When Augusta Cox, the outreach coordinator at National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Oklahoma, fields calls from families or individuals in crisis, she brings more than just the organization’s extensive resources to bear.
“I have walked the walk,” said Cox, who has been successfully living in recovery from schizophrenia for about three years. She explained that after being diagnosed with the condition at age 33, she was hospitalized eight times and for a while had to rely on disability benefits. Now she uses her experience to help others dealing with serious mental illness and their families find the support and services they need to get and stay well.
Cox, who has a bachelor’s degree in literature and master’s degree in business administration, was working as a financial advisor when the market crashed in 2008. As she dealt with the stress of working with clients distressed over the financial crisis, she began experiencing a health crisis of her own. Over the course of three weeks, she began hearing voices and having delusions. She lost her job and her husband.
With the appropriate set of medications she was finally able to leave the hospital in 2011 and live independently. But her challenges were not over. She struggled with serious depression for a year. During that time, she drank wine, watched Law and Order, and gained 100 pounds. “Profound depression seeps into every cranny of your brain,” she said.
Taking a job at a temporary staffing agency helped pull Cox from the grips of depression. After the temp agency, Cox landed a part-time job at the mall and began volunteering for NAMI Oklahoma on her days off. She won a grant from AmeriCorps to fund her current full-time position at NAMI, and is talking with her boss about staying longer term.
“They seem to think having someone who has been through it has been very helpful,” she said.
Getting to the place she is now, with a job, a circle of friends, and a boyfriend, has been a process, and one she continues to work on.
“I am still learning to live with schizophrenia,” Cox said.
Cox explained that the keys for her have been getting the medications right, working, and stopping alcohol use. She has worked with a nutritionist to lose 88 pounds and has recently added exercise to her regimen. She participates in her local Alcoholics Anonymous group. She said having a supportive network of friends, family, coworkers, and a therapist has been essential.
“You have to surround yourself with a team of people who help move you toward that goal,” she said.
Helping Others in Crisis
Now, when Cox is working with families and individuals in crisis, she tries “to attack it from two sides.” First, she brings her experience to bear to help them understand what to expect during hospitalization and afterward. Next, she helps them find wraparound services and tries to make sure families get the support they need.
She talks with people with mental illness about the importance of medications. She also helps them connect with resources, including pharmaceutical programs that provide medications for free. Once individuals are stabilized, Cox advises them to begin setting goals and working toward their dreams.
“Once I was at NAMI, the goals and dreams started coming in line,” she said. “If you have something you are working toward, it gives you purpose in life.” One of the biggest challenges Cox faces in her job is that too few resources are available to help individuals who lack health insurance because they are seriously ill and cannot hold a job.
“A lot of people just never get help, and spend life in the emotional pain of un-medicated, undiagnosed mental illness,” she said. “They never get on the road to success. They could hold down a job and be productive taxpayers if they had help.”
For Cox, finding a way out of that pain and building a successful life in recovery has been her greatest achievement. She said she considers it her third degree. She wears her successful recovery “like a badge” and is proud to tell people that she is successfully living in recovery from schizophrenia.
“It has been the hardest thing I have ever done and I could not be more proud,” she said.
This article was originally published to highlight the May 2015 theme of Children and Families.
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