Peer Specialist of the Year Gets Her Groove Back

Authored by Sandra Oxx
May 14, 2017

PTSD client fights formidable foe with Recovery Model

Her hands wander over the chords at first slow and ruminating and then dance a graceful melody of love and enchantment. Tilted to the side, her head sways with her song as she smiles, playing Hoagy Carmichel’s “Stardust”.

It wasn’t always this way. Janice Vashon struggled to do even the things she loved, those that made her feel vibrant and alive, like playing piano.

“We’re fighting a formidable foe. There’s no magic pill,” says Portsmouth resident Janice Vashon, who lives with PTSD and anxiety.. “But there’s hope that we’ll have a more functional future.”

Janice, who holds a degree in music education from Rider University, plays piano each week at the Salvation Army in Newport and performs at charity events throughout R.I. She also teaches two classes and holds a part-time job as a peer specialist.

Recently she was awarded by Parents Support Network of RI and the RI Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Disabilities and Hospital as Certified Peer Recovery Specialist of the Year and attributes her own recovery to advances in treatment and medication.

“Everybody thinks that we’re foaming at the mouth with our heads spinning around,” says Janice, who began her treatment for PTSD over 20 years ago at Newport County Community Health Center. and now serves on Newport Mental Health Center’s Board of Directors.

Janice knows trauma, perhaps all too well. When she was 7 years old, she witnessed her father’s suicide when he was 32. Then her brother, who suffered from schizophrenia died from a heart attack when he was 32. Janice, saw the pattern, the symmetry of mental illness running through her family and thought she, too, was destined to a similar fate. She was right. Almost.

“I was in my 30s, just had a baby and kept forgetting things. At first I thought I had early dementia or something. I went to my PCP. They did a lot of tests and told me to try a therapist.”

At the time, over 20 years ago, mental health treatment focused on a traditional mode of therapy, where the therapist instructed the patients or clients the best approach to ease their symptoms. Through a diet of medication and a therapist-directed approach to treatment, Janice was able to ease some of her symptoms.

Trauma, for some however, hits back hard. Janice is one of 24.4 million Americans who struggle with PTSD, and while anyone who has undergone a trauma could be subject to PTSD, women are twice as likely to struggle with the disorder as men.

Despite the therapy and medication, Janice’s hold on life was flimsy. Unwanted memories interrupted both her waking and sleeping hours. She attempted suicide three times.

“It wasn’t about giving up. It was about stopping the pain.” Janice now has learned to respond to her complex emotions. However, it’s taken years of gradual shifts in treatment and social attitudes, which has held the belief that those with mental illnesses are unable to recover.

“Mental health stigma has far-reaching effects and is one of the biggest barriers to recovery,” said Newport Mental Health Center’s Clinical Director Dan Wartenberg. He also noted that mental health treatment, itself, has only recently shifted from a traditional approach, which focused primarily on the therapist treating symptoms, to the Recovery Model , which emphasizes choice, empowerment and helping individuals to regain meaningful and fulfilling lives.

The Mental Health Recovery Model empowers clients
Perhaps one of the biggest boons to Janice’s sustained heath today could be attributed to her mental health treatment.. The Recovery Model, which was only recently embraced by mental health professionals about five years ago, involves the client, making decisions about his or her own recovery through collaboration with mental health professionals. .

In years past, the therapist might have decided that the client with PTSD, who chain smokes, for example, would need to focus on stopping smoking and perhaps work on coping skills to help her stop. The Recovery Model lets the client decide.

“She wanted to work on her finances, but later when we went over her budget, she decided that the smoking was using up her money. By letting her decide, she came to her own conclusion and cut back using a variety of coping skills ,” Vashon recalls about one of her clients.

Janice, herself, uses a variety of coping skills, also known as a Wellness Toolbox, on a daily basis, and she says that they have become automatic now. When she feels herself feeling depressed, for example, she often bounces back by saying “Think opposite”

When she can’t sleep, she uses a sound machine that emits white noise to coax her into a gentle slumber. She also knows to avoid eating two hours before bed. She closes her eyes at the same time every night, and she takes her medication at the same time every day..

“It’s all about routine. Routine and scheduling.”.

Grounding techniques also help. Cleansing yoga breaths, touching objects and trying to determine textures and temperatures help keep her mind in the present, or as Janice says, when troubling thoughts arise, “ I try not to give them any rental space in my mind.” ,

That, she says, along with her piano, keep her healthy.