By Judye Best
My story begins back in 1976 when I was diagnosed as having Schizoaffective Depressive Disorder. I was 26 years old, living in Los Angeles, California, and working for a bank. In the cash vault of that bank I dealt with millions of dollars a day. The psychiatrist who diagnosed me was Dr. Helen Rislow Burns. She was elderly at that time, probably in her seventies, and I thought I couldn’t learn much from her. She used a Freudian approach, but she was accurate and turned out to be a great psychiatrist.
Though I was working, I probably should have been fired before that time, not because I didn’t know how to do the job but because of emotional episodes that were unprofessional. I stayed at that job until 1986 – a total of 18 years – though I did transfer to another department working with stocks and bonds before I was finally let go.
After that I had several jobs, though not in banking. I did the much dreaded telemarketer job, I managed a framed-print shop in the mall, and lastly I worked for the City of Los Angeles as a secretary. I kept jobs even with my severe mental illness.
My disease spiraled down over the years and I kept being fired from jobs. Eventually I went on Disability and then on Social Security Disability. My depression was severe, but medicines controlled the voices and the visions. I tried committing suicide several times, but only seriously three times; people who weren’t supposed to be around stopped me. Each story is different but people intervened each time. I was very depressed, though I had some joy creating in art or writing a story or poem.
While on Disability I went to Pasadena City Collage for fun and I took a lot of classes from psychology to art and English. I graduated with an AA degree.
My Momma died in 2002 and I moved in 2004 up here to Port Townsend. I took a big chance in deciding to move. I had been in Los Angeles For 36 years, but I felt I wanted to be closer to my family. The move was unduly hard on me. I left in the apartment expensive jewelry, cameras, furniture – a whole lot of things. There was an entire closet and a footlocker that I did not even go through and pack. Somehow in my confusion, I thought I might return. Later, it was devastating to me to realize what I had left behind, but I started fresh here. Moving was like leaving the earth and landing on the moon. The city is always awake; here it is not so, and at first the quiet kept me awake.
I got a subscription to the Peninsula Daily News and the Leader to see what happens in Port Townsend. I saw a class listed that Esther Conway was offering on “Writing Your Life Story” and I joined. In that class was Elaine Nelson.
I wrote a story about my mental illness and at the next class, Elaine gave me a flyer for NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness). She also arranged a ride for me. I started going faithfully every first and third Wednesday of each month. I got a lot of support and felt wonderful. At that time there was nearly an even split between family members and those with mental illness, so at the third Wednesday meetings we would divide into two groups. I felt very comfortable and encouraged to be around people who understood me.
I was seeing an ARNP therapist who was prescribing my meds. He moved out of the area, so I started seeing someone who decided to change my meds. She took me off one med too soon and didn’t build up the replacement enough to counteract the lack of the other med, so I had a psychotic break. It was horrible and the counselor seemed reluctant to help me. My fellow NAMI sufferers told me about Barbara Minchin, whom I knew from my church, so I called her. She told me what to do, saw me almost immediately and soon I was back to normal. Barb Minchin, who recently retired, has been a godsend to me.
Now to the fun part. I heard an announcement at a meeting about a forty-hour training to be a peer counselor. I signed up. I took the class and found it exciting and wonderful. It was put on by the PRSN (Peninsula Regional Support Network). The second step was to take a State test, with written and oral parts, and pass it with a grade of 80 or more out of 100. I passed with a 93. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do with the training, but Bernie Donanberg from Jefferson Mental Health Services called me and asked if I wanted to come and interview for a job. I went in, we talked, and Bernie offered me the job of working in the day treatment program under Heidi Lee. The program is called Harbor House and we work with adult mentally ill persons.
I have been at JMHS for three years and six months now and I love my job. I work with people who need help with the system or other things, or they just need someone to talk to. I also help clean up from lunch (other people cook it: I am no cook). I feel I have found my purpose. I get up at 5:45 AM on workdays so I won’t be late. I start at 8:30 AM, working three days a week, four hours a day.
Because of NAMI I have support twice a month, I have a job, and I am very stable on my meds. The psychotic break taught me how important it is to take your meds (not that that was ever my problem). I was always faithful to take them, but it is a good reminder.
I owe NAMI a lot. About five years ago I volunteered at election time to be on the NAMI JeffCo Board, so all the members wrote me in on the ballot and I have served ever since. I am Vice President now. I have been Secretary, which I hate: meeting minutes and I don’t get along too well. Being on the Board is a way to give back and that is one reason I wanted to write this story. NAMI is a wonderful organization and a real lifesaver to others and me. Thank you NAMI, and Elaine, who started it all for me.