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Written by Mary Seymour and Melissa Weekley*
*Name has been changed for confidentiality and to protect the privacy of the individual
Which is harder to live with – a mental health diagnosis or a cancer diagnosis? Melissa has dealt with both and says, “I have come to realize that dealing with a mental health diagnosis and a cancer diagnosis are basically equal. They are just different kinds of equal.”
Melissa has had a long, hard road. She has struggled with mental health concerns from a young age and at age 25 was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder, persistent severe depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. She has since been hospitalized several times for depression and mania. Melissa sees a psychiatrist and therapist regularly.
Melissa was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 30 and successfully treated for it. After 25 years of remission, she was diagnosed with omentum cancer, a rare and incurable cancer located in the abdominal cavity that carries a life expectancy of less than five years. Three years into treatment, the cancer is currently contained. She’s had 56 rounds of chemotherapy so far and is expecting further treatment.
What’s bothered her significantly in this process is the difference in how she’s been treated with her mental health concerns versus her cancer. One condition comes with cards, visits, gifts, and considerable kindness. The other bears less sympathy and understanding and is treated as an embarrassment. According to Melissa:
Cancer is an illness that is more clearly understood. Most people are supportive and compassionate about the diagnosis. I receive positive attention, and I feel that I can share information regarding the physical symptoms, treatments, and frequent medical appointments without fear of judgment. I also believe that one of the reasons cancer derives more sympathy is due to increased awareness of the disease. Therefore, it naturally forces the patient and their loved ones to face their own mortality.
For many years Melissa held a full-time job, until she was part of a general layoff in 2008. Since then, she says, “I have experienced a long-term severe depression and persistent anxiety that has affected my ability to find a job.” Although Melissa has suffered far longer with mental illness than with cancer, she has found little support. In her words:
I receive little to no support from people outside of the mental health system. Most don’t know how to show support due to lack of knowledge of mental health challenges that are mostly invisible. Many deny that I have a serious illness that requires continuous treatment, compassion and encouragement. When I have disclosed my mental health illness to people outside of the field, I have been shamed, ignored, and belittled based solely on the knowledge that I have these challenges. As a result, I’m less likely to disclose the illness due to the stigma it carries. With no awareness, people don’t know that I aid is needed.
Due to its limitations, mental illness has affected my ability to succeed in higher education and subsequently to succeed in professional pursuits. I don’t believe that I’ve had a choice in these matters; rather that the illness has made these choices for me. Mental health concerns have also affected relationships.
What many people fail to realize is that there are fatalities associated with a mental illness, as there are with cancer. It contributes to critical physical illnesses, suicide and other consequences of disastrous behaviors.
So what does she hope for the future? What changes would she like to see in treatment and attitudes?
My hope is that people with mental health challenges would be accepted and treated with the same respect and compassion as those with a cancer diagnosis. Mental illness is real and is not something that the patient fabricates. I also long for those with mental illness to be celebrated like those with cancer for their strength in surviving and for their endurance throughout struggles and triumphs in their journey.
Why speak out about such personal struggles? Melissa speaks because the message is too important to leave hiding in the dark. Speaking out, speaking her truth, has become her crusade as she faces her own mortality.
Talk about bravery.
In honor of those that continue to fight the good fight, and in memory of those that have gone before us.
Submitted by Melissa Weekley, in loving memory of Mary Seymour.
Should you have any questions, personal reflections, or comments: Melissa’s preferred contact information is firstname.lastname@example.org
We Are Silenced
On Friday, January 16, 2015, we lost an artist, a colleague, an animal lover, a writer, a therapist, a daughter, a mother, and a friend. Mary Seymour was a wonderful therapist. We greatly appreciated her perspective on life and her ability to make everyone feel comfortable in her presence.
Mary was very outspoken about her struggle with bipolar disorder. She worked tirelessly to maintain a balance between work, life, and her health. We are grief stricken because her loss reminds us that we are all fragile and even helpers need help.
If you knew Mary and wish to talk about her, please feel free to contact us at 336-288-9190 or email us at email@example.com
This is a terrible loss for Tree of Life Counseling and the community-at-large.
Mary Seymour moved to Greensboro from New England in 2008. She earned a BA in English literature from Smith College in 1980 and spent three decades as a professional writer. Changing course midlife, she earned a master’s in counseling from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2012. Mary was the Director of Recovery Initiatives at the Mental Health Association in Greensboro as well as a North Carolina Licensed Professional Counselor Associate and a National Certified Counselor. Mary took a recovery-oriented approach, emphasizing strengths and de-emphasizing diagnostic labels. She embraced creative approaches to healing and self-discovery, including journaling and artwork. She enjoyed working with adolescents and adults.
Mystic and Maddie by Mary Seymour
GRIEF: A COMPLEX PROCESS
Grief is a complex process that is unique to each individual, but most of us want to move away from emotions associated with grief as quickly as possible. I recently lost someone dear to me, and here are some of the things I have learned through my personal grief journey about respecting the process:
– Allow yourself to grieve. Let the emotions come, and then they will pass. Some days you may feeling longing for your loved one and sadness due to the hole they left behind, other days you may feel angry or irritable. And some days are good, where you feel happiness and joy. And you may feel many of these emotions at once. Give yourself permission to feel whatever comes up for you around your loss.
– There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. People will likely give you advice, but honor yourself by listening to your inner voice. Some days you may want to withdraw and not talk to anyone, and that is okay. Other days, you may want to look through photo albums of your loved one and just cry or smile at the memories. Sometimes you may throw yourself into a work or hobby to distract yourself. Take one day at a time, but listen to yourself along the way and do what you need to do to grieve that day.
– Reach out to your supports. The people who love you will want to help, but they may not know how, and may be hesitant to bring up your loss for fear of being intrusive. If you need to talk about the loss of your loved one, ask someone in your support system to listen. Or you may need others to help you with daily tasks in the weeks and months following your loss, so ask for this help as you need it. And you may want to seek counseling services. Grief counseling is often brief unless your grief is complicated, and it can provide you with another person companioning you along your grief journey and a space to process your loss.
– Give yourself time. It may feel like the world is moving on without you, and you just have to get over your loss to catch up. But you are creating a life now without your loved one, and it can take a long time to find your new normal. Don’t stop living your life, but don’t rush your grief process. Be kind to yourself as you grieve.
– It is normal for your grief to feel less intense over time. Sometimes we view this as losing a connection with our loved one. I will end with one of my favorite grief quotes by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, an author, educator, and grief counselor: “Sometimes we are unconsciously fearful that if we begin to move away from our grief, we will lose what contact we have with the one we miss so much… Perhaps the relinquishing of our most intense grief makes a space into which a new relationship with the loved one can move. It is the person, after all, whom we want, not the grief… May I hold grief lightly in my hand so that it can lift away from me. My connection to the one I have lost is inviolate; it cannot be broken.”