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Road to redemption: Understanding mental health, and seeking help, brings sense of normalcy

Leann Dorr suffered from major depression after her mom passed away but is slowly getting her "normal" life back with the help of Hope House. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 2
Lori Sorsoleil suffers from bipolar disorder type I, schizoaffective disorder and borderline personality disorder, but with the help of Hope House has gained control of her life. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer2 / 2

BEMIDJI - One never experienced severe depression until it took over her life.

The other says she suffered from it her whole life but went undiagnosed.

Leann Dorr, 50, and Lori Sorsoleil, 50, both suffer from mental illness but through the Hope House have learned to take back control of their lives.

Dorr, a single mom of two children with special needs, relied on her mom for help, but when her mom passed away in 2005, Dorr says she was pushed over the edge into major depression.

"I felt like I hit rock bottom," Dorr says. "She was my biggest support system. It was really, really tough going."

Dorr was seeing a therapist weekly but "seeing a therapist once a week doesn't make up for the hours you're hurting," Dorr says. Dorr ended up hospitalized several times.

"It was never enough," Dorr says. "I went from having the full support at the hospital to none."

Then, in 2007, her therapist took her to Hope House.

"That was a big change for me," Dorr says. "One of the things with Hope House is they help with high-functioning people with mental illness. They don't tell you that you aren't bad enough."

As she's worked to get her life back, Dorr says the hardest part has been dealing with some of the people she worked with before. Prior to being diagnosed with a mental illness, Dorr was working three jobs to support her two children, who were then 18 and 8 years old.

"I worked in the finance offices for the county and for the battered women's shelter," Dorr says. "It's tough, because now you're on the other side of the desk, so to speak. It's difficult to make them understand that where you are now isn't where you used to be."

While she currently works a part-time job in the finance office of a collision center and was recently appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton to a spot on the Minnesota State Advisory Council on Mental Health, Dorr says she'll never be 100 percent.

"I've gotten older and other things have happened, but now I can function a lot better for my children," Dorr says. "My children were a big part of me getting better."

When she was at her worst, Dorr says sometimes accomplishing something small meant it was a good day.

"It was awful. I had to push myself to the max," Dorr says. "I had children that had to be fed, had to get to school. There was no one to ask for help."

Dorr says prior to her mother's death, she had never experienced depression to that extreme.

"My father died when I was 10, but it never hit me like that," Dorr says.

Watching her mom get sicker and sicker caused the depression to build up inside of her, Dorr says.

"I think it just needed a trigger, and when she passed away, it just crumpled that wall," Dorr says. "I was so determined to make it work. You just can't without the right help."

About a year and a half ago, Dorr says things started working better.

"I can't tell you why, but suddenly I didn't have this huge streak of bad luck," Dorr says. "I'm at a time to make decisions. I want to go forward but I don't want to go overboard."

Dorr says she'll never be able to work a full-time job but is planning to start a program through People's Church that will offer various services.

Dorr credits her last five years at Hope House to helping her conquer her depression.

"I'm a people person, so that helped a lot," Dorr says. "During my big depression years, I was very isolated. Hope House helped. It was there I learned how to find humor again."

She also says her past job experience helped her through her depression.

"I think I have it easier than some because I've worked with the county and with nonprofits, so I'm used to helping in crisis situations," Dorr says. "Even at Hope House I would tell people, 'Well if you do this, you'll get the best benefits.' I'm always trying to help."

As she continues to be more involved in the community and get her life back, Dorr says she wants the public to remember not everyone with mental illness is alike.

"Just because you have depression doesn't mean you'll be isolated or crying all the time," Dorr says. "You can't just look at someone and say 'they don't have depression.' You have good days even with depression. Just because you have depression, doesn't mean you can't laugh."

Sorsoleil wasn't diagnosed until after college but first felt the effects of her mental illness at the age of 15.

"I think I was depressed all my life and didn't know it," Sorsoleil says. "At 15 I took a bunch of my mom's tranquilizers, which landed me in Golden Valley Youth Center for three months."

She was then transferred to a youth care center in Bemidji, which tried to rehabilitate her back into her family.

"That really didn't work," Sorsoleil says. "I ended up in numerous foster and group homes."

Sorsoleil says she was miserable growing up.

"I was the black sheep in my family," Sorsoleil says. "They told me I was dumb and never going to do anything and that I'd probably end up in a home. For the longest time, I believed part of me was (made) wrong."

While she was at the care center in Bemidji, Sorsoleil vowed to come back to Bemidji State University to earn a degree.

"I made a commitment to myself to go to college to show my parents that their daughter wasn't so stupid after all," Sorsoleil says. "It wasn't easy, but I had a lot of determination."

While at BSU, Sorsoleil met her future husband. She also was struggling to figure out what was wrong with her.

"I tried self-medicating to get rid of the pain and the hurt and was on my way to becoming an alcoholic," Sorsoleil says. "My husband put his foot down when we got married, but I couldn't deal with the stress of being newly married on top of everything else."

After graduation, Sorsoleil went through a series of jobs, not realizing she couldn't hold a full-time job due to a fear of authority figures. She also started drinking in secret, until her husband came home from work early one day.

"I was very drunk," Sorsoleil says. "He left to go fishing and I raided the medicine cabinet. I took everything I could, which landed me in the hospital."

During that hospitalization, Sorsoleil's family doctor introduced her to a mental illness specialist, who suggested she go to Hope House.

It was at Hope House that Sorsoleil was informed she suffered from bipolar disorder type I, schizoaffective disorder and borderline personality disorder.

"I started receiving medications that work much better than alcohol," Sorsoleil says.

Sorsoleil has been going to Hope House for 23 years, and the people at the organization have become a second family, she says.

"I've never seen a group of people bound so closely together," Sorsoleil says. "We're all friends, sometimes friend counselors."

For the last 27 years, Sorsoleil's husband has been her support system.

"He had to learn a lot after I was diagnosed," Sorsoleil says. "He couldn't understand why I couldn't just pull myself up by my boot straps."

Now, though, her husband understands.

"He understands when I'm depressed," Sorsoleil says. "I have days where I can't do anything. And other days I'm extremely excitable and eager to get things done."

She also developed a crisis plan with the help of Hope House for times when her prescriptions aren't working as well.

"Part of my plan is to distract myself from everything," Sorsoleil says. "I love to do crafts. I make jewelry, crochet, do needlepoint and paint."

She's also busy repairing her family relationships, which have been strained since her teenage years, Sorsoleil says.

"I just visited my mom, and my sister just came and visited me," Sorsoleil says. "I haven't seen my dad in years. He still makes me nervous."

Sorsoleil also holds two part-time jobs. She is the coordinator of Hope House's public speaking program and works at Walmart for Hallmark Greeting Cards.

"I love my jobs," Sorsoleil says. "They make me feel like I'm doing something. On the bad days, work makes the voices in my head go away."

For Sorsoleil, the most difficult part of having a mental illness is the stigma.

"It makes me both mad and sad," Sorsoleil says. "We're more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators. In all my years at Hope House, I have only ever seen one act of aggression and that was because (the aggressor) had been drinking and not taking his medication."

Sorsoleil says she wants the public to know people with mental illness aren't out to hurt anyone.

"They don't understand what mental illness is," she says. "It's not something we wished upon ourselves. We're not loonies -- we're just average, ordinary people, trying to make it in a society that doesn't understand us."

But Sorsoleil says she isn't giving up.

"I'm trying to fit into regular society," she says. "It's hard to fit in with people who don't understand you. Mentally ill people are just as capable as normal people."