A phoenix rising | July 11, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

- July 11, 2007

A phoenix rising

From the depths of bipolar disorder, a local leader emerges

by Sue Dremann

Katherine Lerer was at the top of her game in 1994. At age 49, she was fit; she was educated. She was a mother, a wife and a top-selling Palo Alto Realtor. But that year, her world started eroding.

For no apparent reason, she began to cry. She cried during a physical exam. She lost weight. The doctor diagnosed mild depression. She kept up her daily regimen, but something had profoundly changed.

"I became more and more confused," she said.

Then came the crash.

At work on an August day, she simply fell over in her chair.

"That was the last time I worked. I was lost and gone for the next five years," she said.

Lerer has bipolar disorder, a brain disease that causes moods to swing from stupefying depression to mania. It affects 5.7 million American adults every year, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"I had a very happy childhood. I had no big tragedies. It was alarming the way I was slipping in body weight. I was disoriented, weeping — deeply ashamed. I had big glasses on and a hat pulled down over my face. I felt I had done this to myself," she said.

But Lerer has emerged from the ashes of her life to become a leader. Once so ill she could not focus or speak, she now facilitates a peer-support group for people with mood disorders. Lerer is tall, willowy and attractive. Twelve years after her first depression, she maintains equilibrium through a cocktail of medications. Depression and mania are temporary states for most people, manageable through medication and therapies, she said.

Often, family and friends don't understand the illness, and they don't know how to react. Well-meaning words and gestures may end up further eroding already damaged self-esteem and increase isolation, Lerer said.

People with mood disorders such as depression and mania don't "snap out of it"; and often they cannot respond to invitations for help or even offer a thank you for cards or gifts sent, she said.

At one point, Lerer had a plan to kill herself, and she was happy to have figured out a way out of her depression. She thought she was a genius, she said. Such is the skewed thinking of someone in a manic state. Mania is characterized by extreme elevated mood, agitation, irritability and rapid talking and thought.

"I had the seat of the car down and tape around the exhaust pipe. My husband came home early. I came back to the garage and said, 'Sweetheart, I have to go to the hospital now.'"

Eighteen electroconvulsive treatments did not relieve her depressive symptoms, and she barely recognized herself after losing 35 pounds.

"I stepped out of the shower and screamed when I saw myself in the mirror. I said to my husband, 'What happened to me? Have I been in an accident?" she said.

A Realtor friend took her to Stanford Department of Psychiatry for peer-group support.

"There is an underworld walking right by you, Katherine, and the mentally ill look just like us," her friend said.

Lerer sat looking around at the other group members and thought she didn't belong.

"You don't accept this" at first, she said. But it became her place of refuge.

"It's the only place where you are not embarrassed; you are not ashamed of yourself," she said.

Lerer wrote about her experiences in the Journal of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and in Psychology Today. And she began running a peer group at Stanford and received training as a facilitator — big steps for someone who couldn't talk at all, she said.

She now facilitates a peer group affiliated with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, the largest mental-health support organization in the country, she said.

During the first three Wednesday evenings of each month, a drop-in group meets in a rented Palo Alto office to discuss mood disorders and everything from struggles with their illness to what to put on a resume after being unable to work for months or years.

Mood disorders have many faces. Some are unipolar and have only depression; others are bipolar, which also have varying features, Lerer said. Some have psychotic elements; some have schizophrenia. A small number, perhaps one percent, have mania.

Fourteen people clustered around conference tables on a recent Wednesday. Some of their faces are familiar. They are doctors, nurses, software engineers, teachers, certified public accountants, artists, gardeners and professors.

(Because of the stigma attached to their conditions, their real names are not being used in this article.)

"I haven't been out much for four months. I worked in health care. I tried to do everything myself. I realized I need you guys. I need other people — to learn from each other," Janelle, a petite, professionally dressed Asian woman, said.

Newly diagnosed, Jean, a school facilitator, looked pained.

"I'm terrified of anyone finding out my secret. I work with teens. I feel the parents would be shocked if they knew. ... I just got an appointment, and I feel I wouldn't have the job if they knew. I feel ashamed," she said.

"Shame is a part of your chemistry," Lerer pointed out, referring to one symptom of the illness.

Lerer reached into the "question bag," where group members had earlier placed themes they wished to address:

Anyone have strategies for dealing with getting blood drawn?

"Take a phlebotomist to lunch," Bob said, to laughter.

"Ask for an infant-sized needle."

"Or a butterfly," Toni said.

"Tell them you're a fainter, and they'll get the cot right away," added Martina.

Dave reflected on a common misconception about psychotropic medication.

"I always thought taking meds would interfere with donating blood, but it doesn't."

Lerer dipped into the question bag.

"My neighbor has no mental and emotional boundaries. She's always asking about my mental illness. Any suggestions about how to deal with this?"

"When people ask me, I say, 'It's a long story. Let me get back to you.' They stop asking me because that's all they ever get," Jolene said.

A lively discussion broke out about how to respond to nosy acquaintances. Many had stories of the neighbor who feigned concern to pump for information, or the church lady's nervous hinting when they hadn't shown up for Mass for a few weeks. How to change the movie-picture image of mental illness?

Direct people to bipolar-disorders Web sites, a woman suggested.

Research shows that people in mood-disorder peer groups have shorter hospital stays (7 days versus 25 days) than those who do not attend a group. Nearly 86 percent stick to their treatments. A higher percentage have reduced psychiatric symptoms, increased coping skills and less need of professional services.

Lerer pulled another question from the bag.

"When days are tough, and you are unable to get up or eat something, what do you do to recognize that you are leading a normal life?"

"I get up. I tell at least one person that I'm having a bad day. I feel better. I'm not alone with it," Jean said.

For information about Katherine Lerer's mood disorder group, e-mail kathlerer@yahoo.com or visit Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance at www.dbsalliance.org. Also visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.nami.org.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.


Posted by Elizabeth Schaefer, a resident of another community
on Jul 11, 2007 at 12:45 pm

Thank you for these informative and inspiring stories about depression and bipolar disorder. Ms. Lerer is to be highly commended for turning to help others, even when she herself has health concerns. I hope that her story and her support group will help many, many more of those living with these all-too-common illnesses.

Posted by Alec MacKenzie, a resident of another community
on Jul 11, 2007 at 5:30 pm

Thank you for an article that will provide hope and help to so many people who are either battling mental illness themselves or are close to someone else who is. With so many people in this country affected by mental illness, it's about time that all of the issues surrounding it get brought out of the closet and people get educated. I commend Ms. Lerer for her bravery in the face of her own illness and her resourcefulness in getting her support group going. I hope she can serve as a role model for others in similar situations to make a positive out of a negative situation.

Posted by Shelly Gordon, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 13, 2007 at 9:56 am

Having had family members with bipolar disorder I really appreciate hearing Ms. Lerer's story first-hand. I consider her a role model for liberating those afflicted with mental illness... especially around the shame people feel. It is the shame that keeps people stuck and isolated and prevents them from seeking help. Ms. Lerer's support group and others like it seem like the key [for people with mental illness] to living a life of dignity, hope and joy.

Posted by Karen Harrison, a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2007 at 4:42 pm

Thank you for such an informative article. Katherine is a very brave woman. She has the love and support of her family and friends and the strength to continue her venture. God bless you!

Posted by Ruthie Conway, a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2007 at 7:45 pm

My compliments to Ms. Lerer for bringing bi-polar out of the darkness and offering help and support to others. Probably not easy to do when you suffer from the disorder, but all the more valuable to those whose lives she touches. She is indeed an inspiration!

Posted by Stephen Luce, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 15, 2007 at 8:06 pm

Dear Sir/Madam,

Thank you for publishing this article! Your publishing decisions result in education for the Mid-Peninsula community so that more people learn about mental illness. Readers need to know that bi-polar disorder, like other mental illnesses, is a scary, serious illness sometimes resulting in lengthy disability, but also often amendable to treatment. Many a patient can find successful treatment (meds and/or psychotherapy) and eventually reach his or her potential and fully participate in life. Thanks again for spreading the word about how people cope with and control their mental illness symptoms. Ms. Lerer is a great example of this!


Posted by Kathy Forward, a resident of another community
on Jul 15, 2007 at 11:17 pm

Thank you for publishing this honest interview with Katherine Leher. Stigma still surrounds mental illness and therefore, the shame exists. When people are educated about what mental illness "is" and "is not", there is more hope of getting rid of the stigma. There was a time when cancer & aids were stigmatized. People who are affected by mental illness and their families need compassion and concern in order to deal with the trauma it brings. Your article is a step in that direction. Katherine Leher is truly a courageous person. The help she provides to others is so very important!

Posted by John Mitchem, a resident of another community
on Jul 16, 2007 at 2:57 pm

Thanks to Sue Dremann for writing this excellent article and thanks to Katherine Lerer and individuals in her support program for their willingness to be the subjects of the article.

Unfortunately, those suffering from biological brain diseases such as bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and schizophrenia are still subject to much stigma, prejudice, and discrimination. Perhaps more than any other group in our society.

As an example of this problem, those who suffer from the biological brain disease known as Alzheimer's are usually treated with respect and concern, but those suffering from the biological brain diseases that are collectively known as severe mental illnesses are subject to reduced insurance coverage and to reduced support by county medical facilities around the country.

Recent studies have indicated that those suffering from serious mental illness have an average life span approximately 25 years less that other Americans.

Articles such as this one play an important role in educating the public about mental illness, and I hope that this is only the first of a number of similar pieces by the Weekly.

Posted by Barbara Tyler, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 16, 2007 at 4:21 pm

Thank you for publishing this beautiful story. It tells a tale of personal courage that all of us can learn from. Simply told yet insightful. Your tag line, "A Phoenix Rising" really applies.

I appreciated your positive presentation about mood disorders and the support groups that mean so much to those afflicted.

Barbara Tyler

Posted by Cindy Georgakas, a resident of Woodside
on Jul 17, 2007 at 7:38 pm

What an inspiring article offering hope and inspiration to everyone suffering from mental illness. The more we come out of the darkness and into the light, the more we can break the stigma and get the support and help to all of those feeling hopless desparation. Living with a family member that has suffered for years I know intimately the daily pain which affects the entire family unit. Ms. Leher is a brave woman and I applaud her candidness and willingness to share her compelling story to save lives and bring hope and courage in their lives. Thank you Sue for writing this article.

Posted by Sarah, a resident of another community
on Jul 18, 2007 at 12:26 pm

Thank you for publishing this article about the depression and bipolar disorder group! I am a member of the group, and I KNOW how important a support group can be to someone with a brain disorder. I have been a member for over 6 years and recognize the vital role that it plays in maintaining my stable life.

Katherine is a wonderful advocate for the mentally ill. She is an awesome group leader and success story. I look forward to many more years of discussions and shared support among the members of the community.

Posted by Alicia DeValliere, a resident of another community
on Jul 19, 2007 at 11:39 am

Dear Sir/Madam:

Thank you for publishing this article. I am a member of this group, and very proud to be. It is important the we get this information out there, so that more people may be helped. This group contributes to my wellness every week. The people in the group are wonderful beyond words. It is so important to come together as a community.

Very truly yours,
Alicia DeValliere

Posted by Peter Newman, a resident of another community
on Jul 22, 2007 at 3:47 pm

Thank you for publishing this article. While well over 2% of the population suffer from serious mental illness we don't often hear much about it and it continues to be surrounded by stigma. Katherine runs the best mood disorders support group I know of in the South Bay. The group maintains a web site at: Web Link.

Posted by N Caldwell, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 29, 2007 at 4:30 pm

After being a Palo Alto resident for 40 years, we have moved north but retain our love for the City. I worked with Katherine for several years and know how difficult this has been for her. Her courage and willingness to share are truly inspirational. I have forwarded this article to my daughter who has schizoaffective disorder. We are very familiar with the difficulties. I refuse to give in to stigma and talk to people about mental illness frequently. When this happens, one or more of those to whom I am talking mention they have a sister, brother, or some other relative who also has a mental illness. It is all around us and should be treated as just another illness to combat. Those who have this condition (and there are several gradations and types) need our love and help, not to be shunted off or ignored or any of the other myriad ways, they are made to feel "less than". Please keep up the articles!

Posted by Bill Korbholz, a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2007 at 9:53 pm

I have great love and admiration for Katherine, whom I know personally. She is courageous, and has gained personal strength from her dedicated efforts to help others fight these types of illness. I wish her continued success, and hope that she will inspire others to follow her lead.

Posted by William Hansen, a resident of another community
on Jul 30, 2007 at 2:54 pm

I met Katherine recently at a Stanford seminar and until she let me know that she had bipolar I would not have guessed that she suffered from this illness. I salute Katherine for her courage in helping to let people know what it is like to have bipolar disorder. Through Katherine, and others, we can see that although we cannot yet cure the illness, there is a basis for hope and inspiration - and that with medicine and therapy, the illness can be tamed and the ill can lead go on to lead good lives. As the parent of a child that has the illness, I can appreciate seeing this kind of progress.

One aspect of bipolar disorder that the writer may expand upon in a follow-up article is to look at how important family and friends are in a patient's journey towards recovery and the value of support groups for these helpers. It is essential for the patient's family and friends to know there are support groups for them too, such as those available through Alliance and NAMI, and that they will need (and deserve) this kind of emotional support.

The initial period before and after a patient's diagnosis are rough, really rough, and there is so much to get to know and to do. Families must learn these things pretty darn fast. There is so much that is happening that defies understanding (including public assistance like SSI, EPS, and emergency 911 types of calls), such as the emotional lows of the depression, the anger, and when these feelings become focused upon those who are trying to help. It's even more difficult for all when there are other aspects of the illness (such as schizophrenia which commonly accompanies bipolar disorder) to also deal with. Parents and family members tend to take these experiences personally, but they need to know that patients don't wish to behave this way, and unfortunately, patients commonly act this way towards those who love them while they are trying to provide help.

If people consider the families and friends that help the ill like a compass to help the ill to navigate their way to wellness, then they should also consider joining a support group to ensure that they stay strong and get the emotional support that they will need to survive the ups and downs they will surely encounter. Support groups for families are as essential to the families as they are for people who suffer from the illness.

Bless you Katherine for all that you are doing to help yourself and to help others. You go girl!

Posted by Nicki Moffat, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 31, 2007 at 5:40 pm

I've known Katherine for many years, before and after her bipolar disorder emerged. I loved and admired her before the illness struck, and I love her and admire her even more now, having seen the courageous way that she's dealt with all of the many difficult aspects of the disease. I'm always amazed that Katherine manages to do all that she does. Indeed, as I've often told her, she takes on more challenges and accomplishes more than most of the people I know who don't have to cope with bipolar disorder at the same time. I've also always been impressed with the good humor and positive attitude with which she lives her life. But most of all I admire her unselfish determination to help others. Having suffered with depression myself, I know how hard it can be at times just to get up in the morning, let alone reach out to others. I also understand the impulse to remove oneself from the world when the pain of depression seems too difficult to handle. But Katherine has done quite the opposite. With her group, her writing, and in her everyday life, she's not only an effective mental health advocate but a truly compassionate and giving human being. I know this first hand because Katherine has always been there for me as a loving and helpful friend even when she herself was suffering. She is always empathetic, supportive, and concerned no matter how difficult her own life may be at the time. I'm grateful that she's my friend, and I'm grateful for the article featuring her story. I hope that you'll continue to publish articles such as this. Mental illness has long been misunderstood and is too often seen as a stigma rather than a condition that many, many people, including Katherine, deserve our respect and admiration for not only enduring but rising above.

Posted by Joanne Tyler, a resident of another community
on Aug 1, 2007 at 2:31 pm

Thank you so much for this article. It not only helps to normalize a condition that is stigmatized in our society, but illustrates what a resourceful and giving person such as Ms. Lerer can contribute to alleviate the suffering and isolation of others. She is an emblem of the highest attributes of humanity.

Posted by Debbie Miller, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 4, 2007 at 2:15 pm

Thank you for your article on bipolar. I will read your article to my daughter who is bipolar and our family which may shed some insight into what our 32 year old daughter is going through. She has gone through some similar things. Please keep writing and informing others there is hope available.
Sincerely, Debbie Miller

Posted by Lynn Cornish, a resident of Woodside
on Sep 2, 2007 at 11:29 am

Thank you for such a great article on mental illness. How generous of Katherine to share her experiences. She is an inspiration in her willingness to be open about her difficulties and successes. It is so important to help others know that they are not alone and that there is hope for themselves or a loved one.