This month and in the coming months:
I will focus on peers committed to mental health activism. Each in their own way is living proof that things can get better and that when the road is hard it helps to have another person in your corner rooting for you.
I’m honored to interview Ashley Smith our first peer in April who I will highlight here at HealthCentral. She is a Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) in Georgia. Her position is Medicaid billable and she acts as a liaison for peers and healthcare providers and others. In this role, she is a mentor and advocate for peers, showing us we can aspire to do whatever it is we want to do and to live the quality of life we hope for in recovery.
Ashley has kept her blog Overcoming Schizophrenia for going on 7 years.
She is also a member of NAMI Georgia and is a state trainer for In Our Own Voice, a support group facilitator and board member.
CB: Tell us in a few sentences what happened to lead you to be diagnosed. In one or two sentences, what enabled you to recover?
AS: I felt like everything was about me-the program on the television, the song on the radio, those people talking- everything, all of which I could not minimize or control. These thoughts led to my emotional and mental chaos and meltdown that caused me to think and to act irrationally.
I remember getting up one morning and feeling like the devil was after me, and so was everyone else For several weeks my undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia terrorized me, I lived psychosis, the hallucinations, delusions, anxiety, and paranoia, etc., and I feared everyone as a result.
While trying to outsmart the demons (which I assumed was just about everyone) I came across an unattended rugged pickup truck in the parking lot of an airport. While in a mental frenzy I felt "blessed" to have the opportunity to save myself and to take the truck, which I felt like I had accomplished, but ended up going on a high speed chase with the police, crashing the truck head-on into a building, and surrendering to several officers with guns pointed at me.
The truck was military which made my incident a felony. Because of my rash behavior prior to my arrest and in jail the judge ordered a competency test, which I failed, and mandated medication compliance along with treatment in a state hospital to bring me back, and to proceed with the court hearings.
My recovery took a combination of rehabilitation programs and services, as well as treatment, a lot of patience and support from my family, and professional partners in managing my schizophrenia.
CB: How is it that so quickly after you were diagnosed with schizophrenia you decided to go public with this information? Do you feel your role as an advocate was a God-given one? Why weren’t you afraid of the stigma?
AS: I would not say I was immune to the stigma, I’ve experienced some ridicule and even had a lot of self-doubt and issues with disclosure. Initially, I anonymously shared information on my blog, "Overcoming Schizophrenia," which enabled me to be truthful and open about my experiences.
After exposure to peer support and advocacy organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and other groups, I gained confidence to disclose my identity online in order to act as a mentor to others and to put a face with my story. I do believe my ongoing fight to overcome my mental illness is my God-given purpose. Now I push myself to maintain recovery, to stay open and public about my recovery not only for myself and family, but also for peers and families living with similar diagnoses. My goal is to offer hope, support, and reassurance that recovery is possible in spite the myths, shame, and malicious beast called "stigma."
CB: Refresh my memory about the exact title, publisher, where the book can be bought and how much it costs.
AS: My book, What’s on My Mind? A Collection of Blog Entries from Overcoming Schizophrenia, Volume 1 was self-published through CreateSpace. The book may be purchased on either createspace.com or Amazon.com at $13.99.
CB: I read your book straight through in one session and I was impressed with it because it’s the best book of its kind now available for people with mental illness challenges. Could you tell us one or two strategies you talk about in the book that can help people in their recovery?
AS: Thank you very much"¦ First, this book is my testimony that schizophrenia can be a manageable condition with professional guidance and support. I emphasize the importance of having an open dialogue with one’s health care provider whether that includes traditional services or a holistic approach as well as alternative therapies and practices. I’ve been fortunate to have experiences with passionate mental health professionals and others that have given me a better understanding of my needs.
Another strategy I encourage others to engage in is peer support. I believe my peers living with a diagnosis are an asset to recovery, because the lived experience identifies practical coping skills, reduces the feeling of being alone, and we are empowering to one another!
Part Two of this interview continues next.