Sr. Ann Catherine Veirstahler's Story
The story of my lifelong struggle with mental illness has been featured
in both newspapers and magazines. Although my professional life has included
working as a Registered Nurse with the Red Cross in a refugee camp in Cambodia,
serving as a nursing home administrator, starting the first clinics for
homeless people in Milwaukee, and creating programs to meet the needs of
persons with mental illnesses in boarding homes, my own rapid cycling bipolar
disorder, present since age seven, was not correctly diagnosed and treated
I recently retired from my job as an advocacy specialist and volunteer
coordinator at the Greater Milwaukee chapter of the National Alliance for
the Mentally Ill (NAMI), and now work as a private duty nurse. I also devote
my time and skills to a Web site, http://www.hopetohealing.com, and a
book, called Sharing the Hope, Sharing the Healing, which collect stories
about how people have addressed their mental health needs successfully.
The Web site shares stories of individuals' successes despite the many
challenges of mental illness in order to offer hope to persons who are
still struggling and to help overcome the stigma and discrimination associated
with mental illnesses by educating the public. My own story can be found
on this Web site. As a member of Al-Anon for many years, I use the 12-step
program in my own life and know firsthand the challenges of addictive behaviors.
I have received many awards for my programs and innovations in empowering
people to meet their needs and lead enriching and meaningful lives. My
awards include the Consumer Advocacy Award of the Mental Health Association
in Milwaukee County and several awards from NAMI, including the Adult Services
I have spent more than 40 years in public health service and have received
many awards for my programs and innovations in empowering people to lead
enriching and meaningful lives. Throughout my career, I have always tried
to give others some comfort.
Ironically, through all the decades that I struggled with my own mental
illness, I couldn't do that for myself.
I first thought of killing myself when I was 16. For more than 20 years,
I fought the urge—often dozens of times a day—to overdose
on pills, slit my wrists, or hang myself. I was too ashamed to talk about
my illness, so I never told anyone how much I wanted to die, or how I would
cry so hard that I would vomit. I even fooled my doctors.
The oldest of eight kids, I grew up in a poor family. My dad was a laborer,
who often worked two jobs to support us. My mom had a brain injury, which
resulted in frequent outbursts; and one of my sisters had severe developmental
disabilities. While my childhood was hard, I found some comfort in the
nuns of the Sisters of Charity at St. Joan Antida, where I would scrub
floors and clean toilets to earn my tuition. At 19, I decided to join them.
In 1969, I got my degree in nursing, and for the next several years I
worked at various nursing homes and hospitals. I helped organize a clinic
for homeless men, and in 1980 traveled with the Red Cross in Cambodia to
teach wound care and instruct mothers in proper nutrition. Everyone thought
I was accomplishing so much, but it was my illness that was forcing me
to work almost around the clock—and it was taking its toll. I battled
with my co-workers, and left jobs abruptly. I confided in a doctor and
he prescribed Mellaril, which helped with the suicidal urges but not with
the mood swings. I knew I should take my medication religiously but didn't,
and I kept growing sicker and sicker.
In 1994, I survived stomach cancer, which seemed a lot less painful than
mental illness! Finally, several years ago, I discovered the ecumenical
Spirit, Mind and Body Group, which met weekly to help caregivers learn
to cope with stress. As a result of the strength, peace, and energy I got
from the group, I decided to work more closely with my doctor to get my
illness under control. I started taking Tegretol to combat my mood swings,
and I now control my mental illness with medication, meditation, prayer,
a good diet and exercise. My only regret is that this has happened now
and not 50 years ago. But the point is, I'm feeling so much better. If
I can, others can, too.
Sr. Ann Catherine Veirstahler