As a person living with blindness, I have sometimes needed help crossing a busy street or locating a building.
In addition to saying, “Thank you,” I am also fond of telling my helpers, “You should be cloned!” Interestingly, many not only regale me with hearty laughter, but also tell me that I should be cloned.
One person who I’m sure would not have wanted that, though, was the healthcare provider I’ll call Dr. Lee, whose psychiatric care I was under during part of the 1980s.
“People like you shouldn’t have children,” was how Dr. Lee began our first in-patient session. “People like you should get your tubes tied.”
“What does that mean, ‘people like me?’ Does that mean people who are blind, people with mental illness or both?”
“People with mental illness.”
I didn’t bother to tell the good doctor that I couldn’t heed his advice. I already had two children.
The ’80s were a difficult decade for me because of several significant traumas I experienced. In 1982, my husband left a month before our daughter was born, explaining that he “wasn’t ready for married life.” Later that same year, he informed me that he was living out of state with another woman and wanted a divorce.
In 1983, my mother died of cancer at the age 53. My divorce became final, and I learned that my now ex-husband married the woman with whom he had been living. I sought solace with too much intimacy and became pregnant with my son.
Just as I experienced severe postpartum depression after my first child was born, I began to experience the same symptoms with my son. I wasn’t feeling well physically either. In the fall of 1984, I was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer.
While other people were caring for my children, West Penn’s Psychiatric Unit became a respite for me. Unlike most facilities, where units were locked and patients ate in a community kitchen, West Penn’s doors remained unlocked and meals were brought to individual rooms, just as they are for hospitalized patients with physical illnesses and injuries.
Although I wanted talk therapy and the psychologist who worked with Dr. Lee felt that I could benefit greatly from intensive services, Dr. Lee’s diagnosis was that I needed medication — medication alone.
In 1985, I learned that a babysitter was abusing one of my children. One of my children had already been adopted by an aunt on their father’s side, but for my second child – despite my efforts at reunification – the state’s child services agency said the only option for this child as well was adoption. I became so tightly trapped in the jaws of guilt that I had trusted an abuser that I spent Valentine’s Day of 1985 in West Penn’s ICU after a suicide attempt.
Less than a year later, on Jan. 3, 1986, my second husband and I were married, and life seemed to be taking a positive turn. At first, he seemed interested in attempting to work together to get my daughter back. And then he wasn’t. I often thought of leaving him and would have, but I didn’t believe the state would return my daughter to my care — no matter what I did.
By 1986, my repeat hospitalizations resulted in an ultimatum. During a brief hospitalization at Western Psych in June, the attending psychiatrist gave me a choice: I could voluntarily commit myself to Mayview State Hospital in Bridgeview or I could go home and enroll in Intensive Outpatient Therapy. I chose the latter.
Although I was still depressed and angry, the combination of talk therapy and medication was proving helpful. I still didn’t know, though, that recovery — even from serious mental illness — was possible.
In 2002, I enrolled in a Pittsburgh Mercy Behavioral Health training program. I was trained as a behavioral health aide and a case manager aide. Although I received my master’s degree in counselor education in 1979 and had begun to work on a Ph.D. in rehabilitation counseling in 1981, I found the different skills I obtained at Pittsburgh Mercy enlightening and informative.
The training program was the first to tell me that my mental health can be more than just maintained — I could actually recover and thrive.
I learned about the eight dimensions of wellness (emotional, physical, occupational, intellectual, financial, social, environmental and spiritual) and how to apply them to my recovery. I learned that I could live a meaningful life on my own terms.
I engaged in the spiritual dimension of wellness by returning to and becoming active in programs connected with the Catholic Church. Talk therapy had become so helpful that I no longer needed it even though I had been in and out of therapy since adolescence.
In 2013, I became a certified peer specialist and returned to Pittsburgh Mercy where I facilitated group sessions, but also served as a model of recovery for my peers, sharing the parts of my personal journey that could benefit the individuals around me.
Today, I am a member of the Allegheny County Coalition for Recovery, its outreach coordinator and a member of its Education, Public Awareness, Steering, and Drug and Alcohol Committees, the last of which I serve as the co-chair.
If I were to summarize what brought about my decadeslong but successful journey from respite to resilience and recovery, I would say learning recovery principles and putting them into practice, engaging in peer support and returning to my faith formation roots were all contributing factors. There will always be bumps in the road — and I know that from experience — because recovery is an ongoing, always changing journey.
So, what do I think now when kind people I meet on the street return my praise that I should be cloned as well? I remember Dr. Lee and how wrong he was. “People like me” are people worthy of friendship, worthy of access to proper care, worthy of recovery and of sharing our stories with others.
They’re right. People like me should be cloned.
To learn more about the Allegheny County Coalition for Recovery and its mission of promoting behavioral health recovery, call Recovery Specialist Montaja Simmons at (412) 350-3841.
If you need someone to talk with who has lived experience with behavioral health concerns, reach out to the Allegheny County Warmline: 1-866-661-9276 (661-WARM). They are available to listen and make referrals from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.
If you’re feeling in crisis and searching for a community-based alternative to hospitalization, call Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic’s resolve Crisis Services Line, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Operated by both clinicians and professionally trained peers, resolve’s number is: 1-888-796-8226.
If you want to send a message to Terri Winaught, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Jewish Healthcare Foundation has contributed funding to PublicSource’s healthcare reporting.
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