I Didn’t Know about Mental Illness until I Did By Liz Freedlander

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For most of my life, like many of my friends and family, I knew hardly anything about mental illness until I started a consulting relationship for a few hours a month with Channel Marker. This piece about my experience has been writing itself in my head for a while.

I have had my heart broken open by the people who Channel Marker serves. I now know about persons diagnosed with severe, persistent mental illness and their families. Please read these words again: SEVERE and PERSISTENT. You can often tell by looking that people living with mental illness do not fit our definition of normal. We want to look away. I don’t look away any more because I now know about mental illness.

The chemistry of the brain of mentally ill persons usually has been changed. In some cases, by exposure to terrible things as a child that have resulted in PTSD. All this time, I thought PTSD was relegated to war experiences. Channel Marker does serve war veterans. (One Vietnam vet still hears the screams of men and the sounds of gun-fire). It also serves children and youth diagnosed with PTSD.

Many of these ill persons suffer from schizophrenia, often occurring out of the blue while in their twenties. They hear voices or have visual hallucinations – often – sometimes constantly.

During a conversation at the Channel Marker Holiday Party, one of these young men and I were having a pleasant conversation when he apologized for wearing his sunglasses. He said, “They help me with the voices.” This was once a young boy, like any young boy, who grew up riding bikes with pals in his neighborhood and enjoying family vacations. Now, he can look a little scary.

For some reason the tattoos, including the one in the middle of his forehead, give him meaning in his difficult life. He is polite and sweet and has a sense of humor. He religiously takes his meds although the side effects make him feel debilitated. They help him cope.

I have met parents. The heartache never goes away. One mother said, “The stigma of mental illness makes me feel as if my son spends each day out in the middle of a field where he is pecked to death.” One father’s sadness was palpable as he explained that his son does not take his meds so his symptoms, out of control, make it very difficult to have a relationship.  Still this father  faithfully makes an effort. You can see the pain in this man’s eyes as he describes the vibrant young man with a blossoming career who was once his son.

Lisa is a grown woman whose children live with other families. She has pretty red hair like I once did. She has PTSD with symptoms of chronic depression and anxiety disorders. She told me her life story. I cried. Her childhood with a cruel, narcissistic mother portended poor choices of men in her life. The ultimate result was fleeing for her own survival from a marriage so abusive that she had to leave her children behind with their father. She mourns the loss of her kids. I leave it to your imagination as to what might be part of her story – when she wears a skirt, she always wears pants under it. Her anxiety causes her to be unable to work in an environment where she might be alone with a man.

But this is not the totality of my experience. I have experienced hope and help delivered in the most compassionate and professional manner by Channel Marker. While mental illness may not be curable; it is treatable. The caring staff see beyond the illness into the hearts and personhood of their clients. They provide emotional support, life-skills, goal setting, job-training and placement, triage for health problems, places to live, a peer group and just plain normal laughter. There are success stories.

Only the brave and the optimistic can do this work every day. I think they are heroes. Marty Cassell, a therapist who has worked at Channel Marker for 25 years and a married father of four boys, is tall and attractive but rarely smiles. I asked him one day if the work is heavy. He said, “I love my work because I can see positive changes in my clients. Do you know that in addition to my day job here at Channel Marker, I work evenings for Mid-shore Council on Family Violence to provide one-to-one counseling for battered women. I also have a support group for men who are batterers.” He answered my question.

There are victories to be celebrated because of Marty and his colleagues at Channel Marker. Lisa who lost her children is strong and clear about her past and her future. Her goal is to have a job in an agricultural setting and be an advocate for sustainable farming. She has poured her maternal love into her cats and has a fiancé. She is a student at Chesapeake College and was recently invited to take an honors course. She, like many others, credit their successes to Channel Marker.

Channel Marker annually serves about 400 individuals almost 50% of whom are ages 21 and younger, in Caroline, Talbot and Dorchester Counties.

Liz Freedlander has been a resident of Talbot County for 41 years. She was executive director of Talbot Hospice from 1990 to 2004 and recently retired as director of development from the Horn Point Laboratory after 10 years. She has been a fundraising consultant to a number of local nonprofits. Liz has been raising money for nonprofits since the age of 9 when she canvassed her neighborhood with a tin can and collected $5.94 for the Baltimore Symphony.

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Letters to Editor

  1. I found this very informative and moving. What extensive time and patience many people of our county and surrounding counties have invested in these people who are in dire need of such.

  2. George Merrill says:

    Liz

    As I read your moving experience in reaching out to the vulnerable among us, I thought of this scriptural piece: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren (and sisters) ye have done it unto me.” Serving others, especially the wounded, and serving God, are all inseparable, of a piece.

    Blessings in your work

    George Merrill

  3. Bozena Lamparska says:

    While I appreciate the author’s intent, I have to take issue with the “facts” she presents. In the vast majority of instances, people living with a mental illness, severe and persistent or otherwise, are not readily recognizable, so much so that it is often referred to as an invisible illness. They look like you and me. They are you and me. Yes, there are individuals with mental illness who do not fit our definition of normal, but they are a minority. Most people deal with the pain and suffering of having a mental illness in privacy–all the while raising families, working at jobs, and trying to be as normal as possible. They are the walking albeit wounded.

    Yes, experiencing childhood trauma can result in a diagnosis of mental illness, but there is a significant difference between complex PTSD, which can stem from a childhood such as Lisa’s, and PTSD. The therapeutic interventions are quite different due to the interpersonal nature of ongoing childhood trauma as opposed to a single traumatic experience. And, unfortunately, too many get misdiagnosed based on presenting symptoms rather than what they experienced. Many therapists now believe rather than ask “what’s wrong with you?” (symptom-based), the question should be “what happened to you?”

    We are all too willing to consider someone with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or major depression as persistently and severely ill, but dissociative disorders or borderline personality disorders or complex PTSD or other personality disorders are equally persistent and have a severe impact on individuals, it’s just not obvious to most people.

    • Liz Freedlander says:

      I really appreciate your response to my essay. We cannot have too much conversation on this topic. I know you realize that I was speaking from the heart of my own experiences. Several professionals at Channel Marker read my essay so that I did not make any patently false statements. They indeed speak a professionally consistent language different from mine. I invite you to check out Channel Marker on their website: channelmarker.org

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