This is part two of a three part series I have decided to do about Tracy Carney. I had initially asked Tracy for an introduction and was dumbfounded when I opened her return email and saw multiple paragraphs. I thought to myself how this wasn’t an introduction, this was a life story and I had some heavy editing to do. However, after sitting down and reading her essay, I found myself in tears at the end. I have decided to share with you, unedited, Tracy’s full introduction.
My name is Tracy Carney. I live in a rural community in Central Pennsylvania, in the little town of Danville. I’ve been married to my best friend, Tom for 37 years now… (Yikes, that’s starting to sound like a long time!) I have been blessed with 2 daughters and 2 sons, who have now found their life partners, and blessed me with 8 grandchildren. These little grand people are the joy of my heart J
I have one of the greatest job’s in the world but the training I went through to land this job was horrible….let me explain. I had worked with my husband, most of my adult life, building a soft drink/snack food distribution business called Carney Marketing. I drove truck, made deliveries to local stores, lots of paperwork, etc. I was a busy Mom with kids, a house to keep and a job. Never a dull moment! Then something happened to me that was unexpected, live changing and horrendously difficult to navigate…clinical depression. I guess I had heard about depression but I really didn’t understand this illness. At first I thought I was just having a bad day but the days turned to weeks and into months. I couldn’t concentrate, sleep or eat. My beautiful, color-filled, life descended into darkness. Words cannot describe the emotional pain or hopelessness I felt during that time. One of the most difficult things to talk/write about was the shift that happened in my mental perception. I felt useless and unable to function. I began to think my children needed a better mother, my husband a better wife. Also, somehow, they would be better off without me. I am almost ashamed to say, that suicide dominated my thinking and became a viable option for me. It was at this point that I sought professional help.
I entered a world I knew nothing about…the mental health system. At 42 years old, I stepped foot onto a psychiatric ward…brother, did I feel like a loser! I had tried everything I knew to do to get well but couldn’t. I had an internal belief that mental illness was a character flaw…I should have been able to pull myself up by my boot straps and be well. So when the psychiatrist gave me the diagnosis of clinical depression, it felt like a relief…at least this awful darkness that had descended on my life had a name. I thought, well, if it has a name, there must be a treatment. Thus began my odyssey of psychiatric medications and revolving door hospitalizations. Unfortunately, I had medication resistant depression and after 4 years of mental hospitals and treatment, I was anything but well. I now found myself at the lowest point of my life – court committed in a State Psychiatric Hospital. Yet, this odyssey of hospitalization and treatment WAS the training ground for my new career pathway. It was while in this hospital that a psychiatrist gave me the ultimate prognosis of doom. I had asked him when I would be released from the hospital, to go home to my husband and children, and his answer was “Mrs. Carney, you have a severe and persistent mental illness, you will be disable for the rest of your life, the sooner you accept this fact the better off you will be.” I remember at that moment an incredible anger rising up in me…inside my head …I screamed,(not out loud.. you don’t get angry in front of a psychiatrist, it proves their point of just how crazy you are) I won’t be disabled the rest of my life! I will get well, you’re wrong! This anger was actually a good thing for me, for I realized if the people who were in charge of my care didn’t believe I could get well then I needed to find different people. This experience moved me away from hospitals, medications and therapies, to a self-determined, personal search for wellness.
The first thing I did was to get out of the state hospital; the way a person gets out of a psychiatric hospital is to become 100% compliant. Be quiet and get in line: the med line, the shower line, the meal line. Say yes to everything that is asked of you and don’t talk about your problems. So after a few months of 100% compliance, I was released on an involuntary outpatient commitment; not well but free of the hospital constraints. I wish I could say, I immediately got well but the reality was I was frozen with fear. I was still depressed, I felt I had even failed treatment and now I was living with the stigma of being a mental patient. Was the psychiatrist right? Would I be disabled for the rest of my life? I couldn’t see a pathway forward into a better place…. Then, two profound things happened that changed the course of my life.
The first was in 2004, I was invited to attend a Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers’ Association Conference (PMHCA). It was a yearly conference, held by this organization, made up of people living with and recovering from mental illnesses. In all of my hospitalizations and therapies I had never heard the word “recovery”. I heard words like stabilization and maintenance but the concept of people getting well after experiencing a devastating mental illness was a foreign concept to me. Yet, here they were, over 500 people living, working, and raising their families in spite of having been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. I had to learn more….and learn I did. What I discovered was a movement of people, often referred to as the Recovery Movement, people who were working to transform the mental health system into a hopeful, recovery-orientated system of care. No more prognoses of doom! These people carried a message of hope that people can and do recover with the right supports and environments. They work to change the perceptions of mental illness and reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with a diagnosis. Finding people who had journeyed this recovery path gave me hope; that I too, could find a path to wellness. It is amazing how a small spark of hope changed the course of my life. It was shortly after this conference that the Certified Peer Specialist Initiative came to Pennsylvania. In 2006, I was given the opportunity to train as a Certified Peer Specialist. A Peer Support Specialist is an individual who has made a personal commitment to his or her own recovery from mental health/substance use/ co-occurring (mental health & substance use) challenges. They have maintained their recovery over a period of time, have taken special training to work with others, and are willing to share what he or she has learned about recovery in an inspirational way. After my training, I was hired by the same county mental health agency where I once received mental health services. I worked in this agency for 10 years. It was one the best jobs in the whole world! This job brought something good out of all the years I lost to mental illness. My experiences as a psychiatric patient gave me insight and wisdom in providing hope to others navigating the mental health system. This past year I took a new position as a Senior Recovery/ Resiliency Specialist with Community Care Behavioral Health, a managed care behavioral health organization. I have the opportunity to support the work of the Certified Peer Support Specialist, on a larger state-wide level and to share this message of hope and recovery with others.
The second, and I believe, the most important thing, I found on my own personal path to wellness was hiking/backpacking. In 2007, a group of ladies from my church started a hiking group…playfully named…F Troop. (As we were all in our 50’s) The F in F Troop shows many of the attributes of this group: fifty, friends, fellowship, food, feisty, frolicking in the forest, etc. I hadn’t been in the woods in years and these ladies reintroduced me to my love of nature. Hospital settings are the exact opposite of a nature setting. Years in world of psychiatric treatment had left me alienated from the outside world, feeling very alone. I continued to struggle with self-confidence and carried an internal stigma that said I would always be a mental patient, disabled for the rest of my life. One of the ladies in F Troop, Dianne, whose Appalachian Trail name is Trip, was an AT section hiker. In 2008, she invited me to hike with her, a 171 mile AT section hike, from Fontana Dam, North Carolina to Springer, Mt Georgia. Now, at 50 years old, with no real hiking experience under my belt this was a daunting proposal. I had never walked more than 10 miles on a road, let alone in the mountains, but something inside of me said maybe… just maybe… I could do this. (Call it a spark of hope) Dianne gave me a crash course in all things hiking related, gear, the trail, trail angels, shuttlers and shelters. I learned about purifying water, and reading maps and data books. Just like I learned about a mental health recovery culture from people who had traveled the road to mental health, now I was learning the AT culture from a fellow hiker.
I had never been to North Carolina or Georgia in a car let alone on foot and I have to admit the first time I saw the great Smokey Mountains they took my breath away…they were huge! My negative self-talk immediately kicked in and I thought what am I doing out here? I wasn’t confident at all and honestly even my friend, Dianne, brought along a solo tent, just in case I quit. (She told me this after we finished the hike) But do you know what happen? Every mountain I climbed over 3,000 ft. gave me the confidence that I could climb the next one. It wasn’t a giant leap that gave me confidence I could complete this section hike. It was small steps, built successfully one after another and before I knew it, I had hiked for 21 days and completed the 171 mile section of the AT. Everything about that trip was life changing for me. I got a new name. My AT trail name is Hope To… (When people would ask did I think I could hike this section of trail my answer was an unconfident…well, I hope to…) I lost the weight I had gained from years of medications and hospitalizations. My depression lifted, I discovered my depression could be controlled with intense exercise, no more medication needed. Walking in nature transformed my thinking, deepened my spiritual connection, reduced my anxiety and gave me an overall sense of wellbeing. Living in the woods also reset my internal clock; I slept when it was dark and rose with the dawn to the birds singing. Hiking is absolutely the best medicine I have found for the treatment of clinical depression.
That first section hike was 8 years ago; I have since hiked across 12 of the fourteen states that make up the Appalachian Trail. My goal is to complete the Appalachian Trail by my 60th birthday. I am 344 miles away from reaching that goal. Will I finish it? I Hope to…
Look for Tracy’s story…Pt. III in the future.
Much love and Aloha,
your clueless wanderer
Author’s note: Suicide is a silent killer. It sucks all the hope and light out of a person’s will to live because things seem so hopeless. The temptation of ending the pain becomes a powerful vacuum pulling us into the void of a black hole. Be vigil of your loved ones and try to notice when anything is wrong. Listen, be present. Be aware.