Talking with Stacy Tirella

Stacy Tirella has one of those stories that staggers the mind. She was accidentally overdosed with lithium and sent to a psychiatric hospital because people thought the overdose was a suicide attempt. (She says she later successfully took legal action.) While in the hospital, she was told she would never do many essential things again, like work, travel and drive.

They were wrong. Now she runs her own business and is looking forward to the day when she _ and her family, and the local newspaper _ go visit that hospital again to say hello.

Who are you?

I’m Mary Stephanie Tirella, and I’m called Stacy. That’s who I am. How’s that for short? I was a tour director in Alaska when I graduated from college with a criminal justice degree, and I met somebody there who said that when I come back I should own my own business. I ran a cleaning business for about 16 to 18 years, and it was very successful, with over 50 employees. It was doing really well. At the end, I didn’t want to be at Servicemaster anymore. I ended up with a cease-and-desist order. It threw me for a loop. Then I had a downward spiral for a year, then I was in the state hospital for three months. I was told everything that I wouldn’t do again. And I’m absolutely doing everything. I have my own consulting business. I’m helping nonprofits type business plans, things of that nature.

When was the downward spiral?

It started in the beginning of 2010. And I actually ended up in a residential home. I checked in at 1 o’clock on, like, June 1, 2011, and the next morning they found me unconscious on the floor. I was on life support for five days because they had given me a bunch of lithium without orders. That’s why I got into the state hospital, because they thought I had a suicide attempt. It ended up that the state fined them, and I settled a lawsuit with them this year. The person had no orders to give me that and gave it to me all at once. The doctor never signed off.

And how about your return from that? How did it happen?

It would have been when I got out of the hospital, at the end of August. I checked out of the hospital, and they said I had to live in assisted living with my sister. As soon as I got home, I walked about a mile and got a job, and I started on that Friday. I worked there two years. So it started as soon as I got out.

What kind of job?

Basically, I would do, like, numbers, make sure we were in ratio, like the fill-in person for admin stuff. I could only work so many hours because I was on disability. And I did some volunteering at St. Anthony’s Hospital. And Special Olympics, I did some of that once I got out, to get out of my own sorrow.

Why did the people at the hospital tell you what you wouldn’t be able to do?

I guess when you’re in the hospital, they make judgements. They wondered what effect the lithium would have had on me. They gave me professional neurological testing for hours. They just said my memory was horrible. They said I’d never travel again. I travel internationally all over by myself or escorting my parents. They told me I wouldn’t be able to drive.

How much did you believe them?

I didn’t. My family did. It was frustrating for me. They had more meetings with my family than with me. I come from an Italian female-dominated family, and they had just seen my downward spiral, and they were judging me from when I was psychotic and everyone was scared for me. As soon as I got in, I knew I was not in the right place, but they had already certified me. Then I got out. The center that gave me my overdose, I asked them to cover my medical bills. They didn’t. So I rented a car, went downtown and learned how to sue them.

Have you challenged yourself in new ways since then?

I think one thing, it definitely got me interested in the challenges people have and trying to understand the lingo and understanding that they don’t listen. They make all these judgements. That’s what important to me now. My talk in Oregon (at a recent peer conference) was “Let it go.” I had to let go all the things they said I couldn’t do. If anything, it’s been to prove them wrong. I want to go back and say not only do I drive, I drove people to the conference. It seems basic to you, but when you’re told you can’t do anything …

Do you think you’ll ever see those people again?

Oh, I’m definitely going back. I think timing is everything. My family wants to go back with me, actually. And the Denver paper wants to, they contacted NAMI, and they want to do a hope and recovery story with pictures and stuff, and NAMI wants me to do that. That would be pretty impressive. Whatever a mentally challenged person looks like, I guess I don’t fit that mold.

How did you win over your family?

I think the fact that I went out and got a job, that I was able to figure out how to rent a car … I actually got a speeding ticket, so they knew I’d rented it. It’s quite ironic. They even called the place and said, “Oh my god, she got a job. She got out Wednesday and started work on Friday.” Now I’m doing my consulting stuff.

How did you learn about peer conferences like Alternatives?

I think just networking, knowing people, just being interested from the get-go, trying to understand what happened to me, that I had no voice in the hospital and the whole time thinking, “This isn’t right,” you know what I’m saying? If I can help someone in the hospital get a voice, to me that defines success. Because they didn’t listen to me.

How will you give people a voice?

I think there are a lot of things I can do. Number one, getting involved. When I was in the hospital, I talked to the advocate for us. I was talking to her every day and would tell her. The patient advocate. And peer support is how I made it, classes I took at the mental health agency, it was through peers listening and not judging and not jumping to conclusions. I got involved with classes with NAMI and the mental health center.

Was the patient advocate able to get anything done?

No. And I think that’s probably why I ended up in the hospital for as long as I did. I did speak up, and they probably thought I was aggressive because I don’t always have the sweetest tone, and when I see injustice, I make it known. It was a state hospital, and the employees had been there 20 to 30 years. They had issues. They were like, “Oh, she can’t have Diet Pepsi, can’t have M&Ms.” Very controlling.

I think Colorado is the 47th state in funding for mental challenges. They work there for years and years and get away with this. We used to be woken up by a guy kicking our beds. And I just couldn’t believe it. It was amazing. I told the advocate, so he didn’t kick my bed but kicked the other three. They just watch you there, you know what I’m saying?

What is your advice to others who want to speak up in the most effective way possible while they’re hospitalized?

Advocate. It is important for peers to go back and educate peers. There is so much that the hospital staff does not tell you. Educate anyone who has the interest and time to get involved.

How was the Peerpocalypse conference?

Freeing. Very freeing. It gave me a lot of confidence. People understood where I was coming from. Yeah, it was pretty phenomenal. I was able to fund-raise for them, $6,000, so people were able to go on scholarship. Peers could benefit as well as I could.

How did you decide to tell your story openly?

I think because I’ve accomplished everything the hospital said I’d never do. It’s a good opportunity for me. It’s about letting it go. I’ve done more than they could ever imagine.

How have responses been?

Very supportive. My family’s dying to go to the hospital. And the timing is key.

Do the suicidal thoughts ever come back, and if so, how do you deal with them?

I have thought a lot about suicide the past three years. However, it is really different thinking now. I try and enjoy every moment.

You mentioned reading the Way Forward report. Was there anything that stood out?

I really agree with the hope and recovery method. It’s more of a positive thing. I found it pretty fascinating, the stats on suicide. I never knew how many people thought about it, acted upon it.

Who else are you?

I’m a sister, I’m a daughter, I’m a cool aunt. I care. I’m resilient. I’m trying to get my knowledge and trying to get a voice for other peers, to help them do that.

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