Why I Walk: Joan's Story
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My name is Joan Kelly and I live in Augusta, Maine. I have been diagnosed with a mental illness for over 10 years now, and have had many ups and downs along the way. I have wanted to share my experiences, the good and the bad, for some time now, but have only recently come to realize that it is possible to make my dream a reality. I would have never thought I would make it to this point in my life or that good could ever come from my painful experiences. I share my story in hopes that one day mental illness will become normalized and those living with mental illness will no longer have to conceal their illness from those around them.


 When my mental health symptoms began I was very young. I remember sitting on my bedroom floor and crying for hours at a time because I felt like no one loved me. Over time, I began feeling as though I didn’t deserve to be loved. I thought I had done something horribly wrong and because of it everyone had stopped loving me. At the time I didn’t know what suicide or being suicidal even meant, I just knew I didn’t want to live. At the age of 10 I tried taking my life for the first time.


Things continued being rocky throughout my pre-adolescent years as I struggled with my emotions and how to handle them.  By the time I started middle school my parents were in the middle of a custody battle over me and I began to blame myself for their choices. During my 7th grade year I turned to self-harm in an effort to stabilize my emotions. As my parents arguments increased I became more and more convinced it was because I had done something wrong. When my 8th grade year began my parents couldn’t be in the same room with each other and though they didn’t live in the same house, I felt like I was living in a war zone. I could barely talk to either of them without causing an argument. I felt like I had torn our family apart. I carried around tremendous amounts of guilt and shame, believing that none of this would have happened if I hadn’t gotten sick.


I became dependent on self-harm until it became just that: a dependency. I was numb to the world and really didn’t care if I lived or died. The school mandated my parents take me to the emergency room a couple of times and during one of those emergency room visits it was decided I needed to be hospitalized. I spent 23 days in the hospital and was put on medication to help stabilize my mood. Upon returning home I had been referred to a medication manager and was encouraged to attend counselling twice a week. During this time I expected everyone around me to fix me. I felt helpless and wanted others to give me the answers.


Throughout high school I still had my struggles. I had been diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder but I didn’t really understand what that meant. I had moments of feeling good about myself and about my life but they were only momentary. I had felt so horrible for so long that I didn’t really know what it felt like to be happy. My senior year in high school I really began struggling again and was evaluated by a crisis response team who told me about crisis stabilization units. I was voluntarily admitted to one of these units for a week. I still had the expectation that other people were the ones who were going to make me feel better and I took no responsibility for my own emotions or actions. I began frequenting these crisis units, sometimes being admitted monthly.  


After graduation, I rarely had anything to do and often found myself just sitting around the house.  I eventually got connected with a case manager and we started brainstorming places I could go to during the day to get me out of the house. My case manager suggested we look into Clubhouse, and with my permission, set up a tour. Even after the tour, I wasn’t sure about the program but I desperately needed to get out of the house. I began attending Capitol Clubhouse almost every day for a year. I was still not at a place in my life to really be able to accept the services they were offering me and became very aggressive to the point where they asked me to leave.


Shortly after, I was selected for a time-limited transitional housing program in Augusta and moved out on my own. Living on my own presented new challenges and not having things to do during the day made it even more so. My mental health symptoms began to increase due to the lack of meaningful activities within my day and the amount of time I was spending alone. I became very angry at the world and began having homicidal ideations. I lived with terrifying thoughts floating through my head no one else knew about for many weeks. I ended up in a crisis unit when I finally decided it was time to share these thoughts with someone else. After doing so, the decision was I needed to be re-valuated by crisis. I was taken by ambulance to the emergency room to begin navigating a part of the system I had never had to navigate before. I found myself in many unfamiliar places and situations throughout the next several days and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. By the time I arrived on the unit I was terrified. I had journeyed through a system I had little knowledge about and where I was completely alone, the experience of so many…


After returning home, I maintained stability for a short term but still continued to heavily depend on crisis stabilization units for support. The crisis response team began declining my requests to be admitted into crisis units and eventually stopped wanting to even evaluate me. During one of the times they agreed to evaluate me I was told they wouldn’t be able to get to me for at least 5 hours. I ended up going to the emergency room and was not seen by crisis until 2 in the morning. I was accepted into a crisis unit in Brewer and was released from the emergency room 20 hours after arriving. Within days of arriving in Brewer I was kicked out of the crisis unit and taken to the hospital to yet again, navigate the system alone. I spent 5 days on an observation unit, over an hour away from home while they changed my medications.


I returned home and over time was able to regain some sense of stability, though it was still very rocky. During this time in my life I was unable to focus on finding another place to live and before I knew it I found myself timing out of my housing program. Since moving in, I had been through numerous crisis stays, two hospitalizations and now at risk losing my existing housing. I was now facing homelessness.


I had to move out and I stayed with friends until I could get into the homeless shelter in Augusta. Leaving my own apartment to live in the homeless shelter was difficult and really scary but it was one of the things that really pushed me to where I am today. Being in the shelter really changed my perspective on life. I had access to resources I never had before and began to realize one of the attributes I wanted in my life; I want to be able to give. I have since realized I may not have a lot of monetary things to give to those around me, but even if I have nothing else to give in life, I can still give my story.


I had returned to Clubhouse, and about 7 months ago was selected for a transitional employment site at NAMI. For the first time in my life I have been able maintain employment and working at NAMI has opened far more doors for me than I would have ever thought. When I began working at their offices I had no idea who they were or what they did. By forming relationships with those around me I have been able to network and have had many opportunities I know I would have never had, had Clubhouse not given me the opportunity to work at NAMI Maine. During my 7 months at NAMI Maine, I have had the chance to take several trainings, classes, and am now able to share my story as a member of the speakers bureau, Emerge from Stigma: Voices of Hope and Resiliency.


Within the last few months, I gained housing and am now thriving in my new space. I completed two classes through adult education with flying colors and am trying to return to a college degree program I started along the way, but soon after abandoned. I have learned many things along the way but one of the most important is that other people’s journeys are not my own. I have been able to take responsibility and own what I have been through over the years. I am no longer trying to fit my experiences into someone else’s expectations.


Moving forward has been a slow process, but through the help of my community supports, friends, family, and the struggles that have pushed me toward being a better person, I am striving towards my dream of helping others. I have not been in a crisis unit for over a year now and I have become more confident about who I am. I don’t know where my future is going to lead me, but I am hopeful and expectant that it will lead me to places I couldn’t have even imagined.


I was hindered during my earlier years from getting the services I needed. I carried around self-judgment because I thought my mental illness was my fault. I hope that by being a part of the NAMI Maine Walk and the speakers’ bureau and being able to share my experiences, we will be able to start having conversations about mental illness. Not just amongst each other, but within our communities at large. Mental illness is not about how we are different from everyone else. Mental illness is about recognizing our strengths and utilizing them for the greater good. I encourage you to help begin the process of normalizing mental illness by starting conversations with those around you. 


Joan Kelly