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Hillman woman shares hope during mental health awareness month

HILLMAN — Stacey Gildner’s friends are surprised when she tells them she hears voices in her head.

“You pass hundreds of people on the street every day who have mental illness,” said Gildner, a Hillman woman who has battled multiple forms of serious mental illness since she was a teenager. “And you don’t know it, because it doesn’t show on the outside.”

After a decades-long battle against mania, depression, anxiety, and an inner jumble of voices, Gildner seems — to use a word she dislikes — normal.

A mental illness diagnosis doesn’t mean being unable to function in the world. It doesn’t mean being a psychopath or a serial killer or losing your children, Gildner said, her 1-year-old adopted son snuggled on her lap.

The road to mental wellness can be difficult, Gildner knows from hard experience. But that wellness truly is possible, with the help of treatment options, support, and determination to be better.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Stacey Gildner, in her Hillman home last week, talks about mental health as her 1-year-old son, Gavin, charms a visitor.

“Don’t give up. Because that’s where the hope is,” Gildner said.

DIAGNOSES

Gildner’s symptoms first appeared when she was 16, when mental illness wasn’t as understood as it is now. Diagnosed with manic depression — also called bipolar disorder — she felt she had to pretend to be getting better to avoid disappointing her therapist.

She was declared cured and went untreated for years, battling depression that made her suicidal at the same time mania was telling her she could survive anything — a dangerous combination, Gildner said.

An abusive marriage and a violent parking lot argument when she was 26, after ten years of battling inner demons she didn’t understand, finally led to her first mental health hospitalization and a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Holding her son, Gavin, Hillman resident Stacey Gildner displays a keychain — a keepsake of a mental health treatment class — that reads, “I deserve a life worth living.”

People with that diagnosis can be devastated when relationships aren’t going as expected and live in fear of being left emotionally alone, Gildner explained.

For the next seven years, she was in and out of hospitals more times than she could count. She remembers overdoses, screaming fits, police sirens and spitting on doctors and nurses.

More diagnoses were added to her list of troubles — an anxiety disorder that made every day feel like getting ready to jump out of an airplane, panic attacks that sucked her breath away, and a five-year period of agoraphobia that made leaving home terrifying.

‘LIFE WORTH LIVING’

For decades, she’d never told anyone about the sounds in her head.

News Photo by Julie Riddle Stacey Gildner smiles at her son, Gavin, at her Hillman home last week.

She thought everyone’s mind was filled with clangs and muffled crowd sounds, like being in a busy restaurant. When she finally told her doctors about the sounds she heard, they diagnosed her with bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder.

The noises started to get louder. She couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t hold a job with the sounds drowning out her thoughts.

Eventually, a change in medication dosage helped her push the noises back. She remarried and dove into therapy and fought for years to get better.

Today, five years after moving to Northeast Michigan, she can smile and laugh and go outside. She speaks publicly to groups of mental health professionals, letting them see what their hard work on behalf of hurting people can accomplish, and she’s writing a book about her experiences with mental illness.

And, she went through the lengthy process of being approved to be a foster parent through Child and Family Services of Northeast Michigan in Alpena. Sixteen-month-old Gavin has lived with Gildner and her husband, Kirk, since the boy was 24 hours old. The couple adopted Gavin in March.

“There’s nothing wrong with being diagnosed with something,” Gildner said. “The diagnosis is not who you are. It’s what you have.”

Twenty years ago, overwhelmed by symptoms, she feared she would never have a family, never own a home, never have what many think of as a normal life.

Getting better took a lot of work. It was a fight worth fighting, though, she said.

“I finally made it to my life worth living,” Gildner said.

‘IT’S YOUR TOOLBOX’

May has been designated mental health awareness month and national foster care month. In Gildner’s Hillman-area home, the observances combine in the rollicking giggle of a little boy whose adoring mom followed a long, hard road to get well enough to make him hers.

Gildner hasn’t been hospitalized in seven years, but she’s not cured — and never will be, she knows now. Like cancer, mental illness can be treated and pushed away, but it can come back, and keeping it at bay takes vigilance and hard work, she said.

She goes to therapy every two weeks. Her heavy meds are pretty sedating, she said, and staying on an even keel takes intentional work, all day, every day.

“Everyone on the planet” should take the dialectical behavior therapy classes she credits with giving her tools to reach mental wellness.

A fat, spiral-bound notebook reminds her of the classes’ lessons: Notice feelings and then let them go, like items on a conveyor belt. Know the difference between reacting with reason and reacting with emotion. Understand that some people won’t like you. Give yourself a break.

She’s learned what triggers her anxiety and what turns up the volume of the noise in her head, and she knows what helps her move past the bad times. Crafting, journaling, and learning new things — like redoing her bathroom floor — help keep her symptoms under control.

“You can put any kind of tool in your toolbox,” Gildner said. “It’s your toolbox.”

When she was young, she knew she wasn’t OK, but she didn’t know she could be better. She needed someone to tell her to keep pushing, to keep working to find the therapy, medications, and actions that worked for her, Gildner said.

Other people who have been through mental illness have stories to share about their own journeys toward wellness. Listen to those stories, Gildner said to those wondering if they could be more OK. Take the help. Tell your own story. Find your life worth living.

“There’s hope,” she said. “There’s hope. There’s always hope.”

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