Stories Of Recovery
Problems with substance use, an arrest, feelings of hopelessness and a serious suicide attempt… All before age 17.
On the surface, you would never suspect that Chris – a high school junior who earned good grades and was well-liked by classmates and teachers – was struggling with these problems. But below the surface, Chris was wrestling with feelings of desolation and despair that had grown out of control, far beyond what his family thought was typical teenage angst.
By all appearances, his life seemed normal. Chris is the face of mental health concerns – the face that looks just like yours, or someone you love.
Falling into a significant depression, Chris thought suicide was the only answer to relieve him of his pain. Fortunately, his attempt failed and he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for in-patient care. It was there that Chris was referred to MHA, a turning point in his recovery. A clinician specializing in crisis stabilization – help for children and teens who have been hospitalized and need intensive temporary support during a crisis – worked closely with Chris to ensure that his discharge would go smoothly and connected him with longer-term support and treatment resources.
Chris was not the only one helped by MHA. His mother, anxious about his return home and fearful of the possibility of another suicide attempt, received daily support by the same crisis stabilization professional who worked with Chris. Together, they carefully coordinated his discharge, developed safety plans for his transition home and discussed ways to feel more comfortable and confident about their future as a family.
Upon his return home, Chris no longer needed MHA’s crisis stabilization services and began working with our care coordination team, who provided in-home therapy to help him work on his personal recovery goals. A part-time job enhanced Chris’s feelings of pride and independence, and he discovered that his love for art became an unexpected source of comfort, strength and excitement. Supported by the MHA team and tools they equipped him with, Chris returned to school and was able to pass all of his classes despite his long absence. Today, Chris is making plans to apply to college, where he hopes to pursue a degree in the arts. For the first time in years, Chris recognizes his strengths and feels confident and excited about his future.
When Darrell was only two years old, his mother died from complications after giving birth to his sister. Unable to take care of two young children, his father placed Darrell and his sister in foster care. The siblings were taken in by a couple from Yonkers, but unfortunately it wasn’t long before the abuse – physical, sexual and emotional – began.
“Every day, I was beaten. I was made to stand in the corner, facing the wall, to the point where I had to kneel because my legs were giving out. I was locked in the basement, and I was always secluded from the family,” remembers Darrell, now age 62. “They didn’t even call me by my name. They only referred to me as ‘Mr. It.’”
As a child, school was Darrell’s escape, and he read anything he could get his hands on – from Reader’s Digest to the encyclopedia. But once he entered high school, the pain he had kept inside for so long caused him to act out and rebel. “I started to run away, often for days at a time. I slept on the street and began using drugs,” he says. “I wanted to mask the pain, and I tried anything I could get my hands on.” Darrell eventually dropped out.
On his 18th birthday, Darrell moved out of his foster home and into his father’s rundown apartment in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. When night fell, the sound of rats in the trashcan kept Darrell awake for hours. Shortly after Darrell moved in, his father died. He was left homeless, sleeping on the subway for the next year.
“The fact that I had no memories of my mother left a hole in me for years, and I tried to replace a mother’s love with romantic relationships,” recalls Darrell. The trauma of losing his mother at such a young age affected Darrell’s choice in partners: the first serious relationship he entered as a young adult provided not comfort and care, but once again, abuse.
We at MHA know – and studies have demonstrated – that physical trauma such as the abuse Darrell experienced can leave emotional wounds that do not heal without the right care… and that emotional trauma can affect one’s physical health as well.
Fortunately for Darrell – who suffered two heart attacks, underwent open heart surgery and experienced two psychiatric hospitalizations – a caring therapist recognized his need for connections in the community and suggested he visit MHA’s Sterling Community Center. Run entirely by people with lived experience, the Sterling Community Center offers workshops, classes, employment and housing resources and, perhaps most importantly, peer support from others.
“Everybody’s trauma is different, but trauma is trauma. It cuts deeply,” says Darrell. “I realized I first had to deal with the trauma I went through, and only then would I be able to deal with the things that it caused. I went to Sterling, where I met others who weren’t afraid to share their stories with me. I learned to trust, and I never looked back.”
Today, Darrell is working as a Recovery Specialist with MHA’s Northern Westchester Recovery Network, a mobile team of peer professionals that supports people with mental health issues as they move forward and build the life they choose in their community. As a member of our newly formed trauma-informed care steering committee, Darrell is also helping shape the future of MHA’s services.
“I’ve gone through a whole lifetime of not knowing who I was or what I was supposed to do. Now, I know what my purpose is. I used to wonder why I was allowed to go through all of the terrible things I went through. It wasn’t until I started learning about the peer movement that I realized why. Because of my experience, and where I am today, I can share with my clients that life is not hopeless, and that they can come through their difficult times,” says Darrell. “I’ve also found that helping others really helps me. I know that life is going to happen, but I feel like I’ve been given a toolbox of coping strategies. Now, when a problem comes up, I know what tools to use. I feel like I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of my potential.”
It can be difficult to imagine life without a home. Unfortunately, individuals diagnosed with a mental illness all too often cannot afford a place to live or need help in learning skills to live independently.
This is Julie’s story. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Julie was only 14 the first time she was hospitalized. When she was 15 her mother died. For the next decade, she was in and out of hospitals and residential treatment facilities. By her mid-40s she had managed to attain a college degree, but having spent much of her life in an institution, she didn’t have the skills to live on her own or maintain a job, and couldn’t afford an apartment.
With MHA’s support and assistance, Julie now has a part-time job that she loves, and for the first time in her life, she is living on her own. And, another first for Julie, she has not had any hospitalizations since coming to MHA.
Julie credits her success to having a safe and affordable home and supportive counselors that allow her to focus on her job instead of worrying about where and how she will live. Julie is now giving back: She volunteers at a local mentoring program so that she can help children who are coping with some of the same issues that she faced as a child.
Mia, age 15, came home from her mother’s birthday celebration, threw a rope around the ceiling fan in her bedroom and attempted to hang herself. Fortunately, the ceiling fan broke, and Mia survived with minimal injuries. She was hospitalized for five days and, despite having a family history of major depression, Mia was released without any follow-up services. Months later, Mia tells her mother that she is feeling depressed, and once again she is hospitalized for five days.
This time, Mia is referred to MHA for intensive case management services and family support. At first, Mia would not take her medication, used marijuana and regularly missed two or more days of school each week. She had ongoing conflicts with her family and had few friends.
Mia did not want services, and acted out by missing therapy sessions, but her MHA case worker did not give up on her. After a few sessions, Mia began to connect with and trust her case manager. Within a year and a half, Mia graduated from high school on time, had friends, was taking her medications, and had a better relationship with her family. She has not had any hospitalizations since coming to MHA, and Mia reports feeling less depressed and more optimistic about her future.
John, age 11, is the second oldest of seven children, and he and his siblings live with their single mother, who is on a limited income. As a result, John is often on his own, and has limited opportunities for recreational and enrichment activities. With few role models, John was getting into fights both at home and at school.
With MHA’s support, John was able to enjoy supervised, supported, structured weekend trips. Each activity – from plays to bowling alleys to dinners out in Manhattan – has helped John to gain self esteem, and to develop positive relationships, achieve important social, emotional and communications skills, and, of course, to have fun. Weekend trips allowed John to experience a different life, supporting him as he created new aspirations, and made different choices at school, home, and in his neighborhood. They also provided a much-needed break for his mother.
As a result of participating in these trips, John no longer gets into fights, and his school work has improved. He has become a leader, helping to resolve conflicts among the other teens.
From ages six to 16, Jamie, now age 28, had been sexually abused by her stepfather. As a young adult without any healthy coping strategies or support, she abused drugs and alcohol as a way to manage her pain. Estranged from her family, her problems intensified: She felt depressed and hopeless, and dropped out of college. For six years she was able to abstain from using drugs or alcohol, but a relapse and an arrest for shoplifting sent her into a downward spiral, and she ended up in an inpatient rehab facility.
Jamie was referred to MHA after she was discharged from the rehab facility. In one-on-one weekly counseling sessions, MHA’s Clinician offered treatment that helped Jamie to work through the trauma of her abuse. She connected Jamie to supports and referred her to a program to help her meet her goal of finishing college.
Last month, Jamie celebrated one year of sobriety. She now has her own apartment and has saved enough to purchase a used car. She has reconciled with her mother and sister, and they now enjoy a supportive relationship. She is planning for her future, which includes returning to school in February.
At 17, severe anxiety, trauma and substance abuse led Clara to a series of hospitalizations and treatment programs. Years later, fleeing her abusive partner, Clara and her four month old son entered a homeless shelter where she connected with a therapist from MHA. The therapist supported Clara through the challenging transition and helped her to cope and plan for her future.
After her therapist helped Clara settle into an apartment near family and friends, Clara decided to leave therapeutic services. A few years later, she returned to MHA when she relapsed and her son was removed from her home.
Once again, MHA’s safety net was there to support Clara through the next phase of recovery. Clara began meeting with her therapist regularly, wrestling with the painful traumatic experience that resulted in self-destructive behavior.
Clara was empowered to take better care of herself, to improve her decision-making skills and address her health care needs. She embraced MHA’s parenting training as she yearned to be a better mother and meet her son’s needs. Eventually, Clara was able to spend more time with her son which brought her enormous joy.
For Clara, the commitment to recovery, hand in hand with the support and connection to MHA, is bearing fruit. She is increasingly confident, feels significantly less anxious and has been sober for three years. She is attending college and has just been awarded joint custody of her son.
Olivia is a typical teenager – she plays sports, has a passion for singing and performs in school plays, all while keeping up with her schoolwork. She also receives treatment for depression at one of MHA’s clinics. Recently, complex family issues and a serious fight with her brother triggered strong negative feelings, and Olivia rapidly became withdrawn and despondent. After a concerned teacher overheard Olivia remark “I wish I could just disappear forever,” he alerted the school social worker, who called Olivia’s mom for an immediate conference.
Fortunately, the social worker also called the director of the MHA clinic where Olivia receives treatment. The director suggested that in lieu of a visit to the ER, Olivia should come to the clinic immediately for a session with her therapist. Suddenly, Olivia had a different choice – and a chance to be helped by someone who not only knew her but with whom she had a close connection.
During the session, the therapist worked with Olivia and her mom to create a safety plan. They all agreed that hospitalization was not necessary at the moment and that, working as a team, they could keep Olivia safe in her home – and not disrupt her life. Their plan included putting additional supports in place for Olivia, including frequent follow-up conversations with her therapist by phone and in person. The therapist also helped Olivia’s mom understand her daughter’s struggles with her brother in a new way. With everyone’s help, Olivia was able to resume her daily activities and return to school, where she continues to thrive.