14 Years in 10 Minutes

For the past few months I’ve participated in a Peer Union Counseling class. It was an opportunity to learn even more about the various human service programs available in the community. Before our ‘graduation,’ the coordinator asked for a male and female volunteer to speak about our experience in the class at the graduation. When no female stepped forward, I decided I would step up. I had no idea how introspective my speech would leave me that evening.

I am far from being a planner, so in the 15 minutes before I left for the banquet, I jotted down a few notes. You might think that knowing that various local political figures were going to be present, I might have put more thought into it…but I didn’t. Besides, my best work has often come from last minute pressure! I stuck the slips of note paper in my pocket and didn’t think about it again until time for my speech.

I used the notes as a reference, but pretty much spoke what came to mind. I was open, honest and genuine in what I had to share. Afterwards, I received a number of comments of support and praise. Other than that, I didn’t really think about it much…until I made it home.

Sitting on my couch considering the evening as a whole, I suddenly became very pensive. It dawned on me that I had essentially summed up the past 14 years of my life in just 10 minutes or less. If you’ve been following my blog, even though I am only just getting to the time I moved in Indiana, you might guess that a LOT has happened in that time. The following is not verbatim, since I only went by notes, but it does convey the same message.

I started working at Purdue University the summer of 2001. I was across the hall from Roberta Schoeneman in the College of Science advising computer science majors. I would leave Purdue in September 2008 because of my mental health. By September 2009, 12 months later, I would have intimate knowledge of: in-patient mental health care, outpatient community health services, Division of Family Services for SNAP/food stamps, the homeless shelter, the Mental Health America day shelter, Lafayette Transitional Housing, Lafayette Housing Authority and the Social Security Administration. In the months to follow, I would also work with Area IV, the YWCA Cancer Program, and Riggs Community Health Center.

I had gone from someone with a Master’s degree working at a Big 10 university to being homeless having to use food stamps. I still remember the first time I used my SNAP card, I only purchased a drink and maybe a bag of chips. I didn’t even make it to the car before I started crying. I just couldn’t accept that I had fallen that far.

Life has dramatically improved since then. You could say it is like night and day. Now, instead of receiving services from the various agencies, I am helping others navigate the process to receive services themselves. A year ago I began attending the HPIN meetings, Homeless Prevention and Intervention Network. That is where I learned of this class.

Even though I was pretty familiar with many of the resources shared in this class, I learned of so many others available in the community. It seemed like each week I would take what I had learned and share with a friend here in town, or even with an aunt in Texas. Having the right terminology, I was able to locate a couple of similar programs for her to help with renovations to her home to help my uncle with disabilities.

I plan to continue helping others, primarily those that are experiencing homelessness, with all the information I learned. I also plan to apply for Leadership Lafayette. Don’t be surprised if I go asking for financial assistance [looking directly at the CEO of United Way of Greater Lafayette]. I WILL be on the board of one of the various agencies represented before all is said and done!

Sitting here writing, I’m still in awe that I am ABLE to sit here and write this blog. For so many years I sincerely believed that I would end up dead by my own doing. Now that thought seems so foreign to me…even though I only let go of that option five short years ago.

I don’t recall a time in my life where I was more determined than I am now to help make changes that will benefit others. It is a slow, long process, but I am in it for the long haul. I want to see the holes filled so that ALL people experiencing homeless have a fighting chance to get back on their feet and not just those with the ability to navigate the many systems on their own.

To the person that told me I had an “advocate’s heart,” watch out! I have you on my radar!

Strutting my stuff before my speech.

Strutting my stuff before my speech.

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Why I Dread October

Disclaimer: This is not a bashing on those whom have experienced breast cancer or lost a loved one to breast cancer. My prayers and thoughts go out to those impacted. Breast cancer is real and touches a number of lives. However, if you will read this post, you will see it does not touch near as many lives as mental illness yet gets so much more attention.

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Well, it’s started…the onslaught of pink. Pink ribbon work gloves for men. A number of pink ribbon items for sale at my workplace. Pink ribbon items in EVERY mainline store you enter. Profile pictures gone pink left and right. Pink is on the football fields of all levels. The only way to NOT see pink ribbons all month (and all year) is to crawl under the blankets and never come out. All of this is done in the name of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Besides the pink, we get news stations doing special reports about survivors. We get silly status updates on Facebook that if you Like or Comment on them you are informed it is for Breast Cancer Awareness and you have to pick a similar silly status update to post. Again, it is all in the name of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Don’t get me wrong. I am very sympathetic to those whom have personally faced breast cancer, like my own sister, cousin and friends, as well as those whom have lost a loved one to this cancer. I totally understand the devastation that comes with the diagnosis, treatment and potential death faced every day for millions.

But…

It is NOT the biggest killer out there; yet, it is the biggest fundraiser. Over 500,000 more people died from heart disease than breast cancer in 2011. Deaths from breast cancer in 2011 barely outnumbered suicide by 1856. But, due to the commercialization and ‘normalization’ of breast cancer, Komen Race for the Cure raised $110.85 million more than Movember, which raises funds for prostate cancer…which, by the way, had fewer deaths than suicide.

Put a pink ribbon on it and just claim that “part” of the proceeds (often it turns out to be a very small percentage) will go towards breast cancer research and it’s a top seller. It’s “cool” to wear something with a pink ribbon and show support. If you post a ribbon with “survivor” on it on your Facebook page, you’ll likely get about 50% of your friends to Like it and probably even comment on it.

Now, let’s think back to May, Mental Health Awareness Month, and September, Suicide Prevention Month. I don’t know about you, but only a couple of my friends posted a green or yellow ribbon on their Facebook page…even after I challenged them to do so after the death by suicide of Robin Williams. I had a VERY limited choice of items to purchase to show my support…and that was only because I follow a number of pages related to these subjects. I saw NOTHING in the stores. When there was something on the news, it focused solely on the number of military veterans that take their life by suicide and not about suicide in general. There were no silly status updates to raise awareness…not that I think that’s an appropriate way to raise awareness for anything.

On April 29, I posted a blog post of mine to my timeline. It was titled, “Giving Up the Option of Suicide.” I got 7 Likes and 7 Comments…out of 359 friends and family. My sister just changed her profile picture one hour ago to a picture of a pink ribbon and the word ‘survivor’ and already has 18 Likes. On May 2, I changed my profile picture to the following and got absolutely NO Likes.

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I’ve been told more than once that it’s not always all about me. I get that. But at some point, there has to be more support for awareness about mental health and suicide.

It is a very sad fact that very few are comfortable talking about mental health issues. There is such a strong stigma that goes with it that is outlasting so many other illnesses. There was a time when it was embarrassing to talk about breast cancer. Now it is ‘the talk around town.’

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “clinical depression is one of the most common mental illnesses, affecting more than 19 million Americans each year. This includes major depressive disorder, manic depression and dysthymia, a milder, longer-lasting form of depression.” This is JUST forms of depression. This number does not include any other form of mental illness. According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, “in 2014, an estimated 232,030 cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. alone.”

Last I checked, 19 million is MUCH larger than 232,030. In fact, it is almost 82 times greater.

19,000,000 > 232,030

I’ll admit, there will be some overlap because I’m sure if someone is predisposed to depression, being diagnosed with cancer would certainly push them closer to a depressive episode. But still, 82 times more people with a form of depression than invasive breast cancer and yet we are leery of talking about depression and other mental illnesses?

Stop the madness! Mental illness can be just as deadly as many other illnesses.

Next week (Oct 5-11, 2014) is Mental Illness Awareness Week.

You can find ways to spread the word on social media here: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/MIAW2014.

You can also follow Mental Health America’s campaign for B4Stage4. Part of the campaign is based on the following: “When we think about cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, we don’t wait years to treat them. We start way before Stage 4. We begin with prevention. And when people are in the first stage of those diseases, and have a persistent cough, high blood pressure, or high blood sugar, we try immediately to reverse these symptoms.” Time to think about mental health in the same way!

Remember 19,000,000 > 232,030 and needs to be recognized year-round!

…stepping down from my soapbox…for now…

tatas

 

2008: California, Here I Come…But, Just for Six Months

plan vs reality

Between the fall of 2005 and 2007, I had slow but steady improvement in my depression and work performance. When our director, Alan, was suddenly terminated, that progress stopped. I knew that if they would go to the lengths to terminate someone who had worked for the department for 20 years, then they could certainly fire me.

Going on my experience under the previous directors’ leadership…or lack of…I KNEW I had to begin a job search in earnest so I purchased my first laptop that I could use during my lunch break when I stayed in the office.

Having the laptop at home was both a positive and a negative. On the positive side, it was easier to access because I could have it downstairs with me. On the negative side, it was easier to access. I spent more time on the computer when I was not at work.

In January of 2008, I started chatting with Donna through a website, SparkPeople. (This is not a dating site; rather it is a site where you can track your exercise, food intake and weight loss as well as participate in different message boards.) It was an instant connection and very soon the “love” word began appearing in our regular conversations. Everything was wonderful between us except for one problem…Donna lived in California and I lived in Indiana. We used this to our advantage to REALLY get to know each other before making any commitments.

The new relationship ‘high’ that gets you through the day when you’ve stayed up way too late talking on the phone made it easy to dismiss the signs of depression. My focus was on Donna and not the depression symptoms. I believed I had that part of my life under control.

That was far from what was actually happening. Despite being happy and ‘in love,’ work was slowly getting more and more stressful. I did the best I could to keep up, but my absences began adding up. And, it was becoming clear that I was next on their ‘list.’

At one point, I was instructed that when I missed work, that it was my responsibility to reschedule my students that had to cancel their appointments. This was another attempt to create a policy just for me. This was NOT the policy in the office. The front desk had always done this AND nobody else was being asked to do this. After some back and forth with Human Resources, the original method was left in place.

With summer approaching, Donna and I began talking about me moving to California; but it would be no earlier than Fall 2009. This would allow me to chair the regional conference of the National Academic Advising Association in May and then move. At least that was our plan.

In August 2008, the stress of work was really taking its toll on me and my attendance REALLY suffered. It was getting to the point that I was calling in more than I was going in. Then one day in early September, I was told that I would have to give a presentation about various majors in the College of Science. At this point, I was not working with Science majors. Instead, I was working with students who wanted to major OUTSIDE of Science. At first, I was not bothered by having to do this; but that evening, I realized it was actually a ‘test’ and something they were probably using to gather ‘evidence’ to terminate me.

This could have pushed me to prove them wrong; but it did the opposite. The negative thoughts took over and on the day I was to give the presentation, I called in to work. It turned out I would not return to work again. A few days later, I had a meeting with a representative from HR and my current director. I entered the meeting with three letters of resignation in hand: one for the end of the week, the end of the day, and immediately. Given the conversation of the meeting, I chose to resign immediately.  I had tried to hold on to be terminated so I could collect two weeks of severance pay, but the stress was overwhelming by this point.

With work no longer a reason to stay in Indiana, Donna and I decided I would move to California as soon as I could have shoulder surgery and make arrangements to move my belongings. I arrived in Oakland, CA on November 22, 2008.

Throughout the year, I had dismissed the depression because the ‘high’ that love brings concealed the depth of it. Once I arrived in California, this became very evident to me. I had already decided to take the month of December to adjust to the drastic change in environments.; but as January approached, I could feel the anxiety growing. The thought of job searching was beginning to worry me.

I felt so isolated in California. I LOVED being with Donna, but I left everything that was familiar to me. The only constant I still had was my 10 year old Chihuahua, Comet. She brought much comfort during the day while Donna was at work.

In late January 2009, Comet suddenly became very ill. After a trip to the vet, I learned she had developed a blood disease that could be treated if she tolerated the medication. She did not. A few short days later, I had to put Comet down. She had been my life and the reason I had not attempted suicide to that point. This was completely devastating and sent me on a very fast downward spiral.

Before I had moved, I had promised Donna she would not have to take care of me and my depression the same way she had a previous partner. Because of this, I felt I couldn’t share just how deep my depression was at the time. I would stay in bed and only got up and dressed when I thought she might be on her way home. We had to make a ‘chore chart’ to try to get me to clean around the house…key word being ‘try.’

After a few arguments, I finally got so desperate and told her I needed her help. I was so depressed I couldn’t even focus enough to figure out where to look for help in this new town. I had not been to a therapist or psychiatrist since I left Indiana in November. I no longer had insurance and was also out of medication. Thus began my use of community health centers.

I found Sausal Creek Outpatient Stabilization Clinic on 26th Avenue in Oakland on April 22. It wasn’t in the best neighborhood; and you had to ring the bell to be let in because they kept the doors locked. Once you entered you were required to stay inside until you saw the doctor. I could tell by listening to the others waiting that some were homeless and mainly looking for their next ‘fix’ of whichever medication they were abusing. My demeanor was so depressed while others were nearing a psychotic episode. I felt so out of place but also exactly where I was supposed to be.

I also began seeing a therapist at the Women’s Therapy Center in El Cerrito. I finally had someone I could share all the thoughts I had been keeping from Donna. Even though I paid a minimal fee, I had to limit my visits due to lack of income. I was going through my retirement funds faster than I had planned. A significant part of it went to try to save Comet. Now, not only was I stressed about being so depressed and not wanting Donna to have to take care of me, but I was beginning to get behind on my remaining bills.

In early May I met with a psychiatrist at North County Crisis Response Program. This was in a much more typical setting and I felt like I could really work with her. Again, I would be paying based on income and medications would be covered by the program. As someone with a Masters degree, I was very uncomfortable receiving this kind of public assistance but I knew I had no other choice. I could not mentally afford to NOT receive services I so desperately needed.

After a quick visit to Indiana to participate in the Indianapolis 500 Half Marathon (she ran, I walked), I decided maybe I would move back to Indiana in hopes of finding a job…ANY job. This was the year the recession hit.  It had hit fast and hard in California and the colleges were not hiring. Even though I had not applied to any non-academic jobs in California, I thought I might in Indiana where I would be back in familiar surroundings.

This idea started out in my mind as a temporary move. I had every intention that I would move back to California within a few months. Donna had different thoughts. As we discussed this back in California, she informed me that we were pretty much done…at least for the time being. This meant I needed to pack all of my belongings…again…and we would make arrangements to move them from her place in a couple of months.

So, exactly six months from the day I arrived, I left California to move back to Indiana.

Courage

 

2005…It Could Have Been the End

Depression can seem worse than terminal cancer, because most cancer patients feel loved and they have hope and self-esteem.

David D. Burns

This latest major depressive episode had its beginnings by mid-2004. There had been a change in leadership in the office and it definitely was not for the better. The new director, B, never supported me (this is backed by observations of colleagues across campus and isn’t just my ‘thought’). I believe it was because I had very similar philosophies with the previous director, Alan, with whom she did not agree.

During this time, I had an overwhelming sense of incompetence at work. I didn’t feel I was even giving 20% of my student load my full attention. I even felt the students would be better off with a different advisor. Despite having a desire to do and give more, I remained extremely hesitant because I had a looming sense that “it would end soon any way.”

After a student in our discipline committed suicide, it felt as though everything made me think of suicide. In May, I wrote in my journal:

I feel like each time I have these depth of thoughts, I’m shaving a year off of my life. Back in March I said I didn’t think I would live past 50. Now, only 2 months later, I’m feeling like it is more like 40. I’m 33 and don’t expect to live more than 7 more years?! What is wrong with me?

My death is the easiest way to deal with everything right now.

Because of when our orientation program (Day on Campus, DOC) happened each year, I had already missed a couple of years of attending an annual family gathering in New Mexico and I REALLY needed to go and be with family. In December, I told B that I really was uncertain what my mental condition would be come July if I were not allowed to take the time off. I purposely was making my request months in advance so that we could plan around it.

There was absolutely no attempt made to accommodate my request at that time. It was flatly denied. During that holiday break, I was physically making a pro/con chart regarding staying in my position or looking for something new. My depression was deepening and everything seemed so hopeless at work.

A tiny glimmer of hope appeared when B announced she was moving to a different department across campus. (Actually, we secretly did a happy dance behind closed doors!) I thought maybe if I gave a specific suggestion to the interim director, P, my request for vacation would be approved. In March 2005, I specifically suggested that I see extra students early in the program so that the rest of the staff would not be burdened at the end. This time, my request was denied with the reason being that it was office policy that nobody is allowed vacation during that time. This had not been a formal policy to that point.  As a matter of fact, the year before one colleague had taken the last day off for a 50th birthday trip.

You can imagine my fury at being dismissed AGAIN and with an invalid explanation given. This only caused the anxiety and depression to increase with each passing week. I felt like I was under a microscope and that every task I was given was a test of my will. Where I had previously been given some leeway to complete certain tasks, I was now being given very short deadlines. The only thing that kept me going to work was the knowledge that things would slow down in May once the semester was completed. I figured I would take a week or so off at that time to mentally prepare for the upcoming DOC season.

When the time for vacation arrived, I had not completely finished my handouts for orientation, but knew it wouldn’t take much when I returned. There would be plenty of time to get them printed before we began. Little did I know that I would not return in a week’s time…or even a month’s time.

As the week of vacation progressed and time to return to work grew closer, my anxiety increased. I was struggling to comprehend the repeated denials of my request despite my willingness to do extra work up front. It became more and more difficult to get to sleep at night. In my thinking, if I did not go to sleep, that meant I wouldn’t have to wake up and face the next day. Days were spent fruitlessly sitting in front of the TV watching nothing in particular. My thoughts were obsessed with having to ‘face’ work again.

By the end of the week, I knew I could not return. I made an appointment with my psychiatrist to request paperwork for extended medical leave.   Again, I thought I just needed a little more time to mentally prepare for the stress of orientation and that I would return a few days before it began. I still remember trying to explain to P that I didn’t know when I would return. I had reached a whole new low and felt so ashamed that I didn’t have the strength to return to work.

By this point, the thought of suicide was EXTREMELY real. I strongly considered going in-patient. I asked my co-workers to write me letters of support in case I did. That brought disappointing results…and caused more pain and a sense of dismissal when I only heard from a couple of people. I knew it was their busy time, but I honestly thought they cared enough about me to take the time to write me a ‘simple’ letter. I found out later that they just didn’t know what to say. They didn’t understand the depression and were at a loss of words. Knowing this really didn’t lesson the pain, it only explained it.

The lack of understanding depression was made especially clear when one coworker, Meredith, told me of an associate dean, C, asking about me. C wondered why I didn’t change medications or just get a new doctor or even go in the hospital if what I was doing wasn’t working. She even asked Meredith if she thought I would return to work. Meredith had to tell her point-blank, “Criselda is having a hard enough time deciding if she even wants to live.” That was the last C asked of me.

At this point, my face was a mess from picking on it as I tended to do during major episodes. I was barely showering. My leg was scarred from an intentional burn with a fork. I had been so numb from the depression that I needed to know that I could still ‘feel.’ I heated the fork on the stove and held it to my leg.

Knowing that I was in such a desperate place and that she was going on vacation, my therapist, Rebecca had me sign a ‘No Harm’ contract.  To try to get my mind off of suicide and Rebecca being unavailable, I took the trip to New Mexico. I wish I could say it was the best thing for me, but, honestly, I didn’t fully enjoy myself. My depression was so deep that I essentially sat and observed the entire time. At one point, one sister asked what happened to my leg; I lied and said I had accidentally dropped a fork. She saw right through me but didn’t really press the issue.

I ended up taking nearly three months off from work that summer. When I did return, we had a new director, K, and we spoke immediately about my situation. K seemed to have a true understanding of depression and explained some of her own struggles. Finally, there was someone who would understand me again! This was welcomed news as I remained in a heavy fog for at least three months before I really felt like I was moving at a ‘normal’ speed again.

The depression continued to improve over the next couple of years. Besides having K who understood me, the original director that hired me in 2001, Alan, eventually returned as director.

But, alas, as Geoffrey Chaucer once wrote, “all good things must come to an end…”

 

SuicidePrevention

I am sad to report that K understood my depression all too well and took her own life in 2012.

 

2001…Looking for a New Beginning: Part 2

inspire

We all need someone who inspires us to do better than we know how. – anonymous

When I had been applying for jobs in Lafayette, I had completed an application on the Purdue University website. Even though my background was in academic advising, I wasn’t directing my search in that area. I did not have confidence that I could withstand the kind of stress that came with that particular kind of job. Instead, I was applying for jobs within the print shops and other ‘non-academic’ jobs.

So, when I received a call in May to see if I was interested in interviewing for a position in academic advising, you can imagine my shock. Come to find out, they performed key word searches on previous job titles and found me by searching the terms “academic advisor.”

I wanted a job that paid more so that I could get a place of my own, so I said, “Sure.” They informed me that they would forward my name to the director of advising for the College of Science and he would set up the interview.

When Alan Welch phoned me, I made up a story and said, “If you don’t mind that I’m not in typical interview attire I can be there in a couple of days.” I claimed that my interview clothes were in the back of a storage unit. Truth was…I really just didn’t want to put on a suit. I had quit wearing dresses and I really didn’t think I would get the job anyhow.

I was not nervous at all the night before. I did NOTHING to prepare. I didn’t think of any questions he might ask, or even come up with any questions of my own. I truly was just placing it in God’s hands. If I got the job, good…if not, I was fine with that as well.

On the day of the interview, I put on some blue slacks and a white striped button down shirt. I got turned around on campus and ended up parking pretty far from the Math Building which made me a few minutes late to the interview. I don’t even remember if I had a folder or anything with me. In my mind, I was just going on faith.

Alan and I had a good visit. I ‘made up’ my answers as we went along. At the end of the interview when he asked for my updated resume, I got creative once again and told him my printer wasn’t working but I could email it to him by the end of the week. Truth be told, I hadn’t even updated my resume. I left the interview with no expectations. I honestly thought I would just get a letter saying they had chosen someone else.

Imagine my surprise when he called to see if I could begin working in a couple of weeks!

Thus began my career as a computer science academic advisor in the College of Science at Purdue University! THIS girl who attended a small liberal arts school in Texas was now working in a highly sought-after field at a Big Ten research university! I was in complete awe!

I began working during the most intense time of the year. The entire month of June is devoted to daily visits from the incoming freshmen. Each day had a new batch of students and parents. By the end of June I would meet with approximately 100 of my new student advisees. I guess because I knew I would have almost two months off before I returned to work, the intensity of June was not overwhelming and I performed fine with no medication.

I returned in mid-August just before classes started and began my new daily routine. It didn’t take long before I realized I would definitely need to get back on medication if I were going to have a chance of being successful in this position. Sometime in September I began seeing my primary doctor and was prescribed an antidepressant again.

The combination of a medication and a great leader in my supervisor, Alan, made for a great couple of years. Alan saw potential in me that I never imagined possible. By the end of December, along with my regular advising duties, I had become involved with the campus advising organization, PACADA – Purdue ACademic ADvising Association, and would take on the challenge of redesigning their website.

This was just the beginning of my involvement in advising organizations. By the end of my career there, I would become actively involved in the campus, state and national organizations. I held leadership roles as well as presenting regularly at the various conferences. I believe I was one of the first to present on the idea of “Computer Addiction” at the national advising conference. (RIP Midge Keller…without your encouragement to present, I might never have had the confidence to begin what has become a passion for me.)

I LOVED my students. Unlike my position at Odessa College, I was able to really build relationships with these students. Some I only saw when it was time to register for classes; but others I saw more regularly. I am very pleased to still be in contact with some of my very first students!

The students are really what made the job bearable as leadership changed hands and more strict rules were put into place. My stress had been held in check for a couple of years because of the flexibility I had been given. Once that was taken away, the daily struggles to get up picked up again in earnest.

By 2004 medication alone was not enough and I began seeing a therapist once again. Rebecca would become a regular in my life…at times, the one thing I could count on in a given week. I was, once again, calling in late for work, or missing work altogether. I would set my alarm for an hour earlier than I needed to get up in hopes that I could convince myself to get up and go in to work on time. I hit the alarm every five minutes for over an hour before I would finally give up and decide to call in to work.

Each time, without fail, that I had decided it was time to quit work, a student would show up in my office and remind me why I couldn’t quit. They did this either by their actions or their words. THEY are the reason I stuck with the job until 2008 despite seriously considering leaving not only the job, but life as well, in 2005.