Coming through individually


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In an effort to better express herself, Margalea chose to write some of her responses.

Margalea Warner remembers a time when she could hear and see things around her that others could not. She writes:

“My childhood was largely joyful, the child of older parents who cherished their late-in-life child. But I do remember a time when I ran a fever and I heard growling, vibrating, terrifying noises. My mother came to comfort me and rubbed me with a cotton ball dipped in perfume, and the terror went away.”

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The 54-year-old, who now lives in Coralville, is one of approximately 2.4 million Americans living with schizophrenia — a disorder that causes people to have a hard time differentiating between what is real and what is not.

Not until her college years did doctors diagnose her with a mental illness.

In 1983, she was a freshman in college at Bethany College, Bethany, W.V. There, she made her first suicide attempt by swallowing a bottle of aspirin.

“They tasted bitter and salty, and I soon went into convulsions. My sorority sisters called the local ambulance, staffed by fellow students and one of our professors. I remember one of the students who knew me, and he asked me why I swallowed the pills. I said I had a really bad headache, but that was only symbolically true. At that point, my only symptoms were depression over a broken friendship, fear about my future, physical, achy tiredness. At the hospital, they pumped my stomach and kept me as an inpatient, though they didn’t have a psych floor, so I shared a room with an elderly lady who mumbled. I was certain I heard her telling me to jump out the window and kill myself. I complained to the nurses, and they had no other room to put me except one of the examining rooms, where I lay on the exam table, sleepless. That was my first adult moment of psychosis.”

Christopher Okiishi, a local psychiatrist, said the average age of onset illness for schizophrenia is between 18 and 25 for men and between 22 and 30 for women.

First, Margalea was misdiagnosed as suffering from bipolar. Then, doctors believed she was schizoaffective, a combination of schizophrenia and either bipolar or depression. And finally, in her mid-30s, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

It’s been 18 years since Margalea’s last hospitalization; she has worked hard to better herself. In order to get to this point in her recovery, Margalea finds that focusing on certain aspects of her life — friendship, community, and church — helped her with recovery, an ongoing battle she continues.

“Recovery, to me, means three things: something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to,” she said. “I have those things in my life.”

To commemorate the number of years she has been hospitalization-free, she has collected old University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics psych-floor keys. Each key is labeled with words, symbolizing aspects of her life that have helped her to recover.

On each key, she writes the name of something that helps her. One of her keys to wellness, Millie, comes in the furry form.

“My kitty cat Millie is a three-legged girl,” she said. “She lost her back left leg to amputation … You would definitely say she’s not disabled; she’s differently abled, and that’s how it has been with me and the schizophrenia. I’m differently abled.”

She has been in darker places. Once, her parents had to rush to Iowa City from Maryland because she was unconscious and on a respirator. Her parents were told to say their goodbyes then. She said it was very difficult for her parents to see her that way.

In the earlier years of her illness, when Margalea was still living at home with her parents, she had a health-care provider who believed mental illness was a result of poor parenting.

“We’d have family therapy that was very painful to me — very unhelpful,” she said. “It never seems like a good approach to tell people that their families have damaged them. [My mother and father] were the best parents they could be. They were good parents. They had confidence in me, and they encouraged me.”

Through her recovery, Margalea was able to stand by both of her parents in their terminal illnesses. Both have since passed away, but they got to see her get better.

“At least both [my mother and father] got to live to see me move on in recovery and not always be in the hospital,” she said. “My parents were proud of me for living as well as I had with it.”

Once after a vacation with a friend, she was admitted for a month to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., where she had “strange experiences.”

“I heard voices above me, below me, around me,” she said. “I thought the newspaper and television had special messages for me.”

Even though it has been 18 years since mental illness forced Margalea to spend a night in a hospital bed, based on her experience, she still has worries about being admitted to the psychiatric ward.

“I still have nightmares sometimes that I’m back in the hospital,” she said. “I don’t want to be there. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It would just be another bump in the road, and I’m sure I would get out eventually.”

Margalea says for her diagnosis, it’s rare to have a steady job as she does. For some time, she struggled with employment and had to get career coaching.

Jo Bowers, a UIHC program coordinator in family medicine, is a friend of Margalea’s and professionally works with Collaborative Medicine and Behavioral Health.

“Living with schizophrenia requires a really structured life as far as taking care of yourself and doing all the right things and watching for the symptoms,” she said. “It’s a balance. Holding a full-time job is just remarkable for her. She has a salary that a lot of people who have lived with schizophrenia do not have.”

Bowers is on the Board of Directors for Compeer, an organization aiming to match volunteers with people with mental illness to create friendships. Bowers said being friends with Margalea is no different from being friends with someone who does not suffer from mental illness.

“She has some moments when she feels a little low, and I give an extra phone call here and there, but you do that with anybody,” she said. “She’s a good friend. She’s just a friend that happens to live with this mental illness.”

Margalea laughs now about how her typing skills used to be one of her weaknesses, but now it’s her strength. She keeps a file of old typos she’s made to reflect on how far she’s come.

In order to get her thoughts out, Margalea enjoys writing. She writes poems, speeches, stories, basically anything that will her get her words on paper. She has given talks to medical students about her illness, and speaks at National Alliance on Mental Illness events often.

“The best thing about writing is when it makes you laugh,” she said. “It gets out some of the hurt, and the sadness, and sometimes even the anger.”

Margalea works with National Alliance on Mental Illness of Johnson County through support groups and its walk held in April each year. She also helped to start the Compeer Group.

Other aspects of her life that help her in recovery are Weight Watchers, tai chi, church, and walking.

Bowers said that although Margalea met her weight-loss goal years ago, she still sticks with the program because it is a discipline. She said although she has never worked with Margalea in a patient-to-professional manner, she has analyzed her in a simplistic way and thinks the reason she does so well for her diagnosis is because of how disciplined she is.

Margalea hopes her journey can be an inspiration to others battling mental illness. Especially during the winter months, she wants to remind people to remain hopeful.

“We need to know the Sun will come out tomorrow,” she said. “People with mental illness need to know that it’s not always going to be about the illness. There are going to be better times.”

In addition, Margalea has a vision for recovery — she wants it to reach beyond those going through it.

“I just have hope that recovery is not just going to happen to individuals but that whole communities of people will support one another and have people live the best quality of life possible,” she said.

Margalea uses her writing and her words to be a voice. She is a firm believer that recovery looks different for everyone, and it will take a different amount of time and strength for each individual.

Individuality is crucial to her. Although there can be stigmas about mental illness, she hopes to be an encouragement and wants people to recognize the stories and people more than the illness.

“Mental illness occurs with individuals,” she said. “We’re not just this lump of people called the ‘mentally ill.’ We are individuals living our individual lives with mental illness.”

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