‘Where you are today doesn’t have to be where you are tomorrow’
After 23 years of cycling in and out of hospitals, Kimberly Comer has learned to manage her “special brain.” Now she’s instilling hope in others that they can too.
Listen to Kimberly’s Story
Kimberly Comer likes to joke that she’s always been an overachiever. She’s not just talking about her academic excellence in high school, raising four children while working two jobs, or her previous position as the executive director of an agency that served 1.7 million people. Rather, she’s referring – with a characteristic dark humor – to her off-the-charts ACES (adverse childhood experiences) score, the 13 arrests she accumulated in less than a year, the multiple times she tried to take her own life and the 23 years she cycled in and out of psychiatric hospitals.
“I never did anything halfway,” Comer, who speaks with the deliberate diction of someone who’s learned that words can have extreme consequences. “I spent more of my life in the hospital than out.”
Raised in a military family whose transience insured she “never went to the same school two semesters in a row,” Comer was a whip-smart, defiant teen who left home at 16 to marry a man 12 years her senior. While her family may have looked typical on the outside – “We had food, a roof overhead, clothes to wear and both parents at home” – her father suffered from PTSD and her mother alternated between depression and mania, though both went undiagnosed and untreated.
“Ultimately, I can look back and say those were mental health issues that went unaddressed, but the challenge is that when you don’t know that’s what they are, they become learned behavioral patterns that you carry on through your own life as well,” Comer says. “I left home at 16 thinking I was leaving all the trauma, abandonment, rejection and unhappiness behind me. In actuality, all I did was bundle it up like a bunch of bricks and put them in backpack I proceeded to carry with me for years.”
Comer moved with her first husband from Texas to Chicago, where she worked full-time as a legal secretary for a prestigious downtown Chicago law firm. Though the marriage was “unhealthy,” she became close to her husband’s mother, who taught her the homemaking skills her own mother had been unable to provide and gave her unconditional love, becoming something of an adopted parent.
Eight years into the marriage, her mother-in-law was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that would take her life within 90 days. Comer, serving as caregiver, took her dying wish to heart – that Comer have a child with her son – and became pregnant three weeks before her death. Eight months later, her daughter was born and Comer began to “lose time” and “feel like I was losing my mind.” She had no idea what she was experiencing were flashbacks to “things that had been buried so deep in the recesses of my mind, I didn’t know what they were.”
All she knew of mental health at the time was what she’d seen in the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (set in an abusive psychiatric facility) and it was enough to insure she told no one of her symptoms. But six weeks after her daughter was born, what she calls “a perfect storm” — the weight of her childhood trauma, the unhappiness of her marriage and the loss of her “adopted” mother –precipitated her first suicide attempt. Hospitalized and diagnosed with post-partum depression, she was sent to a locked psychiatric unit for a five-month involuntary stay and treated with drugs, but little else.
Back then, Comer says, the medical world didn’t yet understand the importance of identifying trauma and its relation to developing symptoms of a mental illness. There was no effort to look at root causes, only to medicate symptoms; the goal was always to eliminate her suicidal ideation, not address where it came from..
“Nowhere in there did anyone explain to me, ‘Oh well, this is a difficult time of year when your birthday comes around and because your Mom spent your entire upbringing saying you were not wanted, that you should never have been born and she wished you hadn’t, that every time your birthday came around you might not want to be there,” she says. “No one looked at healing that pain, healing my self worth or recognizing that these were my Mom’s issues translated on to me.”
Over the next two decades, there would be many more hospitalizations, diagnoses, therapists and medications. Comer divorced and married a second time, to a man with two children of his own. After her second daughter arrived prematurely in 1995, she was raising four children, eating and sleeping minimally, working two jobs to put her husband through school to earn his teaching degree, and “trying to live a life I was completely ill equipped for.”
She managed to keep up the pace for about a year and a half before her illness erupted as full blown mania with psychotic delusions. Completely out of touch with reality and totally unconscious of the consequences, she embezzled $60,000 from her employer and bought a home she neither needed nor could afford to make payments on and was almost immediately arrested.
She served 90 days in jail – unmedicated, unseen by a psychiatrist and “not involved in anything that would help me become more knowledgeable” about how to manage her symptoms.
When she called her husband to pick her up after her release, he said he wanted a divorce and was involved with someone else. There followed an escalating confrontation that ultimately led him to file a domestic battery charge and take out a restraining order against her. Brought to court again, without legal representation, adequate insight or any mental stability, she made an admission against her own best interest and was rearrested.
Over the next 11 months she would be arrested 13 more times for violating the order of protection by contacting her husband. Each time, her psychiatric medications were discontinued, though medications for diabetes and high blood pressure were continued. Neither was she given any counseling or guidance on her legal situation. When her case went to trial, the state’s attorney offered her a plea bargain to turn the 13 misdemeanors into a single felony charge. Comer, who didn’t know the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony or realize one meant jail and the other prison, agreed. She was also unaware that a felony conviction would forever hamper her from obtaining housing and employment.
After serving 7 months of a three-year prison sentence, she was released on October 29, 2004 to a homeless shelter, where she met with her parole officer — “the first person in my life who ever supported me in a capacity beyond what her job responsibility was.”
“I remember she asked me to share how I ended up in prison,” Comer recalls. “I told her what happened and she said, ‘I’m sorry that happened to you. You didn’t need to go there the first time and you’re not going back.’ She was the first one who let me know I was going to be OK.”
Over the next eight years Comer would continue to cycle in and out of hospitals, losing jobs, relationships and housing as fast as she found them. Often she was homeless, living in her car and contemplating a way to end her pain. In 2012, she was hospitalized yet again and, after a long string of misdiagnoses – post-partem depression, multiple personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder – finally given one (rapid cycling bipolar with psychotic features) she felt was accurate. Still, when she was released – without a discharge plan or any home to go to – her intention was to fill the five prescriptions she’d been given and use them simultaneously to end her life.
As a condition of her release, however, she was required to attend a presentation by two members of the local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter – one, a young woman with a diagnosis similar to Comer’s who was living in recovery and successfully juggling school, marriage and raising children; the other, a family member who had supported someone with a diagnosis.
“It was the first time in my entire life, at the age of 48, I had the opportunity to consider that my illness and symptoms did not just impact me, they impacted every relationship I touched, which gave me a very different perspective,” Comer says. “And also, for the very first time, I had hope that I could actually learn what I needed to know to manage a chronic health issue that impacts the most important organ I have, my brain.”
She has not been hospitalized since. Initially, the director of the NAMI chapter which had given the presentation offered her a low-stress job entering information into a new data base. Six months later, that same director convinced a wary Comer to become a certified peer recovery specialist and train as a group facilitator. It was the first step in a journey that led to her becoming not only a NAMI board member, but the executive director for NAMI Greater Indianapolis, where she oversaw eight counties and 1.7 million consumers.
In the spring of 2018, Comer and her fiancé moved to Florida, where she assumed her current position as program manager for NAMI Palm Beach County, and became a member of the NAMI Florida Peer Leadership Council. She becomes emotional talking about what the ability to advocate means to her.
“I provides me with the knowledge that those 23 years in which I contaminated every relationship I touched and created all the collateral damage I did, weren’t for nothing,” she says. “That I can utilize those experiences to provide hope to others that where they are today isn’t where they have to be tomorrow. By each of us using our experiences and giving them a voice, we make a difference in a system that didn’t know what it didn’t know — but now it will.”
There are a few things, she acknowledges, she will never be able to regain. The most painful of these is her relationship with her daughters, who remain estranged.
“The assumption is that our family is always going to be there,” she says. “But there’s going to come a point where ‘I’m sorry’ is just not going to be enough. There is only so much trauma I could expect to expose my children to and that they would be willing to continue to forgive. It is in part the reason I work so hard to preventatively and proactively manage my chronic health issues now. I don’t ever want to be in a space where I’m unhealthy and I hurt someone again.”
Today, she is encouraged that “we are becoming a more self-aware society” and our healthcare systems are beginning to recognize the important of trauma, both in an individual’s history and within our healthcare system.
“We are changing the definition of what people think trauma is – not just something our vets come back with or someone who experiences gun violence – but that it takes a lot of different avenues and can be a lot of different things,” she says. “And we’re becoming aware of how our systems, which are designed to help people, sometimes create their own set of traumas. We have a more person-centered approach.”
That’s her goal. One person at a time, to reignite a hope that has nearly been extinguished. After all that is what saved her.
“Hope that I could live a life each day that far exceeds any delusion I ever had.” Then — ever the overachiever — she adds with a chuckle, “And I had some really good ones.”