Let's Talk About It! A Candid Conversation About Mental Illness

Oct 31, 2018

You're listening to KSMU, and this is Making a Difference.

The Springfield Greene County Health Department, with funding support from the Missouri Foundation for Health, is leading a major mental health needs assessment in partnership with Burrell Behavorial Health, Cox Health, Mercy Springfield, and Jordan Valley Community Health Center. 

The purpose is to analyze the current state of mental health services available, assess the needs of the community, and address the gap between the two.  As part of this effort, a new series "Let's Talk About It!  Navigating Through Life With a Mental Illness," is supported by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. 

On this edition of Making A Difference, we meet Stephanie Appleby, Director of Marketing and Development at NAMI of Southwest Missouri, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  

“My story begins with my grandfather, being the first person in my life that I knew had a mental illness.  I was very young when I realized Grandpa was different, but I knew I was different,” Appleby said.

Stephanie Appleby says she’s talking with KSMU, because she wants to break the stigma associated with Mental Illness.

“I want to allow people to feel like they can talk about their mental illness diagnosis without shame. We need to treat mental illness just like we do physical issues like cancer or diabetes.  We need to normalize it so that people are comfortable.  We still deal with the stigma (of mental illness) that could be deadly, unless we talk about it,” she said.

Working for NAMI of SW Missouri, on any day of the week, at any time of the day or night, Stephanie Appleby could be giving a TV or radio interview, speaking at public forum, or visiting a homeless camp, giving care and comfort to its residents; but there was a time, a long period of time, when Stephanie Appleby’s mind would not let her leave the confines for the home she shared with her husband and 2 children.

Stephanie Appleby of NAMI, records her interview at KSMU with Ozark Public Broadcasting's Jamie Henline and Mike Smith
Credit Aaron Scott / Community Foundation of the Ozarks

Appleby’s mental illness is Agoraphobia, and the first serious signs of it were the panic attacks, which Appleby says, became more and more frequent. 

“To where my whole world shrank.  I started avoiding the places where I had the panic attacks at.  I avoided things to the point I became completely homebound, and I did not leave my house at all,” Appleby said.

Webster defines Agoraphobia as; “Fear of being helpless in a situation where escape may be difficult or embarrassing”, and it can be very serious, as Stephanie Appleby can attribute.  With few exceptions, including some, but not all Doctor’s maternity visits made, and the birth of her second child, Stephanie Appleby would not, could not, leave her home for 14 years.

“My family was begging me, You’ve Got to leave, this is ridiculous, and you need to get over this. I remember telling them, I can’t!  I can’t get over this wall that’s in my head telling me I’m going to die if I leave here,” she said.

Stephanie Appleby’s mental illness progressed to where she would eat only the same five foods, for every meal.

“Because I thought if I have an allergic reaction to something, then I’m going to have to leave the house. So I would have a turkey sandwich, Sour Cream and Onion Baked Lays, Swiss Cake Rolls, a Coke, and Fritos.  I don’t eat those things anymore at all,” She said with a laugh, “but in my mind, it was real.  I would make dinner for my family, and my mouth would water, because I would be so hungry and want to eat what they were having, and so tired of having the same thing.  I can remember saying, This is So Stupid, This is So Dumb, That I Just Can’t Live, You Know.”

There came a point in time when Stephanie Appleby confined herself only to a bedroom, despite pleas from her husband and children.  Then came another point in time…

“I got into the bathtub with a knife and I cut my wrists.” says Appleby.  “My husband came in the door, as I cut my second wrist. He just knew something was wrong.  Thankfully, I hadn’t cut myself enough to require care at the hospital, but at that point, I didn’t care.  I thought, if I’m leaving this house, it’s going to be in a body-bag," said Appleby.

“My husband climbed into the tub with me, put towels around my arms and said, “We’re not doing this anymore. You are going to make a difference for people.  You are going to change the face of mental illness, and we are going to do it together.”

Tearfully, Stephanie Appleby recounts the moment.

“I think it was in that moment when I found my purpose.  I was just existing and surviving. So he gave me something to focus on, and I knew I could do this.  I knew I wanted to help people just like me, because it wasn’t fair I had to live like this, and I didn’t want anyone else to either.”

Appleby called a physician friend of the family who had been trying to get her to take medicattions.

“I think I’m ready to try the medicine,” she said.

“Again," she adds," I was doing therapy, and with my (Catholic) faith, and the medications, those three things helped me.  That’s not for everybody, but that’s what helped me."

As Appleby gained confidence, small victories followed, including a family outing to Table Rock Lake.

“My husband drove, and I sat in the back seat with my son, and my daughter sat in the front.  We made it halfway there, and I was getting a little anxious, so we pulled off to the side of the road. My daughter turned around and grabbed me by the chin and said I am so proud of you," says Appleby.

Stephanie Appleby and her family made it to the lake, with everyone having a great time.

“I made it the whole weekend.  It was the most amazing time, I will never forget it.  We stayed in a condo and played in the water, and I felt like I was in Paris," she said with a smile.

Stephanie Appleby started to notice she didn’t have the What If, thinking, anymore.

“What if I die?  What if a car hits me?  I did not have any of that anymore.  Eventually, I started to expose myself to things and places I hadn’t been in 14 years.”

“Life became really great,” says Appleby, “And I decided this is my time to Give Back.  This was a promise I made and I’m going to do it.  So I called NAMI and asked if there were any over the phone support groups for Agoraphobia. The woman on the line said she wasn’t familiar with Agoraphobia, and I knew right then and there, that was the place I needed to be.”    

Stephanie Appleby has a message to those who, like her, have suffered in silence due to a mental illness; You’re not alone, and there’s healing in helping others.

“You’re never alone, even though you feel like it.  There’s always going to be somebody out there who is maybe just like you, or is dealing with something just like you are.  And you are needed.  People need you, and I would encourage individuals to come out and talk about what they’re dealing with, because you’re not only helping yourself, but you’re helping someone else," said Appleby.

Let's Talk About It! Stephanie Appleby Talks About Her Struggle With Agoraphobia, For KSMU's Making a Difference
Credit Aaron Scott / Community Foundation of the Ozarks

Appleby says God has given us all a purpose.

“Every single one of us, and I would encourage people to find what excites you, and what makes you feel like you want to make a difference.  Find out what that is, and that’s really the fuel that will keep you going. When you’re doing what you love, and what you believe is right, it can change your whole life.  It’s changed mine,", she said.

Stephanie Appleby is Director of Marketing and Development for NAMI, of Southwest Missouri, the National Alliance ion Mental Illness.

For information on the community wide Mental Health Assessment, currently underway:

The Springfield Greene County Health Department www.springfieldmo.gov/2853/Health   

A listing of support services can be found at:  www.springfieldmo.gov/3683/mental-health-resources

Burrell Behavioral Health:  www.burrellcenter.com

Community Foundation of the Ozarks:  www.cfozarks.org

NAMI of Southwest Missouri:  namiswmo.com