Stories of Hope: An Interview with Neesa Sunar
This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked mental health peer specialist Neesa Sunar about her personal journey with mental health challenges and about some of her current work in peer support. Here’s our interview:
DS: Tell us about when you first started becoming aware of concerns related to your mental health. How did these issues continue to affect you and those around you before you sought treatment?
NS: My mental illness started to emerge when I was about ten years old. I was young though, and was unable to explain what I was feeling. Instead, I started having fits of crying and whining, and I felt like I had no friends at school. I was also paranoid that everyone hated me, and was always very fearful.
In retrospect, I realize that I was feeling depression, anxiety and also effects of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). My father had always been verbally and physically abusive, and my backed-up emotions began to bubble over within me.
DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?
NS: I started talk therapy when I was eleven. That was a good first step. By conversing with a therapist, I began to develop language to describe my feelings, and also to self-introspect. I also began taking medications when I was hospitalized at age fourteen, and still rely on them today.
It took over ten years for doctors to concoct the right combination of meds, and during the time before I suffered greatly. Relapses, hospitalizations galore.
For many years, I thought that I would never live a normal life. But for the last three years, I am now satisfied with the quality of my life. My diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder; I take Clozapine, Effexor XR and Lamictal, with Ativan for anxiety as needed. These are the perfect medications for me, I’ve discovered.
DS: How are things going for you now? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?
NS: Things are going fabulously! I do many things to manage my illness. I started journaling in high school, and I still do it today. It is a wonderful way for me to work out overwhelming thoughts and feelings. I also exercise often. I workout with DVDs at home, about a half hour 5-6 days a week. I also eat healthily, and I consume absolutely no candy, cookies or anything of that sort.
And then I have friends! Facebook and the internet at large have proven miraculous in this regard. When I was at my loneliest, I used a site called Interpals to meet pen pals from Germany. I began to practice my limited German skills by writing letters, and now I am fairly fluent. That’s another thing…the German language. It makes me so happy to speak and read things in German. I find the language very beautiful, and the people are so nice. I hope to go there some day.
DS: Tell us about your peer support work and your social media advocacy activities.
NS: I work as a mental health peer specialist at a housing agency in Queens, NY. I share my experiences with mental illness with others who are also diagnosed, and that helps to uplift them. And myself too! I am also part of a New York City government committee that reviews mental health initiatives from the Mayor’s office before release, and I help to offer constructive feedback as they are still in development.
Online, I am all over the place. I run a mental health wellness group on Facebook, called “What is Wellness? A Mental Health Discussion Group.” I contribute mental health-themed poetry and other written works regularly on a website called “Organic Coffee, Haphazardly.” I am also on Twitter; my handle is @neesasuncheuri. I hope to help spread the mission of peers to the world at large. Stigma is a biggie too, and we must fight it.
DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?
NS: Don’t give up! Even if you’ve had years and years of suffering, this does not mean that you are doomed. And also, reach out to people online. It might be that people in “real life” are not so helpful, but you can find support from people in other cities. That is how I developed a big network of friends.
I also recommend that, if you reach out to people online, work on your written communication skills. If you are able to write eloquently, people will respond better. This includes typing with proper grammar, correct spelling and complete sentences. Lack of these qualities can, sadly, imply poor intelligence and lack of concern.
I also know that, if you have a serious condition, the doctors and institutions in your area might not be skilled enough to provide you with proper care. This might occur in rural areas and smaller towns. I recommend perhaps relocating to larger cities. Generally in these places, medical services are better, and resources for people on public assistance are more plentiful. New York City in particular has excellent services for mental health, and I know that I cannot leave here because of this.
I think though, that the biggest piece of advice I can give is that you are not a “slave” to your psychiatrist, therapist or anyone else on your treatment team. When you see your psychiatrist, you do not have to sit there silently while they prescribe you prescriptions. Ask questions. Voice any hesitations if you have any. You both can work together as a team to determine what is best for you. If a psychiatrist bosses you around, and/or does not value your personhood, find a different doctor.
That’s another thing: you can choose who you see. Also realize, that not all medications work for everyone. If you take a medication that doesn’t work for you, tell your doctor and request to try something else. Some people also do not like or need medications, so voice these concerns as well. You should always be in the driver’s seat in these situations.
Neesa Sunar works as a mental health peer specialist at a housing agency in Queens, New York. She is the founder of a Facebook discussion group for peer specialists and other recovery enthusiasts, What is Wellness? A Mental Health Discussion Group. Much of her creative inspiration is rooted in her now-tamed schizoaffective disorder. She is a singer/songwriter, and performs in various venues in New York City. She maintains her own blog, Unlearning Schizophrenia and is also a regular contributor of poetry and essays on the site Organic Coffee, Haphazardly. Also, check out Neesa’s recent book: Memories of Psychosis: Poems on the Mental Illness Experience. You can follow Neesa on Twitter at @neesasunar.
Thanks so much to Neesa for sharing her inspiring story of hope!
Here’s a question: Would you like to share your story of hope? I plan to feature more personal accounts like this from time to time on my blog. If you are interested in sharing your story, please notify me via my contact page. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!