by Mary Ellen Copeland

Last week we started a journey down memory lane, you might say. As we grow older, memories feel soft around the edges, like fading photographs filled with people you no longer remember.

This journey is different. It’s filled with memories of people who remain vibrant and alive to me, even years after they cross my path. These are the people who have traveled with me on the road to recovery. They showed me the way when I felt lost. They taught me invaluable lessons I have tried to pass on.

My first guide was my mother, Kate. Raised on a farm in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, Kate never quite fit the typical image of a quiet, proper, and demure Pennsylvania Dutch girl. Unlike her two sisters, she was outspoken, assertive, and mischievous, qualities not admired in a young woman at that time, but ones that would serve her well down the road. After completing college with a degree in nutrition, working a brief career as a county extension agent, marrying, and having five children (I’m the middle child), Kate spent 8 years of her life—from age 37 to 45—in a state mental institution. She was diagnosed with severe and incurable manic depression. 

The conditions at the hospital were deplorable, something I recognized even as an 8-year-old girl. It was little more than a holding tank, a place where people were managed, not cured or helped to recover. No one was expected to get well.

But Kate defied the odds. After 8 years of severe, recurring psychotic episodes, Kate got well. And she stayed well until her death from a stroke at the age of 82.
On her journey, Kate sowed the seeds of what would become WRAP. From her, I learned about the importance of support. Kate received support from a volunteer and a staff member at the hospital who listened to her talk for hours and hours. No one had done that before.

She gave support. While she was still hospitalized, Kate started the Mental Health Fellowship, what may have been the first peer support group started by a patient. When she left the hospital and began to rebuild her life, Kate went out of her way to connect with people in the community, countering stigma as she went. She kept in touch with people by dropping off freshly baked bread, running an errand, or sending a card.

I don’t know whether she developed this support system intentionally, but she certainly did it right. By giving support to others when she could, she got it for herself when she desperately needed it. This is the essence of mutual support.

If Kate’s recovery was the start of what would become WRAP, WRAP was the start of what would become a worldwide movement. Over the years, I’ve been privileged to meet and hear from thousands of people for whom WRAP was instrumental in their recovery. They have given to me—and their peers—far more than I have given to them.

People like the man who was inspired by Kate’s story to believe that he, too, could recover. From him, I learned that progress is progress, no matter how small. When he started his WRAP plan, he had one item on his daily maintenance list—to get out of bed. Not shower, brush his teeth, or even get dressed. Today, he is a certified peer specialist. He lives independently, owns a car, and manages his health. All because he made a plan to get out of bed.

People like the person I invited to sit next to me at a bookstore, where I was discussing my second book, Living Without Depression and Manic Depression. She hesitated to walk in the door, feeling like an outcast in a town to which she had escaped so no one would know she had mental health problems. From her, I learned about courage—not the courage to start over, but the even more courageous decision to return home. Home—where the wellness she achieved through WRAP allowed her to start a community agency that gave hope and help to so many others.

People like the man I call “David,” who taught me about patience and persistence. I first met David at that cold winter meeting in Vermont where WRAP was born. You might not have noticed him, except that he couldn’t sit still. He had trouble connecting with his peers. But he stayed. He stayed through the 5-day training. He stayed through the 3 days we spent hashing out the details of WRAP. As the years went by, I would periodically hear from others that David wanted another WRAP training, and I was always able to find one for him.

Fast forward 7 years, when I was invited to attend a WRAP graduation ceremony. A smiling man greeted me warmly and asked if I remembered him. It was David, a man who by all accounts was going nowhere. Who would need lifelong support and never be well. But like the mythical David, this David battled back, not with a slingshot, but by never giving up. He recovered little by little, two steps forward and one step back. Today, he inspires others to do the same.

Albert Schweitzer reportedly said, “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” These fellow travelers—and countless others—have rekindled my spirit. They have walked side by side with me and taught me how to get and stay well. This journey—of hope and mutual support, of courage and patience, of never giving up and always moving on—can and must continue. Stay tuned next week, when I’ll share the exciting next chapter in the WRAP story.