Penelope is a 37 year old Caucasian female living independently in her own apartment in Cincinnati, Ohio. She values her family, children, and music. She has received support and strength from her parents and siblings, and is now happily married to an understanding man. She adores children, and has three of her own. Music provides her with emotional connections and strength during difficult times.
From elementary to high school, Penelope was a good student, typically receiving A’s in her classes. She was involved with various activities, participating in the Spanish honor society, yearbook club, and marching band. She was motivated to take part in multiple extracurricular activities through her desire to impress and honor her parents. She knew what they sacrificed in order to take care of herself and her siblings, and she wanted to do well in activities as a way of honoring their sacrifices.
It was not until Penelope was well into her young adult years that she received a diagnosis. After the birth of her third child, it was thought that she possibly had postpartum depression. Penelope, though, just thought that she was “weird” or “different” and that eventually there would be nothing worthy of concern. However, after an episode filled with delusions and hallucinations, she realized that she could no longer ignore or deny that something was indeed wrong. Penelope was diagnosed with schizoaffective order with severe depression when she was 26 years old.
Listen to Penelope describe her diagnosis here:
In the years following her diagnosis, Penelope spent time in various facilities. On the first trip to the hospital, she attempted to jump out of a moving car. A few months after her first episode, Penelope felt better and decided to stop taking her medication. However, this ended in “bad spells,” and she was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the hospital, where the doctors tried to find an effective treatment. She was prescribed many different medications, and as a side effect, gained weight. Finally, the doctors settled on what was deemed as an efficacious combination of medication for Penelope.
During Penelope’s second hospitalization, she was visited by her younger brother. At that point, Penelope misunderstood her diagnosis and was worried that she was contagious. The whole time that her brother was there, Penelope did not look him in the eye; she did not want to risk passing on her illness, and thus the terrible experiences that she had.
And I couldn’t look him in the eye. ‘Cause I thought it was contagious. And I was—I thought that I was being protective of my little brother. I don’t even know if he still understands the whole, whole thing which is sad to me. But, I thought I was doing the right thing. ‘Cause, like a cold. You can catch a cold. I didn’t know what I had, but I know’d what I’d been through, and I didn’t want my little brother going through that.
In addition to concern for her brother, Penny was also concerned for her children. One day, she found her way to the facility’s cafeteria and burned her wrists on the stove. The situation did not scare her at the time because she thought that in burning herself in that way, her children would be sent directly to heaven. Aside from knowing that her upset mother came to the hospital, Penelope does not remember anything directly following this incident.
Another setback during Penelope’s treatment occurred when she punched a nurse who was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” As a result, Penelope was “locked up,” and spent two weeks in jail. During her time there, her mind became convinced of multiple things. First, she was sure that she could be released if she gave the men on the other side of the facility sexual favors. She also remembers thinking that her grandfather was buried outside the window, and that a lot of cars would pull up and park around his grave. In addition, her face appeared contorted or different than normal when she looked in the mirror. Penelope experienced isolation in jail, which is when she “lost touch with reality” and tried to commit suicide on the floor with a paint chip. She had no medication and was at the point of desperation.
Hear Penelope describe her experiences in jail:
Since her time spent at different facilities, Penelope has taken opportunities to reflect on her past actions, and is now able to discuss the memories and regrets that she has from such times. Penelope feels burdened when she recalls the instances in which she hurt others by her words or actions. She provides the example of a time she yelled extensively at her mother, noting how badly she later felt about that. Penelope feels as if her regrets are hard to think about now, and she believes that she will continue to struggle to deal with such things throughout the rest of her life.
Penelope: It’s hard for me every day now to think of one instance in reality that I’ve, I’ve really done it. I hurt by my own actions the ones that I helped, that helped me, and the people who stood by me. And that’s something I’m gonna have to deal with for the rest of my life.
While Penelope reflects on the things in her life that she regrets, she has also gained the self-awareness to recognize her sources of support, strength, and self-care. Penelope praises her caregivers from various settings, recognizing the way they supported her in different stages of recovery. Her biggest support system, though, has been her parents and siblings, and she credits them for helping her over the years. She describes her mother as being “caring and bold” and identifies her mother’s openness as being most important to her. Penelope states that her mother’s support through this openness helped her know that she did not have to hide from the world or feel badly for appearing to be “weird” or “different.” Rather than play into the stigma that society often places on individuals with mental illness, Penelope’s mother refused to accept or participate in such stigmatization. Additionally, her previous mother-in-law was supportive through just taking the time to listen to Penelope, and in reminding her about things she had to look forward to, which helped shift her thinking in a more positive direction.
While her living family members have continued to provide support to Penelope, she is quick to note the strength she still gains from the memory of her father. Penelope was close to her father, and describes herself as a “dad’s girl.” Unfortunately, the biggest blow for Penelope came in 2010 when he died following a diagnosis of lung cancer. Even though he is no longer living, Penelope uses him as motivation to work toward staying well, and she draws strength when she thinks of her father.
Listen to Penelope talk about sources of support here:
In addition to familial support and strength, Penelope relies on her faith in a higher power. She states that God knows her more completely than anyone on earth does. She identifies as Pentecostal, and seeks to learn from reading the Bible. A verse that has particularly stood out to Penelope is one that discusses the sick being blessed, and she has drawn encouragement from this.
Even though she has received tremendous support from others, she has still had times of feeling as if she needs to be alone to intently focus on her own wellbeing. In such instances, she has blocked others out so that she could deal with her own emotions rather than the emotions of other people. In those times, though she unintentionally appeared distant, she was taking care of herself in the way that she thought best:
Penelope: …so I had to block out everybody else because I wasn’t up to par with my own emotions.
Interviewer: Had to take care of yourself first.
Penelope: Yeah.Interviewer: That’s not always easy to do. How did you do it?Penelope: I just blocked everybody out. And If I wanted them to leave, they’d leave. I don’t think they understood it, but I did. I wanted to get well.
Now, though, Penelope has methods of using the support and strength she receives to focus on self-care. She has made rules for herself, which include staying away from stressful situations, not isolating herself, and not trying to hide the fact that she may need help. These rules were created from experience; when she isolated herself, she noticed that her depression would become worse. To take care of herself, Penelope tries to laugh; she loves when someone tells a hilarious joke or says something unexpectedly funny. If she does encounter a stressful situation, she uses animals, fiber optic lights, and good smells from things such as soap or incense to feel calmness and peace in the midst of stress or chaos. Perhaps even more importantly, though, is music, which has become a large part her life. Music provides emotional connections for Penelope—she is able to connect to different feelings within the songs that she listens to and sings.
Penelope describes the importance of music here:
Penelope does not want to take care of herself only for her own benefit, but also for others: her children. She has three children: a son and a daughter, both in their teens, and a 12 year old daughter. Currently, the children live with their father, whom Penelope is divorced from. They still have a good relationship, and she describes him as a good father and friend. She reflects that even though she only sees them once or twice a week, her children know that she loves them, and they view Penelope as simply “mom.”
Listen to Penelope describe her children here:
Penelope remarried a few years ago, and describes the marriage, even though it can be hard at times, as “a fairytale come true.” She describes her husband as very understanding; he does not treat her any differently because of her diagnosis, nor is he scared of her.
For 11 years, Penelope has been relatively stable but that still includes bad as well as good days. Some days, she feels great. Other days, she has to consciously remind herself to be grateful. If she is having a bad day, she has no motivation or organization, and feels that she has no worth. A practical way she can tell if she is having a bad day is through her level of desire to clean; Penelope knows that she is having a bad day when she does not want to clean or do other things that a “regular housewife” would do. Her good days, though, occur when she is happy and finds herself looking forward to her future.
Interviewer: Do you have more good days or more bad days would you say?Penelope: Well I have--, I sleep a lot. I have sleep apnea too. But I would say--I have a hard time getting organized. I know I have to clean this house today, but I don’t want to. I know I have to do the laundry today and it’s just like, you can control that. That would be great. You can control how you want your house cleaned and it’s something positive… So, my good days are when I’m feeling good, looking forward to the future and being happy. Bad days are no motivation or organization and feeling of no worth. You know because you are not doing nothing that a regular housewife would do, you know?
So what does this future include? Practically, her goal is to always remember to take her medication. But she also has other, bigger dreams. First, she wants to visit Palestine, her husband’s home country. She would also like to lose weight, stop smoking, and have more children. Penelope loves children and hopes that she can prove that she is a capable and loving mother. She says that “lots of kids” are in her future including, someday, grandchildren. She desires growth in her religion and increased closeness to God. She hopes to become even more thankful for the small things in life: blades of grass, the birds, and the trees. Penelope has been amazed to find that when she takes the time to notice one small thing, such as a blade of grass, she begins to see the beauty of other things around her.
While she has hopes and dreams for her future, Penelope still wishes she did not have the diagnosis that she does. If she could, Penelope would trade her illness for a broken leg, because with a broken limb, she could still be “happy every day.” She describes mental illness as a deep loss, because she has realized that she will not get better; it is something that is always there. She says that individuals with mental illness have to consider things that others might not have to, and uses the example of suicide. In her life, suicide was previously considered an option. She does not know if others without a mental illness would have considered it the way she did.
Penelope describes the impact of mental illness here:
The “deep loss” of mental illness often comes with an additional burden: stigma created by society. Penelope has experienced such a burden, and speaks out about this. She states that she worries that if she tells others about her diagnosis, individuals will look at and treat her differently. She notes that she is more vulnerable, which is always a consideration when deciding whether or not to discuss her diagnosis with someone; it is a definite risk to share that part of her life with other people. Penelope also discusses the assumption that individuals with mental illness are dangerous, even sharing that she has seen this portrayed in the media. Penelope critiques this portrayal, and states that a person is not defined by his or her wrong actions that may occur during bad spells.
Though she experiences stigmatization, bad days, and wishing she did not have the burden of mental illness, Penelope is still grateful. She would like to thank the people who have stuck with her through the good and bad times and for supporting her. She hopes that they have mercy and are able to forgive her for the things she has done, but regardless, she wants them all to know that she loves them.
And finally, Penelope hopes that she can be an inspiration to at least one individual because even a single person can affect many others.