hopephotoTurning point: This pronounced pivot in life, at its best, steers you in a positive life-changing direction.

Tina Collins took her mother to the doctor one day and noticed a psychiatrist’s office nearby. Her mom nudged her to go and see. Collins had already spent years a slave to conflict, disordered thinking and mood swings. All that would begin to change with this step — after a dozen doctors and 30 medications failed to shift the course of mental illness having all the power.

Collins case is one of #schizoaffective disorder, a condition the National Alliance on Mental Health describes as a chronic mental health condition characterized by symptoms of schizophrenia such as hallucinations or delusions and symptoms of a mood disorder.

“I’m a survivor of mental illness …. Once my broken brain isolated me in space and time. Now I embrace the future. Conflict no longer slaves me. Sadness no longer drowns me. Happiness no longer deludes me,” Collins explains in her Baltimore TEDx Talk. 

When Collins received her diagnosis, she also received a recommendation for lifelong institutionalization. Collins, who describes herself as stubborn, accepted the diagnosis, but not the recommendation.

The Giveaway Girl Project interviewed Collins as part of Stop Giving It Away’s contribution to Women’s History Month. Instead of focusing on women who are no longer with us, we chose to highlight women making history here and now, in this case, reducing the stigma of mental health conditions and treatment.

Anyone who suffers from mental illness or has a loved one who does will be heartened by this story of Collins’ ongoing struggle for power with her disease.

Although Collins, 50, from Baltimore, MD, was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder when she was 38 years old, she remembers struggling in ways she couldn’t understand even when she was a toddler. Collins’ therapist, Marcia Geser, LCSW of Pscyh Associates of Maryland,  LLC, calls her a “miracle girl” due to her level of functionality and recovery.

Collaboration guided her back to “mainstream” life.

The therapist paints a very telling picture. “When she started out she was completely and totally dysfunctional,” Geser says. “She had no avocation. She didn’t even realize she was having psychotic moments until afterward. She had horrible midbrain headaches all the time, which might have been part of the illness. She had gone to several psychiatrists over the years who didn’t get her diagnosis right until she got here, and I’m not sure they got it right here at first. We weren’t getting anywhere.  I sent her to a famous psychiatrist who normally doesn’t see anyone but because I begged him, he saw her to get her toward the right diagnosis. The diagnosis got her to the right medication.”

Don’t give it away: Persist in the process.

Both Collins and Geser credit this story of recovery to Collins’ ability to persevere through years of trial and error. “Persistence will get you very far,” Collins says. “I’m very curious and skeptical. I kept questioning what was going on and what was real (v. psychosis).”

Collins viewed her illness as a problem she had to solve regardless of how complex the problem became. “I wanted to know,” says Collins. “I am very stubborn. I had a hardheaded desire to find out. I was suffering from something. I have to be my own champion and save myself.”

Without the determination she showed, Collins wouldn’t be where she is today.

“We had changed her medication 50 times,” Geser says. “Medication is a central piece of healing this disease. The thing about Tina is she’s a little OCD. That kind of OCD allowed her to persist in treatment even when she didn’t feel like it. The propensity to be persistent helped her. She kept fighting with it.”

Finding the right medication wasn’t the only hurdle Collins had to jump. She had to reconstruct herself brick by brick.

“One by one I had to rebuild my skills and stamina,” Collins said. “I was going to therapy every week.  I was going to a psychiatrist once a month. I was exhausted. I wasn’t able to do anything. Over time it got easier as I started getting better and interacted with her. My speech improved.

“She (the therapist) would make suggestions I wouldn’t want to take,” Collins says. She would say ‘Try to something that you will enjoy. You lose ability to enjoy things. She suggested volunteering. I tried to take a walk and exercise. I had to how to learn how to drive, speak walk and socialize again. That was hard because I wouldn’t go out at all for so long. I would start volunteering here and there.”

A big piece of Collins’ recovery was group therapy.

“This was the one thing that helped her the most,” Geser says. The group was hand-picked. There was a CPA, a professor and a social worker. They were all high functioning. They are all highly verbal. She loved the group. It honed her interpersonal skills. She became more and more verbal. It gave her a social context that she could generalize out in the world.”

Like Geser, Collins credits her group with where she is today.

“It’s so hard to be ill and disabled and jump back into the world. You need interaction with group of people in a safe environment. I didn’t know how sick I appeared. I thought I was doing a better job of hiding it than I was. It’s an interesting reflection back to you.”

Another part of the healing process was not allowing the stigma associated with the illness to impact her self-esteem.

It is a disease that requires therapy,” Collins says. “The more people start thinking about it as a disease that requires treatment, the better. It’s a brain disease — a disease of an organ. It’s not a disease of the spirit. People have this magical thinking. It requires medication and follow-up and in this case the follow up is therapy.”

The payoff – what life is like today.

Collins’ life is like black and white compared to the way it looked a few years ago. In addition to taking care of her mother, she has a full life. She has worked as Program Manager for the Murphy Initiative for Justice and Peace. Additionally, she works from home as a copywriter and is a theater critic with Broadwayworld.com. 

During their therapy, Geser encouraged her to date.  Collins had many hesitations. “I thought, ‘I can’t date. I don’t want to marry. I can’t work. I don’t know where I am. I have a horrible history.’” When she started dating her now husband Dan, he called her the “sanest crazy person he’s ever dated.”

In the true fashion of the Got It Girl she is, Collins does interviews to raise awareness of mental illness. She and Dan were both interviewed about living with mental illness by SZ (Schizophrenia) Magazine. Collins has many plans. “I hope to work in a paid capacity,” Collins says. “I took some writing classes. I was thinking of taking other classes to see how I do. I’d like to continue with my academic studies. I’m interested in lot of different things.”

To witness her making history, you can watch the TED Talk she recently delivered.

Lauren Bittner is an award-winning freelance writer who focuses on women’s issues.