For Mary Wood, maintaining good mental health requires “maintenance, support, practice, planning and plain old effort,” she says. “I believe most people have sound minds and self-discipline, but when they are living in fear, feel helpless, or they have little or no control over their situations, then they may act like they don’t have good judgment, or discipline, and may even seem a little ‘crazy.’”

“I know. I have been that person,” she says.

BUILDING UP TO A CRISIS

Wood’s struggles started in young adulthood. She met her first husband in Hot Springs and they married after moving to Houston. After their daughter was born they returned as a family to Arkansas in 1985. “Things did not go well for us here,” she says.

During this time, Wood and her husband went through a tough time in their marriage and she had an affair with a man who was also married. The affair resulted in a second child for Wood. After the birth and with the turmoil of her marital situation, she began suffering from postpartum depression. She, her husband and daughters moved to Atlanta together, but eventually, she and her husband separated. “I returned to Arkansas and went back to college in 1992,” she says.

A messy custody battle ensued, which took an extreme toll. “I was dealing with stress, anxiety, guilt, conflict and postpartum depression all at the same time,” she explains.

Wood saw a doctor who prescribed medication for to treat her postpartum depression, and she had a severe reaction to it causing her to do something she never thought she’d do.

“I shot myself point blank.”

DEALING WITH THE AFTERMATH

Although life-threatening, the bullet to her stomach missed major organs and Wood survived. “It is my opinion, I did not truly want to die nor did God want me to,” says Wood. “I did manage to heal from my wound with the help and support of my family. I decided to return to college and complete my degree.”

But this was an extremely difficult time for Wood and her family. She lost custody of her older daughter and wasn’t allowed to see her for four years. While attending school she worked two to three jobs while raising a toddler.

“My father died the year before I graduated college and my mother died my first-year teaching after I graduated in 1997 from UALR with a B.S.E. in Early Childhood Education,” she says. Wood admits that it isn’t always a good idea to make major life changes after a significant loss. But she did anyway. “I remarried a man shortly after my mother died and moved out of town.” The marriage ended quickly, wood said.

Along the way she began to have serious health issues — which she tried to hide — but eventually the fatigue was too great to keep things under wraps.

Wood was eventually diagnosed with neurocardiogenic syncope, a partial result of a spinal fluid leak that occurred when her older daughter was born. She had to have an unexpected C-section, and, according to Wood, the anesthesiologist admitted he had inserted the needle too far causing the spinal fluid to leak. The other problem was that she still had bullet fragments lodged in her body from her suicide attempt.

“No one had ever bothered to tell me about or discuss that with me. I discovered them by requesting and reading my own medical records which showed them clearly on x-rays taken years prior,” she says. She had shot herself with a hollow-point bullet, which had delivered fragments throughout her body. Some were not stable and moved around hitting on nerves and muscles causing pain and spasms.

After the discovery of the bullet fragments and the loss of her job, Wood went into a post-traumatic stress spiral. “I was so angry, frustrated and emotional that I had had to deal with all that for so long, and it had exhausted me to a point of little or no chance of recovery,” she says. Then things got even worse as she also lost custody of her second child, her then 14-year-old daughter.

A few years after her diagnosis she lost her teaching position. With no job, no children, no pets, no friends and no close family to help her, she drifted farther and farther away from any reality she had ever known until she was in a place and with people she didn’t recognize either. At one point she was homeless.

“I was so far removed from the person I knew myself to be, that I couldn’t even recognize or identify myself,” she says.

TRANSFORMING HER LIFE

After hitting rock bottom, Wood very slowly began to heal and she eventually pulled out of the spiral. “I realized there’s no job, no relationship, no possession and no object that you can’t get another of. It might not be identical to what you had; it might be better,” says Wood. “Accept the fact that you will never be the same and that you have lost everything. Many of my personal stressors are gone and I’ve made no effort to regain or reclaim them. I’m realistic about the strength I have in me for those kinds of battles.”

At age 57, she now practices Zumba on a regular basis, surrounds herself with friends who help lift her up and regularly attends a supportive prayer group — understanding that she needs all that to stay mentally healthy.

“Real life has twists, turns and complications we don’t foresee,” says Wood. And, she’s built up skills to help deal with them as they come. “I try to stay grounded in my faith and connected to people of similar spirit. I know I will be better off mentally if I am around people that are good to me and good for me. If people have decided you are mentally ill, though, it can be very challenging to convince them otherwise.

Which is why, she cautions, we all must be careful about our assumptions about people’s mental health. “We must be careful that our conclusions don’t do someone irreparable harm.”

We also need better support for the many people who are struggling — as she understands firsthand the huge impact it could have. “I believe reform in so many areas of mental health is crucial, vital and more than just necessary. It’s essential to affect real change in the lives of families, children and society,” says Wood.

To help advocate for suicide prevention Wood makes phone calls, sends emails, posts notifications and writes letters to support suicide prevention state legislation.

Getting better care will help improve so many of the big issues society is dealing with, including  homelessness, poverty, suicide, mass violence and more, says Wood. “I believe we must create a movement of and for real change. We can and must do better.”


Photography by Jamison Mosley


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