Preface by ROBERT LUNDIN, Editor
I work for the government. Not the U.S. government, or even the State of Illinois, but for a county administration: The DuPage County Health Department (DCHD). I have a good, steady and predictably underpaid position in psychoeducation, as an instructor in psychosocial rehabilitation. Years ago, when I was affiliated with the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago I asked my boss, “What is psychosocial rehabilitation?” He answered rather dryly, “Everything that’s not medications.” That’s a fair assessment.
I teach 13-week courses in wellness and psychiatric illnesses to groups of clients who come to us from around the county. They’re a resilient and eclectic assortment of people. Many are from group homes and apartments subsidized by the county, others have been homeless, others live in psychiatric nursing homes, others with their parents or families, and a few live independently. With all their hardships, these people endure in some sort of manner; they embrace life, however difficult, and they live it.
Most people with serious mental illnesses recognize that a brave and strong spirit is advantageous if one is to survive a serious mental illness. We have writers, poets and editors who come to The Awakenings Review through harrowing circumstances: years of depression or psychosis, rampant mental illness or alcoholism in the family, uncontrolled manias, suicides, failures and troubles. But as difficult as it may be, life is a huge driving force; it impels a person to carry on, it impels people to create.
Here, from The Awakenings Review, are a few of their stories:
In the early years of her illness Irene recalls being terribly lonely, having little to no self-confidence, and repeatedly dropping out of college. “I was in hospitals every year or two, eventually my diagnosis was bipolar I.” For years she repeated that pattern: in and out of hospitals, in and out of colleges, and in and out of jobs. But Irene has held fast to her recovery for decades, a tenacity which has transported her from those repeated “revolving door” hospitalizations in the 1970s, to a full time position with Lucent Technologies (which she held for 20 years until early retirement), to graduation magna cum laude from North Central College (Irene wryly recalls that she earned a four-year bachelor’s in thirteen years), to her current full-time teaching job at DCHD. Irene has always had verve. She blithely recalls that in high school she was voted “Most Energetic” by her classmates. Aside from sheer strength of character, Irene credits her recovery to following a WRAP plan and becoming deeply involved with the Awakenings Project. “Recovery is possible and mental wellness is very much within reach. Recovery does not mean things are not hard, it does not mean pain and disappointment are not real. It’s a process of learning to live.”
Kyle was 28-years-old and married to her husband Kevin for five years when in 1989 they had their first son, Luke. Kyle said, “I was the happiest I’d ever been in my life. I was living in bliss,” adding, “but we had decided to move to another neighborhood so I was under a huge amount of stress.” Kyle recalls that between caring for an infant and packing a moving van, she was in just the right position to set off a manic episode. And it did come. In the following years Kyle could not accept she had an illness; she had always been a picture of health. “I was ashamed, I thought I couldn’t be crazy. After all, since I didn’t dig into garbage cans and mumble to myself—how could I possibly be mentally ill?” Taking medication was a rude awakening, every day she had to face that she had an illness. In the following months and years, with symptoms in check, she blossomed into a widely known and popular advocate; after participating in NAMI’s Speaker’s Bureau. Kyle came to accept her new circumstances. For her heroism in mental health, in 1996 she was chosen to run with the Summer Olympic Torch as it passed through Chicago on its way to Atlanta. In years following, Kyle’s resilience and drive have touched many people. “I was always so amazed by the number of people who would come up to me and say they had a sister or brother or aunt with mental illness. Then I began thinking, if this many people have mental illness why do I feel so ashamed?” She still has episodes of mood swings but she is talented and gutsy.
During his senior year of college, Chris developed what was to become a paralyzing anxiety disorder which lasts until this day. He recalls it being triggered by a speech class. Since he was planning to attend law school after graduation, he enrolled in the class to develop his public speaking skills. Chris bungled one speech (which he had to deliver from memory, no notes), and this began a terrible descent into anxiety which spread to areas other than speaking in front of people. Said Chris, “I was able to make it through the course, but not without great mental strain. When entering law school, my dread of public speaking intensified, and the anxiety began to seep into almost every aspect of my life.” Eventually, it evolved into a general panic/anxiety disorder, which Chris copes with to this day. He left law school after a year and turned to a career in journalism. His strength and commitment to cope with his affliction is amazing. Through determination he worked for years as a journalist, replete with deadlines and stress, including a five-year stint on the high school sports desk at the Chicago Sun-Times. Chris reminisces, “The semester before that dreadful speech class, I studied abroad in Granada, Spain. I often think about that wonderful time in Spain, before the anxiety, and write about it, including the short story “Granada”, which was published in AR.” Perhaps as catharsis, most of the stories he writes today either deal with Spain or someone like himself battling anxiety, and most of the time they deal with both.
Peter, a terrifically talented artist and musician, found the Awakenings Project ten years ago years after he had had invasive surgery for a seizure disorder. Said Peter, “At thirty, after the surgery, my memory was gone. I had to learn to talk all over again.” Prior to the surgery, Peter’s moods had shifted moderately from depressed to manic. He recalls joining a band after college as a guitarist and immersing himself in depressing songs and depressing music. “I was basically just depressed and anxious.” But, after the surgery his mood swings became pronounced, psychotic and debilitating. With his life falling apart and his art failing, in 2007 he was introduced to The Awakenings Project. “Awakenings helped me get back into my art. It gave me a place where there were no threats, no fear of being judged, and a safe place to do art.” Peter says he is deeply indebted to Awakenings president Irene O’Neill. “Irene was a tremendous part of my recovery. She’s a friend, a coach, welcoming and caring… need I go on?” Peter takes life day by day, but today he says his art is growing in quality and he likes nothing better than to get a commission and please a client. He works in surges, saying he’ll do six months of work in two weeks, but, in the end, art to him is a daily celebration. “My art is not all meant to go into a museum or a show,” he says. He finds artistic expression in making a chair or reupholstering a couch. Peter is tied-in with the artist community in Elgin, Illinois, and while he still has his ups and downs, he says thankfully, “I’m still here and I’m still plugged in!”
Virginia’s first serious breakdown came during her freshman year at the University of Delaware. Although she took to drinking, alcohol brought on flashbacks of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse she had suffered in childhood. “I did not understand what was happening to me until I earned the attention of school authorities when I ran screaming down the hallways of my dorm one night, trying to literally out-run my memories.” Her dorm mother referred her to student health services but Virginia resisted counseling. Just then, her circle of friends intervened, inviting her to live with them in a rented house outside of town. “Living with these friends was my first experience of peer support and its healing power.” She’s been a devotee and advocate for peer support ever since. Still, her trauma as a child left her with little direction in life, until after an experience counseling people on bad LSD trips at the Woodstock music festival, Virginia knew what she wanted to do. She had experienced dreadful pain and trauma as a child but she now had a purpose and she endured in its pursuit. Virginia says years of therapy and the right medications stabilized her so that she was able to earn a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Chicago. “In my life, there have been times when I’ve been virtually paralyzed by depression, unable to get up off the couch. But with the right help—the right medication, the right counselor—I did eventually get up off the couch and get on with my life.” Virginia says she still has her ups and downs but every day she benefits from the support of her friends, her family, her peers, and from the chance to give support back. “There are amazing opportunities out there for persons who dare to be themselves, work at their own recovery, and feel the same desire to help others.”
It’s been my observation and experience that despite the struggle, most people with serious mental illness do make it. Unhappily not everyone, but most. We are all given an unconscious drive to live, survive, and achieve. Perhaps it is Freud’s life force, or what Maslow embodied in his hierarchy of needs. All men and women are driven with a desire to self-actualize, said Maslow. There are very many needs to be met along the way such as the basic necessities of survival, safety, belongingness, and esteem. But, we are all driven to ascend the pyramid. It’s not that a person with mental illness is given a different pyramid but rather an extra set of obstacles that most people in life cannot fathom.
Perhaps this is why we take such pride and pleasure in publishing The Awakenings Review. We, the staff, as people who have lived the experience of mental illness, know what the obstacles are. We know what resilience is. To see people who are able to overcome the impediments and stigma that ride in tandem with these illnesses, and then produce the beautiful work which we proudly publish in this journal, is an ever-present inspiration to us.
Copyright (c) 2018, The Awakenings Project
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