Battling the “Dragon” of Mental Illness

Madelin Weiss
Madelin Weiss

Instilling Hope in Others and in Themselves

From The Quarterly, Winter 2015

Madelin Weiss and Cory Gould have devoted their careers to helping people with mental illness.The two women have never met; their backgrounds and home towns are very different. But both have walked in the shoes of the people they serve. Since childhood, Madelin and Cory have dealt with harrowing mental illnesses that threatened to destroy any hope of a fulfilling future for either.

Today, Madelin, 64, holds a master’s degree in social work. She is the Associate Executive Director of PIBLY Residential Programs, in the Bronx, New York, where she oversees rehabilitative and support services for several hundred people with mental illnesses. Cory, 58, has a master’s degree in psychology and psychotherapy. She is the go-to mental health professional at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Vermont, and a co-founder of the Vermont chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

From the age of eight, Madelin experienced paralyzing anxiety and depression. Panic attacks made her fearful of going out, “afraid,” she says, “I wouldn’t be able to get back home.” Devastated by bipolar disorder from age 11, Cory had decided by the time she was 16 years old that she “didn’t belong on this planet.” She almost succeeded in removing herself from it.

In those not-so-long-ago days when little was known about mental illness in children, distraught parents had difficulty finding help. At first, Madelin was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and given medications that didn’t work. She barely made it through high school and failed twice to get through college. “I spent most of two years in bed,” she says, “getting up only to go to therapy.” There were hospitalizations, a suicide attempt, and in between, on “good days,” sporadic attempts to find employment. “I looked for jobs like handing out flyers on the street, which was all I thought I could do. I couldn’t foresee myself ever really functioning.”

Cory Gould
Cory Gould

Then, she says, her luck changed. “I found a wonderful therapist and a psychiatrist who prescribed medications that actually helped.” On her third try she graduated from college, with straight As. Instead of handing out flyers, she landed a job as a counselor at a mental health center in New Jersey where she worked for several years while completing her graduate degree.

Intellectually precocious, Cory had completed high school by age 16. But “my smarts didn’t save me from depression,” she says. Cory’s suicide plan was tentative: She decided to leave home and think it over. Her farewell note was discovered before she had made her getaway. So Cory grit her teeth and went off to college. There, at age 20, a serious suicide attempt turned out to be a “life changer.”

“I had swallowed three times the dose of phenobarbital that should have been lethal. But instead of dying, I woke up a couple of days later, itching all over. For the next couple of weeks, I stalked around campus thinking about how grossly incompetent I was; I couldn’t even kill myself. Then I concluded that there must be mysteries in the universe, and decided to live.”

For Madelin and Cory, mental illness is a life-long challenge. Cory pictures her illness as “this ugly little dragon on a chain sleeping in a corner of my brain with little wisps of smoke coming out of its nostrils. Every once in a while, it pulls on the chain, the smoke gets darker and my vision clouds. I have to pay attention to the early warning signs. I’ve become expert at managing my illness, and that’s what I teach my clients to do.” As recently as two years ago, Madelin––who calls depression “an outside force from within”––suffered symptoms severe enough for her to have to stop work until her medications were adjusted.

But despite the setbacks and the constant vigilance, both women are grateful for the advances in research that have made it possible for them to live productive lives, and both are longtime supporters of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.

“I think the biggest thing I can give my patients,” says Madelin, “is hope. I have to have hope, and the staff members I train have to have hope. Our patients are so sick it’s often hard to see that little part of them that’s still healthy, the part we have to ally with. Just seeing someone taking a shower who hasn’t bathed in months is progress. Such little changes, and I go home at the end of the day feeling I’ve made a difference in someone’s life.”