“Stars can’t shine without darkness.”
A 32-year-old Fairfax County resident, Zoey*, experienced a dark journey through mental health challenges and unemployment for many years, but she is now “shining” as she spends her days working with a team of medical professionals who collect and analyze specimens to help guide paths to treatment. Zoey’s job requires specialized training in biology, strong attention to details and a steady hand, and she couldn’t be happier or more grateful.
Interested in science and lab work since childhood, she is overjoyed that she’s working in her dream job that she plans to continue for the rest of her career.
“Helping people to understand their medical prognosis and next steps in their journey to healthy, successful outcomes is an awesome place to be, but without the CSB’s help and support, this chapter in my journey never would have happened,” according to Zoey.
To raise awareness during May as Mental Health Awareness Month, Zoey shares her personal experiences to highlight the importance of education, supportive employment and reaching out for help.
At age 11, Zoey felt she did not want to live. Throughout her adolescence, she was consumed by dark and negative thoughts. This was her “every day” and she recalls now that she never knew there was any other way of thinking. In college, she experienced mental health challenges, hospitalizations and sought help from a therapist. For a while, Zoey coped. She married, worked a professional job, gave birth to a child and lived in a beautiful home.
To many, it may have seemed Zoey lived an idyllic life, but her depression and illness continued. Her depression worsened and became a growing battle, one she took seriously after divorcing and losing her job. She knew her daughter needed her. At age 28, she felt she was spiraling out of control. Through a friend who had experienced substance use challenges, she learned about the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board’s (CSB) mental health support. Alone, with nowhere to turn, and experiencing suicidal thoughts that wouldn't subside, Zoey drove to CSB's Merrifield 24-hour Emergency Crisis Response Center late one night where she shared her symptoms with clinicians.
“It was the best move I’ve ever made,” she recalls. “After my assessment, the therapist told me that the CSB’s Crisis Care program had an opening and it would be the best place for me. She recognized my mental state was an emergency.”
For two weeks, Zoey recalls her learning and astonishment at her life’s initial transformation that began to spring forth.
“I never knew that there were other feelings aside from sadness and hate. The counselors opened my eyes to the positivity in life. I learned, most importantly, that my mental state was an illness - one that I had to take seriously and learn how to manage myself.”
After the two week stay, Zoey was a candidate for CSB’s Adult Partial Hospitalization program. Between 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. each day, Zoey embarked on a mental health education period. She learned coping skills, participated in individual counseling, and attended group classes involving art, nutrition, exercise, and a job club. She was prescribed medication and psychiatric treatment, and learned about the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance, a support group that made a difference for her.
“CSB staff were outstanding, they managed our groups with compassion and sensitivity, but with firmness and holding each of us accountable for creating goals and step-by-step plans. I met some supportive individuals who, like me, were just starting to get serious about recovery. I didn’t feel so alone anymore.”
Zoey experienced a relapse after graduating from the eight-week program and returned to Crisis Care briefly. While there, Zoey was introduced to a CSB case manager who offered the support she needed. “We just clicked,” Zoey recalled.
Over the next few months, Zoey’s strength and confidence began to surface and the counselor addressed the possibility of looking for work. Though she did not feel ready, Zoey knew it was the right thing to do and, logically, she wanted to support her child, so she agreed. Zoey was connected with CSB Supportive Employment services staff member Lauren Unger, CSAC, Employment Specialist. After the initial meeting, Zoey couldn’t have been more excited.
“Lauren was confident when I wasn’t. She dusted me off and helped me with my resume, and was positive that a good position would come through for me. We met weekly; she gave me homework to apply for jobs in between, counseled me on interview questions to be prepared for, suggested how to approach people and how to follow up. She helped me climb higher than I ever dreamed I would, urging me to apply for jobs at prestigious companies and agencies. Best of all, Lauren was available. She followed up with me and held me accountable in a way I never experienced with others in my life, and, in the end, she was right about everything.”
Zoey stresses that her journey is not over and she will continue to pay close attention to her mental and physical health for the rest of her life.
“People typically do not understand that mental health is a thing, something that each one of us must take seriously. I wish I’d taken steps earlier to address it and I’m sad that I had to get so low before I finally acted,” she said.
"I’m a middle-class girl with a diagnosis of bipolar II, chronic depression and anxiety. I was born with it and it was not my fault. I will always stay on top of this disease and through the tools I learned through CSB programs and support groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Northern Virginia (NAMI), I know that I can manage this. None of this has been easy, I did the work, nothing was handed to me. But because of people who cared and who believed in me such as Lauren and so many other CSB staff, I’m able to work in a career I love, fully enjoy my daughter, music, art, nature and taking walks with my dogs. I’m excited to see what the future brings."
"I urge everyone to invest in the time to learn about mental health and not to wait to seek help if you, or your loved one’s need it.”
Learn more about CSB emergency services, walk-in mental health assessments, or take a brief, online, confidential mental health screening to determine if you or someone you care about should connect with a professional. CSB Emergency Services at the Merrifield Center are available 24/7 at 703-573-5679.
*Zoey is a pseudonym; name is withheld to protect client confidentiality.
Contact for news media inquiries: Lucy Caldwell, Communications Director, 703-324-7006 (office), 703-856-5210 (cell).