at you.”
The thing I dread is not being able to hide. Being at work and trying to concentrate on someone’s question. Being afraid that I might have to say, “Excuse me but I am totally freaking out right now.” Being afraid that they will find out and will fire me. Being afraid that I might have to explain that I’m schizophrenic and also Bi-Polar and thinking, “Do you still trust me? Are you going to worry that you can’t rely on me? Are you going to treat me differently now? Are you going to be spooked and run from me? Are you going to talk about me behind my back? Are you going to plot against me to get rid of me? Will I survive if I have to go through that again? What if I never get another chance? Will I ever feel safe, secure, accepted? Will I ever be able to breathe and relax and be myself?”
If I have to keep people from finding out, if I can’t talk about it, that means I can never ask for help. I can never tell you that I need to go into another room for a few minutes until my symptoms go away. I have a need that I can’t take care of because I can’t let anyone know. It’s difficult to keep a job and handle stress when you’re afraid and you’re waiting for the ax to fall.
I know these symptoms are more than just a chemical imbalance. I know that something happened to my mind as a result of the way my mother treated me. Regardless of what happened in the past, I am healing now. The fear is going away, and as time goes on, I realize I am safe. I can relax, and laugh, and smile. When fear comes up, I’m peeling it off layer after layer.
Before I was diagnosed, I used to be totally paranoid and I didn’t know that the fearful thoughts were “symptoms.” Fear and insecurity ruled my life. It was torture. I was always misinterpreting people’s words and actions. I thought everyone was whispering and talking about me. Someone would make a comment and I’d think to myself, “What did she mean by that? I think she was insulting me. She said that because she’s mad at me. She hates me. I have to apologize to her. Maybe she’ll forgive me. I have to make her like me. I can’t bear it if she turns against me. Then everyone else will turn against me.” Living in fear is debilitating. There’s no freedom. You can’t smile. You can’t laugh. You can’t breathe. Someone will make a joke and instead of having fun and cracking up, you always think the joke is about you. You interpret everything through the lens of doom. You think the whole universe is plotting a conspiracy against you, and when bad things happen, you say, “I knew it.” It’s a miserable way to live. A lot of people live this way, whether they’re diagnosed or not.
As you would expect, my mental health continued to decline with this kind of thinking. I failed and failed at a series of jobs. After awhile I came to the conclusion that I had been cursed and I’d just have to get used to that fact. Hope got further and further out of reach. After awhile you just stop reaching for it anymore. No healthy person wants to be around that sort of thinking. Your only friends are other miserable people. Together, you complain about everything that is going wrong. You can’t hold on to any healthy relationships. Depression is like living in a deep, dark mud pit, or at the bottom of a well, or in a cage buried under a mountain. After awhile, no one comes to help you. People pass you by. The most painful part is being ignored. You cry out in pain and people pretend not to hear you. Everyone abandons you once it becomes clear that you are not going to bounce back any time soon. You become desperate. You try different things to get attention. The pain is so great. Some people have never experienced anything like it, and they can’t understand what that kind of pain does to you.
An outburst is a natural reaction to pain. If someone stabbed you, it is unlikely that you would maintain composure. Probably you would scream. Well, some people are in constant mental pain. The pain doesn’t stop. Sometimes it is so unbearable, you can’t hold it inside. You cry, you scream, and healthy people just want you to go away. Only physical pain is considered a valid emergency. Only if you’re bleeding is it deemed a valid concern. If I was stabbed, someone would call 911 and everyone would make it a priority to get me to the emergency room. No one would condemn me for it. But mental pain is given no importance. No one says, “Shame on you!” for having an injured leg. But when you have an injured mind and a broken heart, people turn their back on you. An outburst is an embarrassment. When you cry out for help, it’s a nuisance. People whisper to each other, “she has mental issues.” And people respond by disregarding and avoiding you.
You get lonely and isolated and you feel like you are going to slowly die from being ignored. You learn to only scream on the inside. You may try for years to maintain the appearance of health, smiling a fake smile so that you can still be around people and be acceptable to them and not inconvenience anybody or cause discomfort. You resign yourself to shallow relationships as the only way to have a social life. But it becomes exhausting to pretend, and eventually you just want to stay in bed. My mental health declined further and further until I finally decided that homelessness would be fun compared with maintaining a façade at work. I thought it would be a vacation.
After that decision, I became even more intimately familiar with fear and paranoia like I had never known before. Oh yes, no matter how bad you think your life is, trust me, it could always get worse. Much worse. I got accustomed to being victimized. I attracted predators like a carcass attracts vultures. If that’s not a recipe for paranoia, I don’t know what is. You’re walking down the street, and you can feel that the thieves are sizing you up, and you just know that you’re the next tasty, easy, free meal for a hungry troublemaker. You can sense that your fear is apparent, that your vulnerability is obvious, like a big neon sign. If you’re a victim once, then twice, then three times, you just know it will happen again. I developed a strong negative faith. Faith is when you know things will work out. Negative faith is when you know things will not. You become angry and bitter. In your anger you burn your bridges. Well-meaning people’s advice often comes with a condescending attitude. You respond with teeth and claws, thorns and daggers.
In December of 2009 I was facing homelessness again. I had burned all but one bridge. It was my only hope. I had one friend with one extra room. I knew that if I blew it, I would not survive the streets because I was alone, without a man, and without a car. I had learned the first time I was homeless that on the streets there is no such thing as feminism. If you’re not protected by your money, your friends, or your family, you will become a slave — bought, sold, and rented. Try to escape and you’ll get a black eye to keep you in line. I had been rescued from it before. This time I knew there’d be no one to rescue me. I had one and only one chance to avoid it.
I asked my friend if she’d take me in. She hesitated. She said she’d get back to me in a couple days. I was staying in a motel. I was so afraid. I tried to keep myself from going into a total panic. I rehearsed what I was going to say to her. I knew it had better be convincing. I decided what my sales pitch would be, practiced it, and strategized how I would counteract any doubts or objections. It was life or death, because if I failed I was planning on ending my life. I went to the store and bought my only set of nice clothes. I wanted to appear confident and mask my desperation. I think the reason she took the risk and decided to let me move in was because she had been a broken-hearted baby monkey herself. She had compassion on me.
That night, on December 23, 2009, I slept on the floor in a sleeping bag in her extra room. I tried to reassure myself that I was safe now. I thought my fear would go away, but I was still terrified. Anything could go wrong still. What if she rejected me? What if the landlord rejected me? I was so scared that doom was going to catch up with me. I cried a lot. I lived in a tortured state of mind. I wasn’t free. I still couldn’t heal. I confessed I was suicidal. She stayed up late nights talking with me. Living with her, I couldn’t hide things from her. She knew about my tendency to panic and misinterpret things all the time. I would go into my room and pace back and forth. I would excuse myself to smoke a cigarette, and I would go around to the side of the house where no one could see me, and I would smoke and pace back and forth and worry myself to death.
She patiently loved me. She prayed for me. Most of the time she didn’t have a solution for my worries, but she did have faith. I don’t know where she got that faith, but the seed was planted in me, and it started to grow. She took me to church. I had trouble making friends. I was negative all the time. I was a mess, always on the verge of tears. But I kept going and people would ask me how I was doing. They probably regretted asking me that because I was always negative. But I appreciated them asking. They all were studying the Bible so I started reading it. It talks a lot about faith, hope, and trust. The seed of faith that was planted got watered. I had been a damaged baby monkey but I was being held and reassured. I needed constant reassurance. I still do. But my faith is growing and growing because good things are happening now.
I thought I would never work again. I had looked for work for years without success. I was told that my resume looked so bad that my only hope was to get hired by someone who was a personal friend, that no one else would give me a chance. A relative told me I would have to show stability and that I should volunteer so that I could put something positive on my resume that would stand out against all my failures. So I volunteered working with homeless people for a year, and then somehow they found room in the budget to hire me part-time. I did that for a year, and then had the confidence to apply for full-time work. I submitted my resume and got hired by NAMI California (NAMI stands for National Alliance for Mental Illness). I had never heard of NAMI. I didn’t know I had submitted my resume to NAMI. I finally realized someone above is looking out for me.
I still need lots of reassurance. If that baby monkey is adopted by a flesh and blood mother, it will need to be held and reassured a lot, for hours, for days, steadily, consistently, until it develops a new belief system. Eventually he realizes that if my mother was there for me yesterday, and she was there for me today, maybe, perhaps, possibly, probably, she’ll be there for me tomorrow. Maybe she won’t leave me after all. Maybe she’s not going to abandon me. But I don’t know that for sure. Am I going to believe that things will probably go well? Or am I going to believe that things will probably not go well? It takes time to change your belief system. Faith is like lighting a candle in a dark room, holding on to the hope that you will one day see daylight again. You have to keep that candle going for as long as it takes. Sometimes it seems like the sun will never rise again. You have to keep looking for it on the horizon. You might need someone to wake you up, open the blinds, and point to the East as it starts to appear. If you’re paying attention and looking for it, anticipating it, you’ll see it before everyone else does. It will surely rise. I can promise you that it will. You can trust that it will.
Trust, hope, and faith are essential for mental health. You know you’re healing when you start expecting good things. I now have faith that I will pass my probationary period at NAMI California. I told them about my symptoms thinking that they were going to lose faith in me and be really skeptical and annoyed. Instead they were proud of me – so proud that they want me to be in the newsletter. I now have faith that I will find a way to pay for school at night and earn a Psychology degree. I now have faith that I will someday become a therapist and help people in severe crisis that have given up hope. I now have faith that I will drive a car and sell my bicycle, and I’ll be able to go places at night and when it’s rainy and foggy. I now have faith that I will be able to start wearing nice clothes instead of the old used up rags I’ve been holding on to. I now have faith that I’ll move to an apartment with my own kitchen and bathroom, with a full-sized refrigerator and a tub, and I can cook on a stove instead of eating only microwave dinners or canned soup. I now have faith that someday I’ll be a published author – a lifetime dream. I now have faith that my needs will be met and I will have enough money that I can give it away, and help people who are without any hope. I now have faith that I can forgive everyone who ever hurt me. And most of all, I now have faith that I will find someone who will love me. Maybe one day I will have a baby. I will hold her and think of that baby monkey. I will try to give her what I didn’t have. She will feel safe. She will be confident. She will have a healthy mother (by then, I hope). And I hope she will smile and laugh a lot like her mother.
I still deal with fear. I am afraid that after I send this e-mail to NAMI California staff, risking everything, what if I will face humiliation and horrible consequences? Maybe everyone will talk about me and whisper about how inappropriate it was, how it was way too personal, way too revealing, totally embarrassing, and now there is going to have to be a secret meeting about what a big problem Suzie has become. What are we going to do about this? How are we going to get rid of her? That’s why I’m sending this e-mail from home, without my NAMI California signature. Maybe you won’t want my story to be associated with your organization. Maybe I will end up feeling totally mortified and not have the courage to go back to work.
Then again, what if this curse, this shame, actually turns out to be a blessing? What if it helps people? Maybe I can trust that things will go well. I’m going to trust. I know what the alternative is. Fear. That is always an option. But I’ve lived with that all my life. I want to find out what is behind door number two.
(Update: Within 48 hours many doors have opened for this story to be published in local, state-wide, and national newsletters, and on websites. Suzie was expecting rejection but now she has been more than accepted. Already many people have responded to Suzie personally exclaiming that they were greatly encouraged that they will overcome their depression and discouragement.)