From despair to hope: One woman's journey through mental illness
MUSKOGEE — After two years of hearing voices, Mary Hicks became convinced she needed to kill herself to save her children.
Sometimes failure can be a good thing.
In Hicks' case, failure meant that she finally got treatment for her mental illness.
Hicks says coping with mental illness is a "process," but it's not a process that has to have an unhappy ending.
Although she voluntarily gave up custody of her two children for four years, she eventually got them back and has gone on to experience the joys and challenges of motherhood, college and work.
Mental health and substance abuse services are notoriously underfunded in Oklahoma, with hundreds of people on waiting lists for treatment, but Hicks wants people to know that treatment can work.
"I probably had suffered from depression most of my life," said Hicks, 48, of Muskogee. "When I was around 30 years old, I suffered a traumatic brain injury. It was an electrocution and it made the depression a lot worse."
After the accident — around 1999 — Hicks said she started to hear voices.
"I suffered like that for two years and the voices eventually got bad enough that I became convinced I needed to kill myself to save my children," she said. "I attempted to commit suicide and was taken to a hospital and I ended up going into a psychiatric hospital for treatment."
"That was the beginning of getting the help that I needed," she said.
Concerned about the welfare of her children, Hicks agreed to have them placed in a kinship foster home. Her son was 4 years old at the time and about to enter kindergarten. Her daughter was 6 and about to enter second grade.
As is the case with many mental health patients, Hicks' treatment did not always go smoothly.
Hicks said she was initially diagnosed and given medicine for bipolar disorder, which she said was the wrong diagnosis and treatment.
"It made matters worse," she said. "There are a lot of complications when you first start getting treatment. There are some medicines that just don't work for some people."
Hicks said she was hospitalized twice from 2001 through 2004, the second time for a month due to medication complications.
Hicks said she wound up on life support at Sparks Regional Medical Center in Fort Smith, Ark., in 2003. That turned out to be a good thing, because they took her off all her medicines and started over with a minimalist view toward prescribing.
Hicks, who was diagnosed with major depressive disorder with psychotic features, said the minimalist approach has worked for her.
Four years after attempting suicide, Hicks said she gained enough control over her mental illness to warrant the return of her children.
Hicks said she ran into some initial resistance from a Department of Human Services worker who told her it was going to be very difficult to regain custody since she had voluntarily given up custody earlier.
The situation changed dramatically when Hicks' daughter was diagnosed with cancer.
"It scared everyone and I immediately got my children back," she said.
Hicks said she believes she is fortunate her custody issues happened several years ago, because now days DHS tries to move much quicker to terminate parental rights and put a child up for adoption.
Hicks said she thinks DHS should revisit that policy, because it sometimes takes time to come up with the right treatment for mental illness, but the right treatment can be effective and restore the ability of a person to be a good parent.
"Maybe this is a chance for my voice to be heard," Hicks said. "I know if I would have gotten my parental rights terminated I would have lost a lot of hope ... To be honest, I think there's a stigma against mental illness as far as the Department of Human Services is concerned ... If someone has cancer, they will try to support the family to stay together, but when it comes to mental illness, they are more prone to terminate rights."
Ed Lake, director of the Department of Human Services strongly rejected the idea that DHS workers have a stigma against mental illness. He said his agency tries to be flexible in dealing with parents who maintain an interest in their children and are actively engaged in attempting to complete an agreed upon treatment plan.
The decision to terminate parental rights is often difficult, he said.
For a person recovering from mental illness, obtaining work is not always easy.
Hicks said she received Social Security Supplemental Security Income from 2001 to 1010, but ran into difficulty in 2006 when she tried to get a job to support her children.
"I went to the Department of Rehabilitative Services and they tested me and they said I had the equivalent of an eighth grade education and that I no longer had the ability to learn," she said.
Hicks said that could have been devastating, but she refused to let it stop her and she began volunteering as a parent leader of a family support group for Muskogee County Systems of Care. That eventually led to a job as a family support provider.
Hicks said she received her associate degree, with honors, from Connors State College in 2015 and is on track to obtain a bachelor's degree in psychology this summer.
She said her daughter, Abby, died from cancer on Christmas Eve, 2009, at age 16, but she will always be grateful for the time they got to spend together and everything the people of Muskogee did to make the last months of her life memorable.
Among other things, townspeople arranged for a date with singer Colton Swon, a 16th birthday gala and trip to California so Abby could see the ocean and experience Disneyland and Sea World, Hicks said.