Recovery from Mental Illness

Women with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other problems may struggle, but many can have rewarding and productive lives. Here’s how three women overcame their symptoms

by Ginny Graves
mental illness illustration image
Photograph: Illustration by Gérard Dubois

The incident was a wake-up call. Parker-Mathis, who says she had a “messy divorce,” was concerned her husband might conclude that her mental-health problems made her an unfit mother to their son. “If I had stolen that car, the authorities could have taken my child—the most important thing to me in the world,” she says. “When I got home, I called my mom and said, ‘You have to come get me. I’m doing things and thinking things that aren’t making sense.’ ”

Parker-Mathis and Zachary moved to Michigan, where she checked herself into the psychiatric ward of the local hospital. The doctors there diagnosed her with schizoaffective disorder, a subtype of schizophrenia, and put her on an antipsychotic medication and a mood stabilizer, plus a medication for anxiety. She saw a therapist and a psychiatrist every week, and for the three months she was in the hospital, the doctors allowed Zachary to visit every day. “We’d sit on the floor and play Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. I just kept telling myself I had to get better for him.”

Her strong connection to Zachary was unusual. “Many people with schizophrenia become isolated and lose interest in life in general—and the drugs we use don’t treat those problems very well,” says Mary Seeman, MD, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and an expert on schizophrenia in women.

Parker-Mathis’s symptoms improved markedly, but it took years of tweaking the medications and dosages to get to where she says she is today: feeling almost “completely normal.” Five years ago, she married her longtime boyfriend, and after earning a master’s degree in social justice, she’s studying for a PhD. “My goal is to advocate for people with emotional problems,” says Parker-Mathis, who works as an outreach specialist connected to the University of Michigan Depression Center. “I feel as if it’s my job to let people know that mental-health disorders are like diabetes: chronic health conditions that can be managed with medication.”

Even so, for a long time she didn’t take her antipsychotic meds consistently, because they cause weight gain. Noncompliance is a problem that’s especially common in women who take the drugs. Now Parker-Mathis says she has “learned to love being plump, because that means I’m emotionally healthy—and these days there’s nothing more important to me than that.”

Parker-Mathis knows she is fortunate. “When I was leaving the hospital, the doctors said, ‘Many people don’t recover when they’re as sick as you were.’ I recovered because I was blessed with a loving family and a reason to get better. I’d do anything for my son. I really believe that’s what pulled me through.”

Michelle Hunt, 48
Professor of neuroscience and anatomy, Troy, New York. She has treatment-resistant depression.
From childhood on, Michelle Hunt had struggled with periods of overwhelming sadness. She consulted many counselors and psychiatrists, who tried different antidepressants, then various combinations of drugs, all without much success. Hunt, like about a third of people with depression, suffered from a “treatment resistant” version of the condition. “It was scary to feel as if no one could really help me,” she says. “I began to doubt I’d ever get better, and that thought was unbearable.”

In 2006 she hit a new and terrifying low. “I was teaching at the time, and I had to cancel class after class because I’d start crying and not be able to stop,” she recalls. “Nothing in particular in my life was making me sad. The feeling just came from a very dark place inside me.” Within weeks, Hunt had to take a leave of absence, a development that factored into her thoughts of suicide. “I was very ashamed of being depressed, and I tried to hide it even from people close to me because I thought it was a character flaw. I just kept thinking, If I can’t make a contribution, I must not be a valuable person—and if I’m not valuable, what is there to live for?”

First Published in the May 2013 issue

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