This is a story about how a speech has helped to change the course of Latosha Taylor’s life. She spoke to me from Arkansas, where she is acutely aware that her state is far behind in thinking about mental health.
“Recovery from mental illness, those words just spoke to me,” she said, recalling that pivotal day in the audience. “I had never heard that. I had always been made the problem, diagnosed with this and that. None made sense to me.”
She is now part of establishing her state’s first peer-run organization and making connections to others across the country. It’s a very different existence from her daily routine as a mom who works in a local deli during school hours, feeling at times like an “oddball,” but one with quite a future.
Who are you? Please introduce yourself.
My name is Latosha Roseanne Taylor, which should be Wright, but that’s another story. First of all, I’m a mother. That’s my number one priority. I am also a wife to probably the best man ever. I am an advocate against pretty much any injustice in life, which has also caused me just as much trouble as good. I am a person who has survived and experienced some of the deepest and most painful sorrows imaginable. I am a person who is walking my own path of recovery and from the traumas that I’ve experienced in my lifetime. I would like to say that I am a person of lived experience through many emotional walks of life, a person that is still learning how to live in this world and see it as the beautiful and spiritual place that my heart is showing me it to be. I am a person starting to thrive in this world because I am learning to take value in the experiences of my life to help others, so that they may travel an easier and more knowledgeable path through life than I did. This question of “Who am I?” could probably be better understood through my story:
I’m a survivor of sexual trauma. I’ve survived sexual trauma from the age of 4 to 12, and then I was first hospitalized when I was 14, and in that period of my life I was going through extreme emotional abuse from my mother’s boyfriend, so that was a really good foundation for a lot of chaos. Acting out behavior, that kind of thing.
I was in therapy for the first time at 9 years old because of sexual trauma. So that’s the start of my experience in the mental health system. At about 8 years old, I had my first suicide attempt. I haven’t talked about it so much. Who talks about those types of things? I’ve never talked about it. And then, so, my parents found me hanging from a tree and saved my life. At 14, I went to the hospital and it was a vacation, a vacation away from my family, that’s what it was like for me. My first diagnosis was depression. They put me on antidepressants and forced me to have a birth control shot, and they discharged me three weeks later because my mother’s insurance ran out.
Aftercare was the local mental health community. I started having reactions to meds, blacking out, not remembering things. I was self-harming at the time. I blacked out at the school, I don’t remember anything, but I woke up in chains and shackles at the county detention center. I remember on the way to the hospital that time, my parents were screaming what did I do, and I just felt so, “What’s wrong with me?” That day, you know, they put me in a hallway, under fluorescent lights, in scrub pajamas, and I’m crying, a couple days before my 15th birthday, thinking, “What did I do? I’m a problem for my family.” Not knowing what’s going on. The nurse didn’t comfort me, she came and stuck a shot in my butt and knocked me out. That’s the care I was given. So I got diagnosed with PTSD that time, I was there three and a half weeks, and I felt disvalued. I was under care and monitoring the whole time. I had a male nurse who was taking care of me, taking me out back trying to tell me inappropriate things. Those are the things I went through.
I got out, went back to the same family dynamics that were not healthy for me before. I was out three and a half months. Then I got in trouble on the school bus one day. I was so scared when my dad was coming home that I tried to take my life again. They pumped my stomach. I was in the hospital overnight. And apparently I had been drugged, they found PCP in my bloodstream. I went back to the same hospital.
But I always have this spirit of fighting. I knew it was not a mental disorder. In my head, I never felt crazy. I knew it was the things going on around me. My mother had had her own sexual trauma as a child, and when it happened to me, she didn’t know how to handle it. There was no unconditional love. I would never hear “I love you.” I’m just telling you random things. My dad would tell me every day I would never amount to anything.
I guess another attention-seeking behavior, at 13 I started having sex. I guess that was the way I thought I would always be loved. After the third time in the hospital, I managed to stay out a while and met my first husband. At that time, I was too young and I thought the natural thing to do was get married, have a family. About three years into the marriage, I had a child. About two months, after my son was born, my aunt died in a car accident. I didn’t know how to handle it. I started shutting down. They diagnosed it as postpartum depression. I told my husband that he and my child were my problem and didn’t want them anymore. I had started an affair. My husband took my baby and divorced me, and I was only getting supervised visits with my child. I had a year of being on drugs and wild and not paying attention to my responsibilities. I just didn’t have support around me. I got a divorce, and my mom said I got what I deserved. There was just no support.
So about a year after me and my husband divorced, maybe nine months, something like that, my husband ended up having a drug dependency issue and was unable to take care of our son properly. They opened a DHS case on my ex-husband. More mental health evaluations. During the divorce, I did check myself into the hospital, on my own. The anxiety was so bad, I was having suicidal ideation so bad, I was so scared I had nowhere else to turn. I wasn’t forced, but I did check myself in. And that was when I found my first empowerment with mental health. There was a woman there, fighting them every step of the way. When I was an adolescent, I didn’t fight. I thought that was the way it was supposed to be.
They put me on more meds. As a teen, my mother took me off all meds at some point. I don’t know if it was a bad thing or good thing. So I was never regularly on meds those teens and early 20s.
Am I telling too much details? I’m just trying to think of everything that happened. So anyway, in that hospital this lady was fighting for her rights. I had this borderline diagnosis. They court-ordered me to have all these mental health evaluations. At this time, I got pregnant with my second child. The dad didn’t want nothing to do with him. I went through a lot with DHS, being manipulated by another system, but ultimately I ended up losing custody of my first and second child. The first lives with my mother-in-law and the second lives with my parents. Within four months I married my second husband, who would very quickly start abusing me. That’s where my self-esteem was. I felt I deserved it. Not long after that, I got pregnant with my third child. He abused me until I was six months pregnant, and then I never let him lay a hand on me again during my pregnancy, using threats of calling the police, his biggest fear since he was still on parole. When my son was born, I was living in a home with, like, 13 other people, two of them crack dealers. Just trying to survive. It truly was one of the lowest points in my life.
I ended up moving to a different town with one of my girlfriends, trying to bring my son and I out of the situation I had gotten into. My husband ended up following me into my new life I was trying to make. During this time, unknown to me, I ended up pregnant with my daughter, and and about four weeks in, my husband beat me for the last time. I called the police and had him sent back to prison. That’s probably one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. Because of this, I lost what little support I had from his family and thankfully, my sister allowed my youngest son and I to move in with her in yet a different town.
During this time, I started to rebuild a new life and started taking steps forward and through a series of momentous decisions. I lost custody of my two youngest children after my daughter was born. Within four months, I got them back though. In that process, the court ordered another mental health evaluation. And this time, I was given an opportunity and took full advantage of starting my recovery process. For me, it was recovery beginning from substance abuse. Ultimately, I found a doctor and a therapist who were on my side, who listened to me, who never made me feel less than, never made me feel like a victim of a system. I ended up with a diagnosis of bipolar. But I still don’t think I really took my recovery as I should have. I continued to just survive.
In early 2010, I felt I was on the verge of another breakdown. My doctor had prescribed me Xanax, and I started abusing Xanax to the point I was living in an altered reality daily, and I resorted to buying them off the street to feed my habit. At some point, my loved ones started pointing out my obvious problem and encouraged me to seek help. When I tried to quit and get off the medication on my own, I started having hallucinations of hearing and seeing things, like the shadows had come alive. It was one of the scariest moments in my life, not only because of the state I was in, but also because my two children were in the other room and I had the fear that I wasn’t gonna come out of that night alive and they would wake up alone.
I checked into another hospital the next morning. This time in the hospital, I felt my rights completely were taken away. Here I come in feeling like I was crazy, and I know I was looking a little wild, not in my right mind. I was not “there” for the first day or so. When I finally came around to being there, they wouldn’t give me my clothes back, let me fix my hair properly, or give me my makeup. I know it sounds like a small thing, but it was so important to me. I like to get up and put my makeup on. It makes me feel like a human being. I felt like I wasn’t doing my maintenance. They told me I didn’t have the right to do this or that. I said, “I voluntarily checked myself in here!” So I had to fight for my rights. We had a compromise, and I got what I wanted.
Then when they were discharging me, they tried to give me a prescription to Klonopin, and I refused to take that. I mean, I came in the hospital voluntarily trying to get safely off of Xanax and deal with my abuse issue, and they wanted me to take Klonopin in its place. That didn’t make any sense to me. I did at this time start taking Lithium Carbonate, but only after doing my research, and I took this drug religiously for two years, which seemed to help stabilize me. For the record, though, I no longer take any meds.
After getting out of the hospital, I found myself being unable to go back to my highly stressful job at the private nursing home I had worked at for a few years. I took this opportunity, with the support of my then-fiance, to enroll in college and pursue my education. During the few months process of all of this, I was on Facebook, and I came across a post about this speech to be given at Arkansas Tech University, which was in my hometown, about 45 minutes away. So I challenged myself to step outside my box, and I drove the 45 minutes to participate in this seminar. The words that caught my eye were “empowerment and recovery from mental illness.” From my time in the hospital, I already felt empowered. But recovery from mental illness, those words just spoke to me. I had never heard that. I had always been made the problem, diagnosed with this and that. None made sense to me.
Dan Fisher did something different. He was telling something about the heart and head connecting, and it resonated with me something deep. I was like, “This is something I’ve been looking for my whole life!” I just sat in that speech, every sense awakening moment by moment as he spoke. At some point, he invited folks to sign a piece of paper if they were interested in doing advocacy work in our state. So I did, honestly just expecting a pamphlet in the mail. But he called me within an hour. He spoke to me with such respect that no one in my entire life had. When he said, “Hey, I’m setting up this group in your state,” I was all about it. I drove and met him, and it changed my life. That was March of 2010.
Since then, I’ve been a part of building the only peer-run nonprofit organization in my state. Through this process, I have come to learn of this great movement directed by people like me. People with similar lived experience as mine. People that wanted to be heard and that want to change how the mental health system treated people. Because of this door being opened to me, I have had so many positive life-altering experiences and connections that have allowed me to be a strong voice in my state. I think for me, where I’m at now in recovery is a lot of personal growth. I do a lot of organizational stuff. A lot is personal learning about myself, listening to my body, what it needs and doesn’t need. I have the right people around me for once. I get strength and encouragement from them. A lot of these dynamics are important to me in my recovery.
During this time of magical growth, I managed to graduate with an associate’s degree, the very first goal that I had set and accomplished as an adult. Then I decided that for me, as part of my recovery, about a year and a half ago me and my doctor decided to transfer off medication. I’ve been med-free for about a year and a half. It’s not an easy road. I do have mood swings. But like I said, people around me push me forward. I call it a spiritual journey, such an awakening for me. I’ve learned so much for my family, having some understanding. And on my angry days, I have the support I need.
But what’s happened with me in the last couple years, my suicidal ideations did return. A lot of it was that my husband was on the road a lot in the last year. I have to be careful taking on a lot of stress. Over the summer, I had two friends die by suicide. For me, where already I was in my dark place, that kind of glorified suicide for me. I started having ideation. I was in a really dark spot at that moment because I felt no place to turn to. In September 2013, I was in a really dark spot. I had an angel come to me, that’s pretty much what happened. I started taking myself out of it again. I started sharing my thoughts with my husband. It felt safe to do, and the more I started talking about it, the more I felt better. I felt normal being able to talk about it.
A lot of times, I’m feeling like the oddball. I look around me, so many people are affected by this, but no one in my community talks about it. No one wants to. I live in the Bible Belt, first of all. And Arkansas is backwards in mental health. There’s so much stigma attached to it. I went to a Coming out of the Darkness speech, and the guy who came and spoke with us, only a handful of people from the community come. He was the only one talking about it. It makes me sad to see that. We need more safe and open places to talk about suicide. And the stigma that follows a person, let’s not mention the shame of that. I hate the feeling of being trapped, unable to do or say something about it. So I’m very passionate about it. It needs to be talked about. I know the more I talk about my experiences, the better I feel.
This is where I’m at. I do maintenance. I do tai chi in the morning. I take the kids to school, and the fact that I’m able to do that is amazing, especially after the dark hole I just climbed out of. I’m starting to branch out in my community, finding my voice.
What kind of response do you get from people when you speak up?
Let’s just say I have a hard time making friends. I think it comes from where I’ve been at recently. I hate to use “depression” to describe myself. I just say a really dark hole. When I get to that point, it takes me a while to climb back out. I’m still in that climb, some days good, some days bad. I work at a deli during the day, just to get out during school hours, but when I get to the deli I have a hard time talking to people about daily stuff, a hard time making friends. Today, I told people I was going to the Tools for Change conference, and people just look at me. They just want to talk about what they talk about. People just clam up.
How is your peer organization doing?
Right now, all we are is a board of directors. We’re just starting to write for our first grants. We’ve went through a lot of growth and trainings in the last few years. We are starting to get some traction in our state as a legitimate voice as we look to change policy for the future of mental/behavioral health care in our state. We are staying connected nationally and are excited about bringing in folks to help us educate the state on what peer-supported services are and look like.
How big is your board?
Right now, we have eight. Our organization is doing a lot compared to where we started. Also, we’re starting to bridge with other stakeholders in our state, like the DBHS and other mental health affiliates. We are currently working with the DBHS to develop a peer support model that is Medicaid-billable so that we may have paid peer support specialists in our state. Something we’ve never had before.
How was the Alternatives conference?
I’ve been going since 2010. It’s the most life-altering experience. For me, every year, I go one way and come back a different way. I’m a changed person each time. I can be myself there. The bits and pieces I try to hide from the rest of the world, I don’t feel I have to hide there. And gosh, I’ve made so many lifelong friends and connections. I’ve learned so much to bring back to our state.
How was the attempt survivor caucus?
It was basically a safe place to talk about suicide. No inhibitions. I remember going, and actually I was running late, and I had waited all to day to go to this caucus. For some reason, Leah is a part of that for me. I met her in 2012, and in 2013 I made a point to be able to talk to her. And I’ve read a lot of what she’s done. I had went to a workshop she was in earlier that day, and I wanted to continue the conversation. I went up there and was late coming in. That was my first time ever of talking about my suicide attempts.
How many people were there?
It was about 20, 25 people. I just felt at home. My soul talked to other people. And that’s how the whole Alternatives is.
You’ve changed a lot. How is your family taking all of this?
My husband is my rock. When he came into my life, I was a hot mess. I had just lost my children. He saw something in my heart. He let me love myself. As I went through changes, I couldn’t have asked for a more patient man. We’ve been together almost six years, and married a year. He came in and loved me, the most unconditional love I’ve ever had. We’ve had rocky patches, and some has to do with me acting out. The traumas in my life have caused me some issues as an adult, but we work through them. He’s been great. My children, the two younger ones, it’s been great to be able to raise them because they’re a constant reminder that they love me for me. It’s been a great help. As far as the rest of my extended family, I’m just now opening up to them. My parents are not supportive whatsoever. I think they’re proud of me, but they’re stuck in their own little world.
Like the people at deli?
A lot of times, they don’t want to hear because they don’t want to bring it up again. It reminds them of their failure, I guess. There’s a lot of pain and history still there. And that’s the reason why I should have removed myself from them a very long time ago, which I did, I moved away from my hometown for five years. And it was good, too. I’ve since moved back to my hometown to be closer to my older children. It’s been more emotional. Family dynamics. The best I can do is maintain my own household and support and love them for who they are. I have come to my own reasoning and understanding about them. My folks are who they are, and I love them regardless.
What is the mental health system like there, and what would you like to change?
First of all, there are no alternatives. There’s not much education. There’s really nothing. What people do generally, and I can say from experience, you go to the ER, and they send you to a social worker who puts you in the hospital. Whether you put yourself there or they do, it’s the same thing. You go to see a therapist, they send you to a psychologist, you get diagnosed, put on meds. It’s a cycle. There’s no alternatives in our state whatsoever. None. I would like to see the mental health system rebuilt from the ground up.
What’s your plan for changing this?
First of all, our voices. Like what you’re doing today. Our stories need to be told. I would like to see the mental health community be trained in new alternatives as opposed to more traditional services. I would like to see communities of support that is not co-opted by our traditional mental health system. There’s lots of things I’d like to see. My plan for changing this is to utilize my voice in the continuing education of myself, so I can in turn educate fellow community members, leaders, and policy makers on how to build more inclusive communities that encourage a better quality of life for everyone.
Who else are you?
My greatest story in life is being a mom. I’m all mom. That’s my greatest joy. I love challenging myself to be a better mom. I know it sounds crazy. From my experiences as a child, I want to give better to my own children. That’s why I do a lot of work on myself. Being a mom is the best thing for me. To be able to grow myself and teach my children how to grow. I’m completely a soccer mom, basketball, baseball, I do them all. So my greatest value right now, everything I do is for my kids.