by Carrie Baatz
The Path to Independent Living
Every person defines what it means for them to thrive, right now. For some, it may mean accepting their disability as a part of who they are. For others, it might mean advocating for others, finding a stable home, navigating transportation, joining a support group, or making a new friend.
Wherever you are on your journey, there is an invitation here to embark on your next step of growth. Many of us walk this path to find a way of living with the confidence that we have the power to overcome our barriers. As we go, we find independence; we are becoming our truest selves.
Most of us who work at The Independence Center live with disabilities, and we are overcoming our own unique set of barriers. The mission and values written on our walls have real life, because they are working their way out in each of us as staff members. As we work to empower others, we are finding our own empowerment.
“I empower people through coaching. I give space for leaders to rise up and own their own way of creating independence.” Sarah Stacy is the Assistant Director of Independent Living, a division that offers people with disabilities peer support and help with benefits, employment, housing, and independent living skills.
Sarah assists the Director of Independent Living in her role at The Independence Center by leading daily operations, working with the team to map strategies and being a representative in the community. She describes her day to day life as flexible; she rolls with needs and opportunities. Given the enormity of The Independence Center’s mission, Sarah has learned to sustain herself by keeping strong boundaries. “I find the discipline to do the things that make the most difference, and the kindness to myself to let go of the rest. If I think I have to do it all, it does little but hurt me.”
Sarah teaches this way of thinking to her staff. “I help the managers look at their activities against the measuring stick of our values. I ask them, what do you do that gives the most value? It’s not just about task, task, task. It’s about deeper, bigger, richer.”
On the path to independent living, different disabilities create their unique obstacles. Sarah walks with challenges that come from mental health disabilities. For 44 years, she has lived with General Anxiety and Major Depression with Psychosis.
About 1 in 5 Americans live with mental health disorders, conditions that severely impact a person’s mood, thoughts and behavior. Psychiatric disabilities, as we sometimes call them, can be mysterious to us, because unlike other disabilities, they are intangible. Research in neurobiology tells us that mental health disorders are physically based in our bodies, just like Diabetes, or any other medical condition. Mental illness often runs in families, and it is usually caused by a combination of a person’s genetic makeup and their environment. Many people who live with a mental illness have a history of trauma.
“Psychosis for me is a negative space,” Sarah says. While she is normally a positive person, during psychosis her thoughts will veer from reality and paint a dark world, as if her mind has turned against her. “I believe that people are judging me, that I am worthless, or that I am not doing enough.”
Psychosis is a condition that causes a person to lose contact with reality, making it difficult to understand what is real and what is not. Two common symptoms of psychosis are delusions (false beliefs), and hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that others do not experience). Psychosis is a commonly known symptom of schizophrenia, but it can also occur alongside other mental health conditions, like depression and bipolar disorder.1
For some people, delusions are overly positive and grandiose – during a psychotic episode, a person may believe they have special powers or prominence. For Sarah, psychosis occurs alongside depression, and she experiences negative delusions. “I’ll believe that I’m going to get fired tomorrow, and that no one told me. I’ll plan everything out as though I am going to get fired.”
The Tools of Recovery
As little as two generations ago, people who lived with serious mental illness were institutionalized. They lived in isolation and were subjected to cruel treatments, including lobotomies. In these times, it was considered a death sentence to be diagnosed with a serious mental illness.
Today, we have medications that we can use to treat symptoms. Advances in psychology and neurobiology have given us pieces of the puzzle that create a better understanding and acceptance in society. There is real hope that people who live with psychiatric disabilities will find recovery and inclusion.
Working through her symptoms, Sarah has found that through persistence, she can gain power over them. “I work hard at being well. When you work hard, you gain more tools. And you know when to reach out for help.”
Sarah gives herself regular reminders to stay grounded in reality, like a Post-It note that she keeps in her office, reading: What is the truth in this? With practice, the delusions that Sarah experiences have become easier for her to control.
Out of the Closet
Like others with invisible disabilities, Sarah can pass for someone who doesn’t have a disability. Indeed, in most workplaces, hiding is an act of survival for people with mental health disabilities.
In a workplace that accepts all disabilities, Sarah has found the courage to be open about her mental health conditions. She has a unique compassion for others who also live with mental illness “I have a brain that has divorced me from reality….why do we expect people to respond rationally when they are in this state?”
One of the best tools that Sarah uses to manage psychosis and delusions is being transparent with her thought processes. She shared that she will openly share negative thoughts with co-workers to check them against their perspectives. “I have learned to be more vulnerable and to expose my thinking in order to check it. As long as I was transparent, I came to realize the truth.”
To be empowered is to be unapologetically yourself. Living “out of the closet,” about her disabilities, Sarah is helping others find the same power she possesses. “It takes enormous energy to be someone that you’re not. I empower people by helping them to be authentic.”
1Taken from the National Institute of Mental Health