Danya Institute Inc.

Recovery Month Testimonials 2016

Recovery Month Activities buttonSharing Stories of Recovery

ROBERT          MICHELLE          KATIE          LINDELL          SHIRLEY          IRENE

Story_Robert picROBERT:

My name is Robert. I am a 50+-year-old African American male. I was raised in a family of 3 sisters. My childhood was pleasant but uneventful. In high school I developed a desire to graduate high school as an honor student. I graduated from Carroll Park High School in 1978 having reached my first goal of being an honor student. In the fall I enrolled in the Fashion Design Program at the Community College of Baltimore. In 1986 I took a basic course in the field of Fashion Design at Parson School of Design in New York City, which I completed with a certification.

Upon receiving my certification in fashion design, I initiated a home-based business designing clothing for celebrities. This was my first effort as a self-employed business owner. Unfortunately at this time, I developed a serious addiction. This addiction remained a part of my life until I was 35. Wanting better for myself, I entered the Johns Hopkins Hospital Comprehensive Women’s Center in 1996. This was an 18 months program, which I successfully completed in 1997.

I became an alumni member of the Broadway Alumni Recovery Group and was the Public Relation Director. My duties were to inform the community and various agencies about the organization. I planned the annual talent show, monthly meetings, bake sales and Christmas parties for the children of the patients. I resigned from the Broadway Alumni Recovery Group in 2009.

Dr. Kenneth Stoller, Director and Mr. King C. Blake, M.A., LCPC Addiction Therapist of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Broadway Center for Addiction referred me to the Baltimore Substance Abuse System. I enrolled into the Baltimore Recovery Corps to become a Peer Recovery Advocate in 2012 and completed the Certified Peer Recovery Specialist Training and Registered Peer Supervisor programs.  I have a genuine compassion for people. I interact well with staff, patients and community agencies. I am a team player but can also work independently. My personal motivation is to become a professional in the field of addictions.

My goal is to train those who follow in my footsteps. My belief is that education is a passport to our future. It should be used to broaden our horizons. Education should be used to enrich society, help shape minds by instilling vision, hope, truth and wisdom, and imparting knowledge to others. I am interested in exploring the possibility of employment at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Broadway Center for Addiction as a Certificate Peer Recovery Specialist, Peer Recovery Advocate, and Registered Peer Supervisor. I am single and have one child, family and friends. I am always in pursuit of self-improvement.

I have been working with the Baltimore City Health Department for the last 15 years as an STD/HIV counselor. I continue to be a driving force to keep free screenings available for the community members of the GLCCB. I encourage and support the enhancement of morale within any organization that I’m apart of. It’s important for people to understand that testing for STD/HIV Prevention is a safe, private and completely confidential process.

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Story_Michelle picMICHELLE:

Sixteen years ago, I fell ill-very ill. I went to my brother’s house, as he was the bravest and most powerful person I knew. I was a mess. I couldn’t discern what was real and what was the product of a very paranoid mind. I was unable to get out of bed and leaving the house was painful, as I felt I was being stalked. Looking back, it is clear that I had undiagnosed Bipolar for years, but the paranoia was new.  I was obsessed with suicide and always felt unsafe in the world. As a result, starting in 1999 through this April, I was in and out of hospitalization and partial hospitalization for well over 365 days. Not consecutively, mind you, but all total. I once spent three months sitting in a window sill watching a lone tree turn from green to auburn to brown, and then I cried as I watched the leaves blow away completely.

For years, I tried to return to work, but would relapse into fear of the outside and would have to leave work. It wasn’t until I was treated with disrespect by hospital staff and I decided I felt unsafe there. As a result, I worked harder on my WRAP plan and have decided I will never go to a locked facility again. More importantly, after the suicide of a friend, I decided I will never try to take my life again. I feel that suicidal thoughts are almost demonic, in that they tell you terrible lies about yourself and others and they force one into silence, secrecy and isolation. I have worked hard to break that silence. I read poetry at “This is My Brave,” a mental health and substance abuse recovery event and recently had a blog featured in the Huffington Post. I am a writer at heart and it is my most utilized coping skill. When I am ill, I cannot read, nor write, but an addition to my medicine cocktail has me writing not only for my own purposes, but I am writing to obtain grants for Recovery Program Solutions of Virginia, where I am President of the Board. I am most proud of this company as it is peer run from the top down and employs over 32 peers and 17 or more volunteers and contractors. It is through their work, they help others out of the dark- not only the consumers they support, but the people they help find their footing again in the working world.

I have been asked what I have learned about myself struggling with an invisible, yet, potentially terminal disease. I have learned patience, not only with others, but with myself. Prior to 1999, I had the patience of a cat faced with a closed door. I was clawing and digging to get to the next thing, because surely the next thing, be it a job or a boyfriend, would be the all-consuming and necessary thing to bring me peace. I have learned to live soberly and learned that though the physical effects of three drinks promises to be lovely, in reality, three would become seven in the crazy mathematics calculated by an alcoholic brain. I have learned to set boundaries, which is an ongoing process, but I am now much more quick to allow someone to learn to fish, instead of heading out in my own rusty and leaky dingy in the middle of the night to collect tilapia, nearly drowning in the process. I will help my peers find a sea worthy vessel. I will teach them how to bait the hook. I will even lead by example. What I won’t do is sacrifice my own sanity to help someone. Anyone who knows me knows I would do anything to help anyone. I once tried to give my shoes to a person collecting money for the poor, who was standing and shivering in flip flops in the dead of winter. She refused, but the funny part is when I stopped to try and give my shoes to another person at the intersection, I found out from her husband that she just had a pedicure and in his words, “she was being vain”. What did this teach me? Not everyone needs my help; I cannot fix everyone. More importantly, not every situation needs fixing.  My money in the bucket would suffice. I didn’t have to go barefoot and suffer to make a difference.

What was my most important lesson? That life can toss you the most rancid, rotten lemons and you can still make something sweet out of them- a cool drink one can share to help others who are suffering from a similar, devastating thirst. Sixteen years ago, I landed in the Reston NW Adult Partial Program as a consumer and the recommendation, due to my high anxiety and paranoia, was not to work for a very long time. Well, starting in September, I will be working at the same program as a Certified Peer Specialist, hopefully modeling through my experience that recovery is not only possible, but it is a journey, not a destination. I have a horrible disease that is fighting to kill me from the inside out. I don’t mean that metaphorically, but as a fact. Each year 42,773 American’s die from suicide according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. On average, there are 117 suicides per day, but I don’t want to leave you with that sad statistic; I just want you to know mental illness is as life threatening as a physical disease. I will instead leave you with this quote from the great character, Atticus, from my favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird that I think is relevant not only to peer support, but to our present political climate.  In speaking to his daughter, Scout, Atticus says: “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what”.  Those of us with mental health and addiction challenges may feel cursed and burdened or worse, we feel we are a burden to others, but by speaking out and speaking up and taking on work, paid or unpaid, where we show our scars to others, not to brag, but to show— we were stronger than what tried to bring us down. Mental Illness and Addiction may have had its teeth in us, but we pulled ourselves away through our own strength. Tonight we need to remember: we are all still here and together, we can survive.

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Story_Kathrine picKATIE:

My name is Katie and I know that recovery is possible! I am proof that recovery is possible!

For me, recovery is a choice that I make every day. It’s a life style. Of course it wasn’t always the choice that I made. In fact it wasn’t even a familiar concept for most of my life.

I suffered with debilitating anxiety and depression for the majority of my life. I have felt broken from even my earliest memories. Broken is the only word that I can use to describe how I felt. I hated who I was, I hated how my family was, where we came from and how we lived. I just want to be someone else.

In my early 20’s I had a dental procedure and was given a narcotic pain medication, my first experience with opiates. With that very first dose, I felt “FIXED”. I was cured. All that pain, sadness, and anxiety was gone. All of the hurt, self-hatred, and memories of trauma were gone with one magic little pill. After feeling fixed for the first time ever, the brokenness was completely unbearable and I never wanted to feel it ever again. So the very next time I took that medicine it was to escape the pain in my heart and soul not my teeth.

Addiction, as we know, is a progressive disease and mine quickly spiraled into a brutal heroin addiction. I lived to use and used to live every day of my life. The pain of using and all that goes along with that was so great but it dulled in comparison of how I felt when I didn’t use. I tried many times and many different ways to stop using including medical detox, residential treatment centers, substitution, medication maintenance programs and yes even cold turkey. Some worked for a while but without the drugs in my system the depression and anxiety would come back with a vengeance. All the feelings that made use in the first place were there still and so was all the trauma I suffered throughout my active addiction and the extreme shame and guilt I had over everything I had done and who I had become. I would maintain my abstinence as long as I possible until ultimately the pain would lead me to use again. During my last detox someone asked me the question “Why?” Why did you start using again? My answer was that I hated how I felt inside SO MUCH that using felt necessary! I didn’t even feel like I had to choice!

My answer to that question became the turning point in my life and the beginning of my recovery! During that moment of clarity I realized that if I was to get better I had to address the issues that lead me to begin using. I had to uncover and heal that brokenness and address that pain, anxiety, and depression that kept me running back to anything and everything that numbed it. I had to address my mental health issues and my substance abuse together in order to recover.

I had hope that recovery and healing were possible because I heard enough people share their hope with me. For the first time EVER though, I was ready to take personal responsibility for my own wellness. I became willing to do whatever necessary to get and stay well. For the first time ever I was brave enough to speak out loud about my own trauma and things that had happened to me so that I could begin to heal. I was ready to begin my recovery process but I knew that I could not do it alone. I started by seeking support. I surrounded myself with professional support, natural support and community support. I built my ideal support team and I stood in the center and advocated for my wellness.

Today I view my recovery and illness like a balancing act or even visualize a scale with recovery on one side and illness on the other. I am constantly evaluating the balance between the two. When I’m not feeling well or I’m struggling, the illness side gets heavy and weighed down then I know that I must add something to the recovery side to counteract the negative impact. One of the biggest gifts that recovery has given me is that awareness and insight about what is going on with me. That insight gives me power.

I am so grateful for the recovery process and for my own recovery path. It led me to a Peer Support position, it led me to become a CRSS (Certified recovery support Specialist), and it led me here to share my story with you. No matter where it leads me in the future, my message will always be that RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE!

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Story_Lindell picLINDELL:

The invitation to submit this article began with three questions which practically guaranteed I would write it. Was your recovery journey the catalyst for your current career? How? Why?

It can be argued that for the first fifteen years of my life I was collateral damage in the lives of my family. My mother and father both drank alcoholically for as long as I knew them. They separated when I was four and I reunited with my father when I was fourteen. By then, the seeds of an alcoholic lifestyle had already been deeply planted; hanging with the outcasts, drinking whatever came to hand, and a contempt for all authority.

The two years I was with my father those things were reinforced. Evenings after going to school or working on the farm, I drank with my father, uncles, and cousins. Weekends were spent going from one “juke-joint” to another where the owners were all too happy to give “Little Willie” a tab, with my father’s blessing.

I walked out of my father’s house when I was sixteen to join the Army during the Viet Nam conflict because my 16 year old girlfriend was pregnant and there was no way I could take care of her living in my father’s house and doing piece-work on the farm. That’s the noble story I sold myself and my girlfriend. A very large part of the guilt, shame, and remorse I carried until sobriety was wrapped up in the question which was to haunt my nights, “Were you just running?” Unfortunately, that will remain a question without an answer. My son died a “crib death” when he was 3 months old while I was in medic training at Fort Sam Houston.

I never made it to Vietnam. Although I had orders to go there, I went to prison instead after committing my first felony, along with four Vietnam returnees, while on a cocaine binge.

The next forty years of my life was to include more jail stays than I can accurately say, two more prison sentences, homelessness, three tours as a migrant worker, being licensed in two states as an LPN and having my license in one of those revoked because of drug use; becoming a welder, a small engine mechanic, then lead man at a Greyhound station who was so trusted the Agent went on vacation to England for a month and left me in charge. All those “good beginnings” fell by the wayside as my alcoholism progressed. Almost forgot; I also studied for the Ministry twice. After 6 months the first time and 7 the second time I decided a small drink wouldn’t hurt……

On October 6, 2008, with no money, no future, no friends, and no hope I went into the detox unit at The Healing Place in Richmond, then decided to stay on for the long-term program there. The program was/is administered by men who, themselves, suffer from the “disease” but learned to live effectively without drinking or using.

After completing the program I was allowed to stay on as a Peer-Mentor for one year working with and for a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor who would regularly say something to me and my fellow Peer-Mentors which I pray will remain a part of who I am; “Never accept good enough from yourself; when you’re not reaching for better you’re not at your best”.

I became a “Certified Recovery Dynamics Provider” while there, and at 56 years old entered college with a dual enrollment in Substance Abuse Counseling and Human Services. My recovery journey includes being inducted into the Honor Society for maintaining a 3.8 GPA, facilitating relapse-prevention classes for 18 months while on Americorps assignment in a reentry program, getting a Recovery Coach certification, and participating in a conference on “Reconciliation and Best Practices” with people from all over the world at Duke University Divinity School.

For the past four years I’ve worked, concurrently, as Overnight Shelter Staff for CARITAS and as a Peer-Specialist at Virginia Supportive Housing, a position I first applied for in 2010 and was hired for in 2012. In 2014 my Supervisor at VSH submitted my name to Homeward, the umbrella organization for all homeless services in this region, for special consideration.

After receiving the Steve Neatherly Award for overcoming homelessness in 2014 I was asked to write an article for the VSH newsletter. The following is an excerpt from that article, and answers those first three questions about as well as I ever will.

“Several years ago I characterized my journey into sobriety as “A long walk back onto my own life”, and during my Substance-Abuse Counseling internship I adopted the phrase, “A journey best taken in the company of others” for the Groups I facilitate. Little did I know then how those principles of perseverance, inclusion, and empowerment would shape all that I do and positively impact the lives of so many. I just wanted to live”.

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Story_Shirley picSHIRLEY:

Where should I begin. Where indeed. When I was a child, actually from birth, I was the victim of severe child abuse and neglect. I know you’ve seen those words before and that anyone can deduce just what that abuse and neglect entailed so I will not bother you with the specifics. Such drama is not necessary. Let us agree together that it was very traumatic. In fact, it was so traumatic that my personality splintered and I became a conglomeration of “alters” afflicted with a condition known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (it was once called Multiple Personality Disorder). The abuse continued until I was fifteen years old and my father died. I had been protecting him from the horrible truth that was my life, so when he died I no longer felt it necessary to keep the secrets I had held my entire childhood and I spilled the beans on my abuser. He and that entire side of my family immediately disowned me.

I ran from the realities of my past life and tried very hard to hide from the knowledge that I continually lost time and felt like “someone else” for another fifteen years; until the winter of my thirtieth year. I had changed jobs and was under a lot of new stress. I went to bed one night and as soon as I turned off the light to go to sleep I relived a horrible memory of rape. I immediately turned the lights back on and lay shivering in my bed waiting for daylight. It was then that knew I had to get help. I had been seeing a drug and alcohol counselor as a co-dependent of an alcoholic (actually two) but she told me she wasn’t qualified to help me after I described what I knew of my past and my losing time. She set me up to see a Psychologist named Paula. Thus began my journey to wellness that continues to this day.

Paula is a highly trained and very talented therapist. I thank my Higher Power for her knowledge and caring every day. I began seeing her in February of 1990. Within a few sessions she was able to tell me that what I was experiencing, the time loss and memory lags, were indicative of Dissociative Identity Disorder. I was floored but not surprised. The thought had occurred to me as well.

We began to work hard on the memories that were spontaneously returning. It was like vomiting. I never knew when or where it was going to hit and I couldn’t stop them from surfacing. It was very overwhelming. I fought hard to maintain my sanity while being accosted by my past but sometimes it became too much and I had to be hospitalized for fear I would destroy myself. I’d like to say here and now if you are struggling hard to get well and you feel like giving up on yourself and ending your life, please, please seek help and don’t be afraid to be admitted inpatient. Life is too precious to waste. If you are feeling self-destructive and hopeless, you’ll just have to take my word on that.

Unfortunately, in 1995 my husband became very ill and we had to declare bankruptcy. The result was that the clinic where Paula worked decided to not allow me to see her anymore. I wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye. Paula had become like my mother and it was like they had suddenly cut my umbilical cord too soon and I began to slowly bleed to death.

I floundered around from therapist to therapist looking for someone to fill the void left when Paula was ripped away from me. I did not succeed. Four years later in December 1999 I was outside our home in the country and had a stroke. I fell in the snow and could not get back up. My husband was unable to move me and ran for help. I lay there for twenty minutes in near zero-degree weather with unprotected hands. When my husband returned with help I had severe frost bite on all of my fingers and both of my thumbs. I was hospitalized and then sent to a local rehabilitation center to recover. While there I decided I didn’t want to be married anymore and started divorce proceedings. It was a very dark time.

After being released from the rehabilitation center I moved into my own apartment where I continued to deteriorate mentally. It became apparent to my family and myself that I needed to live inpatient in a psychiatric facility so in March 2005 I was admitted into a local Psychiatric facility.

I was so sick that I have no memory of the first two years I lived in the facility. I “awakened” totally disoriented and very frightened. I had lost time before but never years. I lived in the facility for a little over seven years learning how to care for myself again. I had promised my mother I would remain there until she died. In June 2011 I got the phone call from my brother telling me she had passed away during the night. That was on a Wednesday. On the following Monday I was approached by my therapist and asked if I was ready to leave. I said yes.

In September 2011 I was released from the facility and moved into a group home in a nearby city. I had to be taught how to do many things again that most people take for granted, such as shopping. I was totally out of touch with prices. I’m grateful to the people who took care of me both at the nursing home and the group home. They were very instrumental in my successes today.

In July 2012 my brother and his then fiancé asked me to move in with them back to my hometown. I jumped at the chance. Soon after moving in with Mike and Angie, in the following January, I began attending college again. I had attempted to attend at the age of eighteen but there had been too much chaos. Now I was a full-time student taking classes online. I was elated. To top things off Angie announced she was pregnant. So we began to make preparations for the arrival of little Jimmy.

Things went along rather well for a while, then on Easter Sunday 2012 Jimmy stopped moving. He was still born a few days later. Our lives and or home were sent into chaos once again. I finished my classes with high marks, but our lives were upside down.

In the early summer of 2012 I was seeing a therapist at a local mental health center. All I could talk about were things Paula had said to me fifteen years earlier. She finally spoke up and gently said, “Why don’t you go see her again?” I was flabbergasted. “I can’t.” I replied. “The clinic will never allow it.” She just smiled knowingly and said, “Why not give them a call and try?” On the way home that day I thought, ‘Oh what the hell, I’ll call!’ I did and a few days later I received a phone call stating they had a new program where my care would be 100% free plus they wrote off my old bill! So I made my first appointment to see Paula in over fifteen years.

That first appointment was joyous to say the least. Paula told me the clinic hadn’t told her why I had ceased seeing her and she had just assumed I had gotten angry and left therapy. I filled her in on my life (this took several sessions as you can imagine), and we began to finish what we had started so many years before.

I had begun to make great progress with Paula when in December of 2013 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was scheduled to have my right breast removed in the following January. I not only had the one surgery but because of diabetes I had to have a second surgery to fix my incision which had not healed closed. This was even more traumatic to me than the abuse had been in many ways. I felt my body had betrayed me and hated it with a passion. Paula was able to help me resolve this issue. Anyone who has had cancer can relate to these feelings.

I wish I could say my story ends on a high note but, thankfully, my life isn’t over yet.  This past year, beginning in August of 2015, I lost time until June of 2016. You see I have a prescription drug problem. If there is a medication available that is addictive I will abuse it. I literally don’t remember much of the past year. It’s very embarrassing and more than a little disconcerting. I had thought I was beyond this type of behavior, that I had moved on to a point where I was “well”, but apparently not.

There is more to the story. My addictions got out of hand this past year because of several factors. What follows here aren’t excuses for my behavior, only explanations as to what happened.

First in September of last year Paula announced she is retiring in September of 2016 (that’s next month). It has been very hard coming to terms with losing her again after losing her like I did in the 90s. Me and my alters are as integrated as we are going to get, yet I can still feel their fear at losing the only mother we have ever truly known. Once she retires I will never hear from her again, and this is very disturbing as you can imagine. I love Paula. I fully intend on telling her that.

The birth of my nephew Michael occurred within the past year. Now I love Michael but he is a constant reminder and a big contributing factor to multiple flashbacks every day. This has settled down quite a bit since I got straight, but I struggle sometimes to remember where and when I am.

On a positive note I did finally graduate from college with my Associate Degree in Psychology. It took me thirty-seven years of starts and stops but I finally accomplished a major milestone in my life.

Where do I plan on going from here? This is something Paula has called on me to think hard about as we only have four more sessions together. My future is bright if I can remain on the wagon and not use again. I can live another forty or fifty years and make a difference in the world. That is very important to me. I want to make a difference, even if it is only in one person’s life. I plan on continuing to write blogs, short stories and poetry.  I also plan on continuing to speak at any venue available about the wonders of just being alive. Life is a great gift and I want to spread the word that no matter what has happened to me or you in the past, there is always tomorrow to make into a brighter and better day. When I was a child I had no control over my life and my abusers were free to harm me, but why should I continue to harm myself? Why should I be miserable today because of something that happened thirty or even fifty years ago? I choose to live and to live well. Yes, life is worth living.

“Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not demanding more of yourself, expanding and learning as you go, you’re choosing a numb existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.” — Dean Karnazes

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Story_Victim to Victor - Irene O'Neill_painting
Victim to Victor – Irene O’Neill


Hi.  My name is Irene.  The symptoms of my illness began before some of you were born.  I graduated HS in 1973 – I was voted “Most Energetic” by my classmates.  Three short years later, I dropped out of college, lost my p/t job, was afraid to go out of my house or see any of my old friends.  I had no self-confidence, didn’t think I could ever go back and finish school or get another job.  I continued spiraling downward and had my first hospitalization and a diagnosis at that time of Clinical Depression. I felt helpless, and I almost lost hope completely, but gradually regained it, as I learned that I could actually live an extremely fulfilling and wonderful life.

The scariest thing to me was not the illness, diagnosis, or the symptoms, but the very heavy doses of “typical” antipsychotics I was forcibly given, and their horrible side effects.  So whenever I got out of hospitals, all I wanted to do was get off all my meds and start to feel like myself again.  But that was not the answer for me, because it was like being stuck in a revolving door.  I was in and out of hospitals every year or two, and eventually my diagnosis changed to Bipolar I.

Back then, the W.R.A.P. concepts had not yet been conceived of and I had no way of recognizing my Early Warning Signs – of noticing and catching signs and symptoms early enough to “nip them in the bud.”  In fact, I used to exacerbate them, so they would continue to escalate with plenty of help from me.  Over the next several years, I was in and out of hospitals, in and out of colleges, and in and out of jobs. All the exuberance and self-confidence I had as a kid had left me completely. I learned the difference between self-confidence and self-esteem by realizing I had neither. While my friends and family kept telling me to “snap out of it,” I couldn’t, so I literally crawled out of that black hole, and it took me several years to rebuild my self-confidence and self-esteem. I believed I would always be a burden on my family and a burden on society.

In the act of writing my own WRAP plan and facilitating classes, I began learning how to really put the plan into practice, because theory is good, but practice is better.  Now, when I experience an early warning sign, such as not being able to sleep, I try to nip that in the bud, so instead of escalating, night after night, not sleeping until I wonder aloud, “What are all you people doing wasting time sleeping?” I put that energy into figuring out how to get back into a healthy sleep pattern.

Back in 1981, I moved from N.Y. to Illinois, and that year was quite a turning point for me.  Not that my illness or its symptoms went away, but they did abate somewhat, and I was fortunate to land a job at Bell Laboratories, now known as Alcatel-Lucent, where I worked for nearly 20 years, until obtaining an early retirement package.  My years there were not without incident – I was off work 4 times for psychiatric reasons, anywhere from 1-3 months at a time.  But it was different though, because I still had my job to go back to, thanks mainly to the Americans with Disabilities Act.  I finally finished my Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science in 1986 and managed to graduate Magna Cum Laude from North Central College. I continued to resist taking medication, however, until 1989, when my employer sent me to a neuropsychiatrist for a second opinion, who after giving me a battery of tests, indicated that I should be on medication. I felt coerced, but finally agreed to give Lithium a try.  Since then, I’ve only been hospitalized once, in 1996, after an emergency hysterectomy. But I definitely don’t mean to imply that medication fixes everything for me.  There’s plenty of hard work and vigilance involved in maintaining one’s wellness and working on one’s recovery process.

Since April 2004, I have facilitated or taught Outpatient Plus Recovery (OPPR) classes in W.R.A.P., Self-Advocacy, Healthy Grieving, Understanding Bipolar Disorder, Ready for Change, Stress Management, Expressive Writing/Poetry, Expressive Arts, just to name a few, at the DuPage County Health Department (DCHD).  My classes average 5-12 students, so each gets individualized attention, and the opportunity to express their points of view.  I have been able to help facilitate and also witness much growth in many people during that period of time.  I also obtained my C.R.S.S. (Certified Recovery Support Specialist) credential in 2007, and have mentored some of my peers who have also obtained that credential. In February 2010, I was promoted to an OPPR Specialist. I believe I have a special talent for sharing my knowledge and experiences so that others may learn and benefit from them, and I believe that experience is the best teacher.

A really big turning point was in 1996, the year that I joined with a group of artists led by Robert Lundin, in planning the very first Awakenings Art Show, which would be held in Spring of 1997. Not only would we show that so-called “Consumers” could actually be great “Producers” of art exhibitions, but we would also educate NAMI-IL members and the general public, so that they could better understand the potential of those of us living with mental illnesses. It was just supposed to be a one-weekend show, but like the Energizer Bunny, it’s still going. It has also been the best stigma-buster ever. Awakenings was the winner of the “Outstanding Contribution to Recovery by a Non-Profit Organization” award from the Irwin Foundation at Celebration Recovery in 2006. We also won a “Stigma Busters” award from Ecker Center in 2010, and we were selected for the 2015 Best of Elgin Award for Non-Profit Organization. None of our artists seek anonymity – we all stand up proudly as artists living with mental illnesses and we will not be ashamed of having these illnesses, as we wouldn’t be if we had any other illness, like cancer or foot fungus.

I believe I am an effective communicator, both individually and in groups, having spoken publicly about Awakenings and about mental illnesses for many years. And it’s important for me to stay well.  People are depending on me daily in my job as an Outpatient Plus Recovery Specialist at the DuPage County Health Department, and as President of The Awakenings Project, this grass-roots coalition of artists with mental illnesses. I love my job, my volunteer work for Awakenings, and I love people. Now that I have a job doing something I truly love, helping others on their own journeys of recovery, and volunteering with the internationally acclaimed Awakenings Project, my life has been exciting, fruitful, productive, and I’ve been stable, although with Awakenings, we’ve received some publicity that could have easily fed into my “delusions of grandeur,” and it truly is grand; I’ve achieved things I never even dreamed about. But what I hope you’ll all remember is—I am not the exception to the rule. We all are the rule. Recovery is possible for everyone. I believe I can be a beacon of hope and encouragement for the people who receive services at DCHD, for Awakenings artists, for the general public, and I also learn a lot from everyone I come in contact with. We can all educate ourselves and others on mental illnesses to help eradicate the stigma. We can recognize that although stigma certainly does still exist, we can move past it as we continue to advocate for ourselves and others.

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