A personal look at mental illnessBecause May is Mental Health Month, Sharon Wimmer agreed to do this Question and-Answer story with the Pine Journal to share her own experience with mental illness and to emphasize that indeed, recovery is possible.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Sharon Wimmer is a social worker for Carlton County Public Health and Human Services. She is also a person with a diagnosis of mental illness.
That diagnosis changed her life. Although she had to work hard at recovery and the treatment wasn’t exactly fun, Wimmer wouldn’t have become a social worker without that life-changing event, nor would she have been able to complete her most recent training to become a Certified Peer Specialist. (A peer specialist can be broadly defined as a person with a mental illness experience – past or current – who helps others diagnosed with mental illnesses.)
Wimmer is an active member of the Carlton County Adult Mental Health Local Advisory Council, which seeks to identify gaps in services for persons with mental health issues, makes recommendations of ways to fill those gaps, and strives to lessen the stigma related to having a mental illness. Because May is Mental Health Month, Wimmer agreed to do this Question and-Answer story with the Pine Journal to share her own experience with mental illness and to emphasize that indeed, recovery is possible.
Pine Journal: I understand you are recovering from past mental health issues. Can you tell me what your diagnosis was and what kind of symptoms you had? How long did it take to figure out you had a problem and what was it? How old were you?
Sharon Wimmer: When I was 33 years old I was first diagnosed with major depression and generalized anxiety. It was later determined that my symptoms were related to post traumatic stress disorder. As far back as elementary school I remember feeling like I was somehow different than other kids. I had many friends, terrific parents and siblings, but I still didn’t think I fit in. To make up for my self-perceived defectiveness, I became a good student and participated in many extra-curricular sports and activities. I hid my insecurity pretty well. Even my parents didn’t know what was going on. I know now that they would have tried to help if they knew I was hurting. I was able to suppress painful memories until my early 30s and that’s when depression and anxiety hit me.
Did you see a medical doctor or a psychological doctor?
Wimmer: With a push from my husband and friends, my first experience with the psychological profession was with a therapist. She was very helpful and as we developed a trusting relationship, I began to talk about some traumatic experiences from my past. As I shared some of my “secrets,” the memories of those traumatic events from childhood caused such overwhelming emotional pain that I began to have urges to harm myself. This was disturbing and embarrassing. I thought I was the only person who ever had these thoughts. The urges were so intense; there were times when I had suicidal thinking that required hospitalization. It was in the hospital that I was connected with a psychiatrist who started me on some medications to help me deal with my feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and overpowering anxiety.
What kind of treatment was recommended? How effective was it?
Wimmer: Like I just mentioned, I was treated with medication to help with the depression and anxiety. It took a long time, a lot of trial and error, but I have found a good regimen of medications that work effectively for me. I have a wonderful psychiatrist who works with me and really listens to my needs and concerns about what medication I am willing to try and what dosage is most helpful. I strongly believe that staying on my medication is necessary in reducing my chances of a relapse. It is important to note that not everyone in recovery is on medication. Some have found it to be ineffectual or have chosen other treatment options and have been very successful. For me, medication alone was not enough. I also completed a Partial Hospitalization Program, twice actually, that involved four weeks of intensive day-long therapy. It included occupational therapy, art therapy, mental health education, medical instruction in nutrition and physical wellness, and of course, talk therapy. This program was like a kick start into the realm of recovery possibilities. But I still had a long way to go. I later attended dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) that lasted about nine months. This was a real life saver. DBT is a type of therapy that teaches a person how to cope with stress, develop meaningful relationships, and control their emotions. DBT teaches specific skills in the areas of mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotional regulation, and tolerance of emotional distress. I continue to use DBT skills in my life every day.
Were there other things that helped you cope?
Wimmer: It is important to stress that it is possible to live a complete and fulfilled life despite intrusive symptoms of mental illness. A key factor is learning and utilizing coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms for mental illness are as varied as there are individuals with mental illness. What worked for me may not work for another. In my case, I had the love and support of my husband. He could have left me when I became ill, thinking back I can’t believe he didn’t, but he chose to go through the trials with me. He was helpful in taking over many responsibilities in keeping up our home and caring for our two young sons. This allowed me to take care of myself in a variety of ways such as getting the extra rest I needed, taking a hot bath, playing the piano or mandolin, going to therapy, and spending time with friends. My parents were always there for me also. Their support and unconditional love got me through some tough times. I was fortunate to be involved in a church and spent many hours in the counsel of my pastors. When times were at their worst, I clung to the promise that Jesus loves me, even though I didn’t feel very lovable. Today I can identify the early warning signs that tell me I need to take care of myself and that’s when it is crucial to implement my coping mechanisms and seek out my supports.
How did your diagnosis change your life? Did you make lifestyle changes as a result?
Wimmer: The biggest change in my life as a result of my illness was I had to stop working. I lost my connections with the people I had worked with. I lost my sense of confidence and the satisfaction of contributing to my community. I already had feelings that I was no longer a good mother or wife. Now I was no longer a professional worker. I actually went through a grieving process over the loss of my life the way it was before being diagnosed. The lives of my family revolved around how I was feeling at any given time. My husband’s stress carried over to his work as well. He had to be prepared at any time to receive a phone call that I was in the hospital again. My boys were never sure if their mother would be home when they returned from school. Mental illness affects the entire family.
What does it mean to be in recovery?
Wimmer: Recovery is a deeply personal, unique process. It means different things to different people. In my training to become a Certified Peer Specialist, recovery was defined like this: “Recovery is remembering who you are and using your strengths to become all that you were meant to be.” It involves concentrating on what’s strong; not wrong. For some people, recovery means having a job. For someone else it may mean being successful in school. And yet another may consider himself in recovery when he no longer needs to take medications.
Can mental illness be “cured” or is it more a matter of controlling it with ongoing treatment?
Wimmer: I strongly believe that recovery from mental illness is possible. After all, I’m the evidence. Whether or not I am cured, I can’t say. I know that for now I need to continue to take medications to help keep my symptoms controlled and I still see my therapist once or twice a year just to check in and make sure things are going the way I desire.
There have been famous people in history who struggled with mental illness, Vincent Van Gogh, for example. Do you think there is a bright side to mental illness?
Wimmer: I must say I am where I am today because of my experience with mental illness. So that is certainly a bright side. Although I had some difficult trials with my mental health, I worked through them and now I am able to empathize with and support others. I know I am better at my job as a result of my mental health experience. Recovering from mental illness makes one stronger. Throughout history there have been many highly intelligent, creative, and successful people who had mental health issues. In addition to the one you named, Isaac Newton, Ludwig van Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill illustrate the greatness that can come out of mental illness. Many famous contemporaries have or are currently speaking out about their own struggles with symptoms of mental illness. Some of them include Brooke Shields, Carrie Fisher, Janet Jackson and Patty Duke. As with any illness, I would not wish it upon anyone. But amazing outcomes are evident as a person embraces their illness and focuses on their personal strengths. And this applies to anyone with a mental illness, not just the famous. The possibilities are endless.
Do people treat you differently when they learn you struggle(d) with mental illness?
Wimmer: When people first find out that I have struggled with mental illness, they usually don’t believe me. Many people believe that having a mental illness is incompatible with maintaining a full-time job, having a loving family, and participating in social and community functions. That’s just not true. Many people with mental illness are just like me. They are living fulfilled lives. Over the years I have had a mixture of reactions to my mental health history. I have, or had, some friends that now appear uncomfortable to be around me. They tend to make conversations short or try to avoid me altogether. Most people, however, have been supportive, asking how they can help. The people I work with have been great. I am fortunate to work with highly sensitive and supportive people. Most of them know about my mental health history and I have been treated with the same respect as anyone else.
How do you wish people would act when they learn about your mental health issues? Should they feel free to ask questions?
Wimmer: More often than not, when I disclose to someone that I have had mental health issues, the other person shares that either she or someone she knows has also had some mental health experience. Mental illness touches almost everyone in some way. I am very comfortable talking about my mental health history because I have come through it and I am a survivor. I am proud of my accomplishments with recovery. I welcome questions but I also control when I share, with whom I share and how much I share.
Are there terms that are offensive that people should learn to avoid?
Wimmer: It can be said that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can break our hearts. Negative labels or wrong words can be very hurtful. Some of those words include: psycho, manipulative, crazy, manic, and delusional. It is important to remember that a person with a mental illness is just that, a person first. They are not their illness. Instead of saying, “He’s bi-polar,” a more respectful phrase would be, “He’s a man with a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder.” If we were talking about a person who was diagnosed with cancer we would never think of saying, “He’s leukemia,” or “She’s lymphoma.” They are not their illnesses. They are people with a difficult diagnosis just like those with mental illness. I don’t think most people are purposefully disrespectful; they simply lack the education or positive experience of knowing someone with a mental health diagnosis. I think it would be helpful if we thought about how we would want a friend or loved one diagnosed with a mental illness to be referred to. Our choice of words may suddenly change.
Are there any other thoughts you would want to share with people?
Wimmer: According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Mental illness is not discriminatory. It could happen to you, or maybe a family member. People with mental health diagnoses are all around us. It affects people from all walks of life. What is portrayed on television is not typical of persons with mental illness. Most people with mental illness are living effective lives in the community, working in professions you may encounter every day. Because of the stigma of mental illness, most people don’t share their mental health issues. We would all benefit from an open discussion about mental illness and the absolute hope that recovery is possible.
If anyone is struggling with mental health issues and you would like to get help, I encourage you to call your primary care physician, the Human Development Center at 218-879-4559, Carlton County Public Health and Human Services at 218-879-4511 or Min-No-Aya-Win Clinic at 218-879-1227.
Are there any upcoming opportunities for people to learn more about mental health and recovery?
Wimmer: Because May is Mental Health Month, the Carlton County Adult Mental Health Local Advisory Council, Cloquet Outreach Center and Fond-du-Lac Tribal and Community College Human Services Club are presenting a conference focusing on mental health recovery. Anyone interested in learning more about mental health and recovery is invited to attend. It will be held Thursday, May 24, from 1:30-3:30 pm at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. The featured guest speaker is Carolyn Phelps, licensed psychologist and the director of Outpatient Therapy Services at the Human Development Center’s main Duluth office. She specializes in treating eating disorders and serves as the mental health liaison for St. Louis County’s Mental Health Court and DWI Court. She is also the host of Speak Your Mind, a television show which addresses mental health issues. Be sure to check out the ad in this week’s Northland Smart Shopper.