Homeless, Psychotic, Raped, Pregnant, Abandoned: Telling My Story Out Of The Privacy Of The Therapist’s Office

Cheryl Nimtz today

(4-6-21) If you met Cheryl Nimtz today, you would never suspect what she has experienced as an individual with lived experience. Rather than hiding her past, she writes poignantly about it in today’s blog and I am deeply grateful. 

I Tell My Story To Foster Wisdom, Understanding And Insight

By Cheryl Nimtz

Growing up, I had success by societies standards. I earned good grades, lettered in sports and graduated with honor society status in high school. I climbed the Grand Tetons, graduated with an associate degree and right out of college became one of Fort Wayne Indiana’s first women combat firefighters. (1980-1982)

At the young age of 21, I wasn’t aware of the storm brewing in my head. At the end of the two years, I started tripping in my dance of success.

I made poor decisions, lost my moral fiber and struggled emotionally. Things went from bad to worse when I resigned from the challenging job I loved. Soon after, I joined an extreme fundamentalist church and floundered as I tried to follow every rule to the letter.

Ridged religion was a comfort to my chaotic thoughts and moods for about two years.

Then the leader died. The one who taught us to rely only on faith to heal us for everything. I forgot all my dance steps and started isolating in a grungy apartment. Out of desperation, I called my parents and they made quick plans to rescue me.

Once home, they were able to arrange for treatment in a psychiatric hospital and I began to stabilize with antipsychotic medication. During my stay, I finally spoke about the childhood sexual abuse I had kept secret. The strong winds of serious mental illness have a way of blowing all the debris out from behind the bushes and corners of buildings forcing itself to be seen, tap dancing down the road like the click, click of a crushed plastic bottle with it’s silent partner the leaf of shame.

Stuck in Assembly Line Psychiatry

After release, I was able to function and hold down a job, but for 10 years, I was stuck in assembly line psychiatry. I allowed the shame and stigma of having a mental illness to influence my decision to stay on medication. I started to reduce my dosage. After having enjoyed the respect and honor of a firefighter, the way society, family, and persons in the health field now looked at me became intolerable. Even I thought my illness was who I was not what I had.

Once off the tiny pill that was keeping me sane, I started to hear voices. This symptom was new to me. I had just come from a spiritual conference and believed I was to drastically change my life. I trusted that I was “guided” to give all my belongings away to the Salvation Army and drive to Michigan to find a man from the conference that I barely said hi to. I thought we were to be married. I could still pass as stable for periods of time, but after two weeks of confusing and disturbing behavior he asked me to leave. Thus, began my almost two-year journey homeless.

Homeless And Vulnerable

I was now pregnant, trusting only my ‘spirit guides’ (voices) out of touch with reality, homeless, alone and heading to one of the most dangerous cities in America at that time. During my time on the streets between 1993-1995, Detroit had some of the highest murder rates in the country. I was taken advantage of, threatened with a knife, in a car accident, arrested for loitering, put in a choke hold at a psychiatric hospital, my few belongings stolen and raped at least 5 times.

You would think that the rapes are the hardest to talk about, but they’re not. The most difficult thing to share is how on occasion I was physically violent towards innocent people. Over the years of recovery, I have found ways to overcome the shame and trauma of sexual assault, but because I know firsthand how painful and difficult violence can be to deal with, I struggle with my actions. Even though I’m sure my mental state was complicated not only with untreated Bipolar disorder, but PTSD from all that happened to me in childhood and on the streets. Before one incident, the voices were telling me the woman was one of the aliens that came to earth to cause chaos and pain. I felt she was responsible for the car accident that almost harmed my unborn child.

Where To Go After Hospitalization?

The staff at the hospital tried fruitlessly to find me a place to go before releasing me after the car accident. But I limped out of the doors into the wide-open wilderness bandaged and stitched up with nowhere to go. I found my way to a park on the waterfront near the Renaissance Hotel and met a man who was kind to me. He had a 6-inch scar on his face and a bullet wound in his leg. He said all the right words and I took a bus ride with him to his shabby apartment. I know now why the fellow riders on the bus looked at me with such disorienting concern on their faces. But the voices told me he would be my protector.

After getting kicked out of his cockroach infested place, we journeyed together in and out of shelters. Somehow my unconscious knew he was the lesser of two evils. Attaching myself to him or roaming the streets exposed to a slew of potential dangers. He was with me when I delivered my son and after the birth, I quickly became pregnant by him.

That was the last thing my fragile self could endure. I retreated into an inner cocoon as I vomited all over the next rundown apartment. A new baby and pregnant catatonic woman were too much for him and he called an ambulance. It’s a miracle I got into that vehicle; I had refused treatment for so long. But the voices convinced me to let go of his arm and step up inside.

Involuntarily Committed

I was eventually wheeled on a squeaky gurney to an old brick courthouse and involuntarily committed. While in the psychiatric hospital I remember slowly waking up. I realized I didn’t love the man I was with. Staff tried endlessly to convince me I was pregnant, and I now believed them. When I was released, I returned to ‘my protector’ and his behavior now concerned me. Some months passed and I eventually reached out to my parents via a pay phone.  My family was shocked but relieved and at 9 months into the second pregnancy made plans to rescue me again.

They came up to the city to be with me during the delivery. After getting permission from the physician to leave early, we snuck away with her the next day to Indiana. I’m sure my mom could tell you exactly how long we lived together during that difficult transition and reentry into stable living. I believe it was at least 7 months. I moved out when I received financial assistance and housing.

Learning To Trust Self

In my own place my pace of recovery quickened as I learned to trust myself and develop skills in parenting. I found it difficult to find my mothering wings at 36, but with help, raised my son and daughter – two  magnificent children. During this time, I went through numerous phases of recovery, gaining insights into self-love and healthy relationships. I discovered recycled art and learned to recycle my life. I devoured books on inner work and overcoming loss and grief. For about 40 years now, I have learned to navigate the landmines of the mental health industry and am picky when it comes to therapists and psychiatrist.

Moving to Indianapolis about 5 years ago helped me transition into a new phase of “paying it forward” when I became involved with NAMI Indiana. (National Alliance on Mental Illness) I hesitantly trained to be an In Our Own Voice presenter. I didn’t want to “come out of the closet” so to speak. Unless you knew me closely you would not know I lived with a serious mental illness.

Sharing My Story

Now I present for the Indiana Department of Corrections New Hire Trainees. Instead of the adventure of running into burning buildings I now find adventure by sharing my story. It is a vital part of my wellbeing and consider it a privilege to raise awareness, create empathy and understanding for those struggling with mental illness within our psychiatric hospitals behind bars.

I now live in a cozy apartment with my elderly dog MJ, creating recycled art, writing, and enjoying a beautiful and precocious 7-year-old granddaughter.

I have countless people and organizations to thank who have helped me reach this place of mental and emotional wellbeing, at the ripe age of 62. But, if I had not had the good fortune of being involuntarily committed and put on one tiny pill, I would still be homeless begging on the streets, in prison with little or no treatment, caught in human trafficking, swallowed by drug addiction or dead.

I speak out today because I believe we need to bring all aspects of untreated serious mental illness out of the privacy of the therapist’s office and into the light of day, to gain deeper understanding, wisdom, and insight. I found myself in 2021 ready to go a step further and courageously share the shame riddled symptom of violence. I was ready for this level of vulnerability and am inspired to keep moving forward by the words of Brene’ Brown in her book,  The Gifts of Imperfection. 

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Cheryl Nimtz can be reached via email at [email protected]

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.