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Living with mental illness: Woman once sidelined by schizophrenia finds her place

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 22, 2010 - When Sharon Lyons announced her engagement to her coworkers at the IRS office in St. Louis in 1995, she didn't get the usual congratulations. The reaction was shock. Lyons was fired. Then she was arrested for disrupting a federal office and violating a restraining order.

The harsh consequences came as the result of another detail: The engagement was also a surprise to her intended groom.

For months, Lyons had a crush on an officemate. She wrote him sexually explicit notes and believed he was sending her the same -- in code. Her letters and phone calls prompted him to file the restraining order. Only later, after seeing a psychiatrist and started on medication, did she understand that the relationship was a schizophrenic delusion.

"A few months after taking medication, the delusions stopped," Lyons said.

TEEN CRUSHES FORESHADOW FUTURE

Soft-spoken and shy, Lyons, 51, mostly kept to herself while growing up and attending St. Louis Catholic schools. Her parents divorced when she was 12. As a teenager, she mooned over pictures of famous people. But her celebrity crushes were different than those of typical teenagers.

"I actually believed that those relationships were real," Lyons remembered. "There was a lot going on in my head that I never felt I could say to anyone."

She did have at least one actual relationship at 15, which produced her son Reggie, now 35. She and her boyfriend broke up before Reggie was born, but the father paid child support for a few years.

Living with her own mother and brother, the teen mom and her family raised Reggie as she finished high school. While earning a business degree at Fontbonne University, she coordinated her schedule with her son's school hours.

MOLESTATION FLASHBACKS PROMPT FIRST DIAGNOSIS

After college, Lyons landed the first of several jobs with the IRS in administrative and management positions in the collection call center. For the next decade, her career thrived. But in the early 1990s, she began having shocking nightmares and flashbacks: images of a man sexually molesting her, of which she'd had no prior memory.

When a counselor diagnosed Lyons with post-traumatic stress disorder, things got worse, not better. Fearing that her therapist was telling her officemates about their sessions, she never felt free to open up. At work, Lyons spent hours writing in a notebook, "decoding" messages, which made it hard to focus on her job. She frequently called in sick.

After she was fired, she didn't even return to collect the personal items that bore witness to her 11-year career. The charges against her resulted in probation and mandatory psychiatric evaluation. Immediately, her psychiatrist diagnosed her with schizophrenia.

Following the debacle, her family was helpful but confused. While her mother didn't fully understand her illness, she provided food and a place to live. Her father and grandmother paid for her psychiatrist appointments and medications. Family was her sole support.

"I never had any close friends," Lyons said. "I would like to be in a relationship, but the sexual abuse stands in the way of that; it's hard for me to trust anyone."

ROAD BACK HAUNTED BY GUILT

Without a job, Lyons could no longer afford her son's college tuition. He left school to go to work, something Lyons greatly regrets. "I feel so guilty when I look back at the mess I made."

When she was 40, her mother and brother died within a year of each other, and she was on her own in the family home.

Unable to find a job, Lyons got by with only disability payments for several years. In 1999, she discovered an organization that would change her life: the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which offers support groups, education and advocacy. She began volunteering with the St. Louis chapter, teaching a course for medical providers and working at a hospital information desk.

Four years later, the alliance hired her to work on urban outreach. In 2006, she was promoted to supervisor of urban affairs, and promoted again in 2007 to director of volunteers. That Lyons is now holding down a full-time job while managing schizophrenia is a testament to the support she received from her loved ones, according to Dr. Miggie Greenberg, a psychiatrist with Saint Louis University Hospital.

"If you are well-loved and well-tended to, you're much more likely to do well than people who have very fragmented families and very little support," Greenberg said.

NO EXCUSES, JUST REGRETS

NAMI executive director Jackie Lukitsch, who's known Lyons now for 10 years, calls her "one of my most reliable employees."

"If I ask her for something, she gets right back to me on it," Lukitsch said. "In my line of work -- I work with a lot of case managers -- that's not their strength. With Sharon, that is a strength, and that's something that's very valuable to me as a supervisor."

Lyons' responsibilities include managing volunteers, supervising the help line and facilitating a support group. In her work, she has frequent opportunities to share the story of her mental illness and its management. According to Lukitsch, Lyons' communication with others and with Lukitsch is excellent.

"She's learned those skills through her treatment, Lukitsch said. "In many ways, it's because of her illness and treatment that she's learned how to be a great worker, in terms of communicating and taking care of herself when she has down periods."

Still in therapy, Lyons is working on her continued nightmares and flashbacks. Her therapist tries to help her comprehend that she had no control over her thoughts and actions at the IRS office. Afraid they won't understand, Lyons hasn't reached out to make amends with her former coworkers. They're always on her mind, though, and she would like them to realize she takes full responsibility for her actions.

"I want people to know that I regret all the problems I caused at the IRS, and for the man involved in my delusion and the harm to his family," Lyons said. "I don't want people to think that I am using mental illness as an excuse."

Nancy Fowler Larson, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently on health-related issues.

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