Kyle: Recovering From Mental Illness and Helping His Fellow Veterans

A man shares his story of recovering from mental health issues and becoming an advocate for others with mental illness.

Recovery Surfaces

While still a high school senior at Southern Wells High School in Poneto, Indiana, back in 1977, I enlisted for serving in the U.S. Navy. Due to my high achievement on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test scores I qualified for Submarine Service and it thrilled me to go through all preparations and class work for the Sonar Technician Rate and attend Submarine School in Groton, Connecticut. This followed basic recruit training at Great Lakes USN Training Center in North Chicago, Illinois. My home port became Charleston, South Carolina and the USS James Madison SSBN627, a 16-missle ballistic “boomer,” became my boat assignment. After a single patrol I passed the ship’s qualification board exams for submariner duty and received my “dolphins.”

I was 19 years of age, beginning to get my sea legs firmed up, and well into my U.S. Navy enlistment when mental illness struck me. At the Portsmouth Naval Regional Medical Center (summer 1979) I was psychiatrically triaged and hospitalized for approximately nine months. Doctors there diagnosed me with schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder. In treatment, I was stabilized with a round of lithium and then given haloperidol drug therapy.

The setting here was an open bay ward with approximately 24 psychiatric patients in cohabitation. The best way to visualize it would take a viewing of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. On a couple occasions, the medication raised my temper to physical outbursts and I spent time in seclusion strapped to a bed tightly held in a straitjacket.

The beds in the open bay ward were single twin-size steel frames. The beds were marginally spaced with about seven feet separations. With each bed was a patient night stand where the open shelving could accommodate a clean set of pajamas and the patient’s underwear, one clean bath towel and a wash cloth, and slippers. One shallow drawer in each of the stands was used to stow patient toiletries and minimal personal items (perhaps a small amount of loose coins and a Bible, rosary, or religious necklace).

All the windows were open view to the outside. If the expanse of the hospital grounds was not present, there would be no privacy whatsoever afforded the patients. Many days in a row I paced endlessly around the ward and memorized the patterns of the floor tile placements, even so that I knew I was approaching the nurses’ station and clerk desk without even raising my head for checking.

I remember one of the male psych tech nursing staff wore make-up, particularly eye liner and a base layer with lip gloss, always had his hair professionally styled, and paid closer attention to his beloved spider plant hanging in the front corner of the television lounge than he ever did to any of the patients charged to his care. His appearance could never inspire recovery of any sort mentally or physically.

My symptoms included delusions of the “television telling me what to do” and “monitoring my thoughts and holding me hostage to its agenda.” And my recovery was delayed until I could gain personal insight into positive and negative symptoms associated with my serious mental illness diagnosis. I lacked also any realization to consider even having a mental illness. When I was finally able to walk out of that hospital, the maintenance dose of haloperidol and its refill prescriptions went into a trash can at the end of their sidewalk. Denial worked against me for several years to follow after leaving U.S. Navy’s Submarine Service and becoming a civilian worker.

My family gathered about me after departing the Navy and insisted that I had no mental illness, that if I just “bucked-up some” and “got on with my life” I’d be just fine. Well, this I tried, but there were gradual and ever-present subtle symptoms that would not abate with passages of time, but some easily hid behind more or less self-medicating use of alcohol, a tobacco habit, and occasional marijuana use. My life coupled with this denial passed me through college attendance at Ball State University, attainment of a bachelor of science degree, a fair, but mediocre quality engineering career, and a marriage that would last only 13 years before marital relationship failure due in part to emotional symptoms going untreated.

After eventually even succumbing to homelessness, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Peer-to-Peer course assisted me with sound and reasonable instruction and basic scientific knowledge that became effective for me to develop a personal recovery plan and take steps forward that were altogether a very long time in coming. Succinctly worded, my epiphany.

Since entering this program of recovery, I have strongly advocated for others with serious mental illnesses, and especially military veterans. I have even written grant requests and seen awards from them in support of fellow homeless veterans who also shared misfortunes in homeless situations.

Between 2004 and 2008 I served as chairman for NAMI Indiana’s Statewide Consumer Council Executive Committee, and proactively advocated for the passage of “parity legislation” and other public policy bills to support and protect the rights of individuals with mental health problems. I further developed and redefined myself with a new profession in the field as a recovery peer specialist or consumer/provider.

I actively help others in their recovery as a consumer/provider by providing the services they need to live their lives and successfully stay in the community, and pursue their own goals. I am a role model of recovery and I willingly facilitate interested consumers with developing personal Wellness Recovery Action Plans (WRAP). Dr. Mary Ellen Copeland’s WRAP is now an evidence-based practice perhaps due in part to some of my personal suggestions and correspondence with the Copeland Center.

Changing the mental health system is an evolutionary process that I am involved with in my daily employment and efforts. The changes that need to happen include eradicating stigma created by and propagated through media, and breaking down all barriers to accessible care and treatments; also promoting social inclusion, and restoring dignity, to individuals affected by serious mental illnesses and reconnecting both community and family support.

Living in the greater Marion, Indiana community supports my recovery. Recovery has empowered me to contribute more to my neighborhood; re-entrance with advocacy has been a tremendous plus. I like to speak publicly and keep my Representatives aware of the social injustices I encounter so that accommodations and real change will happen.

I’m a champion in the cause of NAMI and have done In Our Own Voice presentations. This program permits me to do public speaking where again I share my recovery story and model recovery to give family members and other people living with serious mental illnesses hope for lives beyond a diagnosis. I also am a Peer-to-Peer 3rd Edition Facilitator, and a qualified and experienced Family-to-Family Trainer. I’m rebuilding a local NAMI affiliate from re-establishment to become a full service leader affiliate with traceability to NAMI National’s new Standards of Excellence. Our team has got our eyes on the prize; we’ll soon not be apologizing for lack of locally available services to those suffering and needing to find help and hope!

I have advanced even more into advocacy and two years ago obtained an appointment to our state’s protection and advocacy service organization, the Indiana Protection & Advocacy Services or “IPAS Commission.” Presently, I continue to serve on this commission. I participate in the NAMI National Military and Veterans Council. In my everyday job at the Marion VA campus, I support my fellow veterans and our new returning veterans at VA Northern Indiana Health Care System, on our Mental Health Intensive Case Management Team.

Many of the veterans I serve have been disowned by their families and estranged from even parents, aunts, uncles, or spouses. Many of these veterans endure very marginal existences and require highly structured living environments, but the care and support we show them sustains and encourages. We are seeing recovery take root in many more veterans’ lives; and my participation within this effort is cherished among my greatest blessings and privilege.

Last Updated: 12/18/2015