I found 27 keys to better mental health — You can find yours.

NOTE: This article was published by the Dallas Morning News on 11 Sep 2022 [VIEW]


By Margalea Warner
1:45 PM on Sep 9, 2022

The heaviness of my sigh matched the weight of the steel door that locked behind me with a loud clunk. I hadn’t committed a crime and I wasn’t in jail. I was in a locked hospital psychiatric ward because I had a brain disorder called schizophrenia. The hospital wasn’t a terrible place to be. Unlike in the hellish insane asylums half a century ago, patients weren’t restrained with straightjackets. The awful practice of lobotomy had long since been discarded. This hospital was renowned for evidence-based medical treatment. There was a sunny day room. Eating with other patients in the dining room helped things feel a little more normal.

Except I didn’t want to be here. Again.

For the previous 15 years, I had been in and out of the hospital as if I were stuck in a revolving door. Seeing nursing staff walking around with a hefty set of keys on their belts made me envious. I wanted the key to my apartment where I lived with my pets. I wanted the key to my mailbox where I hoped an acceptance letter for my writing awaited. A lifelong non-driver, I didn’t want car keys, but I wanted the key to my bicycle lock so I could go on a spin around the neighborhood.

There had been other times when I was discharged from the hospital too soon for insurance reasons and I ended up sicker. But this time I thought I was ready to take charge of my wellness. I wanted back the life these hospitalizations were interrupting.

On June 15, 1995, my favorite nurse, Judi, unlocked the door and let me and Pastor Diane out. I went out the revolving hospital door. I never got stuck in it again. I was 35 that day. By God’s grace, today I’m 62.

How did I do it? I took my medicine religiously. I found a therapist I could trust and was honest with. When I had occasional thoughts of self-harm, I resolved not to act on them. I found insight by keeping a journal and I told my story through writing and speaking.

I didn’t do it alone. I had a church family that prayed, listened and showed up at all the right moments. The two friendship quilts that First Mennonite Church of Iowa City gave me remind me of their love. I had support, education and advocacy from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Goodwill Industries helped me with job coaching and computer training. With support from Weight Watchers, I reversed the weight gain caused by side effects of medicine. God’s love, expressed by my network of support, was key.

There is no shame in being hospitalized when you’re in a mental health crisis, but thriving in your community year after year is something to celebrate. The years of freedom added up steadily, like pennies in a piggy bank. By 2012 it was clear to me that I had accomplished something big. How could I celebrate it? As a Weight Watcher, I’d celebrated pounds lost with charms on a keychain. I had celebrated a friend’s anniversary of sobriety with a non-alcoholic drink contest, and once I won first prize for the tastiest drink. How could I celebrate the victory of staying in mental health recovery?

“Keys,” I thought to myself. “Something with keys.” I asked my friends if they would take up a collection of 17 keys, one for each year free of the hospital as of June 2012. Friends gave duplicate keys to their homes and cars. They must have trusted me not to rob them or drive off with their cars. They found some antique keys as well. Even a fingernail clipper counted as a key since you might carry one on a keychain and it could pick a lock in a pinch. I had the month of May before my June party to decide what on earth to do with them. I carried them with me in a metal cookie tin, where they rattled around causing strangers to stare.

By the night of my party, I was inspired to name each key after what had been of key importance in my recovery. After I blew out 17 candles, I announced:

Key 1 is right medicine. It took me years to find the right one and now I take it faithfully.

Key 2 is cognitive therapy. Skill power through clear thinking is better than will power.

Key 3 is family that loved me so much. Because I was in recovery, I was able to walk with my parents and older brother as they faced the challenges of aging and illness. When they passed away, I celebrated their lives with deep gratitude.

Key 4 is Compeer, the national program that pairs volunteer friends with persons in recovery.

Key 5 is let tears come. Sorrow must be expressed and released.

Key 6 is dignity of work. I’m proud to say I worked almost 36 years as a hospital secretary before I retired in 2020.

Keys 7 and 8 are related: say no to negative voices and challenge distorted thinking. Listen, instead, for the still small voice of God.

Keys 9 and 10 flow out of spirituality: pray and choose life.

Key 11 is think outside the box. Fittingly it is attached to that fingernail clipper.

Keys 12 and 13 are about taking care of our bodies: walking and healthy eating.

Key 14 is kitties and critters. I’m a cat person, but all God’s creatures give us love.

Key 15 is tai chi and the 70% principle. I was introduced to this discipline of meditative movement by a class at my church in 2012. It was way more challenging than it looked. What helped me master it was the 70% principle, which is to listen to your body and respect its limits, only using about 70% of your maximum effort or range of motion. A decade later, I persist in practicing. My instructor calls me the Triumphant Tai Chi Tortoise.

Key 16 is faith.

Key 17 is laughter.

Those were the 17 keys I celebrated in 2012. Now there are 10 more. They fill two shadow boxes.

Key 18 is hugs, giving and getting them.

Key 19 is the key to the old University of Iowa Psychopathic Hospital Quiet Room. I was restrained there in 1989 and never want that to happen again. After I talked to a psychiatric nursing class, the professor gave it to me. Sweet!

Key 20 is This is My Brave, after the dramatic presentation I gave. I’ve also told my story to medical students and law enforcement.

Key 21 is massage therapy.

Key 22 is Paris, not as a travel destination but as a self-corrective practice of saying “I wish I were in Paris” instead of “I wish I were dead.”

Key 23 is music.

Key 24 is ask for what you need. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so squeak and squeak loud.

Key 25, named in 2020, is gratitude. Gratitude got me through the worst of the pandemic by focusing on the good.

Key 26 is perseverance. Like Percy the Mars Rover, persistence can carry you far into recovery.

June 2022 came, and once again friends gathered around me. We toasted recovery with glasses of lemonade. Pastor Terry accompanied us on guitar in singing, “Open My Eyes That I May See,” with the apt words, “Place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free.”

Then I told my story, key by key, but saved Key 27 for last. With a flourish, I pulled off the scarf covering the shadow box saying, “Key 27 is dancing in the dark. Instead of running in fear from mental illness, what if we danced with it? Schizophrenia can be dark. I don’t deny that. Untreated, it can be as disabling and fatal as cancer. One size does not fit all when it comes to making us better. But we do get better.”

Recently, I had the privilege of being interviewed by University of Iowa dance professor Eloy Barragan. He hopes that hearing my story will inspire him to choreograph a ballet about schizophrenia, set to Schubert’s unfinished symphony. Like that music, my story isn’t finished, but I am certain that I will be resilient.

I accept that I cannot solve all problems caused by serious mental illness. Flares of symptoms are sure to come. But I expect a better future in a realistic way. If I can keep using my 27 keys to wellness, I won’t lose the progress I’ve made. As year follows year, I hope to uncover more keys, until the day I meet the Giver of All Keys and so unlock the very last door to freedom. With God and all of you as my dance partners, I hope to persevere in a life of freedom.

Margalea Warner is a writer and speaker in Iowa. She wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: