Who Do You Trust? The Passion and Power of the Mental Health Profession


Would you trust these women? From left: Steff Condon, Lynnel Brewster, Ellen Fix, Christine Walkons, Carla Chludzinski, Deborah Jandle,, Marilyn Spiller, Dana Boyer, Vonnie Woodrick, Catherine VanDeWege, Emily Underwood (not pictured) and Rae Green.


On Monday, I was at a dinner with a cool dozen mental health professionals. I am still reeling from the wealth of talent, housed in our private dining room. The dinner was sponsored by our friends at Alta Mira Recovery Programs and Bridges to Recovery and their Clinical Outreach Representative Carla Chludzinski.  Egos and diets were checked at the door. The food was fantastic (I guess maple sugar, smoked bacon is a garnish now?) and the conversation even better. I was seated between Sanford House’s clinical director Christine Walkons and counselor and addiction specialist, Ellen B. Fix. The group was raucous enough, however, I was able to listen in on many conversations. Inquiring minds want to know, after all…


What Did We Talk About?

This was a diverse gathering – with various points of reference and camaraderie. Before the introductions, I learned that Christine has a home very near Empire Bluffs, the masthead for our new online magazine, Excursions. Ellen is starting a therapy group for professional women struggling with substance use disorders. Across the table, there were lively conversations about holistic counseling; mindful discovery; the Imago Community; MOPS; Wild Women Retreats; somatic experiencing; EFT tapping therapy and shoes. As it so happens this group was all professional women. I don’t think I am telling tales out of school, when I say there were many references to children, significant others, clothing and our passion for our work.


Women’s Night…

The intimacy of an all-women’s group might have been why the evening was such a success. In the same way Sanford House provides a safe, warm environment for its gender-specific clients, we seemed to be free to express ourselves without any hesitation or insecurity. There was an opportunity for everyone to introduce themselves. Something that usually has me obsessively rehearsing what I’m going to say, instead of listening to others.


When Vonnie Woodrick began, speaking of her personal experience losing her husband to suicide, and creating I Understand to help erase the stigma associated with mental illness, I was all ears. So was everyone else. Sanford House founder Rae Green says, “I was incredibly honored to be a part of this group. By the time we got halfway around the table, I didn’t have the chills exactly, but it was something akin to that. There was so much love and laughter. And everyone there – all those smart people – were putting their talents towards helping others.”


Who Do You Trust?

On the way home, the Sanford House group talked about trust. Steff was trying to get someone to join her at a high rope course – no takers. She wants the women of Sanford House to experience a “trust building” excursion. I said I’d go, but I always say “yes” without considering the consequences. (I’m actually scared of heights). Lynnel told us about the time she froze on a high-wire, teaming exercise. She said, “It started to get dark. The place was closing. My team members were standing below, looking up. ‘You can do it. Trust the ropes. Trust the guide’…” She said, ” I’ll never do that again…”


But she would. Lynnel would be way up top with a hand out, if somebody needed help. That’s the power and the passion of the mental health profession. Once you lend a hand you can’t seem to stop. There is so much to do. So many people out there, frozen on the ropes.


And the rewards are immeasurable…





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Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.