Source: Remembrance and Recovery Project by Mental Health America (Mental Health Minnesota)
My first experience with mental illness came when I was 21 years old. I was living at Territorial Hall attending the University of Minnesota (U of M). At 4 o’clock in the morning, I suddenly awoke and sat up in bed. I felt unusually different and played soothing music for comfort. Strange things happened from that point on that are hard to explain. When I can say is that I experienced a transformation!
Throughout the entire week I dogmatically “cleansed” my dorm room of all that seemed evil, even by listening to the lyrics of all my CDs. In fact, all the music I listened to took on a spiritual tone…coming from God. I was so faithful that, while riding my bike to class, the wind led my way! Pretty soon everything got out of hand. I ran down my dorm hallways knocking on all the doors proclaiming the Second Coming was here! The bewildered Resident Assitant (RA) told me to stop but I just smiled and continued on my quest.
The end of the week came and so did my sanity. I was so out of it that I didn’t know if I was sleeping or waking. The RA tried to give some pizza to eat but it was too spicy; all my senses were heightened.
I would lie in my Papasan chair thinking I was the mother earth, consuming bottomless glasses of water. Not until my family came to my rescue did I actually visit the women’s room, where I sat for a very long time. I could have died being in this senseless state of body and mind. My family brought me to the hospital.
I put on a pretty good disguise for the doctor, who couldn’t see anything wrong with me at first. But when I said I saw Jesus, I was admitted. Armed with my Bible in a backpack, I looked forward to doing God’s work. As the doctor brought me into the locked psych ward, I could hear screaming coming from the ward, yet the patients were supposed to be sleeping! I thought they were the sounds of demons crying for mercy! The staff had me sign a paper and in the morning they started to administer medications.
Pretty soon the medications started to do their work. I drifted out of insanity and into a cold winter of consciousness. The faces that I had become too accustomed to in the ward had become distant souls. I was terrified of them. I soon was sent to a less restrictive ward (this one not as interesting) and then eventually found freedom on the outside. My cold winter had suddenly started to choke me; there was too much fresh air out here!
My family immediately enrolled me back in school. Sadly, my so-called friends kept me a stranger. I tried to fin in but nothing worked. I was a stranger in a world that used to embrace me. I dropped out of the U of M. My family kept me busy. I volunteered at my aunt’s elementary school for the rest of the academic year and then got a job at Hardee’s for the summer. Basic stuff, but that’s exactly what I needed. No brain-taxing activities, just good work. I then went to live at my grandma’s house and worked at Blockbuster Video.
If you don’t know what stigma is, you will certainly find out from this tale. It all began when I encountered my first cyclical manic attack. Slow to come at first, the day came when I messed up the register at work, credit card payments and all! I was sent home. Not long after, I was hospitalized, released, and returned to work. As you can imagine, they divorced me from the register and had me on cleaning duty. When I finished wiping down every last shelf they told me to do it all again! My brain was back and I was good to go at the register, but they denied me this privilege. So I quit my job and walked out the door with what was left of my dignity.
In my whole life, I had never experienced depression before this. The time came where I sunk into misery and sought refuge in bed at my grandmother’s house. My grandma kept nagging me to get out of bed and do something constructive. To me, just getting dressed was torture. At least Christmas was coming and I kept busy wrapping gifts. The whole time I thought the sadness would never end. I cried, I moped, I had the song “Manic Monday” in my head for days. At night I worked on a jigsaw puzzle, something I would normally have the patience for. It kept me focused and I eventually got it done. To this day, my grandmother has it framed in her bathroom. “Gifts made during times of suffering are very valuable!”
Not only was I feeling depressed, I started having dreadful side effects from Resperidol. I drooled and suffered with incontinence, needing to wear Depends diapers. I also had tremendous fatigue to the point where I couldn’t even get into bed on my own! I was hospitalized and was told I was going to live at a new place, a group home called “Oasis” in Golden Valley.
I soon adapted to Oasis but I didn’t like to hang around the residents much. I sought employment at the downtown Dayton’s Jewelry Department. I worked part-time during the day and it served as my salvation! I dressed nice, looked nice, learned to be an associate, and never told a soul that I was living at a group home. After work, I would go back to Oasis for dinner and then walk to Denny’s and write poetry … another salvation!
Oasis was good to me and I stayed there for about a year and a half. I learned responsibilities doing house chores, enjoyed many freedoms and made friends. When I finally got accepted into the Section 8 program, I moved into my very own apartment. Soon I went full time at Dayton’s as the Head Associate and was fully supporting myself.
With confidence, I left Dayton’s to go back to school at the U of M. I got a full-time job on campus and received the Regent’s scholarship. Then, to make a long story short, I got laid off. I soon dropped out of school again and attempted to work at a job downtown but was fired within two weeks. I tried again at the U of M, got employed at the Law School, but it lasted only two months. I was literally crushed and could fill the Minnesota lakes with my heartbroken tears.
By this time I had enough. I was in bad shape and so was my self-esteem. I did what I never thought I would do: I turned to Social Security for assistance. It was a pain-staking few months but when all was in place, I took steps in my life that made a whole world of difference.
During my short stay at the U of M, I met a man by the name of Jeff Kaner. He invited me to a BRIDGES support group. I attended it regularly and Jeff introduced me to NAMI Minnesota. Before I could even take a breath, NAMI made me their Consumer Council Coordinator, representing the voice of the mentally ill in Minnesota. I also become a facilitator of the very support group I had been attending! I traveled to national conferences and ran a nice-sized Consumer Council: NAMI Minnesota’s first in 20 years!
During this time I worked with the Department of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) to get a degree in Graphic Design at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC). I got straight A’s! After convincing DRS of my dream to help people with mental illness, they gave me the “go” and I transferred back to the U of M to pursue a degree in Psychology.
The U of M is twice as expensive as MCTC and twice as hard. In the beginning, I spent every waking hour on homework with no leisure time for myself. This was the death of me because I got burnt out, felt great anxiety, and considered quitting. Yet, I learned to manage my time and I eventually was capable of handling a demanding academic load.
And what about my life in the mental health world? Well, I was the newsletter editor for the Consumer/Survivor Network, I volunteer at the Mental Health Association of Minnesota, and I now lead a group called United Minds that makes presentations statewide. Working to help enrich the lives of the mentally ill and educating society about mental illness is an investment I enjoy to make.
What have I learned about living with mental illness? I have learned that working with my psychiatrist and psychologist provides mental health. Without their guidance and support, I would very well be stuck in some lonely, undesirable place – both in my head and in my community. Sometimes you need to take a step back from life while other times you need to forge ahead with all the courage that’s inside you. I think the mentally ill know this all too well!
I have learned that having friends with mental illness enriches my life, helps aid in my recovery process, and gives me that certain connection I can’t find anywhere else. I have learned that life is a true test of character, and if I work hard to reach my dreams, life gets easier and becomes very rewarding.