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It’s not a choice

By Staff | May 23, 2017

Editor’s note: This is the second 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.

“I have the love of my life with me.”

That’s the important part, according to Tanya Walders Cole, wife of Mikell Cole. The couple lives in Armstrong, and met in 1994.

“We led a somewhat normal life while [Mikell] bounced around from job to job for a while,” Tanya said.

Mikell joined the Marines in 1991, and was honorably discharged in 1993 with a diagnosis of major depression. He has lived with suicidal thoughts and ideations (forming a plan to take one’s life) since 1992.

“This is the only lifestyle that we know,” Tanya said.

Mikell started working at GKN in Armstrong in 1997, and continued until 2013.

“He would continue to struggle with depression, be put on and off medications, and see a counselor once in a while,” Tanya said.

Throughout these years, the couple was raising three daughters, born in 1995, 2003, and 2004.

“I felt like a single mom, because he rarely did anything from school events, family gatherings, to just going out,” Tanya said.

As Tanya learned more about the scope of debilitation that comes from anxiety and depression for Mikell, she began to realize that he was not choosing to miss out.

“This was not his choice or what he wanted. He simply had an illness that stopped him in his tracks,” Tanya said.

It was difficult to know what would trigger a severe episode for Mikell.

“In 2013, Mikell had a bad day. He was at work, and something went wrong. He walked out of work and attempted his first overdose,” Tanya said.

“I called 911 and he spent a day in the hospital. We started seeing his counselor regularly again, and we changed his meds.”

Tanya did not consider this a weakness on Mikell’s part. Quite the opposite.

“He was holding his own. He was alive, fighting an unseeable illness. He is always struggling, always fighting the need to feel free from his emotions, which overtake him and are at this high level all the time,” Tanya said.

Remembering the years raising their daughters, during which she felt like she was a single mom, Tanya said, “I learned that for all those years when I thought he just didn’t want to go to family functions or kids’ school functions just because. I truly had no idea what depression and anxiety was doing to him it was eating him alive.”

Mikell stopped working at GKN due to the state of his health. The couple learned Mikell was also suffering from PTSD post-traumatic stress disorder. Doctors have prescribed many different meds to try to help him sleep and to maintain his moods, but they did not keep his conditions in remission for long.

One year ago, Mikell attempted his second overdose, and this one was worse.

“They life-flighted him to Sioux Falls, where they told me the next six hours would be critical. He survived and spent five days in ICU,” Tanya said.

Cole no longer works outside the home so she can be available for Mikell.

“What I want people to know and understand is that mental health is not a choice. It is an illness, and when you know someone who has this illness, you need to understand that when they have flare ups, that, too, is not a choice,” Tanya said.

Tanya gives advice for friends and family members of someone living with mental illness:

“Don’t judge them. Don’t make them feel guilty about not going places or doing things. They are already doing everything they can. Just listen, give them hope, show them what they have to live for. All of this will not cure someone who suffers from depression, but it will give them hope and a reason to want to live. Saying hello, offering to help someone, a simple smile means more to people than some seem to realize.”

While statistics from Mental Health First Aid say 30 percent of veterans are not getting mental health care for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other illnesses, Tanya said the couple’s experience with the veterans administration has been “wonderful.”

“Whenever Mike is having a bad day, they will see him. We have two VA staff members from suicide prevention that help both of us in whatever we need. Mike’s counselor at Mayo Clnic has been amazing as well! Without these people, our life would be very different,” Tanya said.

Tanya offered words of comfort for those who live with someone who has attempted suicide:

“Family members, especially a spouse and kids, will always wonder and want to know what they could have or should have done differently. What they need to know is that they are not to blame even if they are overwhelmed with guilt. There is nothing they could have done differently,” Tanya said.

Tanya said she hopes her family’s story will save a life or save a family from going through some of the things hers has experienced.

“There is not enough awareness out there, and it saddens me to see so many struggle when they don’t know where or how to take the steps to get help, and fear people will not understand or will judge them,” Tanya said.

“It’s a chapter in our book, but there’s a lot more yet to be written,” Tanya said.