Panelists talk about living with mental illness

March 5, 2014

Mary O'Connor and Colby Oefinger Liz Golen and Naiomi Robles

For years, Julie Edwards' friends and family saw her as a kind of carefree nomad. A gypsy. The eccentric aunt.

She moved around a lot: seven states; 47 apartments or dwellings, including tents; more than 75 jobs.

"That was sort of my pattern," she said.

Then, a couple of years ago, she received, she said, "a few diagnoses."

"I'm new to the idea of being bipolar," Edwards told the crowd gathered in the Leslie Phillips Theater Wednesday for a panel discussion about mental health. "I'm new to the idea of having post traumatic stress and anxiety."

Now she is taking medication to manage her conditions and seeing a therapist. She is also enrolled as a student at HCC. 

"I sought help," she said. "I'm stable. I'm still a beautiful, hot mess, but I'm happy to be here."

Edwards was one of three HCC students and three staff members who sat on a panel organized by the campus chapter of Active Minds, a nationwide organization that seeks to destigmatize mental illness. The event was called "1 in 4," which refers to the number of people who experience some sort of mental health condition.

Liz Golen, coordinator of HCC Student Activities, talked about how she lived for years under a constant cloud of worry and stress, not knowing that she had general anxiety disorder.

"I had no idea what I was like wasn't normal," she said. "I felt like I was always on the verge of collapse."

Five years ago, she said, she started taking medication. "I can think," she said. "There's no cloud. My brain isn't soupy. I can make judgments and decisions. I joke about it. And I'm happy to be talking about it."

Student Naiomi Robles said she was talking publicly for the first time about her diagnoses: an eating disorder, PTSD and anxiety. She said medication wasn't the answer for her. It made her feel like a zombie. Instead, she tried to deal with her issues through yoga, mediation and spirituality.

"Being part of Active Minds has really helped me," said Robles who read a spoken word poem as part of her presentation. "

Mary Jane O'Connor, coordinator of HCC Wellness programs and advisor for the HCC Active Minds chapter, said living with depression is like being trapped on a train that is stuck at the station.

"No act of willpower or fortitude will change it," she said.

She called living with depression "my crucible" and said it has taught her how to be courageous in the face of things she can't change.

"Depression didn't keep me from getting a good job," she said. "I've been at HCC for 23 years. "

HCC student Colby Oefinger admitted he was nervous talking in public about his conditions, ADHD, bipolar disorder and anger, particularly since he is a man and, he noted, the only one on the panel.

"Men are expected to be strong," he said.

HCC psychology professor Meaghan O'Shaughnessy said she first realized she suffered from depression when she 11 years old. She has lived with depression ever since. She said she looks at life like a contract she signed. Getting out of bed, she said, can be scary as hell, "but we do it anyway."


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