Kristen Heckeroth


In the past few years I’ve accomplished many things that I had never thought possible: I finished college, I applied to start graduate school, I returned to full time employment, I got married, I turned 30, and, well, I’m alive. I really never thought I’d be able to say that: I’m over thirty and I’m alive. For most people this isn’t a big deal. For me, it’s groundbreaking.

My mother has always told me that “fear is a powerful motivator.” She’s right. However, I’ve also learned that hope is a powerful motivator. And, while I have a wonderful support system, hope came for me in the form of NAMI. We often hear how NAMI can save families and how it helps parents and their ill children (or vice versa) and gives them a way to open a much-needed (and very, very hard) dialogue. For me, it was a little different.

I became ill young. Elementary school young. My parents, being the proactive, supportive parents they are, sought the best of care for me. Suicidal at eight, cutting myself by twelve, by the time I hit high school I was already diagnosed with major depression. As I got older, major depression became bipolar II. As I got even older, I was finally diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. However, I was lucky. My parents, not wanting to limit me, never told me I was “sick” or “disabled.” This is not to say that I did not know why I went to the psychiatrist every week or why I took medicine every day, it is simply that my parents refused to tell me that there were things of which I was not capable because I lived with mental illness. They treated me, and pushed me, as if I were any other child—as if I were “normal.”

When I came to NAMI I already knew about, and, for the most part, accepted, my illness. I knew that I’d be on a cocktail and in therapy the rest of my life. The problem was: I was unsure of how long that life would be. I had been early decision at Columbia University. I had been a supervisor in a distribution center with a sizable staff under me. I was no longer any of these things. By 27 I was divorced and on Social Security Disability. I had even begun to say that I was “disabled.” I had already learned to start to doubt my experiences—what I heard, what I felt, what I perceived. I had also, however, begun to doubt my existence and whether I mattered.

As I sat at home on the couch (I no longer left the house for work or school so I no longer left the house) my mother said to me, “Honey, I love you, but get off my couch. Go do something, anything.” I had read about NAMI and so I sent an email to NAMI New Jersey (secretly hoping no one would answer). Lo and behold, my email was returned in a matter of hours. My simple email inquiring about volunteering opportunities was met with, basically, “Great! We’re hosting our Kick-Off Luncheon this weekend. You can start tomorrow!” So, for the first time in I don’t know how long, I ventured out of my house, totally alone, to meet some people I had never even spoken to on the phone, let alone seen in person, before. To say I was nervous is an understatement. I honestly don’t know how I got out of the car or made it up the stairs. But I’m glad I did.

What started out as helping put decorations on tables soon became helping plan the Walk since it is held in my home county. This led to my not only joining my local affiliate but to today being on its board, leading the Connections group, and being an In Our Own Voice presenter. This also, coincidentally, led to an internship in the state office. I started slowly at ten hours a week. I’m now in the office forty hours a week as a full-time employee. And, believe it or not, I love going to work—which I never thought I’d be able to say again.

As I said, NAMI has given me hope. I had never before met anyone else, outside of the hospital, who had mental illness. I had never met anyone else with scars on her wrists and arms or who could tell me that he heard things too. I learned that while I may be different, it’s who I am as a person, and not my diagnosis, that makes me unique. And, most importantly, I learned that I really could have a future—with a family and a job and plans. I learned that I no longer wanted to die. While I’m still motivated by fear—I take my daily meds and go to my weekly therapy because I am scared to go through another psychotic break—I’m more motivated by hope. And NAMI.