Thought I'd share with you the spiel I gave since it is about my mental health and addiction journey:
My name is Karen Clarke. My journey to and through NOVA is a rather convoluted one. It all began in 1988 – back when NOVA was still on the quarter system! I had just partied myself out of another college, and NOVA was there to catch me.
My first two semesters here went rather well. I had all A’s, and I met my best friend. Then I became pregnant. As a single mom, I quit school and went to work.
I did not entirely give up on the college dream, though. On and off for the next ten years (more off than on) I took a class here and there. My grades, however, were a mixed bag. I either had an A, a W, or an F – much like my grades at my previous college. I had always been a bright underachiever. My A’s were from times when I made it through an entire semester. My W’s were from withdrawing, and my F’s were from failing to withdraw – rather than earned Fs.
Meanwhile, I was job hopping as well. I never spent more than two years in a job. Like my courses, I had always struggled with attendance. When I was on the job, or in class, I was an outstanding employee or student. There were many days, however, when I simply could not get out of bed and face the day; so I would call in sick or skip class.
In 2000, I quit yet another job and returned to school full-time. This time, I managed to do well enough to transfer into George Mason. Life was good. I had an internship at the Smithsonian’s paleobiology lab through my NOVA geology professor, and my grades were great.
Shortly after transferring to Mason in the fall of 2001, things fell apart. September 11 struck; and I found myself on campus so anxious that there would be a terrorist attack – GMU being a large campus in the shadow of Washington. I had always been anxious, though – sitting by the door in all my classes just in case I had to leave, but this was more anxiety than I had ever felt. I also began having panic attacks.
After three semesters of the A, W, F cycle, I was academically suspended from Mason.
I went back to work, but I was miserable. Having panic attacks, the bright underachiever stuck in a dead-end job, unable to do the things I claimed I wanted.
That is when I realized I was incapable of helping myself – that I needed help.
I began seeing a therapist in 2004. I thought I’d be able to quickly root up some childhood incident, disable it, and begin living the life I’d always dreamed.
But it wasn’t quite that simple.
Early on, my therapist began questioning my drinking habits. I tuned it out for the most part – after all, I didn’t have a problem. I was a wine aficionado – not an alcoholic. I never drank before five. I never drank on the job. Never beat my children. I held many volunteer positions – Girl Scouts, PTA – and never drank during those. I just knew the difference between a smooth Merlot and a robust Pinot Noir.
But I had to admit – the panic attacks continued - that nagging, constant anxiety was there. And there was the repeat absenteeism at work and in class. Oh, and my 5 year old saying to me in Giant one day, “boy Mommy, you sure do love wine!” as she glanced over the basket filled with bottles.
Finally in the fall of 2005, I agreed to go to a treatment center for an assessment. After all, I was sure they would tell me I was an abuser – not an addict – and they would teach me how to drink safely.
Well, it didn’t work out that way. I discovered that I was indeed an alcoholic. I entered outpatient treatment in November and it was one of the best things to happen to me.
I thought for sure this time I had hit the nail on the head – that this was the thing that was stopping me up…but it wasn’t.
Though the panic attacks were gone, the absenteeism continued…A…W…F…I remained in therapy, but nothing was changing.
Fast forward to August 2012. My family and I had just returned from a relaxing vacation in Wyoming. My husband and daughter were rested, refreshed, and glad to be home. I was uptight, anxious, and dreaded returning to the stress pit of Washington.
I felt trapped in my life. I was at the end of my rope with myself. I was beginning to think that at age 45, I was not going to change. That I was beyond help. After all, I had been in therapy for 8 years!
Feeling helpless and trapped, I began having fantasies about flying off my DC office building – about what it would feel like to jump onto the Metro tracks. I finally confessed this to my husband because I didn’t trust myself; and I didn’t want to emotionally scar a Metro driver or hurt any passengers.
That night, I went to the Inova ER. Two days later I was in partial hospitalization – PHP. There I was diagnosed with major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and dysthymia (long term, low grade depression). This too was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I spent a month there, and while I was there, began rethinking my career goals. Much like I was at the recovery center, I found myself in group listening and speaking as a patient and paying attention to the group dynamics. There was one patient in particular who never talked – no matter how they tried to draw her in. I reached out to her though, and one day on break she opened up to me. After that, she participated in group like the rest of us. This incident was pivotal.
For the first time, I began to see my life experience, not as wasted years, but as on-the-job training. I realized then and there that my calling was to be a therapist. I wanted to give back what I had been given in recovery and at PHP.
I quit my job in May 2013, and returned to NOVA full time. I will be graduating this spring with my AS, Social Science, psychology and will be receiving a Substance Abuse Counseling Certificate in December.
NOVA has been a God-send. No matter where I was in the journey, I was always able to turn to NOVA to reinvent.
My goals for the future? To be a psychologist working with dual-diagnosis patients – those with addiction and underlying mental health disorders and I hope to one day open my own wellness center.