Thriving beyond circumstances and diagnosis; Marshfield woman encourages normalizing mental health

Published: Jun. 2, 2023 at 7:56 PM CDT
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MARSHFIELD, Wis. (WSAW) - Not all wounds are visible; that is the message one woman from Marshfield wants to spread to normalize mental health struggles, in her case post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kristina Howey is the director of product development at Security Health Plan. She is also a mother, a military spouse, and not just a survivor of domestic violence, but a “thriver” as she channels the courage and strength to take care of herself, leaning on resources, to be her best despite her diagnosis.

PTSD is not as visible as a physical injury, but what you may notice is Howey’s service dog, Mava.

“I my biggest symptom is not feeling safe,” Howey stated. “I suffer from a very intense hypervigilance, constantly aware of my surroundings. She can sense the anxiety and that hypervigilance, and so she alerts me to that. And when she alerts me, it gives me an opportunity to have that symptom break.”

After being formally diagnosed with PTSD in 2016, her doctor determined she would be a good candidate to have a service dog to help manage her symptoms.

“The sensory of being able to pet her ears and her fur. Or feel, I focus on the pressure that she puts on my lap when she puts her head on my lap. If I look at her, that’s-- that really can pull me out of just about anything the way she looks at me. I know that she you know, she’s got my heart.”

Mava grounds and protects her after numerous times having her world rollover.

“I learned with my counselor that my trauma narrative really starts in my childhood.”

She brought that trauma into adulthood, and likely undiagnosed PTSD, which was then heavily triggered in her first marriage as a first-time mom with an 8-month-old.

“He left, my older daughter and I, and that was traumatizing, from a standpoint of abandonment and betrayal is very significant. And when I say he left, the morning that he left, he told me 15 minutes before he left, and then it was over.”

Eventually, she found herself in another unhealthy relationship. In 2009, she was a research coordinator with Marshfield Clinic Health System at the time.

“We have pamphlets on domestic violence in the bathroom. And I had looked at it a couple (of) times throughout my shift. And then before I went back to my, my cubicle, I decided to fold it up, and I kind of tucked it underneath my clothing, because I didn’t want anybody to see that I had it, and then went back to my cubicle, and I read it. And that’s when I realized that I was really living in an abusive relationship.”

The process to leave that relationship was arduous and filled with judgment, self-doubt, and shame. She had to determine whether to flee to be with family and leave her community and job, or remain in Marshfield.

“Around the 2008 time, you didn’t want to lose a job that you had. It was a tough economic time and I wanted to provide for my kids. So, I did; I just, I figured it out and I stayed here in a community where I have no family. And I continue to work through the resources that were available to me.”

She worked with a Personal Development Center caseworker to get her resources like a place to stay, get connected to an attorney, and what she needed to start over.

“Leaving is incredibly intimidating. Especially, when somebody tells you that you can’t do it on your own, or that that you’re not good enough, or that nobody’s going to want you. And I just took it one day at a time.”

She left the relationship in 2010. She considered it a rebirth of her life.

“While I wasn’t completely healed and rejuvenated as a person, that really was the stepping point where I started to entertain resources.”

She said she did not have great family support regarding how she was doing mentally.

“There were comments shared of like, ‘it’s really hard to watch, you go through this.’ And I just remember sobbing and feeling so alone. You can feel so alone in a room of people, and that’s incredibly painful.”

Her recovery was filled with highs and lows, as she eventually started a new, healthy relationship. However the painful feeling of being alone returned in 2016 after her aunt died by suicide. Howey learned through her family that her aunt had been assaulted when she was young.

“I listened to them and I knew exactly, I knew exactly why she struggled and I knew why she didn’t say anything. That was the thing I heard my aunt say like, ‘Why didn’t she say anything? Why didn’t she ask for help?’ And I knew why.”

She explained what people call “demons” -- as in “everyone has their demons” -- she now understands are symptoms.

“I drove home from the funeral and I held my husband’s hand and I said, I need some help. Because if I don’t get help, I’m concerned I could end up like my aunt.”

She connected with her work’s resources and sought out a trauma counselor. That is when she was formally diagnosed with PTSD.

“I couldn’t actually say PTSD, like, it just was like this, like, dark labeled to me.”

She was in denial; she challenged her doctor. But after doing her own research, Howey realized the signs and symptoms paralleled her own behavior and experience.

“I remember walking into our office and saying, ‘OK, I think you got it right.’ And even though I, I gave in to that idea, I still spent time avoiding actually digging in and healing the traumas in which landed me here.”

By the time she was ready to dig in, her insurance coverage changed and her provider was no longer covered. She took the wellness tools she had, like breathing exercises, meditation, gratitude journaling, eating healthy, exercising, etc., and went on what she called a “self-discovery journey.” The tools were helping her overall wellness, but hindsight would show her she was missing a major piece.

“I didn’t really respect or understand what triggers were and things like that. So, I’m doing life the best that I can, dealing with the surroundings that I, that I’ve got, and triggers being triggered, and in spaces that I didn’t even realize I could be triggered. I thought that triggers had to mean it was directly attached to that experience, or that person, you know, and it doesn’t.”

Despite that, she felt the best she ever had and was empowered. She started a podcast sharing her story, knowing others would identify with elements of her experiences.

“That’s really when it all really opened up and I was feeling, I was feeling like I was the queen. And I had been training for a marathon in 2020.”

Of course, the pandemic hit that year and Howey contracted COVID-19 two weeks before the marathon.

“I spiraled down, and there were some family situations that we were dealing with. And I found myself in April of 2021 in a very unmanaged state, and I knew I needed to go back to counseling and I needed to really invest in the time. Because while I had done all the things that manage symptoms, and being a good human, like eating well and running and meditating, and journaling, I didn’t have that directly tied to symptom management. So, when I started to become symptomatic, I didn’t have skills that I was leaning on. I just had no energy I was back into survival mode. And so, while in survival mode, unless you attach that (tools with symptoms) it falls to the wayside, and you literally just have the energy to try and do what you’re supposed to do: show up for work, do a good job, make sure the kids are fed.”

While she would have to build trust in a new provider, she sought out a new counselor who specialized in PTSD. At this time, she was still working through being able to even say she had PTSD.

“He described it as learning a new language. And so, when I could start to be aware of my symptoms, and communicate that to others, it was a different language. And sometimes people don’t have that same language and so we have to help educate others, which also goes in with doing things like this (interview) and creating that awareness.”

She also learned what triggered her and applied the coping skills she was already using to situations she knew would flare her symptoms. She added Mava to her toolbox too. Howey did well most of the time managing her symptoms until she had intense triggers: several losses at the beginning of this year.

“I was really frustrated because I had good skill sets. I had good awareness. I had Mava. What else could I do? And I was honestly feeling hopeless at the idea that, can I live a quality life without always having to wonder if I’m going to wake up one day and have to manage something that’s incredibly hard and then deal with, like the recovery of that?”

That was when she and her doctor talked about including medications as part of her treatment.

“It felt like the, the cancer conversation of mental health,” she paused. “I was told that my PTSD is incredibly complex. She also told me that my awareness was my biggest asset, and that she was proud to see that I had engaged all these tools and resources. And it was bittersweet because, in that moment, I felt like okay, it’s not me. It’s not that I can’t manage this,” she teared up. “So I felt validated and heard that I’m not doing something wrong, but it was incredibly hard to go from nothing, no medication to several medications and there’s, there’s a stigma around that.”

As a runner, she equated it to being on a treadmill. Her symptoms were constantly running especially her hypervigilance. Without any coping mechanisms, she could only walk for a few hours. Add in the tools, she could manage a moderate trigger at a jog, running for miles, but she says it takes more effort.

“And then these intense triggers, just I fall off the treadmill, the treadmill falls over. And it’s just, it’s just done. But when I started the medication regimen, that treadmill turned off... for periods of time.”

Constantly managing symptoms takes a lot of energy. When she first began taking the medications she said she slept for 24 hours one weekend because her body was so depleted.

“Mental health is-- while it impacts the brain, and it comes from the brain, everything’s integrated; the body is integrated.”

She said she is at a point where she is not trying to bring her symptoms down to a manageable level, she is trying to resolve them to be able to live her best life.

“When I got ready this morning, I can’t, I can’t tell you. I didn’t know what it was like to live like this, to feel confident, and empowered, and strong, and less afraid. And I think that it’s great. I think everybody should be able to live like this.”

Howey applauds how her employer has embraced her needs to allow her to be able to be happy and productive in a way that works for her and the tasks she has to perform. She said having a mental illness does not make you less productive or less capable, but having a workplace that accommodates those needs so people can thrive allows for her to do her best work.