Living and Thriving with a Mental Illness

The following is Mary Anne’s personal experience of living with a mental health diagnosis and actively working on recovery. She is one of three Hawaii Certified Peer Specialists on staff at Helping Hands Hawaii.


DSC_0060-cropWhen I was younger, I felt different from other children. As early as pre-school, I felt intense sadness but didn’t understand why. Confused and with no way to explain myself, I would often cry for no reason. These unhappy emotions were overwhelming, and the only outlet I had for them was through tears.

As I grew older, these feelings persisted, and this behavior had a negative effect on my years in school. It isolated me from my classmates, and I was always worried about what people thought of me. My teachers didn’t understand why I was so emotional and would tell me to stop being a cry baby. When I disrupted the class, they would segregate me from the others.

At home, my family didn’t understand me either. They told me to stop acting this way because it was an embarrassment. They didn’t want anyone to know I was different, and even my doctor, who had the same cultural and traditional values as my family, seemed unable to acknowledge my feelings. It felt like no one cared, and it was difficult to discuss my emotions with anyone.

At my lowest moments, I lived with paranoid thoughts. I constantly looked over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being followed, because I thought the whole world was against me. I could only point out the negative things without acknowledging my positive attributes. I hated myself and couldn’t look in the mirror because I was disgusted with my reflection.

Then, in 2009, while at an annual doctor’s appointment, my life changed forever. Prior to the appointment, the staff conducted a mental health wellness check-up, which was a new part of their intake procedure. The staff asked me a series of questions, and one simple question brought me to tears. They asked me, “Do you currently have thoughts of self-harm?” After my outburst, they did a more intensive assessment of my situation. As a result of this experience, I was introduced to a therapist and diagnosed with a mental illness.

You might think that getting diagnosed was the worst thing ever, but, for me, it positively changed my life. I finally had a reason for the way I’d been feeling for so long. Since then, I continue to see a therapist, who helps me work through my feelings, and a psychiatrist for medication management.

It is also helpful to remind myself that I’m only human and nobody’s perfect. Because it makes me happy to attend to the needs of others, I sometimes extend myself too far and feel drained. This is why I use the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), which has played a major role in allowing me to recognize personal strengths and challenges. It allows me to maintain a positive attitude and outlook on life and discover new ways to support myself through my mental health recovery.

DSC_0068My WRAP is constantly updated and adjusts to my changing life. What may have worked for me six months ago may not work for me now. The WRAP is evidence-based, but you have to be willing to open yourself up to it. I find that continuing to network with like-minded people, who have similar interests and passions, truly helps me to stay happy and content with myself.

In the past, attending a daily Group Day Program was very crucial to my recovery process. It taught me positive ways to socialize again; how and when to say “No” to set boundaries; how to have confidence in myself; and how to be content with who I am and what I have. It also encouraged me to dream, make goals and plan how to go about achieving them.

One of those goals was accomplished in 2011 when I completed the Hawaii Certified Peer Specialist Program. A friend suggested the program to me as another way in which I could help my own recovery. By concentrating my energy on the program and getting certified, I did not have time to focus on my negative thoughts and feelings. The program pushed me to get up and continue on even when I didn’t feel like I could. By completing the program, I knew I would be able to help others who lived through similar experiences as I did. This idea helped motivate me to succeed.

A few years later, in 2015, I completed the Hawaii Certified Forensic Peer Specialist program, which gave me a better understanding of the Justice System and allowed me to work with individuals who were on conditional release to help them improve their social skills as they adjusted back into the community.

As a Peer Specialist, I am able to share my knowledge and experience with others to give them hope as they struggle with their own mental health challenges while continuing to work on my own recovery. This camaraderie benefits both of us because we share in the knowledge that the other person knows, in some way, what we are experiencing. You don’t have to explain yourself and there’s no judgement. There are still many challenges, but by actively practicing recovery, it helps to provide a bit of balance to life, and you don’t feel so alone.

My journey as a Peer Specialist is very much like my journey to recovery from my own mental illness. There will always be obstacles, but it’s up to me to continuously educate and advocate for myself through various trainings, conferences and support groups in an effort to find the best ways to support my mental health recovery.


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    Keep this going please, great job!

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