Why I Attended My 40th High School Reunion After a Lifelong Fight With Mental Illness

Toni Bator
older woman against a blue backdrop with short gray hair looking up with her arms crossed

Tomorrow will be my 40th high school reunion. I have not attended any reunions since my graduation in 1979. I decided to attend my 40th because most of us are at a period in our lives where we have experienced serious illness, death of loved ones and have contemplated our own mortality. Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, a sociologist, has observed high school reunions can trigger a sudden threat to one’s identity. In the space of an organized gathering, we are called upon to reconcile past expectations with our present reality.

For some, high school was the worst time of their lives, and for others, it was a time of fond memories. My high school years included playing sports, attending keg parties on Saturday evenings and hanging out with an eclectic group of classmates. I partied with the “heads,” played softball and field hockey with the “jocks” and participated in the German club with the “geeks.” My friendships were diverse and inclusive, along with my tight-knit group of very close friends.

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My life after graduation was filled with promise, but my story is one of struggles with addiction, legal issues and mental illness which derailed my education and career. At the age of 21, I was on a solid career path within the human services field. With a B.S. in psychology and a progression from entry-level direct care positions to management positions within the field, I was advancing as planned.

Or so it seemed.

While enrolled in an M.S. clinical psychology program, I dropped out of graduate school due to my addiction. My substance use disorder accompanied by chronic depression, anxiety, and panic attacks propelled me into a life of blackouts, regrets and severed relationships from family and friends. I was hospitalized in 1997 for a suicide attempt. My last psychiatric hospitalization was in 2007.

Fortunately, at the age of 57, the narrative of my life after graduation didn’t end on a dismal note. As Angela Duckworth states, “The supremely gritty are not afraid to tank, but rather embrace it as part of a process. They understand that there are valuable lessons in defeat and that the vulnerability of perseverance is requisite for high achievement.”

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As I prepare to attend my reunion, I realize I am one of the fortunate graduates to be alive to see how my journey unfolds. I had to overcome obstacles and navigate my journey through many difficult challenges, but I have gained resilience and successes that I never thought were possible, including:

  • Sobriety and employment as a substance abuse counselor for Addiction Campuses.
  • Treatment for chronic depression, anxiety, panic attacks and a reduction in hospitalizations.
  • Completing a graduate degree in organizational leadership.
  • Employed as the director of a psychosocial rehabilitation clubhouse model for individuals with mental illness and as director of one of the largest housing agencies in western Massachusetts, providing housing to homeless families.
  • Becoming a certified life coach to assist leaders with behavioral health issues to increase their resilience and well-being.
  • Returning to my passion of playing competitive tennis on a 3.5 USTA western Massachusetts league.
  • Coaching youth soccer and Cal Ripken youth baseball.

I am a staunch advocate to end the stigma of addiction and mental illness. I am available for speaking engagements to educate the community on addiction and mental illness and can be reached at tbator@infuseleadership.org.

Related:What Happened When I Sought Alternative Mental Health Treatment Abroad

A version of this story was originally published on Linkedin.

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