Melissa Henry* was living in Charlotte, NC, when she hit “rock bottom.” By the spring of 2016, she was stuck in a state of perpetual misery and “self-medicating” with large quantities of alcohol. Relationships with friends and family were strained at best.

On her better days, she would disappear into an empty closet and just cry. On her darker days, she would think she shouldn’t be left alone, out of fear that she might harm herself or even end her life.

“I had been diagnosed with ADHD as a child, and I always had some degree of anxiety, but by the time I was 20, things were starting to go downhill,” Henry says. “Later on I was diagnosed with treatment-resistant depression, and I didn’t know why the medication I was on wasn’t working. My situation was just getting worse.”

Henry had sought professional help in the form of a brief stay at a highly regarded inpatient treatment facility in Ohio, though she left without any resolution to her problems. After that, her misery deepened.

“I had given up,” she says. “I never felt good, and I never thought I would feel good again. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t have any hope that getting the help I needed would actually improve my situation.”

She arrived at another recommended inpatient treatment facility—The Retreat by Sheppard Pratt, in Baltimore, Md.—on July 11, 2016. At The Retreat, she came into the care of well-trained physicians, nurses and other professionals devoted to understanding her illness and equipping her with the tools to cope with it. Her team included Miles Quaytman, MD, associate medical director for The Retreat, and medical director for Ruxton House. Dr. Quaytman spent ample time listening to Henry, learning about her history and understanding her symptoms. Only then did he venture a diagnosis: bipolar disorder.    

“Melissa was in pretty bad shape when she came to us,” Dr. Quaytman recalls. “Her mood was labile—all over the place. She was feeling hopeless and had suicidal thoughts, and she was not at all certain she wanted to be here. We saw in her a very articulate, decent and nice human being who was hurting a great deal. This was a person who we had a lot of hope for, even though she didn’t have any for herself. We knew it would be a challenge with her.”

‘Incredibly Powerful’

Henry found comfort in the fact that she wasn’t the only one at The Retreat who was struggling. She met other residents from all walks of life, there to seek treatment for a wide range of disorders: emerging adults struggling to make the transition to adulthood; professionals dealing with substance use problems and other stressors; and adults coping with marital problems and other significant issues that can influence an individual’s mental health.

The Retreat’s medical team placed Henry on a co-occurring disorders track to treat not only her bipolar disorder but also her struggles with alcohol. While she realized she needed to address her relationship with alcohol, it took her a while to come to grips with the idea of having bipolar disorder.

“There’s a lot of stigma attached to bipolar disorder, even though it’s eminently treatable,” Dr. Quaytman says. “For Melissa, her diagnosis was another blow to her self-esteem. That’s where the importance of psychotherapy comes in. She gradually got better and understood this diagnosis wasn’t necessarily something that was going to hold her back.”

Henry says she found it easy to place her trust in Dr. Quaytman, as well as in other members of the medical staff—including Nancy Bowling, RN, a longtime nurse at The Retreat.

“Residents stay a minimum of 20 days, so we get to know them well and make a strong connection with them,” says Bowling, who is board certified in psychiatric nursing. “Our nurses are on the unit 24/7, so we spend a lot of time talking with residents, understanding their struggles. When Melissa first came here, she thought her life was over. She had her difficulties along the way, but in the end she did quite well.”

With the proper medication having regulated her mental state and her self-esteem improving, Henry continued to progress until she and her team agreed she was ready for the next step in her recovery: moving into Ruxton House, a transitional living space located in a neighborhood close to the Sheppard Pratt campus. Living at Ruxton House with other residents helped her become more independent and become actively engaged in the community, according to Lane Hicks, Ruxton House’s program manager.

“I’ve seen people’s lives changed by the interactions they have had at Ruxton House,” says Hicks. “Melissa was fascinated that other people struggled with the same kinds of issues she struggled with. She didn’t like the side effects of her medication—weight gain and acne—but she found it helpful hearing about how other residents dealt with it. When you have a peer sitting next to you, telling you about their experiences, that tends be incredibly powerful.”

While at Ruxton House, Henry pursued new interests and reconnected with old ones, such as running and other modes of physical fitness. Even the simple freedoms of going to the grocery store and preparing meals for her fellow Ruxton House residents proved therapeutic.

 “The people who come here are at a crossroads,” Hicks says. “We’re here to help them get past some of the things that maybe used to overwhelm them, and to help them achieve these very clear indicators of growth and progress. Maybe it’s going back to school or getting a driver’s license or getting a job or simply developing a sense of leisure. We’re also here to provide encouragement, to tell them, ‘Yes, you can do this,’ and to help them visualize their ideal self and what they want that person to look like.”

Weathering the Storm

On Dec. 1, 2016, five months after she entered The Retreat by Sheppard Pratt, Melissa Henry left Ruxton House and returned home, eager to re-engage with the world around her.

“There were a lot of ups and downs in the course of Melissa’s treatment here,” he says. “The nice thing about The Retreat is that the medical staff gets to stay with them through those ups and downs. Sometimes it’s the patients with the stormiest times here that do the best once they leave here.”

And, by all accounts, Henry, now 28, seems to be doing well. She’s living in Washington, DC, working in a good job in the financial services sector. She’s living independently, with a dog to keep her company. Her relationships with her family have improved. And she maintains an active lifestyle—running, hiking, exploring her new city.

“I’d be lying if I said everything is perfect and I’m busting with happiness all the time, but I feel better,” she says. “I never knew how miserable and agitated and grumpy I was until I felt well, when I started taking the right medication. Now I know how to relax. I don’t have to self-medicate with alcohol. I have a really good job and my mind is challenged every day. And I’m starting to build a good group of friends.”

And, every few months, she returns to The Retreat to check in with Dr. Quaytman.

“If you told me two years ago that I’d be functional or happy—or even alive—in 2018, I would have said, ‘not a chance,’” she adds. “I never thought I’d be any of those things. If I hadn’t gone to Sheppard Pratt, I wouldn’t be functioning today, and I wouldn’t have the life I have now. The only other thing I can say is I wish I had gone sooner.”