Thanks to tabloid and reality TV, we know that people are sometimes prone to self-destruction. Watching it can be morbidly entertaining, but more intriguing than the train wreck is the rare story of one who manages to pull himself out of his pitiful existence — the drug abusing, jailbird celebrity who finds lasting sobriety and subsequent success or “Biggest Losers” who shed hundreds of life-threatening pounds. These are the stories that move us, and you don’t need to turn on the TV to see them. These true tales of redemption are being lived, and touching lives, right here in our neighborhood.
Read and watch their stories below.
As she teetered on the edge of a cliff, Julie Hersh contemplated what might happen if she jumped. She didn’t think about leaving her children motherless or her husband a widower.
“I thought, well, if I jump, I might hit that other rock and survive. Then I’ll just be paralyzed and depressed. That’s how distorted I was.”
Today, most people know Hersh as the Dallas Children’s Theater board president. But for years, she battled severe depression, attempting suicide three times before seeking serious help. She wrote about her experience in the book “Struck By Living”, and she speaks at venues across the country to raise awareness about mental illness. She’s also an active supporter of the suicide and crisis center CONTACT.
Hersh’s story doesn’t begin with a troubled childhood or traumatic event that led to her mental illness. She had a normal life, a loving husband, two beautiful children and no logical reason to abandon it all.
“I think I was depressed long before I knew it,” she says. “I just felt more disconnected from the world. It’s like being inside a glass tube. You can see everything going on outside, but you can’t participate in it. I had a mental deficiency. I was convinced I would never get better.”
That’s what drove Hersh to suicide.
First, she stood outside her home with a knife to her wrist, but her husband found her in time. She checked into rehab, but relapsed and nearly jumped off a cliff during a family hiking vacation. Lastly, Hersh closed the garage door and locked herself in the car with the engine running for 90 minutes. She thought, for sure, that would work.
But the garage was well ventilated, so she survived.
Hersh sought treatment again — this time undergoing electroconvulsive therapy, also known as ECT. Through the procedure, doctors attach probes to the head and send a small pulse of electricity through the body — basically resetting the brain.
The Food and Drug Administration is currently debating the use of ECT, but Hersh says the controversial treatment saved her life.
“When people think of ECT, they think of ‘[One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest’. Unfortunately, it was abused during the ’40s and ’50s. But today, it has an 80 percent success rate.”
Hersh says it’s like a triple bypass for the brain. Although results differ from person to person, she remembers exactly how she felt after her first treatment.
“My experience was instantaneous,” Hersh says. “I can remember … looking at my journal and thinking, ‘Who is this person?’ Something completely changed my brain.”
Hersh believes that people have chemical predispositions for depression just like those with heart disease, diabetes or cancer.
“Every thought and every feeling we have creates an electric and chemical reaction in the body. We are the environment.”
Part of her mission is to help eliminate the stigma attached to mental illness so people won’t feel afraid or embarrassed to seek help.
“You can’t measure it,” she says. “If you break a leg, the doctor takes an X-ray, and you can see it. With mental illness, there’s really nothing to show in a tangible way.”
To maintain her current mental health, Hersh follows a consistent structure that includes what she calls her “top six”. She takes her daily anti-depressant medication; gets plenty of sleep, nutrition and exercise; listens to family and friends; plans ahead for times of emotional stress; excites her brain with new activities such as attending an art exhibit; and finally, she surrounds herself with friends who have different perspectives on life — older people who are living proof that life gets better.
“Don’t underestimate the power of reaching out to each other. Saying a kind word to someone, physically being there for someone — I believe that can save a life.”
There is an old brick two-story abode in a residential White Rock neighborhood where women go to heal. It’s called The Magdalen House, and those who end up there are alcoholics who have, in most cases, lost their families, jobs, homes and dignity. By the time they meet Michele Derrington, who runs the place, they are often dirty, sick and broken, yet she welcomes each new arrival with marked compassion. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that she was in the same dismal spot as them.
At 43 years old, Derrington has a commanding yet gentle presence — residents and workers at The Magdalene House listen to her intently when she speaks. It comes as some surprise, then, when the well-spoken, smartly dressed director shares that she has spent more than a few of her days in jails, treatment centers and psyche wards.
She grew up in the White Rock area in a sporadically violent home where she remembers having her first alcoholic drink at age 5.
Throughout her youth, drinking and dabbling in drugs was normal. When she was in her late 20s, Derrington tried cocaine. From that point on, she says, she just couldn’t get her head straight.
“Once I [tried cocaine], it was all I ever thought about.”
Until then, she had been working toward a promotion at her job, but hooked on drugs, she could no longer function.
“I left the job, spent all my savings and things got really bad,” she says.
The addiction landed her in perilous places, including the scene of a murder.
“I witnessed someone getting shot over $20 worth of drugs,” she says. She was subpoenaed to testify against the gunman and showed up in court wrecked after a night of cocaine use.
“Fortunately, I was never called to testify,” she says.
Seems like that would be rock bottom, she says, “but I had many bottoms … I would tell myself, ‘I am never doing this again,’ but by the next night, I was doing it again. I couldn’t hold any type of job — call centers, restaurants, the simplest of tasks — I just couldn’t work.”
In 1999, she entered rehab for the first time, but there was “still a lot of denial going on,” she says.
The rehabilitation center population included burglars and homeless people, she says.
“I was not like them. I wasn’t willing to do what [the counselors] told me to do. I just didn’t get it.”
She soon relapsed, and things became worse, she says.
“I resorted to desperate acts. I did whatever I had to do to feed the disease — looking back, I should be dead today.”
Derrington experienced periods of sobriety; she even landed a job with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for some time, but she couldn’t hang on. She says she just wanted to be normal — have a drink now and then. She didn’t understand why she had to be different.
Finally, her family members intervened.
“My mom told me we were going to the Arboretum. I knew something was up.”
They were actually staging an intervention, after which they drove Derrington to the 24-Hour Club on Ross.
“I cussed at them the whole way, and when they dropped me off, I looked at the director and said, ‘I hate this place.’”
The 24-Hour Club, which provides transitional living for alcoholics and drug addicts, is located inside a dusty, well-worn hotel.
“It is the last house on the block,” Derrington says. “I was pretty disturbed to be there.”
Again, she looked around at her bedraggled new dorm mates. Only this time, rather than saying to herself, “I’m not like them,” she said, “I am like them; this is me.”
Once you make it to this point, you basically have to choose to change or die, Derrington says.
So she changed.
She worked for a while at the 24-Hour Club, in the kitchen.
“I sat there thinking about how my mom used to say, ‘Get an education so you don’t wind up flippin’ burgers,’ and there I was, in my late 30s, flipping burgers at the 24-Hour Club.”
But it was better than the alternative; she was sober.
Today she loves the dusty old 24-Hour Club, where she says she realized that the key to staying sober was helping others.
In 2007, she took a job at Magdalene House, where she is now executive director. When women come in feeling like trash, she helps them understand that they are worth saving. That they are not bad, but sick. And she is living proof, for them, that recovery is possible.
She says her job gives her the opportunity to stay connected to the recovery community and the 12-step recovery program on which the Magdalene program is based.
“I’m not actually doing service work here, because I get paid, but it gives me the unique opportunity to be among women who have been where I have been.”
And work with alcoholics is not always happy — a day earlier, Derrington received a call about a former Magdalene House resident who had relapsed and died.
It’s a reminder of the seriousness of alcoholism and addiction, she says.
“You can’t take this lightly. If I don’t stay connected, that could be me. With this disease you are either working at living or dying. I still have to work every day to maintain my serenity and sobriety.”
She had everyone snowed — her parents, teachers, school administrators all thought the private school honor student was a relatively good kid.
Sure, she’d been kicked out of the Hockaday School for swearing at a staffer, but that was typical teenage angst, no?
And, yeah, she had wrecked the car, but she was trying to avoid a dog that ran into the street — that’s what she told her dad anyway.
“Of course he believed me — he knew how I loved animals,” says Holly Hunter, who today runs a counseling service with an office in our neighborhood.
In truth, at age 16 Hunter was the school drug dealer. She asks that we don’t share the name of her private Dallas high school (the one she attended after the Hockaday incident) where she was such a good student that she graduated a year early.
Marijuana, alcohol, cocaine — she loved drugs, she says. She started selling them not to feed a habit as much as to nourish her ego.
“Ego is when you edge God out,” she says. She points to the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”, which sits on her desk. “That’s where I got that acronym — E-G-O, see? I like acronyms.”
Her boyfriend, who was older, cooked the drugs, and she sold them.
“I was trapped in the money game,” she says. “I could make $1,000 for 20 minutes of work.”
And while that sounded pretty cool to the young rebel in Hunter, she knew deep down that something was terribly wrong.
“I thought I had it good, but I was living in fear. Constant fear. I no longer had a relationship with my family.”
One day, after sleeping for several hours — “I didn’t sleep much back then,” she says — she woke up staring at a copy of the Bible that a family member had given her.
“It was covered in dust — that made me feel bad. Then I prayed. I said, ‘God, I wish I had my life back.’ Well, be careful what you wish for. Less than 72 hours later, I was sitting in jail.”
Police raided Hunter’s place and locked her up — that wasn’t her last time in jail, either. She couldn’t shake the addiction, and she ultimately revisited prison multiple times.
“Let’s just say — all told — about a third of my life was spent in prison.”
It was during that last stint that she committed to getting clean.
She could have taken drugs while behind bars. Her cellmates regularly did, she says, but instead she asked for help.
“I began requesting substance abuse counseling immediately when I got to prison [in the 1990s]. It took two years for me to get into classes — Life Skills and Drug Education.”
After her last release, she embarked on an education in chemical dependency treatment that included becoming certified as a licensed chemical dependency counselor, certified clinical supervisor and certified anger resolution specialist.
Now she runs A Court Class, which specializes in drug counseling and education, especially for those in legal trouble because of drug abuse.
Neighborhood attorney Sharon Diaz says she refers her drug-related offenders to Hunter. Diaz says Hunter’s personal experience makes her an effective counselor.
“I send my criminal drug clients to her for evaluation and to get them sober to face their cases,” Diaz says. “She is amazing, and open about her journey.”
Hunter’s office is filled with gifts and cards from clients she has helped (one is from a well-known newscaster who was a heroin user, she confides).
“This is not a zip code problem,” she says. “People from all walks of life are subject to [drug or alcohol abuse problems].”
For example, she mentions a high school student from a “good neighborhood” with whom she’s currently working. He and his friends were smoking marijuana in a garage in his gated community when an off-duty officer patroling the neighborhood arrested them. The youngster tried to run from the officer and, in the process, ran into him.
“Now the kid is looking at possession, assault and evading arrest charges. Those charges kept him from going to the college he had already been accepted to. Yes, what he did was very wrong, but he needs help. He needs someone to work on his behalf to make sure legal problems don’t prevent him from becoming a productive member of society.”
Hunter works closely with the courts to help people — some like this teenager, others with even deeper problems — successfully complete court-mandated probation and find sobriety. Each person is different and requires an individualized treatment plan, she says.
In addition to having a successful business that serves people from many Dallas neighborhoods, Hunter says her personal life is back on track and better than she could have ever imagined.
“I have a relationship with my mom. We talk every day. I have true friendships and intimate relationships.”
And maybe most importantly, she is at peace: Hunter says she doesn’t condemn herself today for what happened in the past.
Again, she reads from the literature on her desk: “Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake.”
An eating disorder is like a person. Like a deceitful, controlling, jealous, very bad best friend whose secret plan is suicide.
At least, that’s the way Abbie Chesney talks about her disease. Chesney, 34, grew up in Lake Highlands and lives in Lakewood. Now she is a counselor specializing in eating disorders.
“I strongly believe the connection I have with my clients maintains because I have spent a lot of time in their shoes,” she says.
She knows what it’s like to be afraid of pain and failure. And she knows what it’s like to be afraid of eating.
Her struggle started as a middle school misfit, where she learned at the lunch table that eating less and being thin was “better”, so she challenged herself to eat less than her lunch mates.
She always judged thin, boyish figures to be “better”.
In high school, she dated “the bad boy” just to fit in somewhere. And, as bad boys will, he took her virginity after much begging and then promptly dumped her.
She was devastated, full of guilt and self-loathing. So she tried drinking to numb the pain, but that didn’t catch on.
Soon, she found that if she didn’t eat, she thought about how hungry she was instead of how she felt about herself.
And by not eating, she got compliments for being enviably skinny.
“I was also doing what I learned at the lunch table every girl should want to do,” she says. “Every girl should want to lose weight. Smaller had to be better.”
Sometimes, she would eat enough so that people weren’t suspicious.
“Snuffers cheese fries were safe as long as it was a few bites,” she says.
That was at first, but the “rules” of her eating disorder kept changing.
By the time she was really sick — her senior year of high school — she sometimes would eat a bowl of rice with parmesan cheese for the day.
“I’d even go through the drive-through of Taco Bell to create some evidence to show my parents I had already eaten,” she says.
She was so thin, she had to wear two pairs of pants to keep warm.
At 5-foot-3, her weight dropped to 76 pounds in the matter of a year. By the time she started getting help for anorexia, her body was deteriorating so rapidly that all four of her heart valves were leaking.
“I was headed for a very slow suicide,” she says.
After that, her parents did not allow her to drive, go to school, ride horses or do any other activities. She was either with them, or she was in a treatment center.
She gained weight and was able to attend SMU (instead of Texas A&M as planned). She struggled with eating throughout college.
“What I didn’t know through my initial treatment, but soon discovered, was that what I wanted was to disappear,” she says. “For me, to be seen meant getting hurt. I never wanted to be hurt again.”
She realized she was afraid of men and of being attractive to them.
She lost much of her identity in the disease. It cut her off from friends and family and most of the joy in life.
But slowly, she started to realize that some men are OK, and one of them fell in love with her.
“I stumbled into a relationship with someone who I wanted to be with more than I wanted to be with the eating disorder,” she says. “You can’t have both. It’s impossible to be in an intimate relationship with an eating disorder and a boyfriend.”
So she spent much of this romantic relationship just observing — how to eat normally, how to interact with friends, how to enjoy sitting on the couch watching television on a Saturday afternoon.
“I had gotten tired enough and seen through most of its lies by then,” she says of anorexia. “All the hurt it claimed to keep me from really just kept me from life.”
Her whole self needed restoration. Like a jigsaw puzzle, she took pieces she liked for the picture of herself, and she left behind the ones she didn’t. She got back in the saddle, literally, and returned to things she liked before the eating disorder. That’s when she decided to get a master’s degree in counseling.
Eating disorders are tricky, she says. You can’t take your eyes off for too long, or “it’s gonna get ya”.
“So, I decided to make it my life’s work,” she says.
She knows what it’s like to lose oneself in an eating disorder. But now she is restored, and that gives her clients hope. They can believe in her before they can believe in themselves.
“They can see I’m not any different from who they are. I’ve just worked at it longer.”