Advocate speaks to put face on mental illness

Published Tuesday, October 19, 1999, in The State.

Staff Writer

It is a story that is not easy to hear, but one that emphasizes the horrors that can grip the mentally ill.

That's why Michelle Lee tells her personal story again and again as she travels around the state in her position as a consumer advocate for mental health clients.

At age 13, Lee lost her grandmother. Her mother died on the day of the funeral. Compounding the devastation, Lee's father married her mom's best friend two weeks later.

Lee ended up in foster care. She recalls being an extremely angry child, fighting and getting into trouble that landed her in a juvenile justice facility.

At the age of 14, she attempted suicide.

"My dad said, 'She's crazy. She needs to be in an institution,'" said Lee, a Columbia resident who works with the Mental Health Association.

Lee was admitted to a mental hospital in Florida, the state where she was born and raised. She said she was put into seclusion in a 10-by-4-foot room for 72 hours, with her arms and feet strapped down, and clad in a diaper.

A doctor who did not know her but who peered into her room as he passed by one day ended up to be her savior. He noticed Lee was sitting in her own waste and had wounds and sores on her body. He telephoned Lee's aunt, who took her home and got her professional help.

Doctors diagnosed Lee with clinical depression, a common mental illness. She began taking prescription medication and ultimately went on to college. At times during her schooling she could not keep her mental illness under control.

"I was having extreme mood swings," Lee said.

But at her roommate's urging, she again sought professional help. Doctors rediagnosed her as suffering from bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression. Today Lee is on two medications and is a functioning member of society.

To pass her on the street, you would see Lee as an attractive, vivacious, caring woman. There are no outward signs of the inner demons she has battled.

That's exactly the point she emphasizes to the thousands of mentally ill around the state with whom she speaks.

Get help, and you can live a functional life.

"I try to make people realize the face of mental illness is not necessarily looking like a homeless person, or someone who is incapable of managing their illness," Lee said. "It's almost a hidden illness for me, because folks can't immediately tell I have this illness when they meet me."