From Washington Park Beat March-April 2008

Finding Peace: An Interview

By Patricia Obletz

Sister Ann Catherine Veierstahler, RN, didn’t know what peace was until she was 57. That’s when she received the right medical help, which taught her how to manage her bipolar disorder. In the early 1950s, when she was seven, her mother took her to a psychologist. He labeled her intense battles with her younger siblings as jealousy, and her disruptive behavior at school as attention-getting ploys. In the ‘50s, no one thought children were subject to mental illnesses.

Sr. Ann Catherine grew up in Milwaukee with parents who married in their early 30s; she was the oldest of eight children born in succession. They were poor, though her father worked two jobs in the inner city. After an accident with a street car in Chicago, her mother suffered a brain injury and began experiencing outbreaks of violence. One sibling had a severe developmental disability and was sent to an institution in southeast Wisconsin. Today, medication, structured activities and special education enables children with these disabilities to stay at home.

Sr. Ann Catherine, now 64, has spent most of her life helping others through paid and volunteer work. As a volunteer for the Red Cross, she has traveled the globe to nurse refugees in camps. As a volunteer helping to raise mental health awareness, she works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She edits their newsletter and added “Sharing the Hope, Sharing the Healing,” a column of stories by ordinary people, rich and poor, who have recovered from a mental illness, growing hope in those still struggling. Because hope leads to healing, she also created www.HopetoHealing.com to share more successful recovery stories. She helped Faith in Recovery support groups to consolidate and, in 2005, when it became a nonprofit agency, she was elected president of its board of directors.

Last October, Sister Ann Catherine and I talked about her work. She said, “No child should have to wait 50 years to find peace through effective mental health care. Mental illnesses can affect judgment, ability and relationships at every age — they go down through generations; they can begin with poverty and other abuses.

“Our brain is the most complicated organ in our body. So why is anyone surprised that one in four people have a mental illness? Mental illnesses are illnesses. Parents have no reason to be ashamed if their child has one.

“When parents are influenced by stigma and don’t take their children to a mental health expert, they don’t seem to understand that their children will get labeled as a trouble-maker, as I was. Untreated mental illnesses affect judgment and relationships and often lead to low academic achievement and dysfunctional behavior. The fact is that mental illnesses need medical treatment, just like diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis.

Grade Schools Need Mental Health Specialists

“I understand that parents, who struggle just to feed, clothe, shelter and educate their kids, don’t have the time, energy or financial resources to get mental health evaluations for their children. That’s why grade schools need mental health specialists. Early intervention is far less costly.

“As Oprah Winfrey says, no parent is perfect. But if parents realize there is no shame attached to mental illnesses, and they can admit that things aren’t perfect and seek treatment, they will save themselves, their family and society from unnecessary emotional and financial expense. My hope is that the whole family will be evaluated and learn how to help the child who has a mental illness.

“If government gives mental health treatment the same importance it gives to physical health problems, everybody wins. Meanwhile, we can give information, we can walk with others, but we can’t save them. Healing begins with acknowledgment, education and the right medical and emotional treatment. I encourage others to seek treatment in medicine and strength in their spirituality.”

“I’m a nun and I have a mental illness. Doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, neighbors — anyone could have one. Until I was 57, I didn’t realize that being angry, argumentative or feeling hopeless were symptoms of an illness. I was 16 the first time I wanted to commit suicide.

“I always had too much energy, which got me into a lot of trouble. But that energy was useful. In addition to helping my mother and siblings, I paid for my tuition at St. Joan Antida by cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors. At 16, I worked as a nursing assistant at St. Mary’s Hospital. The sisters were very good to me despite my cycling between being creative and compassionate, and being demanding, obnoxious and constantly at war with others. They were my role models.

“At 19, I joined the Order of St. Joan Antida and trained as a nurse at Alverno College before taking my vows of obedience and poverty. Upon graduation, I held various paid positions at the old St. Joan Antida Nursing home, continuing my volunteer work evenings and weekends.

“Following a Red Cross mission in a refugee camp in Cambodia in 1980, I and a friend, who’d been my counterpart in Laos, noticed that the refugees were treated better than destitute people in Milwaukee. Many of those coming to St. Benedict’s food pantry had very high blood pressure and severely infected sores. Because they didn’t trust hospitals, we started a clinic for them, the first one in Milwaukee, with a little money for supplies from St. Anthony’s Hospital (today a prison). We’d stand quietly with inconspicuous blood pressure cuffs at the entrance to St. Ben’s meal program. We kept our supplies in a closet. Today, that closet has grown into a multi-million dollar clinic, but long before then, the Order called me back in to direct its nursing home.

“I was in denial that I had a problem, despite the fact I cried a lot, was angry a lot, which the sisters pointed out to me. They sent me to a psychiatrist, who misdiagnosed me and put me on the wrong medication. When I didn’t improve, I believed that I didn’t have a mental illness. Why is it that, when blood pressure medicine doesn’t work, it’s replaced with a different one, but when mental illnesses don’t improve with a medication, it isn’t replaced?

“Twelve years later, when I needed surgery for stomach cancer, my doctor took me off the medication that never helped me. I was 50 then and refused chemotherapy and radiation, and shunned mental health treatment, hoping that faith alone would be enough.

“Three years later, I participated in an ecumenical ‘Spirit, Body, Mind’ group led by a psychiatrist. Designed to help care-givers cope with stress, this experience encouraged me to face stigma and seek professional help for my bipolar disorder.

“Medication transformed my life. As did contemplation, community and service.

“Contemplation, is about connecting with whatever or whomever we believe, with who we are, where we are and what we’re doing that moment. My mind stops spinning out of control when I can feel my feet walking, the air against me. New medicine enabled me to sit still when I pray, allowing me to gaze at my surroundings, feel myself breathe, not think of past or current problems, say the word peace over and over.

We’re all one and we need each other.

“Community, faith-based, or school or work related, can be deeply spiritual and encourage peace. Community is vital because we’re all one and we need one another.

“Service also can be deeply spiritual. No matter how incapacitated you are, you can still be kind to others, listen to others. Helping others with a volunteer or paid service is giving service, which is rewarding in and of itself. Service makes us feel good about ourselves and this is peace.

“Pope John Paul always said that we think heaven is out there, whereas heaven is within. Try taking some quiet time for yourself and contemplate your being and surroundings. Focus on something other than your daily life, problems, hopes, and see what happens. At Faith in Recovery meetings, we ask members,’What are you doing to help yourself?’”

Faith in Recovery, Inc.
4415 W. Forest Home Road
Milwaukee, WI 53219

Faith in Recovery embraces the vision and belief that spirituality plays an important role in recovering from mental illnesses. To date, FIR has 20 support groups available free to help individuals and families living with emotional and mental challenges and facing the stigma these illnesses continue to generate. For more information, go o faithinrecovery.com or call 414–329–9100.

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Climbing Out: An Interview

By Patricia Obletz

Eleanore Martinez, MS, CASAC, is the director of Renaissance House, the first and only Western New York long-term rehabilitation residence for chemically dependent adolescents. When asked what influenced her career choice, Eleanore said, “I knew nothing about addiction when my community of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart sent me to teach grade school in New York City. Five years later, I was sent to a middle school in a small New York town where I was assigned to the science curriculum, despite my undergraduate degree in English.

“I discovered that I loved science, and so did the kids. Awarded a National Science Foundation grant, I spent the next two summers at Eastern Illinois University and Bradley University studying science, returning each fall to teach in Ogdensburg.

“Those summers were stressful. Care packages containing bottles of wine arrived and I’d share them with others in the dorm. I discovered that drinking relaxed me, made me feel comfortable. I began looking forward to those packages, but never thought about buying wine.

“At age 30, I was sent to Buffalo to teach high school science. That summer, I attended Fordham University for a Master’s in science, struggling to keep up with my young classmates. I stopped sharing my care packages, selfishly ensuring that I had enough each night to put me to sleep.

“I became conscious of wanting, not just enjoying, the results of drinking. As my level of tolerance changed, my feelings and attitudes toward drinking changed. I now needed two or three drinks to achieve the effect of one. I stopped counting them.

“When I injured my back, a doctor prescribed Valium and codeine. Taking Valium with my nightly drinks gave me a much bigger high and a much greater sense of relief. I later learned that mixing alcohol and drugs, especially those that depress the central nervous system, enhances the effects of drugs.

“I told my doctor about my stressful life; he prescribed a tranquilizer. Because I was a teacher, in charge of department curriculum and several after-school activities, he never suspected that I was a functioning addict - doctors need to learn to question patients about chemical dependency and stop treating just its symptoms.

“The more I drank, the guiltier I felt. I watched students hide liquor in their lockers, very much aware of the harm they were inflicting on themselves. Sadly, I was unable to transfer this awareness to myself.

“I compensated for my increasing guilt by working harder to prove to myself and others that I was fine. But I was very uncomfortable inside and growing increasingly unhappy.

“After three years of drinking heavily, I woke up every morning with hangovers, headaches, the shakes. Valium made them go away.

“Sane, sociable drinkers don’t mark a bottle into nightly allotments, yet I did this, trying to control my consumption, wanting to believe I was okay. I began drinking my Monday and Tuesday rations on Monday, telling myself I’d skip Tuesday’s share; Tuesdays I’d drink Wednesday’s, Thursday’s and Friday’s, buying another bottle before I wanted to.

“I began buying cough medicine containing alcohol, trying to believe I didn’t need another bottle of rye. I blamed the world and the world’s demands on me for my misery. I’d studied English, not science; I didn’t ask to go to Fordham, and so on. Drinks rewarded me for working hard; they released my stress. Eventually, I drank just to get through the day. I unwittingly had crossed the line from abuse to addiction.

The bottle becomes more important than friends.

“When my best friend said she was worried about my drinking, extreme shame and rage overtook me. I managed to say, ‘Thank you for pointing that out for me. I’ll take care of it.’

“Alcoholism had built a brick wall around me. Other people talked to that wall, not to the Ellie behind it. And I responded, not from my heart, but from that wall. The bottle had become more important than friends.

“My self-esteem disintegrated. I was ashamed of my drinking. I began questioning my own value.

“Occasionally I could make myself stop drinking for three months. When I couldn’t stand the void that alcohol once filled, I’d drink again, just as heavily. I didn’t know that I needed talk therapy to lift me out of shame and teach me why I was addicted.

“I passed out twice in one day from mixing Valium and alcohol and somehow was able to convince the doctor that I had hypertension. Addicts are clever at manipulation. Addictions prevent insights needed for recovery.

“Chemical addiction can mimic paranoia, depression, schizophrenia. One night, I wrote a suicide note and washed pills down with whiskey. I became violently ill; a friend found me vomiting. I said I had too much to drink, omitting the pills and the note. I resigned from my job and went to Philadelphia thinking I could regain control there. New doctors prescribed muscle relaxants and painkillers without questions.

“I couldn’t help voicing my suicidal desire and was sent to a psychologist, who put me on an antidepressant. The dosage had to be increased systematically because alcohol kept canceling its effects. She never asked if I drank or took pills.

“Feeling hopeless after every session with the psychologist, I’d buy a bottle and return to my room to drink myself to sleep. I moved through each day devoid of feeling, hoping she could fix my depression and end my drinking. I didn’t understand that my problems were the result of my drinking, which is key to every addict’s recovery. Like most addicts, I believed that alcohol and drugs were my best friends, and that I couldn’t function without them.

“Two years later, I resigned the job in Philadelphia to take another one in Potsdam, New York. Potsdam is God’s country with a beautiful river running through it. I thought I’d be okay there.

“My next two years were the worst. I went to a counselor at a mental health clinic, every week passing a sign on a door that read, Alcoholism Treatment. I’d think, that’s what I need, but stayed with my therapist, who focused on my relationships. Addiction prevented me from gaining insight in those sessions.

“After a year, I told my counselor she wasn’t helping me; I wanted to leave. She asked a number of questions and then said, ‘Did you have to drink to tell me this?’ Shocked, I said yes. She referred me to alcoholism treatment.

“That summer, the head administrator of our community confronted me. She’d watched me go from being a high achiever ten years ago to someone who could barely function. She said that I was valuable to the community and that I needed help.

Treatment is Education

“For the first time, I faced reality and entered a rehabilitation clinic. Not everyone does, but I needed the 28 days of education - that’s what treatment is. I also needed to get rid of alcohol and prescription drug toxins.

“Treatment taught me what alcoholism did to my spiritual, physical, emotional and mental life. Group therapy helped me lose the shame of my drinking and introduced me to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

“I realized that addiction is a cunning, powerful, sneaky type of illness. And that the line between abusing drugs and depending on them is very thin.

“I learned that every time I’d stopped drinking and went back to it was a mini-relapse. Relapse is part of the recovery process. What prevents relapse is understanding what can to trigger it, and making the commitment to not want to use, because not using is a better way of living. I accepted that I was an addict and that I could live without crutches and be happy.

“When I was discharged and returned to Potsdam to teach part-time, I immediately got involved in 12-step programs and gained more friends sober than I’d had in my entire life. I also volunteered at the parish and the local mental health center, things I’d never done before.

“Chemical dependency is a painful disease that afflicts, not only the person who has it, but all the significant others around that person. We must do a better job educating kids on ways to be happy, to get approval, to be appreciated, and how to be successful through their own efforts, interests and talents, without using chemicals.

“I realized I worked well with alcoholics, not only because I knew a lot about addiction, but because I wasn’t judging or condemning them, and they couldn’t say I didn’t understand. I went to Rutgers School of Alcohol Studies and interned at a hospital in Buffalo. I began working for Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services, acquired my alcoholism counselor credential and became supervisor of two halfway houses. Nine years later I became the agency’s program for youth director.

“Chemical dependency is an illness, not a shameful flaw. There is a lot of hope, and a lot of help for those who still suffer. But fear is conquered by awareness, by seeing hope in others and by a willingness to think the unfamiliar: life can be joyous without drugs or alcohol.”

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on April 06, 2009

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