‘Advocating for myself helped bring me back’

If you had told Paula Davis 10 years ago that she’d be back in school pursuing a degree in human services, an active member of a mental health organization and living well in recovery, she wouldn’t have believed you.

In 2009, she experienced legal trouble so painful she doesn’t want to talk about it, but so public that anyone who knew her then will remember. Yet she’s come out the other side, and she’s sharing her story to offer hope to others.

“Advocating for myself helped bring me back to the reality of ‘you’re not as bad off as you think you are,’ to see the light at the end of the tunnel or the jewel that was there in my life that I was struggling to see shine again,” she said. “And here I am today.”

Paula’s journey with mental health and addiction began in childhood; her biological mother struggled with alcoholism and she was born with a damaged central nervous system, a condition that wouldn’t be diagnosed until she was 9. She was adopted by relatives and lived in California and Las Vegas. Her adoptive mother and father were very open to mental health care, a fact for which she is very grateful, she said, since many African Americans face additional stigma within their own community. Her adoptive mother, who was part Cherokee, embraced holistic medicine and introduced herbal remedies to help with panic and anxiety from a young age.

She moved to the Midwest in the ’80s to reconnect with biological family and worked as an administrative assistant at several social service agencies. In her adult life, she’s faced not only panic and anxiety, but also alcoholism, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia and psychosis. The most difficult times followed the event in 2009.

“From 2012 to 2015, the only way I would go out was late at night, just to sit on my stairs,” she said. “My auditory-sensory system was just wrecked. I could hear a squirrel touch a leaf.”

But she kept coming to Oaklawn for appointments, working with a psychiatrist, a therapist and a case manager. She relied on Oaklawn’s transportation, as her agoraphobia (fear of public places) prevented her from using the bus. Over time, things started to improve. She worked Dr. Michael Platt to find the right medications; she worked with therapist Angie Welling to overcome her fear of public transit; her case manager, Charles Stoner, helped her secure housing. And once she mastered using the bus to get to and from appointments, Stoner suggested she try getting involved with the Clubhouse of St. Joseph County.

“When Charles became my case manager, he said Paula, ‘You have so much to offer, you’re very intelligent, you need to get out of this house and do something,’ ” she said.

Clubhouse was just what she needed. Clubhouse is a member-directed community for people with a serious mental illness, where days are structured like a work environment and every member contributes.

“[Director] Mark [Buchanan] works very hard to make us feel like we’re safe here, we’re welcome here, none of us is perfect and we all need each other,” Davis said. “I love that I don’t have to stay home and isolate anymore. There’s a safe place I can go Monday through Friday if I choose to. It’s a very positive outlet.”

It’s been about a year since Paula started attending Clubhouse. In that time, she’s also felt a new passion for the mental health field, not just as career but as a calling. She’s back in school and hopes to one day become a certified recovery specialist, helping others on their journey to recovery. And she has a word of advice to anyone still struggling: “Don’t accept other people’s labels they try to put on you as a stigma,” she said. “Embrace whatever diagnosis you have and challenge yourself to be the best you can with who you are. You’re not the disorder.”


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