In the Summer 2015 issue of Open Minds Quarterly, Mary Elizabeth Van Pelt’s open letter A Prayer for Juan Carlos was published. She wrote for Juan Carlos, a ten-year-old who had been institutionalized, for the second time, after he tried to kill his parents. She speaks to his journey through the jungle of mental healthcare, one that is far more treacherous than what many of us have survived.
The daily life of a person in recovery may appear effortless because we have learned to do the work. This appearance of ease doesn’t mean the illness has disappeared, it means we have learned to dance by ourselves, with others and with life.
This wasn’t the first time Mary has been published in Open Minds Quarterly. Her story “Metzger Electric”, on being placed in a job below her skill level, appeared in the Spring 2010 issue, “Travelling Beyond the Stars”, about psychosis and the suicide of a friend, in the Summer 2008 issue, “Facing the Challenges of Employment and Mental Illness” in the Spring 2008 issue, and “Exposing my Breasts”, about self-disclosure, in the Spring 2006 issue. Mary is very passionate about the matter of employment. She believes that when systems (vocational rehabilitation, supported employment, competitive employment) don’t open the door for us, we have to open it ourselves. Given her connection with Open Minds Quarterly over the years and her passion for writing and advocacy, we touched base with her, for a featured interview for our Summer issue.
Please tell us a bit about your background and when you were first diagnosed with having bipolar disorder.
I was first diagnosed with a bipolar disorder in August 1982 at Colorado State Hospital. I was 26 years old. I spent three months on a locked psychiatric ward, the first week in seclusion and restraint. I had never before heard of manic-depression or bipolar disorder.
When did you first, without hesitation, call yourself a writer?
Maybe it was the day I received the request for this interview from OMQ. I strongly identify as a writer within myself, especially after the publication of my first book in 2010. By nature I’m an introvert and I don’t necessarily call myself a writer when I speak to other people unless I am giving a presentation or it is relevant to the conversation.
How does writing relate to your wellness strategy?
Writing in my journal is the way I think things through. I’m also a letter writer. I started keeping a journal when I was 15. I was in love with a man who lived in Mexico and I lived in Colorado. Over the decades my journal keeping has evolved. I collect phrases, information and ideas; it’s sort of like collecting scraps of fabric for a quilt. Outside of letter writing and journaling, my published writing helps me make meaningful connections with others. I often say, “When we share our stories we help each other heal.”
What has been the hardest thing for you in the writing process?
Bringing all the fragmented pieces into a whole. My writing coach, Stewart S. Warren, helped make the broken pieces of my first book (and my life) whole because he believed in me and my project. If you ask someone, “What helped most in your recovery?” Almost everyone will say, “Someone believed in me.” They will name a person who offered hope and help.
Over the years, you have been published a few times in Open Minds Quarterly. In the Spring 2008 issue, you shared your experience of discrimination in the workplace, where based on a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, your twenty-year career in human services was upended. It was this discrimination that propelled you to speak publicly about improving the systemic process of consumer/survivors obtaining meaningful employment. You wrote, “declaring one’s illness to a prospective employer is a multifaceted problem, and not declaring it is equally problematic. Many people reach a point in their recovery where they must hide their illness in order to stay employed in the competitive market, but the energy it takes to conceal mental illness can bring on physical illness” (pg.16). What has been your experience, since 2008, in obtaining field and skill-related employment?
I experienced job discrimination based on my diagnosis in 2000. Since that time I have redefined how I view myself and my life’s work. I cannot maintain my mental and physical health and work in the competitive job market. I have created structure for myself and meaningful interactions with people outside of traditional employment. I had to change from what I used to do and be. The work that used to define me evolved into the things I do now. For the purpose of income tax I am a self-employed writer. Don’t confuse work with earning money. My income is marginal at best and I receive food stamps.
Rebuilding my life and redefining myself was a long process. I’ve learned to stand up for myself when the outside world doesn’t agree with the person I am or the choices I make. I am not visibly handicapped or disabled. Because my bipolar disorder is invisible I am sometimes judged as a person who doesn’t want to work rather than a person who has a life of her own and is taking care of herself. The volunteer work I do shows I am still a human service worker at heart, I care about people, but I no longer work for a system of care.
How do you see workplaces addressing mental health concerns today?
I don’t see workplaces addressing mental health concerns. My experience of job discrimination based on my diagnosis brought me to a fork in the road and it was clear that I needed to speak. Because my bipolar disorder and my recovery is invisible I had to disclose it. I recently listened to an employment webinar supported by a prominent peer recovery program. The facilitator emphasized a person does not need to disclose their diagnosis to a perspective employer and she recommended not disclosing. That may be good advice for some, but the webinar didn’t address those of us who speak out — because if we don’t speak, nothing will change.
In 2010, you published your recovery memoir, In Silence I Speak: My Journey Through Madness. What do you want people to understand about experiencing a psychiatric illness, and, the mental health system which became an integral part of your experience?
People outgrow systems. This is not an easy point to make because many of the people who read my book are themselves stuck in the system as a client or an employee and they never experienced the conflict that I encountered with a powerful system. This is a system that depends on people with mental illness to obtain and maintain government funding. When I left the mental health system, consumers in the peer program did not understand the conflict I had with administration. Although I might have had a diagnosis in common with them my daily life was different from theirs. A book chapter I co-authored with Susan Manning, PhD, describes problems encountered when a person outgrows relationships in a system. You can find the book chapter on my website: maryvanpelt.com. Click on ‘books’ and scroll down.
What role has peer support played in your recovery, and in your role as a mental health advocate?
As I mentioned I was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder in August of 1982. I didn’t know anyone who had a bipolar disorder and I kept my diagnosis hidden. Six years later, in May of 1988, a community organizer in Denver named Dan Lopp introduced me to my first peer support group. For the first time in my life I met others who were diagnosed with a bipolar disorder and on a path of recovery. A world of opportunity opened. That was nearly 30 years ago. I would not be who I am today without the power of peer support. I view recovery as a continuous upward spiral. Some are new to the journey and some of us have been doing the work for a very long time, the needs and talents are diverse.
Are you reading anything now that’s moving you?
I am reading Willie Nelson’s It’s a Long Story: My Life. Willie Nelson’s story is about many things including activism, bucking the system and not giving up. He did music his way, paid his dues and found success despite conflicts with Nashville recording executives when he began his career more than 50 years ago.
What’s next for you? What writing projects are you working on at the moment?
I keep doing life one day at a time.
How did you first hear of Open Minds Quarterly?
From Robin Hill. Robin is the founder of Friendly Harbor Drop-in Center in Pueblo, Colorado. We were at a peer support conference in November 2003. Robin showed me his copy of OMQ, “These people will publish your stories.” I got a subscription and submitted.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
I believe that libraries and librarians are an author’s best friend. I put a copy of my book in a library every chance I get. Libraries often have budgets to purchase books. It’s great to sell books but I also like to let people know they can read it for free. People who buy my book sometimes loan or give it to a friend and my story keeps circulating. Thanks to my videographer friend, Miles Eddy, I have a YouTube channel: maryvanpelt2. This is a series of videos about job discrimination, self-disclosure of a psychiatric disability and recovery topics. “A Psychiatric Survivor Speaks” is the story of my job loss. This video was featured at a film festival.
Thank you for this opportunity to share my story and my experiences with readers.
Thank you to you, Mary, for sharing your personal story with us, for your devotion to your craft and for continui ng to speak up and out about issues close to heart. We look forward to seeing what you’ll submit to Open Minds Quarterly next!