The art of finding hope in life

Sean Sullivan: "I feel like I am doing something meaningful in the community. I’m doing what I love, and I really owe it to Bert Nash for giving me that hope. If it weren’t for Bert Nash, I don’t know where I would be.”

Sean Sullivan: "I feel like I am doing something meaningful in the community. I’m doing what I love, and I really owe it to Bert Nash for giving me that hope. If it weren’t for Bert Nash, I don’t know where I would be.” by Jeff Burkhead

For a long time, Sean Sullivan was missing something in his life.

Hope.

He found it at the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.

“I really owe it to Bert Nash for giving me that hope,” he said. “If it weren’t for Bert Nash, I don’t know where I would be.”

Sullivan grew up knowing he was different; he just didn’t know why.

“I always felt sort of socially isolated and like I didn’t belong,” he said. “I was kind of awkward growing up and not accepted by my peers. So I always struggled with depression.”

Sullivan, 34, has lived with serious physical challenges his entire life, though they weren’t discovered until he was in his mid 20s.

“I was born with agenesis of the corpus callosum, which means I’m missing the part of the brain that is responsible for interpreting and processing information and understanding instructions,” Sullivan said. “I’m on the autistic spectrum. So as well as the neurologic condition I was born with, I have a range of learning and mental disabilities. I’ve always kind of seen the world differently.”

Sullivan began seeing a psychologist when he was 12. Originally, it was thought he had attention deficit disorder. He was put on ADD medication and antidepressants. It was around that time that he first remembers having thoughts about suicide.

“I didn’t feel normal. I felt inferior,” Sullivan said. “I didn’t have much hope for a better life for myself.”

When he was in high school, Sullivan began experimenting with drugs. That went on for about 15 years as he graduated to harder and harder substances. He was living in Washington, D.C., where his mother lived, and working for a company that employed people with disabilities when he was fired because of behavioral problems at work.

“I had a nervous breakdown at work and threatened suicide,” he said. “That was the first time I found myself in a psychiatric hospital.”

The suicide threat was a way to let others know he was hurting, Sullivan said.

“I toyed with the idea of suicide, not necessarily to get attention but as a way of crying out for help,” he said. “I had no hope. I could not see through the fog and I didn’t know what else to do other than to say I’m going to end it all. I didn’t know there was a reason to go forward. I didn’t know there were people who cared.”

Sullivan often had thoughts of wanting to kill himself and verbalized it.

“Those words came out of my mouth many times,” he said. “Looking back now, I don’t think I actually meant those words. It was just a cry for help.”

After returning to Kansas, Sullivan continued to struggle with substance abuse and depression. He checked himself into Stormont-Vail Healthcare in Topeka three times in three years. A caseworker at Stormont-Vail referred him to Bert Nash. Sullivan moved into Bridges, a Bert Nash transitional housing facility, and he started going through the intensive outpatient program at Bert Nash. After staying a couple of months at Bridges, his Bert Nash case manager helped him get his own apartment, which gave him a feeling of independence and pride.

Sullivan also started focusing on his art; he does abstract painting. He became involved in Percolator Lawrence, an organization that supports local artists. He’s hoping to organize an exhibit in the spring showcasing his art and that of others who deal with similar struggles.

“I would like there to be a show to highlight people with mental illness and disabilities and how art helps to them to cope,” he said. “Even for people who are in the worst situations, things can get better. Having got to the point of desperation, it took me reaching out and asking for help to realize there is hope.”

Sullivan has experienced some “hiccups” in his addiction recovery, as he says, but being a part of the arts and mental health community has helped him maintain a meaningful purpose in life. He also shares his story in the hopes it will help other people.

“I want to help others who are facing some of the same struggles that I have,” he said. “I have this purpose now. I feel like I am doing something meaningful in the community. I’m doing what I love, and I really owe it to Bert Nash for giving me that hope. If it weren’t for Bert Nash, I don’t know where I would be.”

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