Mary Mattheis, peer specialist at
Hiawatha Hall treatment facility, has used her life experiences to help others cope with mental illness.
Across the United States, an estimated 26 percent of Americans who are 18 and older are living with a diagnosable mental illness. Mental illness does not discriminate and can affect men and women, no matter their background. For 43-year-old Mary Mattheis, living with bipolar disorder has been a lifelong struggle. Mattheis is just one of nearly six million people in America coping with the daily hardships associated with bipolar disorder's severe manic and depressive behaviors. Now a certified peer specialist at Winona’s Hiawatha Hall treatment facility, Mattheis has learned to channel the trauma of events in her life into teachable lessons for others dealing with mental illness. For the first time, she has agreed to share her story to raise awareness of bipolar disorder and help to eliminate the stigma attached to that diagnosis.
While physicians and researchers have yet to determine exactly what causes the onset of bipolar disorder, some studies have shown stressful situations or traumatic life events are key contributors. Mattheis grew up in a family where alcoholism was rampant. When she was just 3 years old, she became the victim of sexual and emotional abuse by other children. As she entered her teens, Mattheis's first stepfather, step-grandfather, and their relatives sexually abused her. As a coping mechanism, Mattheis turned to alcohol in an attempt to numb the pain.
“That’s when I was the fun, carefree, party girl. I really didn’t know there was anything wrong with that behavior,” Mattheis explained. “But, then there were times that I wouldn’t sleep for days and I began acting out.”
At age 16, tragedy struck again when her mother, a prominent figure in her life, passed away from lung cancer. It was then that Mattheis began seeking help to determine why she could feel energetic and full of life one minute, and then suddenly feel overwhelmingly depressed.
“I saw many physicians over the years and was constantly being misdiagnosed,” she said. Most often, doctors and psychiatrists were interpreting her behavior as outbursts associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. However, Mattheis said she knew something wasn’t quite right.
Throughout her college career at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Mo., Mattheis said she could see signs of bipolar disorder becoming more apparent, but that did not stop her from going on with her life. Mattheis met Dave—the love of her life—got married, and has three children: one girl, 11, and two boys, 15 and 19. Stability was something that she had only dreamed of, but was finally within arms' reach. However, the most traumatic life experience, the one that would set her disorder in full force, was just around the corner.
“In April 2004, my father, who had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, committed suicide in my presence,” she said. “And that’s when the chemicals in my head basically exploded.” For the next three or four years, Mattheis said she was on and off medication, trying to regulate the manic and depressive episodes. Three years into a prestigious career writing and giving speeches on behalf of the city of Olathe, Kansas, Mattheis noticed her bipolar illness was affecting her ability to perform her job. After discussions with her coworkers and admitting that she had a mental illness, Mattheis resigned from her post.
“That was a point in my life when the tragedies from my past were taking a toll on my personal life and my job began to suffer,” she explained. “But, my coworkers understood my situation. The manic side of my bipolar took over. I didn’t realize until after my resignation that this behavior was abnormal.”
Wanting more concrete answers to her problem, Mattheis continued her search for an accurate diagnosis, and at age 32, it finally came. She had bipolar disorder. “I hit a pretty hard rock bottom, but I remained proactive with my health care,” she explained. “After the initial diagnosis, I made sure my medication and treatment programs were regulated, and I also conducted a lot of research for the benefit of my children, since this condition is genetically predisposed.”
Mattheis said she is fairly certain she was genetically predisposed to bipolar disorder, and explained that even though her children aren’t showing symptoms of the disorder, it’s always in the back of her mind. “I’m not introducing those symptoms or information to my kids right now because I don’t see…any symptoms. If I do in the future, we will address it. My two sons are aware that I have this disorder and my daughter knows I have anxiety.”
Finding her voice
After her diagnosis, Mattheis continued to stay ahead of her symptoms. She had finally attained stability in her life, and sought out friends and family members to rebuild relationships. Dave, who is very supportive, urged her to talk about her experiences in the hope of helping others struggling with mental illness. Mattheis started an online support group for peers living with bipolar disorder, and began addressing the stigma attached to it.
“I knew exactly how I wanted to help people who were dealing with the things I dealt with. The most common reaction I get from people is how relieved they are to find other people like them,” Mattheis explained. “We’ve all gone through incredibly traumatic life experiences but we have all found a way to pull through. I’m a very empathetic, compassionate person and everything I do is for the benefit of others.”
People living with mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, are often subjected to cruel, negative stereotypes that have profound effects on their self-esteem. In popular culture, people with bipolar disorder are sometimes portrayed as unintelligent, unsafe to be around, irresponsible, or dangerous to others. However, Mattheis said, labeling someone in this way only closes the doors of communication.
“When someone sees this disorder through the stigma lens, I have to take a step back and remember that they don’t know any better. That’s their ignorance, but it gives me an opportunity to teach them,” Mattheis said. “I’m very passionate about this cause and destroying the negative connotations attached to this diagnosis. Bipolar disorder isn’t a death sentence.”
With her new-found enthusiasm for helping others cope with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, Mattheis teamed up with the Family and Children’s Center Hiawatha Hall treatment facility in Winona to work with clients who have similar mental disorders. She recently completed a training program to become a certified peer specialist, a job that allows her to share her experiences and interact with patients.
“Mary is very, very driven and has a strong desire to be involved with her peers,” said Darci Roesler, Hiawatha Hall treatment director. “She will be working one on one with clients, talking and working through their feelings. [Mary] is incredibly outgoing.”
The certified peer specialist position is a new concept in Minnesota; legislation approving the new position was passed only five years ago. The idea is to pair the peer specialist with mental health professionals which provides an added treatment option. Roesler and Mattheis said by having a person with the disorder interact with clients facing similar disorders evens the playing field and allows for a more open dialogue.
“I think it makes the treatment sessions less scary,” Mattheis said. “The clients see the peer specialist as a normal human being who is just like them. I think the clients would be more willing to listen to and participate with someone who has been through exactly what they have.”
As she spoke about her upcoming opportunity at Hiawatha Hall, it became apparent that Mattheis has found her true calling. Even though she admitted to being hesitant to “out” herself, she said it is a small price to pay for helping others.
“I see a need for my help in this community and my hope is that by sharing my story, others who might feel afraid to open up will reach for the help they need,” Mattheis explained. “I want to help people realize that this disorder, as is all mental illness, is controllable and can be channeled properly. Reducing the stigma is my ultimate goal. I have always said when you know better, you do better. Hopefully by opening up, I can prevent people from making the same mistakes."