By Stephanie Stephens- BP Magazine
Fall 2015 Issue
Solid footing in quicksand. Bracing when the scaffolding is shaky. A path marker signaling the way out of a trackless thicket. That’s what it feels like when someone comes into our lives at the lowest ebb and infuses us with the fortitude to strive for recovery.
Meet three of your peers who found that support when it was most needed – from a mental health worker, a teacher, a long-time friend. These inspiriting stories pay tribute to the individuals who took the time to listen, understand and help them get on with their lives.
At an especially confusing and painful time in her life, Andrea Hollebakken found the support she needed from a staff member in a cooperative living community.
Hollebakken, 33, had experienced anxious symptoms while growing up. She coped with the discomfort by immersing herself in school and focusing on scholastic accomplishments. Five years ago, she was dealt and emotional blow that eventually catapulted her into a mood spiral that stretched over months: mania, psychosis, hospitalization, severe depression, and another hospitalization.
“It was really intense. I didn’t know what was going on,” she says. “Then I was in sheer disbelief about my diagnosis and in a hopeless state mixed with grief.”
Knowing she needed help, but not sure where to find it after a second hospitalization, Hollebakken was encouraged to move into supported living for young adults-transitional housing where people with mental illness receive services and hone both work and social skills-provided by the non-profit New View Society in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia.
As she adjusted to her new reality, Hollebakken stayed in an upstairs apartment at the New View “clubhouse” with four roommates. And she met her mentor and role model, Nicole Boivin, a staff member who was running the community’s young adults program.
“Because of her great energy, Nicole gave me a really good reason to go downstairs and get involved in clubhouse activities,” recalls Hollebakken.
That meant joining the young adults’ meal program, during which members made dinner together, along with participating in a regular game night, a running group and the Smoothies Club-inaugurated after Hollebakken nudged the clubhouse manager to buy a high powered blender. She also accompanied Boivin on shopping expeditions for clubhouse essentials.
Soon Hollebakken was hired to make and bake cookies in the community’s Crazy Cookie Company and sell them at the local farmer’s market. She also worked at New View’s property care services business, Suds in a Bucket.
Along the way, Boivin gave her plenty of high fives. Hollebakken describes her friend as genuine, empathetic, confident, funny and a really great listener.
“She’s very caring, gun, and always smiling –no matter what’s going on,” Hollebakken says, “She’s so encouraging and so much of what she does, you can’t really put into words. I think she helped heal me by osmosis-I absorbed so much good.”
Hollebakken moved out of New View’s housing nearly two years ago. She’s starting a career in peer support, due in no small part to her positive experiences with Boivin. She’s also determined to sustain her health, in spite of the fact that “some moments are harder than others,” she says.
As she reflects on her journey from New View to living on her own again, Hollebakken remembers special moments with Boivin that lightened her spirits through laughter and mutual acceptance.
“I could hang in Nicoles’s office with other clubhouse employees and I was never treated any differently. I would tell her jokingly, ‘I am so glad you are paid to be my friend,’ but the truth is, we really were-and really are-good friends.”
There’s a lot about Ernest Hemingway that resonates with Austin Lugo. For one thing, Hemingway dedicated himself to writing while in his 20’s. For another, the famous novelist grasped experience with both hands even while wrestling with bipolar depression and alcohol.
An aspiring writer himself, Lugo hopes to follow Hemingway’s dictum to “live life to the fullest”-while avoiding the unhappier aspects of Hemingway’s story. He pays tribute to a high school English teacher, James Michael Brady, not only for putting him on the path to creative expression but also for encouraging him as he manages bipolar disorder.
“When I think about writing, I think of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had similar issues,” says Lugo, 19, referring to the celebrated authors’ well-documented psychological struggles. “Writing has this almost exceptional way of helping us exemplify who we are in a way we don’t always want to see. It also helps us see who we are without having to face all the hard parts of ourselves.”
Diagnosed with bipolar four years ago, the young man from Indiana can trace the illness through several generations on his mother’s side of the family.
“To say my journey has been one of trepidation would be an understatement. I’ve questioned my life a multitude of times,” he reveals. “If it weren’t for that one man, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Although Brady can be brusque at times, Lugo says, “we fostered a student-teacher relationship like no other. It was nice to finally have someone to talk to and just be who I was.”
Lugo says that like many adolescents, he wasn’t’ sure what to do with his life. He loved to read and he worked out regularly, following a core strength and conditioning program-but still, he needed something else.
During his senior year of high school, he took a writing course with Brady. It turned out to be the right place at the right time. Lugo was trying to get over what felt like a shattering disappointment: not getting an internship he really wanted.
“Mr. Brady encouraged me to talk to him more, and one day I told him my life story in a very short period,” says Lugo. The teacher also asked him what he wanted to do, and when Lugo said “writer,” Brady took up the cause.
Brady helped Lugo develop and enhance his literary skills in both fiction and nonfiction, motivating him to articulate his thoughts on paper-and to achieve a 4.0 grade point average. He told the teen how much he believed in him, urging Lugo, “You can be so much better.”
Now Lugo has put together a compilation of his short essays called Infinite, about “what it means to be human”-inspired by his very first class with Brady. He’s started his own publishing company and is deferring college entrance until fall 2016.
As he moves through personal and professional challenged, Lugo keeps Brady top of mind.
“Whether it was his age or superior wisdom, I’ll never know why he was able to help me so much. But I do know this: If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be a writer, and I probably wouldn’t be alive. I owe everything to him.”
Lisbeth Fry of Walla Walla, Washington, has gone through all the ups and downs you’d expect during four decades of coping with bipolar disorder. During a particularly bad period three years ago, a faithful friend was her lifeline.
Diagnosed at age 22, Fry married, had a daughter, and taught middle school for 27 years. When symptoms erupted, however, they could devastate her work and personal life. She speaks matter-of-factly of her divorce, of a five-year stretch when she was alienated from her daughter, and of retiring at age 55 after a tumultuous mood episode.
Fry says she was able to maintain hope because there were always people who believed in her, especially her mother. Three years ago, when she fell into a “very serious clinical depression”, it was a friend of 10 years, Missy Newcom.
“I didn’t want to go out,” Fry, 65, recalls of that time, “and I fell into a very dark, black state.”
She says Newcom was incredibly supportive, calling her every day, often playing cribbage with her, and making sure Fry got out of the house.
“When I’m depressed, I don’t have a lot to say and people don’t have a lot to say to me,” Fry says. “Missy’s presence was a wonderful thing. I know I am loved when someone like her is so willing and devoted to helping me and so very empathetic.”
Fry wasn’t shy about sharing her need for help, and Newcom reached out her hand in other special ways. For example, Newcom made sure her pal got to every concert at their city’s annual chamber music festival.
“In addition to always being available, Missy’s pretty persistent, she was always there for me,” Fry says of her supporter. The two still get together for walking and other exercise, as well as going to church.
Normally, Fry tries to stay as busy and productive as she possibly can, she devotes one day a week as a comfort care volunteer at the local hospital. An accomplished flutist, she spends her talent and time as a flute choir teacher, coaching both middle school and high school students three days a week.
“I just love Bach, Debussy, Faure, Poulenc and Prokofiev,” she says enthusiastically. “And being with kids and teaching them is so fulfilling. I always feel better when I walk out of school than when I wal k in.”
Even so, mood episodes can strike without warning.
“I’ll go six months without depression, and then-boom. I fall into it immediately, like rolling down a steep hill, “she says.
When she has a bad episode, she tries to hold onto one thought: “I know I’ll come out of it eventually, thanks to my friends like Missy. It is also so important to have a good therapist and a good doctor who will prescribe the right medications at the right time.
“There is always hope, and I am here today to tell you that hope and medication are the keys to wellness.”