Victoria C. Cousins
February 25, 1957 - June 28, 2005
Founding Director SCDMH Office of Consumer Affairs

A Survivor’s Story
By Bryan Kost

She laughs.  “What saved me was that I had bad credit,” she says.

Bad credit saved Vicki Cousins life.  Not many of us can say that.

But how many of us can say we once took a bag, filled it with every sharp and dangerous object, every medication within reach, and set off to kill ourselves?  How many of us can say that we one day called all our family, our friends, and offered a cloaked “goodbye” to them, before we drove to the hotel five miles down the road?  How many of us kissed our spouse, patted our dogs on the head, and walked out the door, planning to be dead by day’s end?  How many of us have been so detached from our emotions that on the way to the hotel to kill ourselves, we stopped to visit a hospitalized colleague, even bringing an apple to cheer him up? 

Not many of us.  Not many of us then locked ourselves in the hotel room, and proceeded to swallow crushed glass, stick knives in electrical outlets, cut ourselves in a bathtub and sit to watch the blood flow, then gulp every pill we could painfully,  to kill ourselves.  Not many of us have felt so unworthy, so driven to eliminate ourselves, so full of ideas yet empty of feelings.  Not many of us have ever felt like Vicki Cousins, who has survived Hodgkin’s Disease, depression and bipolar affective disorder, and just knew “God did not want me to be here.”

Still, maybe we can understand why Vicki laughs about the bad credit saving her life.  It makes as much sense as anything else did that day.  For as Vicki went about hurting herself with her bag of killing supplies, a clerk at the front desk ran her credit card for verification.  Her payment was denied.  Soon the hotel staff were at her door.  When she wouldn’t come out, police knocked the door down.  And Vicki Cousins was pulled out to begin her walk of recovery from mental illness.

That was 17 years ago.  Vicki Cousins now works as Director of South Carolina Department of Mental Health’s Office of Consumer Affairs.  She helps consumers across the state learn to take part in their recovery, stand up for their rights and privileges, and powerfully live with their illnesses and contribute to their communities.  Vicki Cousins helps consumers serve as self-identifying staff with mental illnesses within SCDMH’s facilities, bringing consumer voices to the ears of DMH decision-makers and the public.  She is helping people seek treatment, stay healthy,  and then -- help others do the same. 

Vicki Cousins is better now.  Even her credit is better!  And many players deserve credit in her recovery story:

After the suicide attempt, Vicki met her friend Jane, a fellow mental health patient in the hospital.  Jane, diagnosed with Depression, was beautiful and strong.  Vicki, weak from chemotherapy for the Hodgkin's, was thin and had no hair.  But Jane insisted, “You’re going to get better.”  Jane made Vicki take a role in her recovery, and get a grip on her illness.  Jane taught Vicki that one must take the illness head-on, learn about it, read about other’s experiences, and work toward one’s recovery.  Later, Jane became Vicki’s employer at the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Minnesota.

Years later, working for the Mental Health Association in Minnesota, Vicki worked with Andrea, who has Dissociative Identify Disorder (formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder.)  Andrea was chair of the board of MHA in Minneapolis.  Andrea was a fighter, who would not back down.  “What an inspiration! ... Before meeting Andrea, I never thought to fight for myself,” Vicki said.  Andrea, like Jane, helped Vicki identify the biggest weapon she had: her own story.  “Through them, I saw the power of self-identification, and it’s effects on people,” Vicki said.  When a person publicly owns the sickness, something begins to happens.  Seeds of recovery take root as a person with mental illness begins to share her story, to understand her disease, and help others start that process.

At SCDMH, Dr. Joseph Bevilacqua, former State Director, with his deputy Director John Morris, was leading a group of employees in developing and defining the position of Consumer Affairs Coordinators (CACs).  One of these individuals was Billy Brown. He would become the agency’s first Consumer Affairs Coordinator.  CACs are self-identified mental illness survivors who work for SCDMH as advocates, mentors, movers and shakers in the centers and hospitals.  Bevilacqua, Morris and Brown saw how CACs epitomized the healing process, indeed serving as healers themselves.  They also saw the power of Vicki’s story, and her commitment to helping people with their own stories.  They helped bring her into SCDMH as the statewide director of Consumer Affairs Coordinators.

Vicki gives her mother credit for immersing herself in learning about mental illnesses and how to treat someone with a mental illness once she got sick.  But her mother was searching in old texts with clinical approaches and definitions. She was scaring herself (and Vicki). Vicki simply needed love and support.  Then her mother found the Journey of Hope courses offered by NAMI.  NAMI’s classes are designed for family members of people with mental illnesses.  Vicki always assumed her brother was told about the events of her life, but had never discussed them herself with her brother.  And five years after her suicide attempt, she surprised him with a comment about it.  She couldn’t help wondered if her parents had been too ashamed to tell her brother about it all.  Did they think he couldn’t handle the news?  Were they worried that something similar might happen to him?

Finally, some credit for Vicki’s recovery should go to “God’s little greeting card.”  What’s that, you ask?  Vicki said that lying in the hospital bed one night after her suicide attempt, “I start to see this amazing, shimmering gold light floating in the room.”  She was not asleep and not on medication.  And she was certainly not alone in that room.  There was a presence, a force, a spirit ... a friend.  “I call it God’s little greeting card,” she said. Vicki knew then she had a lot more living to do and God wanted her here, after all.

Those who know Vicki would say she’s staying with a vengeance.  Every decision she makes and every program she implements at SCDMH starts with the questions, “How will this affect mental health consumers?  How can this empower people to move forward in their recovery?”

Empowering others empowers her.  “Before I began working in this field, I was in commission-based sales, chasing after a buck every day.  Now I’m zeroing in on helping people,” she said.  “I feel blessed that I have a job where I can help.”  She works at a job she loves, and she’s surrounded by people she admires, “smart folks, driven to help people.”  A graduate of Bowdoin College, a part-time graduate student in USC’s Rehabilitation Counseling program and a 10-year veteran of advertising sales, Vicki says that working in the mental health field is the best way for her to monitor her own walk with mental illness. 

And she still has down days along with her up days, but she’s never been as low as she was that day at the hotel.  Never even close.  Her illness may still occasionally flash a symptom, but Vicki knows she’s made life choices that will keep it in check.  She knows that 17 years ago she was in an environment that contributed to her illness: an unhappy marriage, her own family hundreds of miles away, a competitive job as a sales executive in the big city, drinking and partying, ... and mostly, smack in the middle of  aggressive chemotherapy.  Cancer treatments that stunts reproduction of diseased tissue, can also depress the spirit – this added to her vulnerability.  All things considered, Vicki can see how she landed in that hotel room. 

But that landing led to a takeoff.  A takeoff that on June 2, 1994 put Vicki in the director’s chair of the Office of Consumer Affairs.  “Now after nine years, I am still reeling,” Vicki said, describing the accomplishments of consumer involvement in the mental health system.  “We’ve proven that we need a consumer-run Office of Consumer Affairs ... I’m very proud and almost surprised at the way my role has been accepted by this agency,” she added.  Vicki’s also proud that there are quantitative, measurable outcomes pointing to the success of the program.

Since 1994, Vicki has helped put a Consumer Affairs Coordinator in each center of SCDMH, and played a role in guiding South Carolina’s former Governor to name a consumer to the department’s state commission.  Vicki hopes a self-identified consumer may someday serve as director of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health.

Vicki sees the future of mental health treatment including more and more consumer-led initiatives. Medicaid-billable peer support services, peer-run learning centers, all operated by consumers, could serve to help people before it gets too bad for them to help themselves.  A program where a recovering person lives with an individual or family, could be run by consumers. Consumer retreats and trainings, focusing on recovery, would go a long way toward meeting SCDMH’s new Mission Statement:  To support the recovery of people with mental illnesses.

Vicki Cousins continues to dream of improving the lives of others, as well as her own.  A woman who once tried to take her own life, now gives hope to others.  “I’m so lucky,” she said, to work at a job I love.”  She’s lucky for the people in her life.  She’s lucky for her own strength.  And she’s especially lucky for her own bad credit.

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