Mara just graduated from East Lyme High School and is headed to the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University. She shares that she is “over the top excited to be in Lincoln Center and Manhattan!” But life has not always been this happy and hopeful. Mara bravely shares her story:
Growing up, my family had such high standards for me. Both of my parents immigrated from communist Romania in the early 90s and they pushed me beyond my limits. This environment led me to overwork and push myself, more than my parents wanted me to. I became a perfectionist, setting a plan for my future and needing to follow it. But there were many obstacles to this “perfect” plan I had crafted.
I have had severe anxiety since I was little. I never knew how to manage it until I started counseling in 7th grade. This anxiety set me back: my grades weren’t as high as I wanted them to be, and I wasn’t a good test taker.
For my freshman year of high school, I transitioned from a small private school with a class size of 30 to a school with more than 250 students. Being in a new town with no friends was not easy at all. I became severely depressed, was diagnosed with OCD and developed anorexia. I was being force-fed, stuck in an inpatient treatment facility with no time to myself. All the plans I had made were falling apart. My friends were volunteering and catching the sun at the beach while I cried at home, looking at a glass of orange juice.
One night, everything became too much. I was depressed, anxious about the upcoming school year and angry about treatment. I was so emotional that night: screaming, crying and throwing things. I couldn’t take it. I thought I had no future. I couldn’t endure the pain I was going through to get better. I didn’t see a finish line to my recovery. I couldn’t endure everyday life after everything I had been through.
I vividly remember grabbing a sharp object and attempting suicide. But I couldn’t stand seeing my own blood running down the sides of my leg. I put the object down and hid in my closet — the one place I felt safe, in this dark corner of my house where I felt reality didn’t exist.
I was so hurt and lost. I grabbed my phone and dialed the suicide hotline. I was so antsy waiting for the contact specialist to pick up. What could this person do for me? Why was I calling them? But I can’t stress enough how glad I am that I did. She saved my life.
Sitting on the phone, she made me feel safe. She guided me through techniques to calm down and helped me realize the bigger picture in life. I have never been more thankful to someone than I am to the contact specialist who spoke with me that day.
It has been more than two years since that phone call. Two years of me finding myself and my purpose. And I am so happy I am still here today. I have so much hope for my future: going to college, advocating for various mental disorders and having many people around me who love me – the people I hadn’t noticed two years ago.
If this journey has taught me one thing, it’s that I have the strength to do anything. I wake up every morning excited about what the day has to offer. I’ve gained so much strength through self-reflection and realize I can tackle any daily challenge and can grow from it.
In FY22, the 211 Mental Health Crisis Team handled 146,776 crisis calls. These calls represent a 16% increase over FY21 and comprise 42% of all calls to 211.
So, what does this have to do with Gizmo, you ask?
Gizmo, the narrator of Gizmo’s Pawesome Guide to Mental Health, is a therapy dog. For the past 12 years, he has been comforting people when they are feeling sad, mad, or worried and, through his Pawesome Guide, provides school-aged children with the tools needed to manage their mental health. But Gizmo is aging and in 2023 is preparing to retire with a farewell retirement tour.
We took some time to speak with Gizmo as he reflects on the impact of his work and his upcoming retirement.
Gizmo shares that “I work in schools a lot. So, I see lots of kids and I love all those kids a lot! I bet I would love every kid in the whole wide world a lot! So that’s why I’ve used my platform to advocate for mental health, especially for children.”
“Let me tell you about one of the most profound experiences I’ve had as a therapy dog/mental health advocate. One time I was at that big high school walking down the hall. Mom thought we were going to the office, but I had other plans. As we turned a corner, we saw a girl we hadn’t met before. She was all by herself and crying softly. As soon as I saw her, I stopped at her feet and would not budge. She dropped to the floor right away to be closer to me and said, “Gizmo, I knew I would find you today!” (That’s when I jumped into her lap.)
She told us this was her first day at our school and that she had just moved here all the way from Ill..Illa…Illanoise. Then she opened her almost empty backpack and pulled out the only item in it: a copy of Gizmo’s Pawesome Guide to Mental Health. She explained that her former teacher gave it to her because she knew the move to CT was super hard for her, and that she might feel sad, mad or worried about it.
The student told me she didn’t even know I was in Connecticut, much less inside her new school. So, I pawtographed her book. Then I made sure she got connected with lots of trusted adults. That’s super important to help kids do that!”
When we asked Gizmo about being a public figure and an influencer with nearly 200,000 followers, he explained to us that his followers on Facebook call themselves ‘Gizmo’s Big Army of Frens.’ “Those people are all so kind and loving! I told my mom I wanted to have a page of love and compassion, that’s all…because I’m a dog, and that’s all I am made of! These wonderful people from all walks of life who follow my page are the real influencers, though. They influence me to believe in the goodness of humanity. I’m one lucky dog to love and be loved by this army of very kind frens!”
“When I retire, I will miss all those excellent people I visited. I snuggled with people of many different beliefs, different backgrounds, different cultures, different ages, and different reasons for needing or wanting a therapy dog like me. You know what we all had in common? Love. I will not miss the love, though. I carry it in my heart forever.”
“In my retirement I’m most looking forward to my mom taking care of me. And by taking care of me, I mean taking me out for ice cream! I’ll even let my baby brother, Gadget, come along!”
“To all the people of Connecticut I want to say thank you so very muchly, frens! I love you for being you, ok? I hope you love yourself for being you, too!”
Gizmo’s Pawesome Guide to Mental Health© is a social-emotional learning curriculum, currently being used in 20 Connecticut schools, that gives kids the tools to manage their mental health. The Guide and Curriculum help kids learn:
- Mental health is as important as physical health.
- How to identify when mental health needs attention.
- Daily activities and healthy coping strategies that
- support mental health.
- How to identify and connect with trusted adults.
The curriculum was developed, with the support of federal grant funding, by United Way of Connecticut and key state agencies including the Departments of Mental Health and Addiction Services and Children and Families, the Suicide Advisory Board, and other dedicated partners. Learn more at https://www.gizmo4mentalhealth.org.
Roberto Gonzalez is 25 years old and proudly half Dominican and half Ecuadorian. After graduating from high school in his hometown of Bridgeport, he quickly realized that he was not quite ready for college and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He spent four active years in Oklahoma working on the cannon crew and as a field artillery member. While on active duty he married his wife Julia and became a father to his first child.
Roberto’s job required a lot of tedious work and heavy lifting and didn’t lend itself to transitioning to a “real-world” job. The onset of the pandemic affected his ability to explore new positions within the Army and made raising his son in isolation very difficult. He shares that “one of the biggest lessons I learned was being able to appreciate my family. It was my first time being away from home and that gave me the opportunity to mature and grow as a person.” But once his contract expired, Roberto was ready to return to Connecticut.
Anticipating the difficulty of being able to find affordable housing, before Roberto and his family returned home, they reached out to Middlesex Habitat for Humanity of CT, Inc. and applied to their Veterans Build program – a program that works to provide homeownership opportunities to current military and veterans of all service branches. The program partners with homeowners who are service members working to build a better life for their families. Roberto’s family lived with Julia’s parents in Naugatuck while they completed their 350 hours of sweat equity on their new home in Middlefield. The Gonzalez family gratefully moved into their new home in May of this year.
Roberto is a full-time student at UConn Waterbury, exploring the fields of Information Technology, Computer Engineering and Finance. He also raises his children and takes care of them while Julia is at work and studies respiratory therapy full-time. Roberto’s GI benefits help pay his school expenses and provide a basic housing allowance. He also receives disability benefits for the toll his job took on his body and his mental health. And like some veterans, Roberto and his family participate in as much public assistance as possible, like WIC and SNAP. Five percent of Connecticut’s financially insecure veterans received Supplementary Security Income (SSI) and 17% participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Roberto shares that it’s “important to have a plan, whether you stay in active duty or get out. We had a pretty decent plan – we have a house, go to school and raise our kids with lots of love and appreciation. The end game far outweighs all the stuff I’ve ever been through.” And because he wasn’t able to completely give up on his dream of serving in the military, Roberto is currently enlisted in the National Guard, and is being re-classed as an IT Specialist to better align with his interests.
Hear directly from Roberto and learn more about ALICE Veterans by checking out these news clips:
Steve MacHattie, LCSW and Owner of the Charter Oak Family Center in Manchester, has lived experience – he began experiencing suicidal thoughts and survived his first suicide attempt when he was six or seven years old. “I remember being in my bedroom alone. I had a suicide plan that I thought would work and I tried to carry that plan out. After some amount of time, I realized what I was doing wouldn’t work and went downstairs to find my mother. The conversation I had with her, which simply dismissed my experience as a childish incident, was just the beginning of a battle with depression and suicide that would last for decades.”
Steve began his journey of recovery, little by little, with the help of those around him. He shares that his “struggles with my illness resulted in my illness often being my first reaction to life. If I had a bad day or week, depression was right there to remind me who I was. I feel like I internalized the stigma of mental illness from those around me. Even as things were going better and I progressed in my recovery, I still held myself back. I spent years, literally, hiding from people. My need to hide started when I was a child, though it gained strength as I got older.”
Shortly after Steve’s father passed away, he was struggling with suicidal thoughts while driving to a meeting. He pulled over and called 211 because “I needed to connect with someone who cared.” In a moment when he thought no one cared, he said the contact specialist who answered his call was patient, not rushed, really listened and cared. “Being able to talk through it helped me feel less anxious and angry. Having someone listen decreased my suicidal urges. She reminded me that there were still things in my life I wanted to do – that I had a future with hope and goals.”
Having experienced 211 as a lifeline, Steve, now a clinical social worker, pays it forward by sharing his experience, strength and hope with his clients and by referring them to 211 when in crisis.
Steve says that faith and hope are an important part of his story, and he isn’t hiding any longer. He joined a suicide prevention board, specifically, the Board’s lived experience committee. He’s taking singing lessons, and he puts himself up front and center teaching at the college level and loves it.
According to Steve, “Mental illness may be chronic, but it does not have to be terminal. We can still accomplish great things. Life comes with challenges, stresses, sorrows, even successes. Life is full of surprises, and I don’t have to allow those surprises to define me or stop me. My hope is that by talking about mental illness and my struggles with mental illness, I will help open a door that others will be able to walk through. I also hope that people with mental illness can learn to not judge themselves as harshly as I have been known to do.”
If you are struggling and need crisis and suicide prevention assistance, call 211. In Connecticut, 211 is the point of entry for all crisis intervention in Connecticut (988, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline [1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-273-TALK (8255)], the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Service’s “Action Line” (1-800-HOPE-135) and the Youth Mobile Crisis Line through Connecticut 211.