There were times in Jenny Simmons’ early life when she was overcome with unease, like the time she couldn’t catch her breath during her younger sister’s gymnastics practice. And the time in sixth grade when she hyperventilated while playing outside during recess.
Then, Simmons didn’t know what was happening to her, or why. She didn’t have the knowledge or language to put a name to what plagued her. Now, she knows she experienced panic attacks that occurred as a result of multiple mental health issues.
“I remember I was always told, ‘You’re just crying for attention,’” said Simmons.
As a certified peer specialist helping others deal with mental health issues, the 39-year-old Canonsburg resident is candid about her journey, which includes several suicide attempts and addictions to alcohol and drugs.
“Being in a recovery environment has been the true key to my wellness,” Simmons said.
After her parents separated when she was 9, Simmons lived with her mother and younger sister near Apollo, Westmoreland County. When she was 16, Simmons made her first suicide attempt.
“I wrote the letter and called a few friends to say goodbye,” she said. “A girlfriend showed up at my house. I was going to try to overdose on pills, and she knocked them out of my hands. She took me to another friend’s house. I begged them not to tell anybody, and they didn’t.”
Simmons kept the sadness and worry to herself, and although her senior year of high school was stressful, she graduated and made plans to attend college. Two weeks before leaving for California University of Pennsylvania, her grandmother died.
“She was the person that kept me and everybody together. Those last few months of my senior year were devoted to taking care of her,” Simmons said. “I went to college, and it was the first time I didn’t have anybody to take care of. My mom was always working, and I took care of my little sister. I didn’t have any of that, and I was still grieving. I started drinking and smoking weed.”
The second semester of college, Simmons was sexually assaulted.
“That was definitely the catalyst. Everything was teetering at that point, and that was the catalyst for the downward spiral,” she said.
That summer, she tried a second time to take her life.
“I attempted to get some help, and it was futile. It didn’t work out so well,” she said. “I started seeing a therapist. What I do remember was she had me read about the different types of depression. I said, ‘Manic – this sounds like me,’ and she said, ‘No, no, no. That’s for really sick people.’”
The therapist said she would prescribe antidepressants, but only if Simmons stopped drinking.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m definitely not going to stop drinking,’” she said.
Instead, Simmons stopped seeing the therapist.
She returned to school and, after a “breakdown” in her dorm room, took advantage of campus therapy services.
“I had a lot of still thinking it was my fault, the things that happened to me. I was too afraid to say what was really going on or what had happened to me,” she said. “My alcoholism and drug use had really spiraled.”
With every intention of going into rehab, Simmons left school before graduating. She said her family told her she didn’t need rehab, but a new hobby. So Simmons enrolled and graduated from massage therapy school and moved to Pittsburgh. At 20 years old, she met her future husband. At 21, she gave birth to her first son, Austin.
“I had really horrible postpartum depression, and I just, you know, I really don’t know what I did to get through that period,” she said.
Simmons said her relationship was abusive, but when she became pregnant with her second son, Simmons decided to stay.
Peyton was born with tracheomalacia, a condition that caused him to stop breathing. The first six months of his life, Simmons spent most of her time caring for him at the hospital.
“I remember sitting in the hallway of the apartment where we lived, calling the suicide hotline trying to get help,” she said. “I felt guilty and ashamed.”
With her son’s health improving, Simmons gathered the courage to end the marriage. She took her boys to a shelter in Greensburg, where she learned skills to build self-esteem, establish boundaries and stay safe.
Simmons saw a therapist for a short time while taking classes in medical billing, then got a job working in a hospital.
“I was a single mom with a 3-year-old and 1-year-old. I just did what I needed to do,” said Simmons. “Things seemed to be coming together on the outside, but on the inside, I was falling apart even more.”
She started drinking and self-medicating. After driving home drunk from a party, she decided to go to her primary care doctor for help.
“He prescribed Paxil and Xanax,” she said. “Paxil made me sick, and Xanax knocked me out. I’m a single mom. How am I supposed to take care of my kids nauseated and passed out? I didn’t know there were other options.”
Simmons stopped taking the medication. Soon after, she had what she calls “a mental break.”
“In one week, my day care closed unexpectedly, I totaled my car and I lost my job,” she said.
Simmons frantically started projects she didn’t finish, like painting her apartment and purging large quantities of items from her home. She began using cocaine regularly.
“I was all over the place. I had experimented with drugs off and on. Then I met some people, and my addiction took off. It was in there brewing, and in my manic phase was when that addiction took off,” she said. “For maybe a year-and-a-half, I was a full-blown addict, trying to keep face. My kids still lived with me. One night, I was raped at gunpoint in my own home by my drug dealer with my kids sleeping in the next room. After about a month, I couldn’t hold it in any longer.”
Simmons asked her mom to take care of her children while she went to rehab at Greenbriar Treatment Center. While working through the program, Simmons was preparing for discharge when she was served with a protection-from-abuse order, filed by her mom on behalf of her children. With her mother fighting for custody of her children, Simmons was alone with no place to go. Then she found out she was pregnant.
“My thought was, even as bad as things are, even if it wasn’t the best situation, I felt at least I’ll always have one of my kids with me. This will keep me clean,” she said.
Simmons ended up having a miscarriage.
“I just totally lost it after the miscarriage,” she said. “I just wanted to die.”
Simmons was admitted to Washington Hospital’s psychiatric unit. The next few years, she lived in a three-quarter house, was in and out of rehab and was hospitalized again after attempting suicide. With her mother having custody of her boys, Simmons saw them infrequently.
At one point, she considered marrying an immigrant who wanted his green card.
“In my head, I needed a family. I was going to marry him. I was desperate to do whatever it took to get my kids back,” she said. “Then I had a lightbulb moment, like, ‘What are you doing?’”
She called Lori Bertram, who ran the three-quarter house she had previously lived in, and begged to be taken back. She started recovery and got clean Feb. 4, 2007.
“All I needed was one person to give me a chance,” Simmons said.
Bertram was that person.
“She is very persistent,” Bertram said. “She got clean, and she has just been nonstop ever since.”
With Bertram’s support, Simmons “really gave it my best shot,” she said. “At five months clean, I got the opportunity to start working at AMI in Washington.”
The organization offers recovery-oriented services to adults with mental illness or co-occurring disorders.
Simmons was leading groups on a number of topics such as gratitude, self-esteem and social skills.
“I was learning tons, tons. I was researching, and as much as I was facilitating, I was participating,” she said. “I just got stronger within myself.”
When the group started a peer-mentoring program, Simmons knew she had to be a part of it.
“Although I was there to help other people, I got so much help,” she said. “I did the research. I didn’t want to just talk about it. I wanted it to be real, so I walked the talk.”
Simmons started to see a therapist and psychiatrist regularly and took medication for bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Because I was working and doing advocacy, I knew how to advocate for myself. I knew what I wanted. I knew what did work for me and what didn’t,” she said. “With mental illness, it’s not like you keep getting better – it’s up and down.”
She was working, regularly seeing her children and following the plan for mental health, but in 2012, Simmons’ depression worsened.
“I was taking meds, seeing my therapist, working on diet and exercise, utilizing my supports. I was doing all of the things I was taught, and the depression wasn’t getting any better,” she said.
One thing that was different this time was Simmons’ ability to be thankful for all she had in her life. And she was clean.
“I was still able to find gratitude,” she said.
Instead of following through on the plan to end her life, Simmons reached out to her supports.
“Jenny talks about how much I’ve influenced her. I would argue it’s the other way,” Bertram said. “She’s influenced me more. Her commitment to her job – she invests more into her job than is required. Nobody’s perfect, but she’s the closest thing to it.”
After all this time, Simmons is able to be the type of mother she always wanted to be. Her sons, Austin, now 18, and Peyton, 15, were both in her Sept. 4 wedding to Frank Bennett.
She’s learning to let go of the guilt that she couldn’t “get better” or kick her addiction for her kids’ sake.
“I’ve learned that one thing has nothing to do with the other. I can’t love my children into making myself better,” Simmons said. “My little boys aren’t so little anymore. They’re both funny and well- adjusted and ... I got that confirmation from them that I made the right choices.”
Simmons continues to work with others at Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services Care Center. She’s taking college classes and plans to continue in social work. She wants to do it all, from one-on-one therapy to making necessary changes in the system.
Simmons hopes to convey a message of hope to those who feel helpless.
“Nobody is hopeless. Everybody has the worth of getting better and staying better. And even if you don’t believe in yourself, somebody believes in you,” she said. “No matter what you’ve been through, you can get better.”