A pause … and you move forward: Living with mental illness

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Summer’s coming, and with pandemic restrictions easing, people from Princeton to Palmyra are planning road trips, restaurant outings, and more. Tricia Risley is brushing up on motherhood.

Eight years after she lost custody of her daughter because of her mental illness, the 15-year-old is coming to live with her for the summer – and maybe for good. Tricia would be lying if she said she wasn’t at least a little bit nervous. She doesn’t have as much money as her daughter’s father has, and she lives a quiet life. Will her daughter be bored?

“I forget how to be a mom!” she said with a nervous chuckle. “I hope I don’t make too many mistakes.”

Benjamin Watson is quick with words of reassurance: “You’ll make some, because parents do. The key is to learn from them.”

Watson works for Catholic Charities’ Program for Assertive Community Treatment, where Tricia has been a client since 2014. The program, known as PACT, serves people with serious, persistent mental illness who have a history of hospitalization and risk returning to institutional settings. The goal of treatment, which includes psychiatric medical intervention, counseling, vocational training, recreational outings, transportation and case management, is to help people live successfully in the community. Catholic Charities has four PACT teams – three in Mercer County and one in Burlington. As a PACT mental health advocate, Watson and other PACT team members make regular house calls to counsel and assist clients in whatever way they need.

Diagnosed at 15, Tricia lives with multiple mental disorders including severe recurring depression, borderline personality disorder post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, self-harming and bulimia. She spent so much time in psychiatric hospitals from such a young age that they “felt like home to me,” she said.

Honoring her hard work

But Tricia has made such progress with PACT’s help that she has been hospital-free for over two years. Indeed, Catholic Charities will honor her this September with a Client Achievement Award at its virtual Guardian Angel Benefit of Hope.

“Trish has been making incredible progress in her mental health journey,” said Watson (pictured, left, with Tricia). “The main word I would use to describe her success lately is ‘resilience.’ Trish has been through some major life challenges recently and has been able to remain stable and aware that she can get through these circumstances with her own coping skills and the support of her friends, family and mental health team. She now seems to recognize that hard times will come and go but she can find ways to manage them and come out stronger and wiser. We are all so happy to see her having a much better quality of life these last months and years, and it is all due to her hard work and willingness to change and grow.”

Tricia grows bashful in the face of such praise. She knows well that there is no cure for mental illness. Instead, you learn to cope with it, she said, and “that takes work, it takes practice, it’s finding out what works for you. There is a lot of trial and error.” She knows many people walk her same path and work equally hard to overcome life’s challenges. But she doesn’t discount her own hard work.

“I am proud,” she said. “I do think I came a long way.”

A bright future

Since she has been out of the hospital, Tricia launched her own cleaning business. She self-published two books of poetry and is working on a third. She has a longtime boyfriend, and they’re now talking about getting married. She goes to church. She got a car and happily chauffeurs any friends-in-need on errands and outings. She hopes to expand her cleaning business – or maybe move into a career in phlebotomy, which she studied at community college. “I’m very good at cleaning, and it’s not boring – I go to different homes all the time,” she said. “But who wants to be cleaning toilets every day? You know what I mean?”

And then there’s her daughter. She worries about her because mental illness can be inherited. Caring for her daughter gives her another reason to prioritize her own mental health, she said.

“My responsibilities help me a lot,” she said. “Knowing that my daughter is counting on me keeps me focused and grounded.”

She credits the PACT team with teaching her coping strategies – and bringing a deep compassion to their jobs. “Even though they’re my case managers, I feel like I developed a friendship with them,” she said. They’ve also helped shape her writerly philosophy about living with mental illness.

“You will be okay again”

“I like the semi-colon as the symbol for mental illness. The semi-colon shows that the story doesn’t just end – you take a brief pause and then the story continues. Maybe that brief pause is you sitting in bed for three days and not eating or brushing your hair or your teeth. But then that pause ends, and you do move forward. It’s okay not to be okay, and when you’re done not being okay, you will be okay again,” said Tricia, who got semicolon and the phrase “I am enough” tattooed on her right forearm.

“I’ve had some pretty bad days and weeks,” she added. “But I also know what it’s like to be happy, so I know these days will pass and I will get happy again. I’m grateful for everything I have, because I’m able to do what I want and live the life I want to live right now.”

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FOR INFORMATION about the Program for Assertive Community Treatment, contact Program Director Crystal Smith at (609) 396-9777, ext. 2216, or csmith@cctrenton.org, or Dana DiFilippo, communications, at ddifilippo@cctrenton.org or (215) 756-6277. 

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