Bridging the Gap, a rally for mental health recovery held Wednesday night at Gifford Elementary School, offered the audience stories of hope for people who have a mental illness.
They learned about Matt Juzenas, a professor who has clinical depression, Deja Williams, a college student who has schizophrenia, and Jeremy Chavez, a lawyer who represents people who have mental illnesses and has suffered from anxiety and depression himself.
Each of them are more than their mental illness. Each showed that recovery is real. Each told the audience about how they got to the place where they could recover. But the three speakers also called on the community to help destroy the stigma around mental illness.
“You see, what makes us uniquely human is our ability to understand and appreciate our similarities… it’s our appreciation for common experiences,” Chavez said.
A Giant’s Recovery Story
Matt Juzenas is often called a giant.
“It was when I finally learned to not be afraid of my emotions, the darkness, the depression — but embrace it. That’s when I found comfort and creativity in it. To even see the beauty in it… that’s when I began to live a full, creative and successful life,” he said.
Matt embraces his emotions. He accepts that every day he “feels a little sadder than the average bear,” but he’s figured out how to move through those emotions.
“I’ve learned to feel the emotions, not just acknowledge them or what’s happening. No, I need to move through them,” he said.
He explained how he allows himself to take a direct flight to “depression island,” but he gives himself guidelines and boundaries. This, he says, has to be a round trip, not a one-way flight.
Representing People, Not Their Illnesses
Chavez, who also had a physical disability, remembers the traumatic experience of being bullied by his peers in school. He felt alone, unwanted, and undesirable. But he believes that those experiences contributed to his social anxiety, which carried over into his adult years.
He recalled his first year in law school, the same year that he lost his grandmother. She took care of him while he was growing up.
“I was living alone for the first time in my life in a big city,” he said.
The competition for being top of his class in law school led to him feeling insecure and he started to isolate from others. Not coping well, depression had set it and he needed help. So he sought the aid of a counselor.
“I had not told anyone about it — until tonight,” he said.
This experience helped him understand how best to represent people who have mental illnesses that were involved in the court system. For several years he represented hundreds of people who had mental illnesses.
“The negative social stigma that was associated with these clients because of their diagnosis was blatantly obvious,” he said. “I had judges that did not understand the complexities of mental health and doing so required too much effort on their behalf. I have overheard people within the system talking about my client being a ‘waste of taxpayer resources.’
“And I knew my clients were much more than their conditions.”
These cases were some of the most rewarding for Chavez and he’s much more comfortable talking about mental health.
“Maybe that’s it. That’s how we address the negative social stigma surrounding mental health… we bring to the light what is currently in the dark,” he said.
Remembering Recovery, Remembering Mrs. Kruemcke
DeJa Williams started hearing voices and seeing things that weren’t there at the age of 13. They told her to wake up, go to sleep, walk around at night without her shoes on and run out of her classroom at school. When DeJa told her mom she was hearing voices, DeJa’s mom thought it was her daughter’s intuition and that she should listen to them.
“But that was a bad idea,” she said.
When DeJa’s mom realized that her daughter has a mental illness, DeJa spent 17 days in the hospital. Everyday she talked with a psychiatrist and took medication. Being away from her family was awful. Living in a strange place, her family visited and would call.
After getting out of the hospital, DeJa’s still had to cope with going back to school. She felt judged by her classmates. There were times when she ate her lunch in the restroom. It was just a hard time. But Mrs. Kruemcke was there for her.
“She would put me out of the restroom and we would have lunch together,” she said. “She treated me like I mattered, like I was someone who was important.”
And when Valentine’s Day rolled around that year, Mrs. Kruemcke gave DeJa a rose and a stuffed bear. On Wednesday night, DeJa sat on the stage holding that stuffed bear.
“It made me feel very special and important… like I mattered,” DeJa said.
Now she is going to Ashford University and studying to become a dietician.
After DeJa told her story, Mike Boticki, the executive director of NAMI, explained that he and DeJa have been working together for about two years to do a series of trainings for the Racine Unified School District.
“DeJa has been really special to me,” he said. “You have definitely made me stronger.”