Born this way
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about people in Emmet County who are connected to the cause of mental health awareness. May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
By Amy H. Peterson
Lisa Fernholz, 47, of Estherville, said one day is never like the next in her life with mental illness.
“It’s a difference in wiring. My tolerance for physical pain is higher than most people’s while my emotional tolerance is very low. Some of the smallest things can set me off. I’m affected by emotional stress differently from someone without a personality disorder,” Fernholz said.
Fernholz has had a few diagnoses since her first one at age 29, an experience not uncommon with mental illness. The one causing the most struggle in recent years is Borderline Personality Disorder, now known in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) as Unstable Personality Disorder or by the World Health Organization as Emotional Dysregulation Disorder. Despite being called a personality disorder, it is not a personal defect, but a limitation in a person’s ability to regulate emotions.
One symptom of BPD is “marked impulsivity beginning in early adulthood.”
Fernholz said, “At age 21, I was on a road to self-destruction. Car surfing at 40 miles per hour, jumping from two stories, drinking everyone, even the toughest construction guys, under the table.”
When Fernholz was 25, her son was born, and the impulses became more moderate, for a while.
“There is so little education about mental illness, while so many struggle,” she said.
Many do struggle. According to the World Health Organization, one in four people will experience mental illness in their lifetime. Antidepressants are the most prescribed medication in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. An estimated six million people live with borderline or another in the Cluster B group of personality disorders.
BPD is caused by a combination of environmental factors and genetics, according to the Mayo Clinic. Often a traumatic event will trigger the early symptoms of the disorder in individuals with a genetic predisposition. According to the Mayo Clinic, some people can experience a great deal of trauma and never develop a mental illness; those differences can be traced to genetic wiring.
“My parents are the best,” Fernholz said of mother, Betty, and father, Dean.
“My sisters and I were raised the same, in a very good home.”
Her sisters’ memories of growing up were very different from her own.
“I think I was just seeing things through the lens of what hurt me, and the perspective of my own unhappiness of which, at the time, I didn’t know the cause,” Fernholz said.
But issues lurked in the family DNA. Fernholz’s great uncle died by his own hand. Fernholz’s mother remarked that Lisa resembled the uncle in many ways, with her high intellect more.
“It wasn’t really fun to be compared to the uncle who killed himself,” Fernholz said.
Fernholz works 20 hours per week in the family business while living on disability. She also lives with diabetes, and compares the attitudes she has encountered with each disorder.
“No one ever objects if I leave my workspace to go shoot up insulin, but if I have to take a mental health day, or a few days, the compassion and understanding is not there,” Fernholz said. “If I was in the hospital for diabetes complications, there would be compassion and help. With mental illness, I have lost jobs, and friends and family members have left my life.”
Lisa said some of these former friends “went around town telling everyone how crazy they thought I was.”
That stung, Fernholz said, but she has moved on.
Lisa admits her symptoms make her difficult to be with at times. “When I was triggered in the past, there was another side of me we call ‘Evil Lisa,'” Fernholz said.
“It grips me as if someone is physically holding me, pushing me,” Fernholz said.
“I can try to resist, but ultimately, it’s like in a physical attack; if someone is stronger than you, your efforts to resist are not going to work,” Fernholz said.
“I’ve been asked, ‘why can’t you just be happy?’ and it’s so hard to explain that what’s happening in my brain is physically stopping me from leaving the house, from calling a friend, from doing something constructive,” Fernholz said.
Fernholz vigorously pursued treatment.
“My employer at the time took me aside and said, ‘You’ve got a problem,'” Fernholz said.
Fernholz went to the clinic in Ames for inpatient treatment and to be stabilized on medications.
“I’m so lucky that I’ve always been able to get treatment. When I had to do cash-only, I had my parents to help me find a way to pay for it.”
Fernholz said the closings of the psychiatric facilities have her worried.
“What’s going to happen if those people get non-care? If they overwhelm what few community resources we have, and people who were living in the community with support have nowhere anymore? What about the person who has a depression screening or otherwise makes the hard decision to get treatment has to wait months for an appointment or never gets called back at all?” Fernholz said.
Fernholz said she is experiencing more stability now than she ever has. She goes to DBT (dialectic behavioral therapy) group therapy, and takes meds.
Fernholz’s other stability tool is kayaking.
“Whenever I can, I will go out on Ingham Lake or High Lake in my kayak and just be,” Fernholz said. “When I can do that, just be, surrounded my nature, the animals, the silence, the weight is lifted off me and the stress is gone.”