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Personal Stories

Susie K Irwin

“I want to be a part of connecting to other people–letting them know they’re not alone, and helping them discover within themselves that they can do whatever they can set their minds to.”


06 July 1969

Contact info: Portland, Oregon, USA

Currently doing: Susie is a Consumer Employment Mentor and a Peer Counselor at the Renaissance Center in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working she enjoys playing with her dogs and listening to music.

Mental health experience: Outpatient, Psychiatric Drugs

Psychiatric labels: Major Depression, Panic Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Psychiatric drugs taken in the past: Wellbutrin, Serzone, Seroquil, Depakote, Celexa, Clozapine

Recovery methods: Self-Help, One-on-one Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Psychiatric Drugs, Meditation, Literature, Consumer-run Groups, Art/Music

Greatest obstacle: Herself

Brief History:

I’m originally from Wichita, Kansas. When I was around thirteen years old, my mom started overdosing by taking pills. She would go into psychiatric hospitals or the intensive care unit. I had two brothers who were ages three and five, and I ended up taking care of them. My dad was always doing odd jobs. There was a lot of turmoil because I felt abandoned. There was constant anger in our house. It was thought that we should go see a therapist, and maybe things would become calmer.

My dad refused to help because he doesn’t believe in mental illness or anything like that. My mom was eventually diagnosed with oppositional personality disorder and she was institutionalized. Even then he said she was making it up, saying “you can just get out your depression,” even though he himself was a very, very sad man.

We started going to a therapist and I didn’t want anything to do with her. She put all these labels on me, saying that I was gonna run away from home, start using drugs and alcohol, or to try to commit suicide. It made me very angry so I started making up lies for her. I would see which label she would put on me.

I didn’t go on medications until I was living in San Francisco. I got into the system when I started using drugs heavily and was homeless. I had a friend who said “crash on my couch. Get clean and sober, and we’ll go down to welfare and see what we can do.”

I hooked up with a clinic in San Francisco, and that’s when I first got on meds. That was around 1994. I was probably around 25 or 26.

I didn’t want to take medications at all because I saw how it affected my mom. My mom would come home from the state hospital for the weekend and all she did was sleep and was a total zombie. I did not want to be like that. So I fought tooth and nail to not take medication, but I didn’t have any problem with seeing a therapist and talking.

I started taking medications because I was at the end of my rope and I was ready to try and see if it would help me at all. I was put on Amitriptyline–your basic start off drug, kind of cheap old drug. It worked, sort of.

I have real acute, severe depression to where I just will lie around and not do anything. The good it did for me was it helped me to go to the store, with the help of my friends, to at least go in and go down the aisles. It also helped me to keep my appointments. It kind of gave me the courage. The courage was my courage but I think it helped some.

The bad of it was that it eventually stopped working and I was spiraling down again. I finally got to see a psychiatrist regularly. She put me on Clozapine and Paxil right away, which helped. Those two really worked great for me as long as I didn’t fall back and smoke marijuana or drink, which is when I get really suicidal.

My roomates were totally supportive, and I’m still pretty good friends with four of them. They helped me, and I got on Social Security as I was in no way able to solve my problems. I could pay for the rent, and feed myself, etc.

I didn’t really have much contact with my mom or my dad, or my brothers. Every once in awhile my mom would call me. With my mom, I am the parent and she is the child. I’ve confronted her on this and we’ve worked out a lot of our differences.

My mom has been in and out of many hospitals and state institutions. I was sent to visit her at the ages of thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen. Those doors close behind you and lock. It’s very frightening. The idea that I have to wait for someone to buzz to let me out–I never wanted to be in that situation. There is that feeling, like so strong–taking away any kind power you have. It was really difficult visiting my mom at that age, and watching people being taken down. Seeing people hurt themselves. I’ve not seen mom hurt herself but I’ve seen the scars and that’s a very personal thing for her.

My mom would talk to me about how once in awhile there’d be like one nurse on a shift that she could feel safe with. Mainly I would just hear these stories about how she is treated a child and they don’t even listen to her. Hearing that, I knew I didn’t want to be there. And that’s what kept me out.

I have a difficult time taking medications, to the point where I’ve stopped a couple of times. It’s always been a bad thing in that I’ve spiraled way down to just laying in bed and being very angry and emotional. I’m a very emotional person outwardly and so the medications I’m on right now are Clozapine, Seroquel, Serzone, Celexa, Depakote and I’m on a medication for high cholesterol. I’m working with a peer counselor. When I started that new job, I started getting extreme anxiety. I wasn’t on Clozapine anymore and I had to go back on it. I haven’t been able to get out of it since. I know it’s very addictive and I’m a very addictive person.

The Seroquel helps my racing thoughts, except it’s also sedating. We just upped the Serzone because I’m having a really difficult time with my depression. I don’t know if that is working. I’ve been struggling for three months now and something’s not clicking. I had a really good week and then it went back downhill. So then I followed instructions again and we put on a little bit of Celexa. I don’t know if that’s quite working yet. But I’ve had the Serzone and the Celexa together before and that’s been a good combination.

I have gained so much weight [on the Depakote]. You’re already depressed and don’t have the desire to want to exercise. The nurse practitioner didn’t say, “you’re gonna gain weight on this medication.” But I know other people who have and it’s just terrible. I hate it. Every season I have to get new clothes because I’ve gained so much, which is not cheap. And my nurse practitioner—-a cold, sullen, institutional type–doesn’t understand why I want to get off of the Depakote.

I had a therapist I felt pretty comfortable with. She would help me me discover what was going on rather than her saying it. And she also taught Dialectical Behavioral Treatment. There was a real good connection between us. I switched from this therapist because I started working for Network and you can’t receive services from the same place where you work. She did help me connect a therapist that at least knows much about it so I could continue with the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which I find really useful.

The skills I learned through the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy were emotional regulation. How to not go from one extreme to another. To use both your emotional mind and your rational mind and bringing them together. You also learn interpersonal relationship skills and emotional skills.

My partner has bipolar and sometimes it can get quite messy together. We both can relate to mental health issues, and we’re both very supportive of each other. We know our limits. We’re completely familiar together and our communication is just extremely solid. Recently I don’t feel like I have a right to opinions and she’s real frustrated. She doesn’t know what it’s like to be on medication. One of the most frustrating things with medications is the fact that my libido is affected.

I have never wanted to be in the system all my life. I feel I have a true calling to working in the mental health field anywhere that I can. My goal is going on to be a licensed psychologist or something like that. After I graduated from DaVinci, up at Network–a program with paid peer counselors–I started out being a volunteer because they had no positions open.

I’m currently working for Davinci at the Renaissance Center but I’m debating going back to peer counseling. I love being a peer counselor, but towards the end I got really burned out. It was often extremely difficult because there’s a lot of struggle and depression–people dealing with not just mental health issues but daily living issues. Then there would be those days where someone smiles at you and that’s all it takes to make it through. I’m on top of the world. I had a connection. Whenever I see somebody sitting by themselves, I make a real big effort to go and say, “Hi, how’re you doing?” To greet people by their names. There would be days when I’d hear just how much I helped someone. I want to be a part of connecting to other people–letting them know they’re not alone, and helping them discover within themselves that they can do whatever they can set their minds to.

Interviewer’s Comments: Even though she was going through a difficult period at the time of the interview, Susie was able to express herself very well in terms of where she is presently and where she wants to go in the future. She is doing important work at the Renaissance Center.

Year told: