Mary is a 56 year old divorced woman who grew up in and currently lives in Cincinnati, OH, although she lived in Los Angeles for several years in between. She has received multiple diagnoses including paranoid schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and severe depression, and what is unusual about her case is that her symptoms did not appear until she was into her fifties.
After Mary graduated high school, she attended court reporting school for two years and for the following sixteen years, she worked as court reporter. At the age of thirty-six, she decided to quit her high paying job in Cincinnati and moved to California to pursue her life-long dream of becoming an actress. Interestingly, Mary began her acting career playing a court reporter in a number of television programs (Murder One, Ally McBeal, The Practice) and movies (I am Sam); however, her acting career never really, in Mary’s words, “took off.” Nonetheless, while she was trying to get her acting career going, Mary also worked as an assistant for bestselling authors Sidney Sheldon and Mark Victor Hansen as well as famous hairdresser Vidal Sassoon. Despite the steady income, Mary and her then-husband, who was verbally and emotionally abusive, found themselves struggling financially. During this already stressful time, Mary’s mother also became very ill.
I’ve come to believe a great deal in the power of the spoken word, and I used to always say to my mom, “If anything ever happens to you, I’ll go crazy. They’ll have to lock me up and throw away the key. I don’t know what I’ll-what I’d ever do without you.” So she was getting sick. I started getting sick as this pressure was mounting–the financial pressure, we had an eviction notice on our door in the apartment that we rented. And my husband was doing nothing about finding work or bringing money in, and all the pressure was on me.
In addition, Mary was also experiencing stress from her job, feeling that she was in over her head. It was at this point that she started to become delusional.
So at some point, I really began to crack. And it seemed as though it happened overnight. I started having delusions… I believed that the devil had made me pregnant. I believed that he had put five sensors in my body so that I could be tracked wherever I went. I believed that the sensors would eventually become cancerous, and I didn’t care because by this time, I really felt like I wanted to die. I had so many delusions. I believed that I had smoked crack-cocaine, which is hilarious when I look back on it because I wouldn’t even know where to buy crack cocaine or who is a crack cocaine dealer. But this was one of my delusions that I was so bent on. And I was a sober alcoholic, sober for twenty-three years at the time. So I kept obsessing on this and saying to everybody, “Do I need to reset my sobriety date? Do I need to reset my sobriety date? You know, ‘cause I’m sure that I smoked crack cocaine.” And my friends kept saying, “Well, we’re sure that you didn’t.” I’d say no. And I embezzled all this money–because there was, like, little kernels of truth in the things that were my delusions, small kernels of truth that just got completely blown out of proportion. Like, a friend of mine was an employee of a world famous artist, and I believed somehow that I got access to that artist’s financial accounts and that I embezzled millions of dollars from him. Well, how in the world could I have embezzled millions of dollars if I didn’t even have millions of dollars? And how would I have had access to his accounts? But these are the kinds of things that I was so sure of that no one could convince me of otherwise.
The onset of this difficult time for Mary came on very quickly, over a span of a couple weeks to a month, which was as Mary describes:
Very scary because I went from being this highly productive, working all my life, never even had taken an anti-depressant, fifty-three years old, never had–. I mean, I’d, I’d seen the therapist before, you know, to work through my issues, my family of origin kind of issues and my alcoholism issues, but never anything like this, and never had I taken a pill for anything.
After a period of hospitalizations in California, Mary’s husband reportedly decided he did not have the time or the means to take care of her, so her family decided to fly her back to Cincinnati to get her the help she needed. When Mary arrived in Cincinnati, her family discovered just how dire her situation was:
And they thought that I just needed outpatient help at that time. And I was here about two days when it became apparent that I was very, very, very sick. And I was either catatonic, not speaking, not communicating, or I was sobbing my eyes out. And I got admitted to University Hospital and they just–they had a hard time knowing what to do with me. There was a psychiatric nurse there who had been a psychiatric nurse for thirty years, and she was wonderful. And she said to my friends – at the time I think she thought they were my family – but she said to my friends, Linda and Beth, she said, “You know, usually when I see someone I can look and say bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality.” She said, “I can’t, I can’t diagnose anything because she presents with so many symptoms of so many different disorders. It’s very difficult to say.” And the fact that I was fifty-three years old and had no history or any problems and that this came on so suddenly was all very bizarre.
During her eight to ten week hospitalization in Cincinnati, Mary’s mother did pass away.
And I didn’t remember this – somebody told me this about a month ago – that they brought me in a wheelchair, that I was so feeble I couldn’t even walk, and so frail and bent over and I remember them saying, “Oh, here comes Mary. Clear a path for Mary.” And they set me, they wheeled me into her bedside, up to her bedside, and I put her hand in mine or somebody put our hands together, and she held my hand and she breathed her last breaths and died. So, I wasn’t well enough to attend the wake or the funeral. I didn’t–wasn’t even aware that she was dead. I was in and out of that awareness. Somebody sent me sympathy flowers in the hospital, and I remember looking at them and not really understanding what the sympathy flowers were for. It took me a long time to be able to grieve my mother’s death because I was so sick when she died. I was incapable of grieving anything.
After she was released from the hospital, Mary lived with her brother for a time, but when she became more unstable, she began living in a halfway house. Mary explained how during her stay at the halfway house, her condition did not improve:
I wasn’t getting any better, I wasn’t going to therapy, I wasn’t able to go to meetings. I wasn’t able to do anything good for myself and so I came up with a plan that I would take my own life.
Mary’s plan involved flying back to California and using her husband’s car as a tool to take her life:
I didn’t tell my husband what I was gonna do. I didn’t tell my plan at all. But I waited until he got in the shower, like several hours after I got home, and I took his car keys, and I drove out to Malibu Canyon. And, you know where you see on–in movies, the steep cliffs in California, and I found this–drove up and down the canyon three times looking for the steepest cliff I could find. And I looked for an overlook that had the rocks spaced far enough apart that I could get my car all the way through it, my husband’s car. And so when I finally found the perfect place, I put the car–I was in the convertible, I had the top down, and the windows down–put the car into reverse and I shoved it into forward, into drive, and slammed on the accelerator and went sailing over the cliff. And that was the beginning of coming back to life, as crazy as that sounds. It wasn’t because I was grateful that I was alive because I wasn’t. I was angry. My life didn’t flash in front of me. I expected it to. I fully expected it to ‘cause I thought the bottom of that ravine-. Now there’s a police report that I got that said it was a 300 foot drop. Google Earth says that location’s a 200 foot drop, but, so it’s somewhere between a two and three-hundred foot drop, and I went straight down. And at the bottom of the ravine, I hit a rock, a great, big, huge rock and that totaled the car. And that also broke my back–that impact. I had a fifty percent compression fracture to L2 and that was it. I didn’t have a scratch anywhere on my body, anywhere on my face, my neck.
While Mary was initially upset that her plan had not worked, this was the turning point that set her on the road to wellness. She decided to remove her husband from her life to relieve herself of the abusive relationship and to return to Cincinnati. Once released from the hospital, she spent some time in a nursing home while recovering from her back injury.
And it was in the nursing home that I started to get a little bit of gratitude. ‘Cause I saw people without limbs who were waiting for transplants. I saw a lot of alcoholics who had lost their limbs due to diabetes from the alcoholism, and they were probably never gonna get the transplants that they were waiting for. I saw people with Alzheimer’s, you know, all kinds of dementia. And I was one of the youngest people in there. And I kept remembering when I was in Kemper House, there was a guy there who was an angel. His name was Christian Smith. And he would say to me, “You’ve got it in you to get well. You’ve got it in you to recover. I know you do. You just have to be willing.” And he would talk to me about mindfulness, and he would work with me on my breathing, and he tried so hard to get me to go to GCB because he knew the classes there would really help me. And, you know, he wanted me to go to therapy and things like that. So when I was in the nursing home–oh, and he kept saying to me, “You know, if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re either going to end up in a nursing home or an assisted living or a group home. None of those are good options for you. You’re far too young and you have too much life in you left to live.” So here I am in the nursing home, going, “I ended up in the nursing home. How did this happen? And what am I going to do about it?”
Also when in the nursing home, some of Mary’s loved ones expressed how upset they were with her for trying to take her own life. This possibility of her loved ones cutting her out of their lives also helped encourage her to try to get better.
So something in me said, “You’ve gotta get well.” And so I started asking people for their life purpose, “What’s your life purpose? What’s your life purpose? What’s your life purpose?” Because I knew if I didn’t have a life purpose, what point was there in living? And my brother Joe said something to me that was so powerful and yet so simple. He said, “My purpose in life is to see to it every day that every person that I come in contact with has a slightly better day for having, for having had an exchange with me. So whether it’s a perfect stranger at the grocery store, or my barber, or someone at church, I always say ‘Hello, how are you?’” And so he acknowledges people, and that was a life purpose I could live with. At the time I thought, “I can do this.” So when I finally was ready to get out of the nursing home, I saw my case manager and I said, “I’m ready to do whatever it takes to get well. I want to go into DBT therapy, I want to have DBT skills group, and I wanna get back to meetings. I wanna get my life back.” And that’s exactly what I did.
When Mary returned to meetings and found a new sponsor, she was able to realize that she contributed to the problems in her relationship with her ex-husband just as he had. This awareness allowed her to begin to see her role in her illness as well.
And when I realized that, I felt so free because I realized if I had a part in the beginning of my unraveling, I also have a part in my recovery. So I also have control over–and I have a big part in my recovery, but I have some control over whether or not it’s going to happen again. By virtue of the fact I have these, you know, I have DBT and I have the twelve steps and so now I’m very diligently working step six and seven. And in order to find–I had to really look at what was my part in the marriage because he was so abusive, and I was this angel who’s out working and doing this and that, but really– My part was things like– I knew the morning, I knew the morning of the day that I was marrying him that I was making a big mistake, and I went through with it anyway. There were many times throughout the course of the marriage when I felt like I was being told to leave and I stayed. And so there were a lot of ways I participated in the behavior that– And I’d shout just as much as he would shout. We would get into these horrible shouting matches and things like that. And so, I don’t want to live that way ever again. And in a strange way, (pauses) I feel like this was my calling all along and that I had to go through the mental illness in the bizarre way that I did with many, many diagnoses and, you know, at my turning point being what it was, that I had to go through all that so that I could be an effective mental health advocate and speaker.
At the time of this interview, Mary was working on her dream of becoming a mental health advocate. Since then, she has realized that dream by participating in a number of speaking engagements about mental illness and sharing her story via NAMI’s In Our Own Voice speaker series. Mary has also joined the team at The Schizophrenia Oral History Project, volunteering her time and skills as a transcriber. And, she contributed to a Master Class titled “Patient and Family Engagement and Mental Health” sponsored by Partnership for Patients based in Washington, DC. Click here to listen to the webinar of that class.
Reflecting on her own recovery, Mary offers encouragement to others struggling with mental illness:
And people need to know that mental illness does not need to be a lifetime diagnosis. And people can and do recover from mental illness every day. And people who are sick need to know that.
Here is a picture from Mary’s bus card during the height of her difficulties:
And here is a more recent photo of her after recovery, posing with the Sidney Sheldon book she worked on: