Stories of Hope: An Interview with Lisa Tobe
This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked writer and consultant Lisa Tobe about her history of mental health challenges. 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 was there a turning point that led you to decide to seek help?
LT: That’s really a multi-layered answer that came to me in pieces when I was ready. I didn’t know until it was so obvious you could not ignore it. My freshman year in college, I made a serious suicide attempt, the kind you don’t really live through. I hadn’t asked for help. I didn’t know about depression or feeling anything else other than what I constantly felt: empty, sad, and overwhelmed.
Throughout high school, I felt like a loser. I glommed onto people, always trying to figure out how to fit in. It never seemed to work, so I internalized the rejection. When I started college, I thought it would be different, that really I was a good, fun person, someone with whom people would like to be friends. And while I did make friends and became engrossed in college, I never felt like it was enough. I simply wanted to stop existing.
So I stole my friend’s sleeping pills and took them piece by piece even as I sat in front of my Clairol True-to-Light vanity make-up mirror randomly switching through the settings day, evening, office, night. Afterwards, I walked with my friends to Phi Delt, feeling the cool shape of pills, candy-coated white M&Ms as they ran through my fingers. A shot of rum, another until everything was gone.
What I remember: walking blackness, a visceral feeling of being in a dream, but no vision; using dorm walls to pinball to the bathroom where bile poured out in violent waves; hot water sliding down my skin as I continued to vomit in the shower.
What I was told by two townies the next day: they found me digging in the dirt outside my dorm, looking for add-a-beads from my broken necklace and helped me to my room.
What I felt when I woke up: wrecked.
Two days later, the college forced me to see a counselor, with a promise they would not tell my parents. The counselor, Tom, told me it could be different, that life was more than surviving through the blackness. Until that moment, I thought everyone felt that way that I did, a lingering dread, broken up by moments of happiness. I didn’t know that a normal life was transposed; that most people lived a meandering flow of emotions grounded in happy and surrounded by other.
I worked with Tom for a year. It helped for a bit and then I’d relapse. Six years later memories of sexual abuse began to surface and I attempted suicide again. I met another amazing counselor, Rob, who taught me about feelings – what they were, ways to respond to them and during the two years I worked with him, I met two alters, Abby and Little Lisa.
In graduate school, I was diagnosed with cancer, treated and then became overwhelmed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Within 2 months, I entered and exited a psych unit 3 times. The last time, it was a treatment facility for PTSD and there they diagnosed me with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?
LT: In some ways, the DID diagnosis had not been important at all. Even before that, I had started settling into the idea of having alters, although I didn’t label them that. They just seemed kids that needed help growing up. I didn’t see Little Lisa or Abby as any different than the main me. I only knew that they felt things strongly, and that if I listened, they each had a story to tell.
When I gave them space to talk, they would frame surreal stories piece by piece until they took on a certain shape, somewhat like the houses I saw in Appalachia, adding bits of wood or brick after each paycheck. I had no idea that I’d be diagnosed with DID or that these kids would become alters. I thought anyone with DID was crazy, living some fantastic, frenzied life where these other parts of them did things without their control or knowledge.
The diagnosis did not immediately give permission for my other alters, Chrissy, 6, Dee, D., Disciple, to surface or provide a more definitive voice to the two alters that I knew existed. It helped me get in touch with the Little Lisa who became 10 or 11, the one who would start to play an integral role in translating for all the alters who had yet to show up. This older part of Little Lisa developed an expert filter and she held a place in both worlds.
The new alters and the Dees started to flood this part of me with flashes, words, pieces of things. Instead of running, Little Lisa would ask questions. She would take a deep breath and tell their stories to the counselors and friends on the other side of the flashback. She would become the translator, the mom, the settled old woman with the wisdom to just let it be.
During graduate school in North Carolina, I found an amazing counselor, Frank, who has stuck with me for the past twenty years. About 5 years after I moved to a rural community in California, I asked him if he’d be willing worked with me for a month 2-3 times a week for an hour and a half each session. He agreed.
Between sessions, I went to yoga, worked out, started a scrapbook for my littles, watched movies and wrote, sometimes in a call and response mode, where my alters would talk to each other or I’d have individual conversation with one of them. I did this for 2 years in a row each time digging a little deeper. Besides counseling and body work, I finally accepted medication (low-dose Prozac) to give my neurotransmitters a bit more help.
DS: How are things going for you now? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?
LT: Things are not perfect, but they are amazing considering. Most of my alters have found some peace inside of me. By reconnecting with them, I have found all the awesome childlike qualities that we often lose: compassion, curiosity, hope, energy, trust. And the warrior-like qualities that helped me survive have found healthy ways to make sure that I get heard or that other people are able to share their stories and push for systems change. They too seem settled, seem to know their role.
I have two master’s degrees, one in public health and one in creative writing. I’m raising an amazing seven-year-old son who pushes me every day to be a better person. I run Wildflower Consulting and have just finished the first complete draft of a memoir, Shadows of Me. Nature has helped me with most of my healing.
As a child, I scuttled up wildly eclectic trees. I loved the adventure of scaling their limbs, how it felt like a kinesthetic puzzle, how we wove our lives together, their exhale feeding my inhale. As I struggled years later with depression and parenting the alters, I lost touch with the trees and the freedom they gave me, until I settled into my new life in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Trees once again became part of my every day, a place where I could let my inner kids loose. I lived in Butterfly Valley, a lonesome open field hemmed in by ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir spitting out of the landscape and acres of mountains that surrounded it.
When people hear about my abuse, they think that I am brave, but there is no bravery to survival, no thought, just pure instinct. I have found myself at many watershed moments, where I would flow forward or back through conscious decisions or circumstance. In the end, you become what you must. It will be enough or it won’t. I don’t try to understand why the Gods have kept me here or taken me through the journey that they have, only that they have and through that process I have this self. Living in Quincy, I started to weave together a connective tissue of friendships and new experience.
After a year of struggling to fit into my new job at the health department, I quit. The outdoors became my playground and my worksite, a place I explored everything to the brink of exhaustion drawing from naturally-created adrenaline. I pulled energy from an evolving landscape of friendships and physical activities and the birth of Women’s Mountain Passages, a non-profit I founded.
I led survivors of violence on short hikes into Lakes Basin. Wearing bits of borrowed outdoors clothes from my closet of collected consignment gear, they ambled slowly replacing the smoke-filled air in their alveoli with the mountains’ collective exhale. I followed last, letting them set the pace, pointing out plants that I knew or holding their silence.
As a backpacking guide and a ropes course instructor, I found myself in the trees helping people discover those crystalline moments that rise through exhaustion and fear. These courses, constructed from wood, cable and ropes installed above the ground and strung between evergreens, created a combination of vertical and horizontal challenges where people needed to learn to trust their team and themselves. Often the participant’s body language taught me when to push or stand back, whether to rescue or wait. I could see myself in the faces and actions of the other women, how they shadow boxed the voices in their heads as they approached the climb.
DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?
LT: It changes. There is hope. You can move past being defined by mental illness. The most important thing that I have learned is to accept all the parts of myself, including the ones who are scared, angry or deeply hurt, because in gathering them I become complete.
A published writer, Lisa Tobe has been exploring her voice since college, settling into the places that felt like her and discarding the rest. It’s similar to her journey through Dissociative Identity Disorder, parenting and profession as a public health consultant. As the principal of Wildflower Consulting, Lisa gets to shape population health policy. She’s raising her seven-year-old son to explore what is in front of him with open-hearted curiosity, a skill that she herself is finally learning. You can connect with Lisa on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.
Thanks so much to Lisa for sharing her inspiring story of hope!
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!