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Voices for Recovery

Katherine F.H. Heart (09/15/2011)

Katherine Heart

My recovery journey began 40 years ago. Along the way I have constantly challenged myself to expand my mental health recovery, and in the past four years finally found my own path to optimal physical and mental health. My experience of childhood trauma involved weekly sexual abuse by my father from the age of 6 to 14 (around 500 assaults over 9 years). I escaped by telling my guidance counselor who sent me to a hospital psych unit. Fortunately, my aunt and uncle living several states away took me into their family and offered emotional support as I completed high school and worked my way through college and graduate school. I worked hard at athletics and won one of the first Division I athletic scholarships given to women, major leadership awards, and a graduate assistantship to complete my master's degree in health education. I went on to develop and manage health and fitness programs for nonprofit organizations in Pittsburgh, PA.

I sought healing from private therapists offering traditional and newer mind/body approaches. My interest in trauma and mental health education led to being hired as a training coordinator at two leading rape crisis and victim service agencies. I utilized creative writing and painting to explore the meaning of my experience, and these were published in an anthology titled She Who Was Lost Is Remembered: Healing from Incest through Creativity (Ed. Louise M. Wisechild, Seal Press, 1991). I was an advocate who shared my story at "Speak Out" events in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. The course of my life abruptly changed in 1992. After many years of successful healing far removed from my family of origin, I was called to return for a life-threatening emergency. My mother had fallen into a diabetic coma and nearly died as the doctors amputated both of her legs. I stayed for two weeks to help family members make decisions about her care. The contact with my perpetrating father brought up unbearable conflicts and an unstoppable flood of painful memories. By the time I returned to my home in Pittsburgh, I was unable to function.

I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for 10 weeks. The diagnoses I was given included PTSD, Bipolar II, and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) when I disclosed my experiences with "parts" of myself. Over the ensuing years, I was hospitalized on 27 occasions (totaling more than 18 months) in inpatient psychiatric care. Seven psychiatrists tried out 40 different medications and drug combinations. Three rounds of ECT totaling 57 treatments eventually stripped my mind of the memory necessary to find my way home from a bus stop one block away. The health that I had enjoyed as an athlete completely deteriorated. I picked up my first cigarette during a depressive episode and became hooked on the quick highs. I gained more than 125 pounds and became a brittle diabetic. I suffered from constant severe pain in my back, arms and legs, and in my swollen feet. I had sleep apnea and had to use breathing equipment to sleep. I developed Medication-Induced Parkinsonism and Tardive Dyskinesia. I had balance problems and falls so that doctors began to suggest that I use a cane. I gave up hope of ever recovering and tried to kill myself.

By 2007, my psychiatrist and neurologist had prescribed 11 medications to help me function through the day. My endocrinologist prescribed a regimen of eight daily insulin injections for diabetes. That initial triggering event had progressed to chronic and severe physical and mental illness lasting for 15 years. I had tried many different therapies, treatment regimens and medications to heal the effects of childhood trauma. I reached a point of profound frustration, in which I could anticipate only an older age of growing disability, pain and suffering ahead - and the very real possibility of an early death from diabetes like my mother. What I really wanted was to finish healing and get well. I wrote a spiritual memoir on my healing and treatment process titled TELLINGS: From Wound to Wellspring (Outskirts Press, 2008). The book ends with my first glimpse of hope, when a young psychiatrists asks me the question, where did I imagine myself to be at the end of therapy? No one up to that point had even hinted about the possibility of finishing therapy, and this puzzling question sent my mind to trying harder to imagine the answer. I decided to keep trying to find a path to wellness.

I became a more discerning patient, a self-advocate who eventually found a new brain-based psychotherapy developed by EMDR practitioners, called Brainspotting (BSP). The BSP therapy helped me to finish my healing process in an accelerated period of 10 months. The parts of myself became integrated and I applied the techniques of mindfulness and distress reduction to my daily life. Eventually I was able to taper off of all the medications and learned to manage bipolar symptoms to the point where I could prevent hypomanic episodes, and my provider changed my diagnosis to "PTSD-In Remission. BSP taught me to work with my brain and became a self-help tool for my daily lifestyle health. This healing experience also revived my joy in living to the point where I awakened every day feeling as freshly hopeful as I had as a young person. Then I took charge of my physical health recovery using the know-how and skills of my past experience as an athlete and health/physical educator. I made a "Wellness Bucket List" of realistic long-term health goals that evidence shows would help to reverse my chronic diseases and enjoy a long life. I focused on one goal at a time and made small steps on the path each day.

My outcomes after 4 years include: no further psychiatric hospitalizations, treatment or medications; success at quitting smoking; weight loss totaling 110 pounds; reversal of my diabetes; regular physical activity 60 minutes or more 3 - 5 times per week; improvement of my physical health age (at from 65 years to 49.5 years - I am 56 years old. I became an expert in my own healing and transformation. I started a social enterprise company dedicated to spreading wellness to all people with project development, grant services and publications that assist nonprofit organizations to solve challenging health problems. I have become an advocate for trauma-competent care who is once again sharing my story in training presentations to health and mental health professionals. My company is partnering with several nonprofit organizations and a local governmental agency to form a new community-based wellness collaborative that offers a shared gymnasium, programs, equipment and funding for people with disadvantages and disabilities to participate in fitness and health promotion activities that may result in their improving health outcomes. My life has come full-circle. I've written an article about the past four years journey of transformation that is evolving into a book titled Finding Post-Trauma Wellness.

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