Spending time with her grandsons is her favorite activity. But it wasn’t long ago that Clara Abercrombie felt there was absolutely no hope for her life. With her marriage ending and a life-long history of ignoring symptoms of depression, Clara was in crisis.
Clara grew up in a small town in northern Alaska. A childhood history of sexual abuse by family members set the course for Clara’s struggle with depression. “Around 10 or 11 years old I can remember noticing some signs in my thinking and behavior that didn’t seem right but it was brushed under the rug,” said Clara. The stigma attached to mental illness made her and her family avoid any acknowledgment that she might need mental health treatment. She attempted suicide for the first time at 13 years old. The next 40 years would be a slow process of deeper and darker episodes of depression.
Five years ago she found herself in the emergency room and was hospitalized. During that hospitalization, a staff member referred her to West Central Mental Health Center for help. Clara had sought help for her depression with a counselor once in her early 30’s but did not make progress. “I told myself, I am strong and can do this on my own, but I couldn’t,” said Clara. Even knowing that she desperately needed help, Clara was reluctant to go.
“Every day I had a dread in my heart,” said Clara. “I hated getting up every day.” Clara was scared of everything, including meeting new people. “I knew I couldn’t go on like that, I had to try to get help.” She hoped she would be prescribed a “magic” pill that would take her problems away. However, as she began treatment she realized this was going to take hard work on her part and she had to be committed to stay the course.
Clara’s initial treatment plan included individual therapy sessions with a clinician, group therapy sessions and consulting with a psychiatrist for medication. “When I first sat down with my clinician and opened up, she really listened to me,” said Clara. “West Central has wonderful staff. They recognize me when I come in for appointments and seemed to pull together and really care.”
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has been immensely helpful in Clara’s recovery. Using the techniques and coping mechanisms taught in DBT, Clara can identify thoughts and behaviors that used to send her spiraling into depression. “Now I use the DBT techniques to re-direct my attention to positive thoughts and activities,” said Clara. She is then better able to put into perspective things that would have triggered her in the past toward negative behavioral patterns. “I love the coping skills I have learned from DBT,” said Clara.
Group therapy has allowed Clara to meet with other women facing similar struggles that she has faced and discuss those things without being judged or criticized. She no longer blames herself for the past and is determined to not let it define her future.
“It’s not all success. You will stumble, but you pick yourself up and keep moving forward,” said Clara. “It’s hard work but it’s worth it. I’m finding relief and joy.”
When asked why she would be willing to share her story, Clara expressed her desire to help others struggling with mental illness who are scared to seek help. “If I can help just one person have the courage to seek help, it will be worth it,” said Clara. “Seeking help has given me strength and a conviction to move on with my life.”
Despair to hope is a journey that one local woman has traveled successfully. Thirty two year old, Shelia Sallie's struggles started as a young child. Depression and anxiety plagued her, but she didn't know what it was or have anyone to help her cope.
Her early school memories are permeated with loneliness, fear and worry that something bad would happen to her. She would fake being sick so she wouldn't have to go to school for days or even weeks at a time. Shelia remembers wrapping herself in her imagination to escape her fears and try to cope with her life. Her school years were spent as a loner and her fears kept her from even trying to make friends. She didn't understand what was wrong with her and felt certain no one else would either.
"My every day life was dreary, with no happiness," said Shelia. "I just drifted along trying to survive any way that I could."
At the age of seven, Shelia's school had a class about inappropriate touching and molestation. As a result of the class she realized that her Dad had been sexually abusing her since she was about five years old. She told her Mom what was happening but, when confronted, her father denied the accusations and accused Shelia of lying about him. The abuse would continue for several years until Shelia threatened to call the police about the sexual abuse if it didn't stop. The anger, at her father for the abuse and her mother for not believing the abuse was happening, was crippling for Shelia.
The depression and anxiety continued for Shelia throughout her teen and young adult years. She was unable to hold down a job and continued to miss school. She reached out to her pastor's wife at age 19 and was able to at least talk about some of her struggles. At 21, she briefly saw a therapist and tried some medication but her efforts at recovery were half-hearted and sporadic. Shelia continued to struggle with her illness until she ended up admitting herself to a psychiatric hospital when she was 25.
The hospital admission was a turning point in Shelia's relationship with her Mom. "She finally realized that I was sick and needed help," said Shelia. "She and I talked all the time after that point about whatever I was going through," said Shelia. "My mom would research my diagnosis and ask me to bring her information from my therapist so she could understand what I was going through."
While her daughter was struggling with her mental illness, Shelia's mother was battling cancer. The cancer was spreading and she underwent chemo on a monthly basis to try and keep it under control. The cancer would eventually win, but before she died, Shelia's mother made her vow to remain committed and consistent with her mental health treatment. "Probably the moment that really changed my direction was the promise to my mom," said Shelia. "If not for that promise I honestly don't know if I would be here today."
Shelia initially started seeing a psychiatrist from out of town for medication and a local therapist for counseling. She started to look for a psychiatrist in the Salida area and was directed to West Central Mental Health Center where she enrolled for services. "I found the therapy at West Central the most effective of any I had ever gotten," said Shelia.
"Two factors have helped in my success. First, I committed to my therapy and didn't stop taking my medication. Second, is having the psychiatrist and therapist in the same clinic to discuss my progress and any changes that need to be made," she said. "I have a team looking out for my well being and they are committed to helping me."
Besides therapy and medication, group therapy has been another part of Shelia's recovery. "The Dialectical Behavior Therapy has been majorly helpful in learning new skills to handle everyday life issues," said Shelia. "Group therapy is a great resource in helping you realize that you aren't the only one going through these issues. Not feeling alone is huge."
Shelia wants other people who are dealing with mental illness to know that professional help is necessary for recovery. "Face the fear and go for help," said Shelia. "It takes commitment, hard work and the changes don't happen overnight, but if you are in it for the long haul, you can live successful with a mental illness."
"When I started receiving services at West Central I couldn't have even imagined my life being even a third as good as it is now," said Shelia. "My illness no longer controls my life. I now have tools and skills to make it through hard times and not let them put my life on hold," she said. "I am no longer a victim, I am a survivor and the future is open for me to live my life fully."
Mark Worthington is on a path that he didn't expect to walk. The past 10 years have changed his life, bringing trials and challenges he couldn't have imagined. Mark is living with mental illness. A reality he initially believed would end his life.
The signs and symptoms began in Mark's late twenties. He started experiencing problems in his marriage and having trouble holding down a job due to his behavior. Mark was obsessing, hallucinating, experiencing delusions such as paranoia, and having problems communicating in a logical way. As his symptoms and behaviors became more severe, he realized there were things happening that weren't normal. He could see signs of his life getting out of control but was afraid to admit the possibility he had a mental illness.
"I dreaded the thought of having a mental illness," said Mark. "I thought that having a mental illness would take my life away."
While living in Centennial with his mother and step-father in 2005, Mark was improperly diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and did not start seeing improvement with treatment. During a psychotic episode, Mark had an altercation with his step-father resulting in a restraining order being placed on him. Looking back, Mark sees this as a turning point in getting help. As part of his court restrictions due to the restraining order, Mark's visits with his daughter had to be supervised by a social worker. The restriction on Mark spending time with his young daughter was a powerful motivation for him to finally seek treatment.
His father, who lived in Canon City, believed that Mark could get proper help at West Central Mental Health Center and encouraged him to make the move. He enrolled in services at West Central Mental Health Center and, after being seen by the psychiatrist, he was properly diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder. Schizoaffective Disorder is a mental disorder characterized by recurring episodes of elevated or depressed mood, or simultaneously elevated and depressed moods that alternate or occur together with distortions in perception. Through proper diagnosis, medication and therapy, Mark finally began to see improvements in his life.
"Once I started treatment, I was finally able to acknowledge that I had a mental illness and recognize the erratic and sometimes dangerous behavior I had been living with for so long," says Mark. "I'm thankful for that turning point because I might not have ever realized I had a problem and gotten help."
Mark's initial treatment of therapy and medication stabilized him and he began taking part in other programs at West Central Mental Health Center such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) groups and Pathways to Recovery peer support group. He also goes to weekly NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) meetings, a grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness.
"DBT has been very helpful. Also, the Pathways group is great for practical life things like finances, social interactions and cooking," says Mark. "Meeting other people in groups who are in the same situation and learning from each other is so helpful in recovery."
Mark has progressed from having to visit his daughter with a social worker present, to being able to have his daughter with him for extended visits with his parents. "Every day I get closer and closer to being in a place where I can have my daughter without supervision," says Mark.
Mark encourages people who need mental health treatment to step past the threshold of fear to get help. "You might fear being diagnosed with a mental illness but you can get past that fear through a combination of a good doctor and therapy," says Mark. "With treatment, you can have a successful life, just like everyone else."
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