Andrea's Story: Turning Pain Into Passion

Andrea and I have been acquaintances for about a decade though I've never had the chance to hear her story. Through the years, I've seen her struggle with depression, but I've also seen her work hard, really hard, to reach a place where she is able to not only feel positive again but also give back to others suffering from mental illness. Soon, Andrea will be opening her own counseling practice in Rochester and what a great opportunity to learn more about her, her story and her work. 

Andrea lives in Rochester, MN with her husband, Colin, and two daughters, Naomi and Hope.

 [S]: Think back when you were 12, what was your most difficult struggle at that age?

[A]: Well, at that point my dad was moving out of the house, so my family dynamic was difficult. My struggles weren't self-esteem type struggles. I was really independent and always felt like I could do whatever I wanted.

Shortly after I was born, doctors told my mother not to expect anything from me - I wouldn't graduate high school, or have my own children - because I have PKU (phenylketonuria) which is a rare recessive genetic disorder. Forty years ago, when they found out a baby had this, they freaked out because as babies with PKU grew up they became increasingly mentally disabled. They couldn't figure out why. Eventually, they found that it was because people who have PKU don't have the enzymes needed to break down a certain amino acid. So, when you have way too much of this amino acid in your body it kills brain cells which causes neurological dysfunction. As a result, my parents never pushed me, or expected me, to do or become anything. 

In my family, the philosophy was we don't have problems, so we don't talk about them. During high school, this became a problem because I experienced more internal emotional difficulty.  On the outside, I was really successful and good at most of the things I was doing. 

[S]: How do you handle PKU now?

I'm actually in a medical study in Wisconsin. I go to Milwaukee every couple months and give myself an injection medication - two shots per day - that binds the amino acids. I know, from experience, that if I'm taking my depression medication and the injections I do pretty well. If I stop doing the injection and don't maintain a PKU diet, my mood goes down fairly quickly. The effects are so quick. 

Andrea with her husband, Colin

Andrea with her husband, Colin

[S]: Do I have it right that you and your husband's first kiss was the day he proposed?

[A]: Yes.

[S]: Why was that?

[A]: I think because, um, for me, a lot of it was past relationships and feeling like I wanted to do it right. I didn't want to feel like that I had a role to play physically speaking. I had intended to wait until I was married to kiss, but, then when we got engaged, well, he was standing there in his suit with all these lit candles and it was the best moment, so I threw that out the window.

[S]: Over the years, I've appreciated your openness about your struggle with mental illness. Describe a time in your life when mental illness affected your life.

[A]: Well, in high school I dealt with depression and then in college, I began to experience symptoms of PTSD.

[S]: PTSD from?

[A]: Trauma growing up. Um....A neighbor abused me from when I was 5 years old until about 8th grade. 

[S]: Wow. I never knew that happened to you. 

[A]: Yeah. In high school, I was able to use coping skills to deal with depression as well as the abuse, but when I was in college it wasn't working anymore. So, when I was in college at Bethel, I started having weird flashbacks.

I had always kept myself so busy, so I never had enough time to think about the abuse, but then my freshman year I played soccer and basketball, but not softball, so I had a ton of time that semester. Like, way too much time. I got three Ds and an A that semester. 

I didn't know what the heck was going on and began to tell myself that the abuse hadn't happened. There was an awareness of what happened, but I didn't call it abuse because, well, it's complicated. At some point, I was old enough to say something, but I never did. But, who was I supposed to tell?

It got to a point where if I was awake I couldn't go to class or really function. I was constantly having flashbacks and everything would remind me of something, Or, someone would say something or I would see something on TV and it would trigger something. It was constant. All the time. Everyday. All day long.

Then, if I was sleeping, I was having nightmares. I fell out of my loft three different times before finally taking it down. 

Then, in my sophomore year, December 1st, 1997, I tried to kill myself.

There was this overwhelming sense of helplessness as I got ready for basketball practice after class that day. As if I couldn't do anything or concentrate on anything. I was always tired. Suicide had never crossed my mind before that moment, so it's not like it was planned. I'm not exactly sure what I took, Tylenol maybe, but I took a lot of it. While I was downing that bottle of pills my roommate was in the shower.

After finishing off the bottle, I didn't say anything to anyone and went to basketball practice despite feeling a little off. Eventually, I told my roommate and my boyfriend at the time, and, of course, they freaked out and brought me to the hospital. That was the worst experience ever.

[S]: What made it the worst experience? The physical or emotional trauma?

[A]: Well, it was both. This was nearly 20 years ago. The nurse wasn't very compassionate, asking me "What the hell is your problem?" while shoving charcoal down my throat. It was awful. Then, the social worker came and had to decide what to do with me.  I told her I was fine, just stressed and that I was abused when I was a kid. Never had I told anyone that out loud before.

Then, they sent me home.

[S]: They sent you home? You told this nurse you were abused as a child and you tried to kill yourself and they sent you home? No overnight stay in the hospital?

[A]: No. No. I went back to the dorms. 

[S]: Did they do any follow-up?

[A]: The hospital? No

[S]: No followup? No referral to a psychologist or a therapist?

[A]: No. 

[S]: A lot has changed in 20 years. Thankfully.

[A]: Yes.

So, I was super sick for a long time; throwing up black stuff for weeks. This was in December, so I took a leave from school for the rest of the semester. 

[S]: Was your abuser ever convicted?

[A]: No, but he's been in and out of jail for meth and sexual abuse. So that's been helpful.

[S]: There have been other victims?

[A]: Yes. Apparently.

[S]: How were you able to work through all of this?

[A]: Well, from college I moved to Rochester in 2000. A coworker befriended me and sort of took me. I thought I could outrun my mental illness, but, of course, that never works. Well, This friend noticed that I was coming late to work and things weren't getting done; all the symptoms of depression and PTSD were coming to the surface.

One night I stayed at her place and was so tired, but couldn't sleep. I was up all night freaking out. Screaming. Crying. I'd never cried about it, but that night it all came out while I was at her house. She brought me to Mayo Clinic to talk to a therapist. That was really the beginning of healing, but the beginning was a long, long time.

[S]: How long do you think it took for you to arrive at a place where you felt a more positive outlook?

[A]: A long, long time. It was a process. One of the first steps was learning what it meant to be valued by someone else. With my counselor, in college, we worked through a lot of those family dynamics and in the process she told me she cared about me. I couldn't understand why she would care, but she told me that I was worth it. That made a difference to me.

After moving to Rochester, I started medication which was helpful, though I was still suicidal and was hospitalized two times.

I've learned that I'm separate from my illness and the trauma and those things are not who I am; which is empowering. Also, my faith has been deepened and that is a huge part of my recovery.

Then, I had to look back at my past. I worked with a therapist that helped me see that I was a kid when I suffered abuse. Being able to look back and see myself as a child going through that was helpful for me to process. 

[S]: One can only assume that your experiences in the past with depression, PTSD, childhood trauma has compelled you to become a therapist yourself?

[A]: Yes.

[S]: The answer may seem obvious, but does your own experience help you as a therapist?

In her office which is opening soon.

In her office which is opening soon.

[A]: Everyone has a story. Everyone has a past. Everyone has difficulties. We have behaviors because something is going on. For those reasons, I try to look at each person as their own unique story while avoiding any judgements.

My job is to help people develop skills and tools to make more positive decisions. That's something we all need to do. I firmly believe that people do the best they can; especially kids. Kids want to be good and they want people to like them. If they're not being good there's some sort of barrier or skill deficit in the way. 

I know working through therapy is hard. I know that people hide behind who they are because I've done that for a really long time. Who they are on the outside may be different than what's on the inside.

In college, there were people who went out of their way to make a difference in my life. I knew I wanted to be that person for someone else. When I was healthy enough I went back to school and graduated with a 4.0. That told sign enough that I was doing what God was leading me to do. 

[S]: You've mentioned that your daughter, Hope, is in counseling. As a parent, and a counselor, what is that like for you?

[A]: It's hard. Not that she's in therapy, but being the parent of a child in therapy is difficult. Parents put in a lot of work as they help their child utilize the tools they've been given in therapy.  I've got a new appreciation for just how hard that is for parents. I think it's good that she's in therapy. With her chromosome deletion, there's a chance for significant mental illness as she gets older so we need to help her develop tools to deal with that. 

[S]: Who do you anticipate serving through this practice?

[A]: Children, adolescents, young adults, and families. When you're working with children and adolescents you have to work with the families, too. Therapy is meeting people where they're at and helping them understand how they got to where they're at because that's a big part of who they are. 

[S]: I'm excited for you, Andrea, and for the people you will be serving. You inspire me as I've seen you turn your personal pain into a passion for people. We need good counselors and I know you'll be wonderful!

Andrea will be opening her faith-based practice, Peaks of Hope Counseling, soon! I encourage you to reach out to Andrea or other licensed counselors to find the hope and healing you, or your child, need. May God bless you on your journey.