Voices For Recovery: Mary Bixby
Hello! My name is Mary and I hold a Bachelor of Arts degree in comparative literature. I am also a 37-year-old woman living with schizoaffective disorder bipolar type. I would like to tell you about my recovery through Journey Mental Health Center.
I grew up in Madison and Green Bay in healthy and stimulating environments. I had a supportive mom, dad, and two sisters who expected the best out of me. Mom thought I could do anything. She was a wonderful woman who didn’t think of me as disabled. Sadly, she passed away from breast cancer when I was in my 20s.
After Mom’s passing, I became depressed and symptomatic of my psychotic illness. My favorite job, a job I held for five years, was at Options in Community Living as a home care worker for people with disabilities. I began hearing voices telling me to quit the job I loved and decided to be hospitalized.
I was depressed for two years. I slept 12 to 14 hours a night, ate too much, and gained 70 lbs. I went in to therapy and with medication, became stabilized. I was a consumer at SOAR from 2010-2012. I also worked there as a peer support specialist from 2012-2014. I joined Journey Mental Health Center’s Yahara House in 2012. Since then, my mental health has been slowly progressing in a positive way. I go to Yahara House often for lunch. I also work there at least three hours a week.
Yahara House is a really de-stigmatizing place. The things I like about Yahara House:
- I see people making friendships.
- I see people with their struggles and I try to approach them in a loving way.
- Staff members listen to me and they seem like they really care.
- It’s a healthy and stimulating environment for me to grow.
- I learn to cook in the café.
- I learn to value and budget my money.
Yahara House is really a fun place! We celebrate cultural events and have recreation days where we play games.
Today, I run a support group at SOAR for people who hear voices. I am also an outreach worker at Journey and I am taking a class at East West Healing Arts Institute. I hope to join the Peace Corps in the next couple of years. I’ve learned I can do anything I want to do.
I haven’t been hospitalized in eight years, and I don’t plan on going back anytime soon. Living with mental illness just means I might need to work harder than someone without a mental illness. Everyone has problems, so everyone has to work hard to achieve their goals too!
Thank you to all my family and friends for their support.
John Malm joined the U.S. Navy in 1964 after dropping out of high school during his junior year. Like most kids his age, he wanted to see the world. He signed on to be a communications technician and once handled classified intelligence during the time when the Vietnam War was ready to explode.
Two and a half years later, while in the Philippines, the Madison native went AWOL for 10 days, and began using substances. After being apprehended, John received a psychiatric evaluation and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a serious mental illness that can result in hallucinations, delusions, and extremely disordered thinking and behavior. He was promptly discharged.
John’s recovery story is like a winding road with twists and turns, but with Journey Mental Health Center’s help, John hasn’t had a psychiatric hospitalization since 1990 – nearly 28 years ago.
In 1969, John began receiving services from the Dane County Mental Health Center – today known as Journey Mental Health Center. The 71 year old has lived in at least four states over his life, spending time in Wisconsin, Florida, California, and Louisiana, according to Journey caseworker, Eric Schechter, LCSW.
John received treatment both as an outpatient and as an inpatient after moving to Louisiana. He’s also been an on-again, off-against substance user, not an uncommon characteristic among people living with mental illness. Yet John also has completed one year’s worth of college courses and has held jobs as a bar manager, groundskeeper, and grocery store clerk.
After John moved back to Madison in the mid-1970s, he re-engaged with Journey in his recovery efforts and, in 1981, started working at Chrysalis and was actively involved in the early years of the Off The Square Club. John claims to be the one who coined the organization’s name, calling it a simple yet eloquent namesake for a resource center. The club helps individuals living with mental illness by offering hot meals, recovery support and crisis intervention services using peer support specialists.
In 1988 John met Dr. Fred Coleman, a long-time Journey psychiatrist, and became an active member at Yahara House by ritually attending meetings and volunteering for 27 years. In 2004 he was referred to Journey’s Mobile Outreach to Seniors Team, the program that merged into Journey’s Forward Solutions Community Support Program.
Today, John lives at Kindred Hearts Senior Living in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. He says his best friend is his Journey caseworker, Eric, who assists him with transportation to his appointments. The pair love going out for cheeseburgers and simply talking. They reminisce about John’s hobby as a photographer, and his photos of iconic downtown State Street in Madison. In fact, Eric marvels how he saw a college friend playing music in one of John’s old photos.
Eric’s support of John is unwavering. “What are you most proud of John?” Eric asks John with a smile.
John returns the smile, but doesn’t say anything because he sometimes has difficulty communicating his thoughts.
“In addition to not being hospitalized since 1990, John has been drug-free for seven years now … that’s a pretty big accomplishment … isn’t it John?” Eric said.
John smiles proudly.
John Shivers could read the newspaper at the tender age of three. He was a bright, smart child, able to quickly deliver facts to anyone who would listen. However, his age difference showed in his social skills with older classmates. The incessant bullying led him to counseling sessions with the school psychologist by the age of six.
By age nine, he was becoming an alcoholic.
Middle school and high school were no easier, with John describing the years as brutal. “By the time I got to high school, I hung out with the hippies because no one liked them either,” he said. “I ended up quitting school to get my GED.”
John’s life has swung a very wide pendulum. He is highly functional at times, he says, and points to his journalism career with Isthmus and the Milwaukee Shepherd Express. Today, he is a Wisconsin Broadcasters Association award-winning radio host with 98.7 WVMO – Monona.
Yet he has also been chronically homeless and has been admitted into Journey’s Crisis Intervention program five times since 1990.
“When you are highly functional, people want you to keep being functional. If I could do that, I would. My illness just manifested itself at times to where I couldn’t work, couldn’t cover an event, deal with people … It had an effect on my career,” John said. “I didn’t advance when I could have. It’s a tough thing when they see the addictions and not the illness. They see the drinking and drugs but they don’t see me treating my illness to where I can function.”
John, 60, was diagnosed with chronic depression years ago, but recently was re-diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.
“And that was the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle. I knew I was bi-polar, but this GAD diagnosis explained so much of the illness I’ve had thru my childhood and not knowing what it was. I’ve been very lucky with my therapists,” John said.
“To finally have a correct diagnosis has made all the difference. I can now take some preventative steps. If I’m having an anxiety attack then I need to take a step back. We blame ourselves for not being functional, because it implies we are weak and that we don’t try hard enough or we don’t appreciate help from others. When you can’t make it to something you’ve planned, because your mental illness won’t let you do it, your first reaction becomes self-loathing: I’m such a lousy person to be this helpless. Yet, if you had the flu you wouldn’t blame yourself. You’d blame the lousy flu.
“My recovery story is picking up the bits and pieces of my life while finding mindfulness in everyday things like planning next year’s garden. It might seem mundane and trivial but if you’ve spent a lifetime in and out of Crisis Intervention clinics, making future plans is a big deal.”
“Journey staff members do a tremendous job working together. After my mental health crisis, they made me feel safe again and got me back into my apartment. While I still couldn’t function – I was homebound and I could barely walk, cook, and take out the trash. I was sleeping until late afternoon. All this time, they continued working with me. They have made a big difference in my life. Today I wake up at 7:30 a.m., do my fitness classes at the senior center and take weekly shopping trips to grocery stores. Journey staff showed me how much they care.”
I am an only child, raised by my single mother in a small town. My mom sometimes drank alcohol when I was growing up and I hated it. I thought my hatred for it would make me immune to it, but boy was I wrong! My problems with alcohol started in my 30s. I started drinking for fun and as a reward, I wanted to go out dancing and have a good time. I liked the escape and eventually, I began using alcohol as a way to cope with stress. The problem became once I started drinking, I couldn’t stop. One drink became two, two became four, four became six and by then I was in a cycle of use and abuse which lasted several years.
Drinking like this led me to my first assessment at Journey Mental Health Center in 2011. I was referred to a 30-day outpatient program. After I completed the program, I came back to Journey for my follow up care. I did a few sessions of counseling, but I wasn’t ready to quit drinking, so I quit coming to Journey.
It didn’t take long for my drinking to ramp back up, but this time I was ending up in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning and was diagnosed with acute Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. It’s a digestive disorder. At the advice of my primary care doctor I came back to Journey for another intake and began services for alcohol dependence again, this was in late 2012. I didn’t really want to quit drinking; I wanted to control it. Meanwhile my life was unmanageable.
At Journey I started to attend group and individual therapy consistently. I was getting a lot of education on addiction and was beginning to understand what was happening in my brain and body that kept me drinking. I spent some time clean and some time relapsing, but every time I drank after not drinking it was worse. I wanted “absolute abstinence” from alcohol and after my final relapse, I joined a 12-step program and got a sponsor. I have not had a drink since Nov.17, 2013.
For me alcoholism was a bankruptcy of the soul. I felt like I was literally the walking dead. I was hopeless and terribly sick with alcohol-related ailments. Despite this, I kept attending my groups and counseling at Journey. I went to 12-step meetings and worked with my sponsor. I began going to the gym, getting into the pool and exercising helped a lot! I learned how to start taking care of myself again. It was a slow and painful process at times, but I have done it one day at a time.
My life in sobriety looks nothing like my drinking days, and I am so grateful for that. I am now employed full-time as a Peer Support Specialist. I am able to assist others on the path of recovery, helping people with their own health goals. It’s a career that came directly out of my lived experiences with depression and alcoholism. How I stay sober today is by avoiding the first drink, attending 12-step meetings, and continuing my therapy. I create art and spend time in nature. I take care of my family and I make my bed every morning, which was something I couldn’t do before getting sober because I never got out of bed. I have hope now and a life worth living and that is how recovery has been for me.