Pain to recovery
Three local folks de-stigmatize mental health problems.
By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The Allentown Times | April 14, 2006
They’re your co-workers and neighbors; your friends and kids’ teachers; they’re mothers and fathers; they’re the people you see in the supermarket or at church on Sundays.
One in five Americans has a diagnosable mental health problem, yet even in the 21st century, a cruel, immovable taboo surrounds mental illness, and many sufferers feel ashamed, isolated and hopeless.
Research, however, has repeatedly shown that mental health problems - today’s most common and treatable diseases - are imbalances in brain biochemistry, not personality flaws, personal weaknesses or laziness.
Eighteen American presidents, in fact, have suffered from mental illnesses, including Abraham Lincoln (depression), Woodrow Wilson (anxiety) and Teddy Roosevelt (bipolar disorder), according to the January 2006 Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease.
Many mental health problems can be successfully managed with medication, therapy or a combination of the two. But if not treated — like other conditions — diseases can worsen over time.
Because there’s currently no physiological identification — a blood test or brain scan — for these diseases, many sufferers may go years without a proper diagnosis. Diagnoses are usually based on symptoms, the course of the illness, and when applicable, family history.
In an effort to de-stigmatize the fear and shame of mental health problems, we asked three local folks to share their stories of pain and recovery with one collective goal: to help others understand, empathize and seek their own treatments.
On Feb. 14, 2004, Kathie Paone, 56, of Emmaus, pediatric nurse practitioner and divorced mother of two, received a telephone call from her daughter, Meredith Unger, 15.
Meredith was at a friend’s house, but she felt sick and wanted to come home. Once at home, though, Meredith’s condition steadily worsened. By the next day, she was unconscious.
Kathie called 911; Meredith was flown via helicopter to a Philadelphia hospital, where doctors told Kathie that Meredith had suffered from liver failure.
“We had no family history of it, no injury, nothing,” Kathie says. “The doctors said to me, ‘Sometimes this just happens and we don’t know why.’”
At 8:31 a.m. on Feb. 17, 2004, Meredith died at the hospital.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Kathie remembers of the days following Meredith’s passing. “I was there physically, but I wasn’t there at all.”
Kathie took time off work and began seeing a grief counselor to alleviate the overwhelming numbness, helplessness and sorrow. But, two months later, she wasn’t any better. She sought therapy and medication, but still nothing helped. This continued for a year until Kathie lost her job around the anniversary of Meredith’s death.
“I didn’t care if I lived or died,” she says. “I was ready to leave this earth.”
Her therapist decided on a dramatic step, enrolling her in an intensive, three-week outpatient therapy program that consisted mostly of people being treated for alcohol and drug abuse.
“I remember thinking, ‘What can I possibly have in common with them?’ Well, I had a lot in common with them.”
Her assignment was simple: talk about what happened. She was given homework too: join a support group and call one person every evening to chat and connect.
“It was very difficult for me. I could barely get out of bed. But I have a tendency to isolate myself, so my treatment was to reach out to others,” Kathie says.
The sympathetic members of the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance of the Lehigh Valley urged her to give the group three to six meetings, and Kathie was glad she did.
“Mostly I talked about the guilt, all the ‘what ifs’ and how much I loved and missed Meredith. I cried so hysterically I could barely talk, but when I was done, two young people came up to me and said, ‘I was thinking of committing suicide, but I never thought beyond my own feelings. I never thought how my parents would feel. You showed me.’”
It helped — finally. And Kathie also found the right medication.
“I’m going to take medication for the rest of my life, and I’m comfortable with that. I wear glasses every day and I take medication every day. I have a mental health problem. It’s not a physical health problem, but it’s still a health problem. I take medication for high blood pressure and I take medication for depression.”
Depression affects 19 million Americans, yet fewer than half seek help, mistakenly believing they can cure themselves.
“Mental health problems are diseases of the brain, just as physical health problems are diseases of the heart or kidneys,” Kathie says.
Kathie also joined a second support group called Compassionate Friends for parents who have lost children.
“One fear all of us have is that people will forget our child lived. Losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a person in the world, but I don’t want people to pity me. I have to continue living my life.”
One of Kathie’s goals is to start a support group for health care professionals in Meredith’s memory. And, in therapy, Kathie continues to explore responses to other tragedies in her life that were not positive coping mechanisms. She’s made career changes, too.
“After 20 years I realized I could no longer work with children,” she says. “This was a very painful decision, but I’m going back to school to work with adults with addiction disorders.”
Suffering from depression has given Kathie new perspective.
“One of the most important things I learned was to have empathy and understanding for those with mental health problems,” she says. “We look like everybody else. We don’t have three heads. If you were to tell someone you were having a heart attack, they’d call 911 and do anything they could to help you. But if you told them you wanted to hurt yourself, they’d back away. I only hope I was able to touch somebody.”
Dave, 36, of Schnecksville, who wished to be identified by his first name only, knew all his life something was amiss.
When he was finally diagnosed in 2002 with generalized anxiety disorder, his first reaction was relief.
“It made sense. I finally realized, ‘Hey, I don’t feel so good,’” he says.
Anxiety disorders affect 40 million Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). They include post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
People with anxiety experience feelings of terror — known as panic attacks — suddenly and repeatedly. Their heart may pound, they may sweat or they may feel faint, flushed or a sensation of smothering. Some feel as though they are having a heart attack. Panic attacks can occur even in sleep.
“It can be really intense,” Dave says. “I’d have terrifying dreams at night that I couldn’t wake up out of.”
Many situations can cause extreme stress, such as public speaking, a job interview or a first date. But people with anxiety suffer exaggerated worry about everything. They always anticipate disaster and can’t seem to shake their concerns. They feel impending doom and a loss of control.
They can’t predict when their next panic attack will occur, which only creates more anxiety, leading to a chronic condition that can worsen over time.
“People look at you strange when you tell them,” Dave says. “They don’t understand. At church, they might ask, ‘You have what?’ It’s like you can’t have that and still be a Christian. Life is hard enough. This can make us feel like victims instead of overcomers.”
Many people with anxiety avoid situations in which they would feel helpless if a panic attack were to occur there. In one-third of cases, they may stop driving, going to the store or even leaving the house. When their lives become that restricted, a condition called agoraphobia can develop.
It took time for Dave to find the right combination of medication to help him. Now a full-time peer specialist at a social service agency in Allentown, he assists others with similar challenges.
“I can relate to the people I help,” he says. “I try to motivate them to become contributing members of society.”
Society, however, can be unforgiving.
“We’re still human beings. We may have difficulty adjusting to certain situations, but the community shouldn’t run from us,” Dave says. “If I see someone walking down the street and talking to themselves, I don’t look away. People need not fear us. We need more stories of what we’ve achieved rather than how we’ve failed.”
Dave was married for eight years and has two children, ages 4 and 6. He lives alone now, but is still close to his wife.
“I really want to be an element for change. I want to be an advocate for mental illness,” he says. “I want to show people how they can rise above their circumstances and gain freedom and independence aside from institutionalization.”
Lisa Bartos, 40, was a miserable child.
But when the Whitehall Township resident finally received her diagnosis of bipolar disorder seven years ago, all the broken pieces of her life fell into place at last.
“Now I knew why I felt the way I did, the mood swings, the feelings of paranoia, the constant misery,” she says.
Perhaps no mental health problem is so feared and misunderstood as bipolar disorder. Also known as manic-depressive illness, it is a brain disorder — characterized by severe shifts in a person’s mood, energy and ability to function — that go beyond the normal ups and downs everyone experiences, according to NIMH.
Two million Americans have bipolar disorder and typically suffer for years through damaged relationships and poor job performances before receiving proper diagnosis and treatment.
Like diabetes and heart disease, bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness that must be carefully managed. But it can and is successfully managed today with medication and therapy, and people with the illness can and do lead full, productive lives.
“I’m not embarrassed by it,” Lisa says. “But people do look at you like you’re not right. They can be judgmental and that’s upsetting. People think something will set you off and you’ll be out of sorts.”
Like many others, it took time for Lisa to go through the trial and error of finding the right combination of medication.
“We finally got it right and it’s been very helpful,” she says. “For years I only got four hours of sleep a night.”
Lisa does take issue with over-medication, though.
“We want to live our lives,” she says. “Not be ‘zombied.’”
Lisa was married for 20 years and has two children ages 15 and 18, but the union was an abusive one.
“It was a bad relationship, but I stayed for the children,” she says. She is divorced today; her children live with their father.
“People think we’re a bunch of crazies. They don’t understand this is not a personality trait we can turn on and off,” she says. “They shun you and it makes me feel terrible, but I accept it.”
Like many people with mental health problems, Lisa finds comfort and solace, however, in creative expression. She enjoys journaling and drawing, and has plans to earn her high school equivalency degree.
“I want to work with battered women,” she says. “When life is so stacked against you, it’s even more rewarding when you overcome it.”