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Mental-health advocate is also a symbol of recovery

For most of her life, Keris Myrick has struggled with mental illness. Now board president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, she's pushing for better access to care.

July 30, 2012|By Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times
  • Keris Myrick talks with award recipient Rick Summerville at the 20th annual Project Return Peer Support Network's annual picnic in Long Beach.
Keris Myrick talks with award recipient Rick Summerville at the 20th annual… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

For much of her life, Keris Myrick has tried to silence the voices that filled her head with suicidal thoughts and repeatedly sent her to a psychiatric hospital.

But now, Myrick, 51, who has schizo-affective disorder, is embracing one voice that has grown loud and clear — her own. And as she becomes a symbol of recovery and strength in the face of mental illness, others are listening to what she has to say.

Members of the nation's largest mental health advocacy organization, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, recently elected her their board president, giving the Pasadena resident a critical role in pushing for education, policy changes and better access to mental health care. The position is on top of her full-time job as chief executive of a nonprofit that provides peer support to thousands with mental illness in Los Angeles County.

PHOTOS: From patient to advocate

On a recent Saturday morning, Myrick stood confidently before several dozen people in South Los Angeles for a discussion about mental health disparities.

She showed a photograph of a grocery store aisle lined with cereal boxes and told a story of what happened one day in her mid-20s. She was trying to decide which cereal to buy and the voices were telling her they were poisonous and would kill her. She kept pulling out different boxes, hoping the voices would say one was safe. They just got more insistent.

Then she heard a loudspeaker: "Pick up on aisle 7." Unknowingly, she had torn the shelves apart and boxes surrounded her feet. She ran out of the store.

She felt frightened and ashamed. She had even been keeping the voices a secret from her family. "You don't air your dirty laundry," she told the audience. "You keep stuff at home. My home was actually in my head."

After the cereal incident, she told her parents. Her mother advised her to argue with the voices. Her father suggested telling them to shut up.

Years later, Myrick, an articulate African American who dresses in stylish, loose-fitting clothes and has piercings all the way up one ear, speaks openly about living with mental illness. She recounts being locked in an ER psychiatric room without a bathroom or a window, being handcuffed and taken to a hospital in the back of a police car.

"I don't know any other disease where somebody comes to your door, puts you in handcuffs and puts you in the back of a police car because you are not feeling well," she told the group. "That's how many people of color are actually receiving services, if you want to call that services."

Myrick says she uses her personal story to show people that recovery is real and accessible. She frequently speaks at conferences about stigma and discrimination, has testified before state and national lawmakers and is an advisor to the American Psychiatric Assn.

At the same time, she is still coping with her own illness, which can cause delusions and depression. Myrick's life is a delicate balance as she tries to keep the voices at bay. Though she hasn't been hospitalized in several years, she regularly consults with a psychiatrist and often hides in a walk-in closet or a bathroom to quiet her mind.

If she starts to cry over what others might see as ordinary life stressors, her psychiatric service dog, a rat terrier named Steinbeck, knows to curl up alongside. "He has this endearing look," she said. "All I have to do is just pick him up and pet him. It's a nice distraction."

If she starts hearing the voices, she counts repetitively to 10 or she calls her psychiatrist, Timothy Pylko. Her mother died a few years ago, but she still relies on her father, now a professor at Temple University, for support.

Sometimes, she retreats to a nearby hotel for what she calls a weekend of "luxury" that she said gives her peace. Because of the side effects, Myrick takes medication only as needed.

Despite her gregarious and ebullient nature, Myrick — who is single and lives alone — largely keeps to herself. She says she spends so much time around people during the week that she likes solitary time on weekends. She is an avid reader and often will bike near her apartment.

Even though Myrick likes being alone, she says it is when her "mind gets a little too empty" that the voices are most likely to come.

Myrick, the daughter of an Army colonel, moved often with her brother and parents, living in West Germany, South Korea, New Jersey and Kansas. As a young girl, she remembers fearing gigantic spiders crawling under her bed or her dolls coming to life and strangling her.

Her parents saw that as "imagination," she said. "For me it was real."

Myrick's parents had high expectations. Myrick excelled in school and attended college at Wellesley.

"I had a really hard time there," she said. "But we had a very academic family, so it would have been really hard to say, 'I hate it here and I want to come home.'"

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