Remembering Contessa Fincher

NOVEMBER 2019

Editor’s note: Contessa Fincher, whose volunteer work with NAMI Washtenaw County was greatly admired and appreciated, passed away in her home in Ypsilanti on Aug. 28, 2019. Here is a remembrance of her, written by Bob Nassauer. Following that is Contessa’s own story, which her family members believe Contessa would have liked us to share.

Rest in Peace, Contessa

Contessa Fincher was a brilliant, enthusiastic, expressive, spiritual, kind-hearted and generous volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Washtenaw County. She gave back in so many ways. She was a Peer-to-Peer education class leader, helped us get restarted giving Patient and Family Hour presentations at Chelsea Hospital, and told her story publicly many times to students and at churches. She was gifted at describing her illness course and symptoms using vivid analogies blended with scientific insight. She was highly creative. For example, she consistently came up with activities and exercises to involve the audience and she created a “hook and loop” model of how the synapse works in the brain and would refer to it during her talks. Often, she generously would hand out gifts intended to provide uplift to people; she even sometimes cooked meals for the Peer-to-Peer class. She always expressed deep love for her son and the importance of faith in her life. Many benefited from hearing her story and we are grateful that she graced so many of our lives. We will miss you, Contessa.

In My Own Voice

By Contessa Fincher

Introduction

My name is Contessa Fincher and I am currently in the fight of my life to spend more time with my 8-year-old son. I will briefly tell you more about why in my story.

I have a doctorate of philosophy in Health Services Research and a master’s in Public Health. In my career in the pharmaceutical industry, I educate health plans on the burden and costs of illnesses, and the benefits of treatment spanning clinical areas such as women’s health, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

My Christian faith is important in my life. I have always been active in going to church. Even now, I volunteer as a Sunday School teacher for 4th and 5th graders just as my grandmother did and I spend time with my community church group throughout the year.

For volunteer work outside my church, I serve in a local food pantry and for NAMI. I enjoy offering my time to help at my local Buddhist temple and they accept me in their community with no judgment-just open arms.

Some of my hobbies include domestic and international travel. I enjoy hiking on mountains and in forests, scuba diving in different oceans and kayaking.

Additionally, for seven years of my life, I ran marathons, ultra-marathons, completed an Iron Man distance race, triathlons and adventure races. Now, I simply like being outdoors and being active, whether it’s dancing Zumba or practicing yoga. I have mud run races in my future.

In early 2012, I was diagnosed with bipolar illness and primarily experience bipolar depression. I am stable, healthy and live mostly asymptomatically so you cannot describe one bipolar diagnosis as all being alike because we all experience our illness differently. Even though we may have common paths we take to recovery, our symptoms are unique to our own illness and are not like what we see on TV. I do not bounce between extreme emotions high and low as bipolar is often described. I can experience years with no symptoms.

Thank goodness that my life is filled with love from supportive family, friends and broader support within my community and a committed clinical team. I am not sure if I could have recovered otherwise.

Dark Days

After my son’s birth at age 38, I experienced postpartum depression and returned to work full time after my maternity leave. A couple of years later, a combination of marital problems and work stress led me to have a major depressive episode with severe anxiety. My postpartum depression put me at a higher risk of bipolar illness and I had a genetic vulnerability to depression due to my family history.

I could not understand why I was becoming sick after 40 years of being healthy. The head of the Depression Center I visited explained to me that I was having such severe symptoms of depression and anxiety that I would experience suicidal ideation. Suicidal ideation is when you have thoughts of suicide and cannot stop them from coming into your mind.

An analogy was offered to me as an explanation. The psychiatrist said if you have the flu, you will get muscle aches and a fever as a part of the course of the illness. Similarly, when my symptoms were at their worst, I had suicidal thoughts but could not block them out. I had to experience the whole course of the mental sickness or episode until I got better.

What happens to me when I am ill? My brain slows down and my processing speed is impaired. It is like a slow internet connection when you are used to fast speed. I experience fear when my mind starts to slow down and I find it difficult to have normal conversations with my friends. My doctors tell me I become hyper-focused on my symptoms and that makes it worse.

One of my darkest moments is when I experienced feelings of wanting to end my life. Unfortunately, this feeling replays itself every time I am severely ill. I love people and exploring the world. It is foreign to me to not have any joy in my heart. When symptoms are at their worst, it is difficult to connect with my faith… to God. My heart and mind feel numb and I feel a great sadness. I fear those feelings might become permanent and I will never be able to regain my capacity to think and love. This nightmare never comes true but the fear makes it real to me in the moment no matter what my loved ones tell me. I begin to think I will become dependent on others to take care of me which threatens the core of my independent spirit.

I received a diagnosis in 2012 of bipolar illness after experiencing a short time of restlessness and agitation referred to as a hypo-manic episode. My psychiatrist tells me that the opioid medication I was taking for a blood clot in my leg for pain relief induced the hypomanic episode in combination with my marital strife. I have not ever repeated the experience of mania but if you only experience it once, you have the diagnosis of bipolar.

My most difficult struggles are to endure the symptoms of severe depression and anxiety. This can be referred to as bipolar depression. It is worse than what we think of as normal depression. It lasts 4 to 6 months in total and about 1 to 2 months that are almost intolerable. Severe anxiety for me is definitely the most challenging to treat. Mixed with generalized anxiety is compulsive thinking and social anxiety making it harder to connect with anyone.

On top of struggling to understand and control symptoms of my illness, I was shocked to see the reaction from the family court to my new diagnosis. My son was never in any danger with me and was with his father when I was in the hospital. I have never wanted separation from my son except when my symptoms peaked. There was a general perception my son was unsafe with me even when I became well. In the divorce, I was awarded time with my son every week because that was recommended by a court appointed psychologist.

A little more than a month after divorce, the court decided to restrict my parenting time to two hours a month, supervised for over 3 years now. I feel like this is unfair because there was no reason given for the restriction except that my son was acting out at preschool. The court assumed it must be the mother that is upsetting him. My bipolar diagnosis became synonymous with descriptions of being a liar, unsafe, selfish and not able to put my child first in my life.

I found it to be dehumanizing and unfair when I was told by the family court guardian ad liteum that I had a “personality defect” and that my son did not need me. It was even more devastating to have him taken away for almost a year without any evidence (except for my diagnosis) to support that drastic action.

It would have been more helpful to us if the court had only tried to do a better job of understanding mental health conditions, and not rely on common stereotypes. One of the reasons I am telling my story today is to continue the fight against discrimination and stigma toward people with mental health diagnoses.

Acceptance

At first, I was in denial concerning my mental illness due to the terrible situation of a sudden diagnosis, marital emotional abuse, and losing my son. My relapses or worst symptoms seem to happen after long periods of not seeing my son, and the uncertainty of when I can spend time with him that follows. This would be a stressful situation for anyone. My dad calls that a good old fashion breakdown.

However, when I experience these symptoms, I try to stop them from happening with every power in my being. It is like putting on a television show that does not allow you to fast-forward or rewind. I must experience the whole show or course of my illness. My movie plays out sickness, fear, me feeling trapped by that fear and panic. Eventually, I am released. I do become free. The movie does end.

So how would I describe my symptoms?

  1. I first have a lack of appetite with my increased worry or anxiety. It is difficult to eat solid food and I feel weak,
  2. I have trouble sleeping through the night for several weeks,
  3. My fear cranks up the level of anxiety until I find it hard to focus or concentrate on television, reading, or having conversations,
  4. My brain stays in a panic mode and I find it hard to make decisions. I cannot relax no matter what I do or how hard I try,
  5. My mind begins to go over my problems repeatedly, and it is hard to take a break from the panic feeling. That is called rumination of thoughts. You might think of a hamster on a wheel that cannot stop. It is emotionally exhausting, and
  6. Ultimately, I believe I am never going to get better even though I have before.

In my opinion, these symptoms can be prevented with a balanced lifestyle and medical interventions. I may be able to stop the movie before it begins to play. However, once the process starts coupled with lack of eating and sleep, the sickness will take its course no matter what I do. High levels of uncontrollable stress eventually lead to feelings of helplessness. That is what might trigger my body to repeat the panic cycle I described.

I have hope that my treatment plan will not allow me to ever have to be hospitalized again, which is the goal. It is what we call relapse prevention. I never want to face my demons that I have already conquered. I want to move on with my life.

Treatment

Postpartum depression was successfully treated with living a balanced life and taking an anti-depressive medication short-term. Later, with my diagnosis of bipolar, a mood stabilizer helps bring back my serotonin (neurotransmitter in my brain that helps me process thoughts) back to normal, so I can refocus and concentrate.

My psychiatrist explained to me that medications are about 20% to 30% effective. I would have to combine other treatments into my life other than medications, such as volunteer work. When we volunteer, it is difficult to worry about ourselves. Volunteering is as effective as having a therapist and medications combined. So, it is powerful to help others.

Other treatment modalities are effective too such as talk therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy (e.g., interpersonal skills, mindfulness, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation), and cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety and depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps me retrain my thoughts and overcome my fear that I will not be able to be myself again. Fortunately, I receive treatment at a Depression Center where there are some of the best treatment experts in the country.

Recently, I have incorporated chiropractic treatment into my recovery plan along with taking mindfulness for anxiety. Your frontal lobe will keep reminding you of the fear you have because it sees how important of a threat it is to you. I have to find ways to accept the fear and not push it away or fight it because it only grows stronger. Calming experiences such as restorative yoga and meditation are helping me balance out the screaming flight or fight stress I feel because I am being denied the opportunity to parent my son. It is a stress that never leaves me and I just find ways to refocus my mind on other things I can control.

My clinical therapist told me that I know what it is like to be a marathon runner or endurance runner. She told me I would have to train on getting better just like I would for a race. She said it would be difficult, but I could get better. I did get better. I have long periods of time where I am very well and I do not suffer from any symptoms of bipolar illness.

There is a definite biological component to this disease that is out of my control. Therefore, I have accepted having a mental illness. I know that I am at a higher risk of the movie replaying again and it is up to me to either create a different movie or not allow my brain to push play.

Someone once asked my doctor how he knew I had a mental illness. His answer was when he gives me a certain medication, I get better. Later, I learned that he was talking about neurotransmitters like balancing my brain level of serotonin. For example, it is like a dead battery in your car. When the proper charge is applied, the battery starts to work again. My brain on a simple level, works like that battery. My brain loses its charge when it is severely depleted from being overwhelmed by stress.

My psychiatrist tells me I recover quickly after my worst symptoms begin. It still takes approximately 4-6 months out of my life to fully recover and it is expensive when hospitalization is required. One hospitalization required electro convulsive therapy (ECT) and it worked quickly to make me feel normal again. My brain was literally charged back up and my serotonin levels were reset.

The second time I tried ECT it took longer to recover and there was some cognitive impairment that resolved over a few weeks. It taught me there are no quick and easy fixes to having a mental condition. I have learned I need to be open with trying different treatment options that match where I am in my daily life and when I have depressive and anxiety symptoms. Facing fear and not suppressing fear is where I am at today.

Coping Skills

My coping skills change over time depending on my level of stress and whether my symptoms are active or not active (i.e., in remission). When I start to not think clearly and panic that I am going to get sick, my friends and family begin giving me chores to help me focus. They ask me to work in the garden, paint, or just go for a walk. I have an app on my phone to play brain games which help my mind stay active. When I am allowed to see my son it brings me calm and joy.

A very effective coping skill is for me to visit a local Buddhist meditation center and eat healthy, meditate, do yoga, and work study so I am doing something with my hands such as cleaning, gardening, chopping vegetables or sewing. Sleep is also extremely important.

I volunteer in my community and have folks from my church community volunteer with me, so I am not alone. For example, I have volunteered at the food pantry that may help feed 70 to 100 families on a Saturday. This experience allows me to get outside my head, smile and talk with other people who are grateful for support. When I am depressed, I can still help others.

Exercise is a great coping skill for me and it is fun and social. I play on a volleyball team in the Fall and try to take a class on a new skill such as ice skating or karate. I will go to classes which are social and structured such as spinning, Zumba, drum alive, and cardio kick boxing.

I listen to positive and inspirational messages on my iphone. I listen to my pastor on podcasts and to other ministers who speak on emotional control and overcoming tough times or challenges. I watch these same ministers on television, YouTube, or on an application on my phone.

I have recorded myself speaking about my mental health and my gratitude for my son. I play them back and listen to myself when I am sick. It helps me realize that even when I suffer, I can still express myself and communicate. I create what are called thought records about my recurring anxieties when I am sick, and I learn from them when I am well.

I surround myself with family and friends. It is important to be social so I make sure to have dinner with a family or families in my church once a week when I am depressed. I have trouble eating so it is nice to try to eat with loving and kind people who care for me and want to see me well again. I record their prayers for me and I listen to them repeatedly.

When I am well, work is an excellent way to focus my mind and feel affirmation of mastery of skills and appreciation from colleagues. Team work is fun and it creates structure with travel and providing presentations to decision makers about something that matters. This makes it difficult to worry too long about any one issue in my life that I cannot control.

Lastly, I educate myself on the science of mental health biological illnesses with TED Talks or books written by physicians or psychologists. I even watch webcasts that my psychiatrist has on the internet. I constantly try to stay current on new coping techniques.

Faith

My faith in Jesus Christ has remained strong throughout my life since I was a little girl listening to my grandmother teach in Sunday School. If she were alive today, I am not sure if she would understand my illness. She told me if I was feeling fear then that meant I was not connected to God. I was so sick during one depressive episode that I remember being told by my friend to just pray: “Father heal me for thy shalt be healed.” I repeated that simple prayer because at the time my brain was foggy and that was the best I could do. I am sure God knew.

My Presbyterian church in Ann Arbor failed me when I became sick because the associate pastor said I should not be allowed to volunteer while I was in therapy. I should not have access to an elder for prayer in the church during my treatment at the Depression Center.

To this day, I do not know why that pastor treated me the way she did. Thank God a woman who experienced her own mental health challenges did not listen to that pastor. This elder met with me once a week and called me on the phone to pray with me. Her kindness kept me connected to God, without her I could not have kept my hope during that temporary time in life. I felt very alone.

The pastor never talked to me about my faith but she did pass judgment. She said even though I had some Theological Seminary training, I could not understand the faith needs of a child. Later she admitted her comments were only meant to refer to my mental state when I was ill and not when I was well. The court did not make the distinction—unfortunately.

I left that church with much disappointment in my heart. However, I found my current church, Grace Ann Arbor and I was still hurting from the trauma that had almost broken me. Things got much better when I was placed in a community group. I found a prayer partner Carla that met with me weekly.

Regina was in that community group and she invited me to help with activities with upper elementary Grace kids for Sunday School. Those two women along with another man named John in my community group became my sources of comfort and walked and prayed with me as I was recovering.

Where one church had shamed me, the other had uplifted me. How did Grace support me? It was not easy for my new church to understand my circumstances. I was literally heart broken from grief from losing my son. He was not dead but he was being withheld from me because I had a mental illness. The Washtenaw Family Court did not understand I was in remission. So, the judge restricted my exposure to my child.

It is difficult to explain to your community group that your depression is worsening despite their prayers and things are not getting better despite my faith. What was amazing to me is that I reached out and asked for what I needed from the group. I received help for months not just a few days. They are there when I am well and they do not abandon me when I am sick.

First of all, I asked for home cooked meals due to my decreasing appetite and fear of not being able to eat. I acquired a lot of rapid weight loss. I was too tired to cook for myself and my cognitive ability was decreased. Secondly, I asked for prayers that I could record on my phone and play back to myself. Third, I shared some time with another Christian in the church who was experiencing severe depression and was on the road to recovery when my symptoms were worsening.

I had the love and support of a local Pentecostal Church in Ypsilanti and I had been neighbors with the pastor and his wife—Grace Fellowship. They approached depression a little differently. Although, they believed in some physiological reasons for depression, they also believed the Devil had won over my mind. Their prayers were strong and sort of like exorcisms. I received excellent advice from this pastor who said frankly he had no more a direct contact to God than I did. I needed to establish that personal relationship and talk to God directly. They did not mind having faith for me until my faith was strong enough on its own.

Despite the support of many individuals in my new church and joy I received from the kids in Sunday School, I had a relapse when I was not allowed to see or speak to my child for 6 months. That happened twice. I have lost about a year of my son’s life with zero contact with him even though with every fiber in my being I crave to see him, and to hold him, talk with him and see his hockey games and learn what he is doing in school.

What Christians do not understand is that when depression or mental conditions are at their worst, for most people, myself for sure, it is difficult to connect with your faith because you are emotionally numb and spiritually disconnected as well—not by choice. Your brain does not allow your mind any comfort and you live in this constant state of fear and panic.

I had to get help from the medical community and from the Buddhist community. The Buddhist temple offered me an environment unlike anything the Christian community was equipped to offer. I received time to follow the schedule during the day. I had a vegetarian lunch and helped with the preparation, I meditated and was given chores and tasks to do while at least one person was around me at all times. I was safe. There was little talking.

I did not learn anything more than I already knew about Buddha. I received complete openness and help from an outside community that did not demand anything from me. In fact, when I am well, I mostly spend my time and efforts in my church. They helped me for months not days, there was no judgment. I am always indebted to the meditation temple and their loving kindness and actions. God finds a way to help you where you are if you ask and keep your faith.

I have been told that I should read the book of Job and learn how this character in the Bible underwent tragedy. That might help me. There was a strong message there and that was if you do not abandon your faith, God will not abandon you. In reality, God protected Job because he initially had great faith and when tested he demonstrated keeping his faith and it grew even stronger than before.

I think for me, I relate more to the other extreme with a character known as Elijah. He ran into the wilderness from fear and begged God to take his life. God did not abandon him in his time of weakness but fed him and made him rest. He wanted Elijah to fulfill his purpose.

I feel like the times I have encountered with God with my most serious symptoms and wanting to take my own life from sheer desperation to make the anxiety and confusion end –is more like Elijah than the tests for Job. There are moments where I need food and escape from my troubles. I believe God sends his believers to help me and I also believe God calls on the nonbelievers to help me.

After I recover I understand that God has a purpose for me. I do not know what that purpose is just yet but I feel called to share my story. I know my faith becomes stronger when I heal again and again without ever being stuck in hell even though I experience it within me.

I sometimes come back to the words of Paul in the New Testament that he has a thorn remaining in his side and he presses on to live by the grace and glory of God. This gives me reassurance God still loves me regardless of the troubles I still have today. I press on to be obedient to God and serve others, to teach, to share my struggles and hopefully show empathy that lifts someone’s spirit if only for a few moments. Thank God for His Mercy.

Hopes and Dreams

My hope is to continually surround myself with people who can encourage me to put my dreams into action. I would love to spend regular time with my son while he is young. I do not want to miss those precious years and I remain dedicated to working with the family court despite the challenges around perception of someone with my condition.

I do not think if I had a choice I would have wanted to suffer with bipolar illness. However, I have had such personal growth because I was forced to ask for help from others. I have experienced vulnerability, loss, and the fear of being broken which allows me to be more empathetic towards others who have felt similar feelings or been in similar circumstances.

You may think that my illness would have hurt my friendships and relationships. Instead, my friendships are stronger than they have ever been. My community is wide and my friends are diverse.

Once you have been through hell on Earth and faced the worst enemy that you can (your own mental suffering and desire to give up), you are ready to help others. You do not give up and you learn that we are all more alike than we are different. Some of us just do not get stuck when stress is high and our brains process the stress differently. I have learned to be compassionate toward those who are emotionally hurting and those who are healing.

I never thought I would have something in common with someone who suffered from substance abuse or post-traumatic stress but going through the process of feeling pain, and the work to regain health, allows me to have a similar journey back to recovery that I understand. We can share and learn from each other’s stories and ways of overcoming to enrich our lives.

I would like to continue to partner with NAMI and hear some of the amazing stories that people live out in their lives under the most stressful of circumstances. I hope my story resonates with you and allows you to know that there is hope for those of us with biological mental health conditions. We can and do find ways to balance out our lives, so we can be our best selves.

I hope that family and friends of my peers, along with potentially newly diagnosed peers with a mental illness can learn something from my story. I am committed to help support others with similar experiences and offer them coping skill ideas to get through their darkest days to experience better ones.

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