One night, Kristina Howey walked into the bathroom at work. There she picked up a pamphlet on domestic violence.
“I discreetly folded it up and brought it to my cubicle. I read it and broke down sobbing, realizing I was living in an abusive relationship,” Howey said.
Four months later, Howey bravely exited the abusive relationship with the help of the Personal Development Center, an organization in Marshfield, Wisconsin that works with domestic violence and sexual assault victims. She proudly calls this her “survivor day.”
Her journey with confronting past life events and managing her symptoms has taken years of struggle, healing, growth, learning and understanding. Her mission is to help others by normalizing mental health and sharing her experience.
“It’s OK to not be OK and ask for help,” said Howey, who today is the director of product development at Security Health Plan.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 6% of American adults will have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives. PTSD can occur after a traumatic event and can affect anyone, not just veterans.
While the family processed this tragedy, Howey silently sat in the background knowing exactly how and why her family member struggled. She knew if she didn’t get help, she could foresee a similar ending if she didn’t act immediately.
She began counseling and was formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2016. Howey’s trauma began in her childhood and continued through adulthood and her abusive relationship.
“I spent a fair amount of time being in denial. I was sure my counselor had it wrong,” she said. “But I started to reflect on what she described as symptoms and how that paralleled in my own behavior. I avoided places and things. I was suffering from a hypervigilance that never allowed me to feel safe. After I accepted my diagnosis, I began to open up.”
Howey was in therapy, managing her symptoms and learning to live with her condition. She had some changes with her circumstances, and she was no longer able to see her specific behavioral health provider. Howey decided she would take what she learned from therapy and manage her symptoms on her own.
COVID-19 pandemic halts recovery
In 2019, she started a self-discovery journey by running, eating well, prioritizing her health and even introduced a gratitude practice. She thought she was getting better and had even registered herself to compete in a marathon, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Howey contracted COVID-19 just two weeks before the marathon, which triggered a downward spiral. Like many others, she moved to work from home, which was isolating and caused her symptoms to flare. She knew she needed to start counseling again and found a new health care provider with experience treating PTSD and began weekly sessions.
“During counseling, I finally started to accept my diagnosis and be open about it and I started to better understand what PTSD really is,” she said. “That understanding allowed me to manage my symptoms, and I had a greater awareness of my trigger response. That was something that I previously couldn’t leverage in a time of crisis. Therapy gave me the tools to manage my symptoms.”
Later Howey’s journey brought her to the next level of care and in efforts to better mental health has recently led her to visit a Marshfield Clinic Health System psychiatrist who classified her PTSD as complex. She’s since started medication, which has made a world of difference in her life.
Howey’s counselor suggested she would be a great candidate for a service animal. She began to train her puppy, Mava, with the help of a dog trainer in Milwaukee.
“Mava gives me a sense of safety, which has changed my life,” Howey said. “I used to talk myself out of going into the outside world because it didn’t feel safe. Mava can alert me to rising symptoms and even helps with my nightmares. She chooses me and she protects my heart. I get to be myself around her.”
Through Howey’s journey to understand and manage her symptoms, she has gained knowledge about her mental health. She now knows it does not define her.
“Mental health is not who you are. It is not something you can control. These symptoms are real, and similar to a physical condition, treatment options are available,” Howey said. “I’ve learned to separate who I am from my symptoms. I am a capable, intelligent leader and I want to normalize having a mental health condition.”
Help is available
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, there is help. Here are some resources available:
- Call or text 988 if you are considering suicide or are in a mental health crisis. This is a national service available 24/7.
- Security Health Plan members can call and speak with an experienced care manager or social worker. Security Health Plan members can use Freespira to help manage symptoms of panic attacks and PTSD symptoms. This is a free service for eligible Security Health Plan members. More information can be found here on Freespira website and Security website.
- Schedule an appointment with a behavioral health specialist at Marshfield Clinic Health System here. Wisconsin residents may also visit www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/crisis/talk.htm to view a list of phone numbers for someone to talk with or text.