Living day to day – mentally ill patients share their stories

People with mental illnesses are not dangerous outcasts without any hope of becoming functioning members of society. They merely require extra willpower in order to lead happy, normal lives.

This was the message being expressed by members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) during their presentation “In Our Own Voice: Living with Mental Illness,” which was held on Oct. 11 in Forcina 134 with the aid of the College’s Psychology Club and Psychological Counseling Services.

The two speakers were Kate McGinnity of Lambertville, N.J., and a woman named Mary Jane – who chose not to reveal her surname for personal reasons – who resides in Lawrenceville, N.J. Both women have been living with mental illnesses for years. They gave their stories about living in darkness and misery, accepting their illnesses, seeking treatment, coping with their illnesses and eventually finding solace in their successes, hopes and dreams.

“This illness absolutely devastated my life,” McGinnity said. “I’ve come back from a lot.”

McGinnity suffered from major depression before she was finally diagnosed with disassociative identity disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, disassociative identity disorder is a mental disorder in which two or more distinct personalities or ego-states exist in an individual.

According to McGinnity, the immediate effects of her illnesses were very scary. Her brain was impaired so badly that she forgot how to perform even the most basic of human motor functions. The illnesses also severely hampered her attention span.

“I couldn’t read a book or watch a movie for a year,” McGinnity said.

Disassociative identity disorder is often brought about by stress from a traumatic experience. McGinnity partially attributes her illness to an incident in her youth when she was raped by a gynecologist.

“It’s strange how people don’t want to talk to you when you have a mental illness – even your own family,” McGinnity said.

McGinnity recalled being emotionally abandoned by her mother, who told her that if she couldn’t pull herself together then she didn’t want her as a daughter. McGinnity’s only contact became her oldest son.

Mary Jane suffers from major depression and bipolar disorder, an illness in which the patient experiences extreme mood swings.

Unlike McGinnity, Mary Jane had the support of many people behind her. “The experiences made me appreciate my health, my family and my friends a lot more,” she said.

Mary Jane’s acceptance of her disease came slowly. As the general accounting manager for a local company, she knew that having a mental illness would have crippling effects on her career.

McGinnity’s professional life was also cut short by her disease. After teaching children with mental disabilities for 25 years, she was forced to retire. A loss of sufficient income forced her to give up her house and declare bankruptcy.

Yet both women were courageous and eventually decided to seek treatment for their illnesses. Today McGinnity meets regularly with a social worker and exercises whenever she can. She works part time at a library and is also fully committed to NAMI.

“I need to make sure I don’t overextend myself though,” McGinnity said. “I need more rest than most people.”

Mary Jane meets with a psychiatrist every three months and a therapist biweekly to discuss her goals. She also dances and does yoga. She stressed her desire to maintain her independence and not rely too heavily on others for support.

“Given the choice between being in a program and being a productive member of society, I choose (the latter),” Mary Jane said.

According to its official Web site, NAMI was founded in 1979 as the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of persons living with serious mental illness and their families. According to McGinnity, before 1979 there wasn’t a lot of help for people with mental illnesses, and stigma was high.

NAMI strives to reduce this stigma and to increase Medicare for mental illness patients who have lost their jobs.

“We need to wake up to what advocacy we can do,” McGinnity said.