VALLEJO — Buffy Blair, Marilyn Walker and Sandy Costa couldn’t come from much different walks of life.
Blair had a difficult childhood, one that would haunt her adolescence and adult life so much so that she tried and nearly succeeded at committing suicide.
Walker battled a methamphetamine addiction that only worsened with peer influence and erratic behavior.
Costa led a mostly happy life until losing her husband and her job, which sent her on a downward spiral.
Each woman has a different story and different struggles, but they share one thing: They’ve all dealt with mental illness.
All three women have been through the mental health system. Each woman eventually learned how to deal with their mental illness with the help of counseling and mental health services provided by the Caminar Wellness and Recovery Center, a nonprofit agency that serves adults with disabilities and mental illness.
Today, they all work as peer counselors at Caminar.
Blair was diagnosed as clinically depressed in very early childhood. Though she wouldn’t disclose much about her childhood, the struggles she dealt with from early on caused her to suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. She was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“I had flashbacks that popped me in and out of reality,” she said. “It made it hard to carry on everyday life.”
Blair was in and out of institutions, taking medication and seeing psychiatrists for her illnesses since childhood. The medication caused her weight to go up and down and Blair continued to have flashbacks that put her in physical and mental pain for hours.
Though mental illness runs in her family, Blair always felt like the odd man out. She tried her best to roll with the punches, to “stay strong,” she said, but it was hard not to withdraw from other people.
When she was 14, Blair nearly succeeded in committing suicide. Her parents were told the oxygen to her brain had been cut off and she could remain in a vegetative state.
“That I am still here made me realize the fragility and value of my life,” Blair said in a Caminar newsletter.
Her struggles continued, however, after her attempted suicide. She struggled in school and with drug addiction – likely as a result of her mental illnesses, she said.
After she got clean, life seemed to get better, if only briefly. She got her GED and a job, but she still struggled with the depression and stress. It was then that Blair’s life took a turn. She once again went through the mental health system, after having a nervous breakdown.
After a short stay at the hospital, Blair was sent to Caminar’s Laurel Creek Center, where things started to turn around for her.
During her time there, Blair gained something valuable: understanding of her illness.
“It’s important to understand your illness, because you can learn your triggers . . . what triggers your emotions, behavior,” she said.
Blair also learned how important it is to have a support system, whether that was a mother or the staff at Caminar.
“When you’re withdrawn, you shut everyone out naturally,” she said. “You need a family, friend, coworker, just somebody you can talk to.”
When Blair got out, she started volunteering at Caminar. She was later asked to come on staff as a peer counselor, art therapist and occasional cook.
“(Caminar) is giving people a second chance,” she said. “For me, that was the case. I wouldn’t be here without those places.”
Marilyn Walker didn’t put it lightly when she said she’s faced “a long journey” to recovery.
She isn’t sure which came first: schizophrenia or her meth addiction.
Walker was addicted to methamphetamine for 17 years and at one point, she started to literally see “writing on the wall.” She still isn’t sure if the meth caused the schizophrenia or if it was always there, but the combination of the two eventually landed her in jail.
From there, Walker went through the mental health system, getting “tossed around to many different places,” she said.
Walker ended up at Caminar’s housing, where she stayed about six to seven years.
For Walker, dealing with schizophrenia and recovering from her meth addiction required her to make major lifestyle changes.
After she ended up in jail, her daughter was taken from her and was sent to Walker’s parents. She wanted to be back with her daughter and her family, but first, she had to give up her friends.
Whenever Walker got close to giving up drugs, her friends would pull her back, she said. This was only worsened by the fact that her ex-boyfriend, her child’s father, was part of that social circle. The more that Walker stayed involved with that group, the worse her schizophrenia was, so she needed to stay away from them.
This was the advice her Caminar case manager gave her. She told Walker if she wasn’t better in five years, then she could go back to what she was doing, go back to doing drugs.
Five years went by, and Walker was amazed: Her life had completely changed. She now has a stable job, a stable boyfriend, her own apartment and has her daughter back. Without the influence of meth, she can properly control her schizophrenia.
“I was shocked that it actually worked,” she said. “My (Caminar) clients can see how far I’ve come.”
Sandy Costa led a mostly happy life until a few years ago. She worked as a registered nurse for many years and was married to a wonderful husband, but quickly lost it all.
Costa, who was 64, was let go from her job due to arthritis in her hands, she said, then lost her house in Rio Vista. Shortly after, she lost her husband.
Costa went to live with her son in Colorado because she couldn’t find work or a place to live. Her son and his wife gave her a small trailer tent in their backyard. But Costa started to feel more anxious and withdrawn as she came to grips with her grief, which led her to a mental breakdown.
“Here’s this person who had everything in life reduced to nothing,” she said.
Costa came back to California, where she checked herself into the hospital and from there went to live at the Laurel Creek Center. She said she felt out of place there, like she wasn’t their “normal” client and at many times, she wanted out. Yet she realized it was her only option.
“At 64 years old I thought of suicide,” she said. “Who thought I’d go through these emotions?”
Much of her recovery came through self-work, getting over the stigma of being depressed and dealing with it.
Today, as Costa works with Caminar’s clients as a peer counselor, she tries to help them to do the same: Get over the stigma of being mentally ill and deal with it.
“People resist help, there’s such a stigma – it’s shameful,” she said. “They’re called crazy, put them away and forget about them.”
Reach Heather Ah San at 427-6977 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/HeatherMalia.