The highlight of Laurie Reynolds’ career occurred when she earned the Robert A. Harms Professional of the Year award from the Mental Health Association of Washington County in 2009.

Reynolds is director of Community Action Southwest’s Consumer Family Satisfaction Team, where she is an advocate for people living with mental illness.

For Reynolds, the award was validation of both her efforts to connect people with mental health issues to available mental health and substance abuse services, and her lifelong struggle to overcome debilitating depression and anxiety to build a happy, successful and healthy life.

Reynolds spent six decades battling depression before she was diagnosed with the illness in her 60s.

“I knew when I was a child that I was different. I had my happy times, but I was depressed a lot,” said Reynolds.

She suffered panic attacks, and was evaluated by a physician for epilepsy because she had what the family called “spells,” where she felt disconnected from her body,

Today, Reynolds, 71, of Washington, says she is content in her roles as mom, grandmother and empathetic voice for the mentally ill.

“I haven’t been happy a lot of my life. But getting into my later years, I am happy,” said Reynolds.

In hindsight, Reynolds realizes she suffered from depression from the time she was a small child.

She grew up on a farm in Iowa, one of five children.

“I was extremely close with my siblings, and when they left, I was lost because they were my anchors.”

She stayed home from school whenever she could. She didn’t participate in activities she was interested in, worried that she would have a “spell.”

When she was a teenager, Reynolds and her parents moved to Oklahoma City to be closer to her siblings.

Her sister took her to see psychologist when she was 15.

It was a significant event because the psychologist helped Reynolds focus on planning a future, which included attending college.

She graduated from high school and attended Central State College in Oklahoma, where she graduated with honors with a degree in speech and hearing.

The depression subsided at times, but Reynolds often found herself in a dark place where she had difficulty climbing out.

Reynolds attempted suicide one time in her 20s – she overdosed on pills – and on other occasions she contemplated ending her life.

After two failed marriages, she met her husband, Jack, to whom she has been married for nearly 40 years.

They have three grown children, Sean, Cheyenne and Shain, and Reynolds credits Jack with helping her cope with depression.

When she was 34, months after the birth of her second child, Cheyenne, Reynolds was hospitalized with postpartum depression.

The family had moved into her husband’s parents’ home in South Carolina, and Reynolds had returned to work as a speech therapist. The changes proved to be too much.

She was prescribed an anti-depressant, but she quit taking it because the medication “made me feel like a zombie. I felt like I couldn’t take care of the kids or do my job,” Reynolds said.

She spent the next two-plus decades dealing with depression on her own.

“I think what helped me to go on through my life was my children, my family, because I had to keep it together for them. There were times I wanted to lie in bed all the time, but I couldn’t. I had to get up and take care of them,” said Reynolds. “I just made myself get up and take care of them, even though sometimes it was difficult.”

After “just muddling through” until she was 60, Reynolds finally sought professional help.

The combination of medication, the support of her family, and the support she receives at work, where the members of her team also have mental health diagnoses, has helped her reach a point in her life where she has found happiness and contentment.

“When I came here to the (Family Satisfaction) team, I really felt accepted, I felt accepted for who I was,” she said. “I didn’t have to be perfect. One of the things I have really loved about the team is that we support each other, we love each other. It’s kind of like a home, in a way; it’s feeling a sense of unity and acceptance. We have baggage – we all have baggage – but we can be accepted. A lot of times you don’t get that because of the stigma attached to mental illness. You think if you tell people, they’ll look at you differently.”

She has some regrets about waiting so long to get treatment for her mental illness.

“I do have regrets, and the reason I do is because I feel that it wasn’t fair to my children. That’s the biggest regret that I have,” said Reynolds.

Hanging on the walls of Reynolds’ office are more than a dozen hats: a chef’s toque, a jester’s cap, a cowboy hat, a “thinking” cap.

They are reminders, Reynolds said, that we all wear different hats at different times.

She encourages people to value each other for who they are, to find their gifts and share them, and not to be afraid to seek help for mental health issues.

She plans to continue to help others fighting mental illness through her work at Community Action.

“People with mental illness are really very resilient. We’re quite capable,” said Reynolds. “My message is we all have a gift – everybody does. You just have to find out what that gift is and use it.”

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