Ernest: Who I Was, Who I Am, Who I Will Be
Who Was I?
I live in the woods near Roscommon, Michigan, in the upper part of the Lower Peninsula. I am 62 years old and lived as a hermit for 12 years. I am now a consumer of Mental Health services served by Northern Lakes Community Mental Health (NLCMH). I came out of the woods to get back into society around seven years ago. I started volunteering for the Crawford County Sheriffs Department as a Certified Victims Advocate which later dissolved, then went on to volunteer in the mental health system, and have not turned back to living as a hermit.
Let me tell you a bit about my life and how I came to be a hermit in the first place. I was raised in Rochester, Michigan. A somewhat happy life but had a father who was an alcoholic and a very loving mother who was beaten by him. I have an older brother and sister. I started realizing I was developing a mental illness when I was 20 years old. I first entered the mental health system in 1965. At that time the basic treatment was with drugs and psychoanalysis, the ones of choice at that time were Stelazine and Thorazine. Both of these drugs just controlled the problem but would not give lasting treatment. You were put in the mental health system and discharged after a maximum treatment of 20 times, no matter if you were stable or cured or not. This was a revolving door for me. Mental Health Parity did not exist then (Parity is the equal medical treatment of physical and mental illness). I did not get the appropriate diagnosis or medication to let me return to a good way of life. I was hospitalized on four different occasions with the same result, still not stable. Because of my poor physical and mental health my families suffered the consequences of this problem.
I have been married twice, both ending in divorce. I lost the love of families, five children and now six grandchildren because of my misdiagnosed mental health problems. My families suffered because of my mental illness because I was not correctly diagnosed as manic depressive even after 37 years. I enjoyed the manic phase so much I never worked less than two jobs and sometimes as many as five at a time. My family didn’t know whether I was coming or going because of my condition. I was verbally abusive and had little control of my life and my anger because of the condition. It is now called bipolar disorder. The depressive stage took me to very low depths and caused me to attempt suicide on three occasions. An overdose of prescribed medications was my choice. I was treated off and on but only received appropriate treatment after I went to the woods to just exist until I died from my epilepsy or the other medical conditions I had.
Because of my mental health condition, I thought that if I just went to the woods and died there, no one would care. Doctors said I was committing “Silent Suicide.” What do I mean saying silent suicide? I was working at taking old barns down, living alone with my health conditions, working in the woods all summer in the heat and humidity, cutting my wood for winter, and not eating, with all my medical problems. All of this personal abuse contributed to the silent suicide I was committing. I am also a person with Diabetes, Epilepsy and many other medical problems.
I have had several medical health issues along the way. I have had my back broken two times, resulting in three major back surgeries. I spent two years in an electric wheelchair, because I couldn’t walk 20 steps without pain. I have an artificial knee. I have pins, plates and screws in my back. I have a titanium brace in my neck. When I go through metal detectors at the airports I think I glow in the dark for a half hour. I had major stomach surgery in which 85 percent of my stomach was taken out. I have also had three kidney surgeries. Also two major shoulder surgeries and thirteen more surgeries to just get my hands back in working order, with the last being a partial amputation of two fingers on my left hand (which they thought I did because of my epilepsy). In total, 32 surgeries to my body. I have also had both legs broken at the same time and both ankles broken. I have arthritis and asthma.
Again a missed diagnosis of my epilepsy caused me to become more depressed. Living in the woods was what I thought was the solution to my problems. But when I was found two miles away from my cabin in the woods in winter with only my long-johns and suffering frost bite, I was finally taken to the hospital in Cadillac. My doctor there diagnosed malnutrition, depression, and diabetes and uncontrolled epilepsy. I was given treatment and it was suggested that I go to mental health once again to see if because of my lifestyle (silent suicide) I could get back on the track to better achieve both mental and physical health. that is who I was.
WHO AM I NOW?
Because I wanted my families to let me back in their lives, I decided to begin my recovery. Through my medical doctor and Northern Lakes Community Mental Health’s concern and dedication to helping me, I started back on a very different way and quality of life. I was treated with respect no matter how I looked. Then through my doctor’s efforts in encouraging me to get well I started to get involved in the system. I decided to ask for help and try to make some changes in the Health Care system from within. I have been encouraged by the CEO, Greg Paffhouse of NLCMH, who said, if I didn’t like how the system was working to get involved, and try to make some changes so maybe others would not have to take 37 years to recover.
I now am involved in the mental health system. I do volunteer work on committees at NLCMH, I am the past chair of the Consumer Advocacy Council at NLCMH. I also serve on the Improving Practices Leadership Team at NLCMH. I have also tried to get involved statewide. I serve as the Chairman of the PAIMI (Persons and Individuals with Mental Illness) Committee working with MPAS (Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service) in Lansing. I also serve on the Board of Directors for MPAS. My commitment as a certified advocate helped me get involved with consumers in the national mental health system also. I then decided that maybe I could make a difference nationally so I now serve as Chairman of the Consumer Education and Self-Advocacy Council for NDRN (National Disability Rights Network), formerly NPAS, in Washington D.C. and I also serve on the Project Advisory Committee for NDRN. I am also a member of the Mental Health Association, a member of the National Association of Peer Specialists, a Certified CPR/First Aid/AED instructor. I am currently also involved with the University of Pennsylvania Peer Internet Study program.
The system has been receptive to me and has given me a chance to make a difference. I have recently been appointed to the Michigan Department of Community Health Recovery Council in Lansing. Peer Support advocacy systems in Michigan have also encouraged me to become a Peer Support Specialist where I can work close one-on-one with consumers and help them recover to the best of their ability. My goal of recovery is to ask this question: “Am I better now than I was a while ago?” Helping consumers make a difference in the system by working within the system of mental health has started to prove beneficial to the consumer and to society as well. When consumers help make the decisions about their treatment, by knowing what works best for them, recovery is not far behind.
Having epilepsy, diabetes, arthritis, CoPD, asthma, bipolar disorder and many other physical problems has given me insight to these conditions. While I will never completely recover from these conditions I do understand that they are only a part of me. I have more to give if just given a chance. By getting involved in my recovery and the recovery of others I have found that volunteering has given me my life back and the families I had lost.
WHO WILL I BE?
I will only be changed if I put effort into my recovery. I have realized that when we put in effort through our Person Centered Planning process we can make a difference, not only in our lives but other persons’ lives. Realizing that mental illness is just an illness and not an excuse to not try to make my life different, I have found recovery. I will not only keep on trying to the best of my ability to change my life for the better but will also help others make their lives better. Consumers who care can make a difference in their own lives if just given a chance to work within the system and let the system know that recovery is possible!