She was the perfect child, her dad said. Talia Westerby, the eldest of Michael and Tanja Fehrenbach’s three children, was always prompt and had everything in order.
She was a perfectionist, which made her best at loading the dishwasher and doing other household chores.
Her good grades led to scholarships that paid for college, where she held a 4.0 grade point average.
Talia was an overachiever, according to Michael, a parishioner at St. William Parish, Waukesha.
“Was it weird that maybe we’d go and see the pantry reorganized, nice and clean, with the labels moving forward? No, I thought it was pretty cool, it was pretty helpful,” he said in a telephone interview with Catholic Herald myFaith.
Talia succeeded in everything she was juggling, and made her parents proud.
TO HEAR HER TALK
Talia Westerby will share her story and talk on mental health for the Lolek Young Adult group meeting Tuesday, Jan. 27, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., at St. Mary Visitation Church, 1260 Church St., Elm Grove.
She graduated in 2005 with her bachelor’s degree in music and elementary education from Butler University in Indianapolis, and got a job as a teacher at an inner city elementary school there.
Then things started to go wrong.
The perfectionism, drive and focus that had helped Talia excel started controlling her.
She suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), an anxiety disorder that mentalhealth.gov describes as causing repeated, upsetting thoughts, or obsessions, that cause someone to perform repeated actions, or compulsions, to make the thoughts go away.
2.2 million affected by OCD
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), OCD affects about 2.2 million American adults, usually appearing in childhood, like Talia, adolescence or early adulthood.
But this is just one of many types of mental illnesses defined by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders)” common in the United States.
About one in four adults, approximately 61.5 million Americans, experiences mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
But Talia would also fall into another group as one in 17, approximately 13.6 million, people who live with a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, major depression or, the disorder Talia was up against, bipolar disorder, according to NAMI.
And her journey was just beginning.
As a 3-year-old, Talia straightened every card in a memory game so they were perfectly aligned. She learned her ABCs at an early age. She put the crayons, by color, perfectly back in the box. Later, her apartment and car were always in perfect order.
Talia was praised for these “achievements,” Michael said.
“A lot of the things that she did or signs that would be visible, weren’t so visible because I just looked at that as being OK, that’s an achiever, that’s who we are, that’s what we do. …” he said. “I’d just think that she’s a smart kid, she’s an overachiever.”
Desire to please out of ordinary
He wasn’t aware of OCD, because it wasn’t talked about back then. So, he didn’t realize that Talia’s need for everything to be perfect and the constant desire to please was out of the ordinary.
In high school, Talia and her friends laughed about things like the trick her best friends played on her, in her bedroom.
“They’d pick a random five items and shift them by 90 degrees and then we’d go up there to hang out later and I would walk through my room and move them all back, unknowingly . ..,” Talia said in an interview with Catholic Herald myFaith. “I think sometimes people can find these quirks, as they seem initially to be, kind of amusing for some people, and that can make it very hard to even know that something’s not quite right there, that there’s something unbalanced or whatever it may be.”
In college, friends studying psychology told Talia she had tendencies of OCD, but Talia laughed it off. At that time, the show “Monk,” starring an obsessive compulsive detective, was airing and it made OCD funny. Talia thought she was like Monk, and that was just funny.
“We didn’t see those as all signs of something bigger, like kind of a storm that was brewing over time until it was finally going to hinder my daily life,” Talia said. “All the way through even college, it was mostly enhancing my life and it was allowing me to be very successful, which was great.”
More than quirky behavior
She knew something was wrong when, as a teacher, she met up with some of her teacher friends.
“We were all joking around the table about these quirks that we had, and somebody said they always check their alarm three times before they go to bed, or they check the front door before they go to sleep, and so we’re all laughing and taking our turns and by the time it came to me, whatever example I gave, just laughter vacuum, like everyone just stopped laughing and just stared, and I realized then, OK, there’s more to what’s going on with me than this just being funny anymore,” Talia said, noting she could have given 20 or 30 more examples.
“I didn’t know where to start because, again, nobody was talking about it, and I didn’t know what to do and should I go to a psychologist? Only crazy people do that, and so I went to a doctor and they just prescribed medicine,” she said.
But that didn’t solve her problems.
Stresses mounted, Talia said.
“My mom was diagnosed with cancer not once, but then again a couple years later, twice, and (I) had been engaged to somebody and broken that off, had been in a car accident and was teaching inner city elementary school, so just a lot of, in and of themselves, pretty big and stressful events in a young adult’s life mounted and it caused everything to become more inflamed,” she said.
The stresses mounted until she had a complete mental breakdown.
“In that week, I mean I bought a dog, I took a full week off of work, I was very paranoid that anyone coming to my door was there to hurt me,” she said, adding she couldn’t move and was having trouble breathing. “Things just became very irrational and not me. I isolated myself so nobody even knew a lot of this was going on with me, and I lived alone at that time and so as the week progressed, I got worse and worse.”
Finally, a friend came to visit and found her alone in her apartment with her dog, unable to move and having trouble breathing. Talia later learned she was suffering from a pretty severe panic attack.
Lives change with phone call
Michael remembers the day he got the phone call. He and Tanja, living in Grafton at the time, were having breakfast after Mass Sunday morning, when Talia called.
“I just picked up the phone, I said, ‘Hey, Tal, we’re just having breakfast, I’m going to call you back in 10 minutes, OK?’”Michael said, explaining they hung up and the phone rang again, this time her friend, a doctor, was on the phone explaining how Talia was immobile, shaking and frozen, in the corner of her Indianapolis apartment.
“We left the breakfast right there and literally went back home, grabbed clothes and went down for a five-and-half-hour trip to get down there to find out what was going on and we only knew at that point that she was not functioning correctly,” he said.
The Fehrenbachs moved Talia home, and sought professional help.
“It’s a real challenge to A, find out exactly what you’re dealing with, the things you have to go through to learn that, and then B, get her to the right facility to get the right help to make it right,” Michael said. “It wasn’t like the next day we had this all solved, it was a matter of weeks of going through different programs trying to get a diagnosis in order to get a referral to where she ended up going and getting help.”
As hard as it was, Talia had to put her life on hold.
“It took a long time to find the right program to go through and that can be aggravating and I’m a go-getter and so I just wanted to just go to a doctor, figure this out, get some medicine or some therapy and go back to my life in Indianapolis, and it would become a five-month ordeal,” she said, adding that finding the right medication took a year because of side effects she experienced.
It took five months to find the right place and to go through therapy at Rogers Memorial Hospital, where, in 2008, Talia participated in an outpatient program for cognitive behavioral therapy four days a week. It took another three months of therapy before she could go back to work.
Michael helped her with her “homework,” the tasks they assigned to help overcome her anxieties.
The whole family did – including her sister, Kate Gallimore, 30, who lives in Madison, where Talia stayed one night each week during her treatment.
“We adjusted quickly and offered whatever was needed to get through the situation. We were understanding during her exposure therapy and tried to be willing assistants despite the task. …” she wrote in an email to Catholic Herald myFaith, noting that included living in a house with crooked pictures. “It’s humorous to look back on and humor is something our family looked to in getting through these times. … She had plenty of love and accountability. Both were essential in getting through this.”
“Rogers was able to give her tools without using the meds so much, but to give her tools to deal with these anxieties. …” said Michael. “This was a whole new chapter.”
While Talia learned to deal with her anxieties, her mother continued her four-and-a-half-year-long battle with an aggressive form of breast cancer, undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries. Talia said the struggles her mother, who died in 2010, faced, helped to keep her own in check.
And those struggles brought their family together.
“I think it can really tear families apart and the kind of things that people do when they suffer from some sort of chemical imbalance or whatever it may be in the world of mental health, can destroy relationships, and my family was willing to forgive anything I did that we learned was not within my control at that time, and that was a long process,” she said, calling her dad the “rock” in the family.
“Someone needed to be sane and someone needed to be strong and financially viable, and so he brought me into his home with my mom and was taking care of both of us,” she said.
Catholic young adult group a ‘gift’
Kate also invited her to a Catholic young adult group at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Madison.
“Tal and I have always included each other in everything. We are only 17 (months) apart, so it is pretty easy to find similar interests,” she wrote. “She needed friends. She has always surrounded herself with people. I wanted to take advantage of having her close and getting to spend time with her as her schedule would allow. So I invited her. They were my friends, they would easily become hers also.”
Talia was thankful for that “gift.”
“Here (in Wisconsin) I was stripped of everything I knew…. I had no friends, no peers, nobody in the young 20s or mid-20s and I was going and hanging out with these young adults in Madison whose Catholic faith was their most important thing in their life,” Talia said, “and I started to see a new way of relating to people of my age and the beauty and the importance of specifically having Catholic young adult friends and that was an incredible change for me.”
Kate described Talia as her “own personal gift from God,” who made mental illness real for her.
“I remember a time I walked in the door and my mom said, ‘She doesn’t trust us. You need to tell her we are not drugging her dog.’ You can imagine my confusion,” Kate wrote. “Our family had never been exposed to this previously, so it was all a bit foreign and unexpected. At that moment I believed mental illness was real. I saw in her eyes a disconnect, a lack of trust in the two people who raised and provided for her and have only brought good. It was cold. I held together and began to talk to her. She knew me. She trusted me. I was so relieved. It still deeply impacts me to think about.”
Mental illness is still not talked about as much as it should be, which is why Talia, assistant executive director of Arise Missions and a consultant with visitor services at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, Milwaukee, shared her story publicly for the first time during a Theology on Tap session last summer.
Hope, encouragement by telling story
Talia, expecting her first child, a son in March, with her husband Carl, wants to offer people hope and encouragement through her story.
“It may take you a little while to find the right doctor, but you will. It may take you a while to find the right medicine … but you will,” she said. “Like I’m proof to show you, you can get through, and I’ve seen relief in countless faces just knowing, ‘OK there is someone who was in a really crazy spot and look it, they’re functioning they’re doing OK, so there’s some hope there.’ So to offer hope in my stability today I’ve seen as a very powerful tool.”
She also said to pick people you can trust who are willing to learn with you. “I knew that my immediate family and a couple best friends I could tell them these are the trigger words that will really set me off or these are things that my doctor has said are signs that I might be sliding downhill again and this is how I need you tell me about it.”
If it appears a friend is struggling with mental illness, Talia said your approach depends on your relationship with them.
“Hang out with them … just invest in them as a person just for fun, and I think most people respond well to ‘I really care about you, and I’ve noticed that you don’t seem like your usual self. What do you think?’”
Be ready with nonspecific examples – mention that maybe they’ve been sadder than usual, and that’s OK, but you’re just worried, she said.
“If nothing else, you might be the seed planter,” she said.
And “obviously pray for them,” Talia added. “That’s the obvious one.”
Faith is powerful resource
Capuchin Fr. Martin Pable, who has a doctorate in counseling psychology from The Catholic University of America, works part-time in Ministry to Priests for the archdiocese. He taught pastoral counseling and parish-based evangelization at Cardinal Stritch University part-time for three years, where Talia was his student as she earned her master’s in lay ministry in 2011. Fr. Pable also taught pastoral counseling for eight years at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, St. Francis, and eight years at Sacred Heart School of Theology, Franklin, where he encouraged priests who can deal with spiritual issues, not psychological, to make connections with local mental health professionals as soon as they got their assignments.
NAMI is an organization that offers information, support and resources to people suffering from mental illness, as well as to their loved ones.
“One thing that we can really offer people who are suffering from mental illness is prayer for healing and the sacrament of anointing – Anointing of the Sick is a powerful sacrament, and that’s also able to be administered and celebrated for mental illness not just physical,” he said.
People with a good, solid faith can draw upon that as a resource, too, he said, referring to stories in the Bible about Jesus’ healing ministry that can be a powerful image showing Jesus cared for physically and mentally ill people.
“When I’m talking to people who are suffering from mental illness, I remind them that Jesus is there to help us as he was in those days and he cares about people who are suffering from emotional problems as well as physical problems,” he said.