Kimberly Minor loses and finds her way after a sudden emotional breakdown during her first year in college.
Kimberly Minor drove pell-mell from Clark Atlanta University, where she was a freshman, and pulled into the steep driveway of her parents’ three-story stucco house on a cul-de-sac in Lithonia. Her father, Stephen, a heavyset man with close-cropped hair, came out of his basement office, surprised to see his daughter in midafternoon.
“Dad, I quit my job,” she announced as she got out of the car.
“What?” he exclaimed in amazement. “You can’t do that.” He was stunned as he pulled her roller-bag of papers and books into the house. She was so proud of her internship at Morehouse School of Medicine, where she helped with communications, putting together newsletters and press releases.
“You didn’t give two weeks’ notice?” he demanded. “I taught you better than that.”
Kimberly began to explain. Her job responsibilities had grown and she felt overwhelmed. His normally calm, pleasant daughter appeared tense and anxious. Her father was confused. When her mother, Geneva, came home from work, Kimberly repeated her story. They ate dinner and Kimberly continued going over the events of the day. She was convinced her coworkers had it in for her. Around midnight, her mother went to bed, but her father stayed up a while longer with his daughter before eventually retiring for the night.
But at 4 a.m., Kimberly was still talking.
She walked into her father’s bedroom, and he rose to face her.
Kimberly kept repeating her story. And then something happened that shook Stephen to the core. His daughter’s sweet, melodious voice suddenly changed, taking on the deep timbre and pitch of a man’s voice.
This can’t be happening, Stephen thought. At that moment, he understood that something was deeply wrong with his 18-year-old daughter.
Kimberly’s life — and that of her parents — was about to go into a tailspin.
A promising start stalled
Kimberly is an only child, born to parents in their mid-30s who both worked in the insurance industry. She grew up in a spacious, light-filled home near Stonecrest Mall. Recognized for her tall, good looks and outgoing personality, she was named prom queen at Lithonia High School.
In fall 2007, Kimberly enrolled at Clark Atlanta University. Smart and ambitious, she signed up for six classes, one more than most students take. Her schedule included English, pre-calculus, biology and speech. And she landed an internship in Morehouse School of Medicine’s Department of Institutional Advancement, which was usually reserved for upperclassmen. She relished the position and was eager to learn. She always arrived early, before the rest of the staff, and she was given a lot of responsibility, attending events and writing about them for department publications.
But Kimberly was homesick. Her roommate at CAU Suites dormitory was distant, spending a lot of time playing video games and often staying off-campus with friends. As the year progressed, Kimberly’s heavy load of coursework, her job and her own perfectionist tendencies began to weigh her down.
One day Kimberly woke up and something felt off. She began to think people were out to get her. That night she went out to dinner with some colleagues. Afterward she went to her aunt’s house and complained that her co-workers had asked her intrusive questions: They wanted to know where she lived.
The next day, Kimberly marched into the office of the job she had been so proud to get and announced she was quitting. Staff members were stunned; one began to cry. Then Kimberly got in her car and headed home to her parents.
Although there is much that Kimberly doesn’t recall from this time in her life, she clearly remembers hearing that strange voice emerge from her mouth in her parents’ bedroom.
At first Stephen and Geneva were convinced their daughter had been drugged. It was the only explanation that made sense to them. Someone must have put something into her drink when she went out to dinner on Wednesday night.
“We held on to that theory for a long time,” said Geneva.
But, in fact, Kimberly was deep in the middle of what mental health professionals call a psychotic break.
Looking for answers
Psychosis is a state of being out of touch with reality. Thoughts are often disorganized and illogical. People may have delusions — often paranoid ideas — and believe they are being threatened in some way. Other symptoms may include visual or auditory hallucinations.
To most people, mental illness is an unknown land. When a family member or close friend begins to have symptoms, they are horrified.
“She never stopped talking,” Kimberly’s mother recalled. She watched her daughter swing from exuberance to despair.
“We just had no experience with this.”
Aghast as they were, Stephen and Geneva Minor did not waste time. They were clear about one thing: Kimberly needed help. They found it with Dr. Dan Rendleman, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente. During their initial visit, Kimberly was restless and kept jumping up to look at his computer screen, sure in her paranoia that he was looking up her college records. But Rendleman reassured the family. This is something that can sometimes happen to college students, he said.
He prescribed an antipsychotic medication.
Experts say psychosis falls into two major categories, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, formerly called manic-depression. People with bipolar disorder do not necessarily have periods of psychosis, but people with schizophrenia often do. In most cases, the onset of these illnesses occurs between the ages of 18 and 24, when young adults are in a time of transition — leaving home, forging their adult selves — and often feel pressured to land on their feet. The illnesses are now understood to be of physical origin; however, much is not understood. A genetic connection exists — people with a family history of mental illness do have a higher risk.
The Minors, however, had no family history of mental illness. They struggled to understand what had happened. Their only daughter had gone off to college and returned utterly changed. They couldn’t keep their thoughts from skittering into the future. Would Kimberly be altered forever? Would they spend the rest of their lives caring for her?
At home, Kimberly was convinced that hidden cameras were watching her. She believed people on TV were threatening her. When she looked in the mirror, instead of her reflections, she saw monsters.
Slow road back
In the weeks following their first visit to Rendleman, Kimberly gradually seemed to improve. But there were moments when her behavior lurched erratically.
One day she convinced her parents to let her drive to the Clark campus to see some friends.
She went out the back door, down the deck stairs, slipped behind the wheel of the Volvo and headed off. But moments later she was back — she wanted to get her flip-flops. Geneva was in the front yard and walked over to Kimberly, who had stopped the car on the steep driveway.
“Don’t stop the car on the hill,” she told Kimberly. “Pull it to a flat surface.”
Suddenly the car began to roll backward, and rather than hitting the brakes, Kimberly jumped out. Geneva screamed. The car gained speed, crossed the street backward and landed in a neighbor’s yard. Kimberly, who had fallen onto the concrete, was scraped up and bloodied.
“Why did I let her get in the car?” Stephen asked himself over and over. It was clear she wasn’t well.
Nevertheless, within a month of Kimberly’s initial visit, Rendleman noted that most of her delusional thinking was gone and so were the hallucinations. For Kimberly, however, the trouble was not over.
As she began to emerge from that “deep, dark place,” she says, she began to realize to what degree her life had been derailed. She’d dropped out of school and lost her internship, as well as some friends.
When she tried to explain to her friends what had happened, she got a lot of confused looks and blank expressions. “We thought you were raped or something,” someone said.
One of the devastating effects of mental illness is that it can remove something most people take for granted: A trust in their own minds, the central core of who they are.
Making sense of what went wrong was the next painful step for Kimberly. Rendleman explained that Kimberly had suffered a chemical imbalance in her brain. In the stress of freshman year, she had slipped into a depression and it had triggered a psychotic disorder.
While a definitive diagnosis is still unclear, Rendleman talked about situations similar to Kimberly’s, in which students become highly stressed. If they’ve procrastinated on schoolwork all semester, they can become frantic at the end of the term. Sometimes they try to get the work done in a series of all-nighters. Kimberly had, in fact, spent entire nights at the Clark library. Sometimes, Rendleman said, the combination of anxiety, sleep deprivation and perhaps some genetic predisposition can trigger psychotic episodes.
“I got away with it,” Rendleman said, recalling his own days as a student. But not everyone does.
Over the next year and a half, Kimberly met regularly with her therapist, Ellen Bern, and she worked on managing stress and the pressure of her own expectations.
She was eager to get back to normal. Too eager, in fact. She began taking her medication only when she felt like it.
In fall 2009 she re-enrolled in college, this time at the Decatur campus of Georgia Perimeter College, a two-year school. As she and her father sat in the admissions office, a college official told them she was eligible for special services for people with disabilities, since she had been diagnosed with a mental illness. Kimberly dismissed that in a hurry. She did not want special treatment.
Interested in fashion, Kimberly landed an internship at Upscale, a local magazine. Her work on the magazine went well, but her coursework did not. She was overbooked and taking on too much. Her grades dropped and she was put on academic probation. She decided to stop taking classes for a while.
Telling her story
Driving along Covington Highway one warm summer day in 2011, Kimberly spotted a church yard sale in a parking lot and she pulled over to take a look. Tables were piled with used clothes and costume jewelry to benefit Kingdom Builders Worship Center, a small interdenominational church in Decatur. Perhaps it was the refrigerator in the parking lot that caught her eye or the baby-blue shutters on the nearby building. Kimberly doesn’t recall. But she told herself that it would help a church if she bought a little something.
As she parked, a woman sitting in a black SUV looked up from her book. She greeted Kimberly and they fell into conversation. Kimberly told the woman she had been a student at Clark Atlanta. Something about the woman’s warm demeanor encouraged Kimberly to talk about her mental illness. “I just opened up and told her the whole thing,” Kimberly said.
The woman, Martha Jackson, a pastor at Kingdom Builders, issued an invitation: Come visit us. Kimberly decided she would.
When she told her parents, they raised their eyebrows. They were members of Wesley Chapel Church, a medium-sized Methodist congregation in Decatur. Kimberly, however, was persuasive, and the next day they found themselves in an industrial part of town, looking for the church, a storefront across from Fun Time Party Supplies.
“This is not a church,” Kimberly’s father grumbled. “You don’t expect me to go in here.”
But in they went. A congregation of 10 people sat on purple plush and Jackson, the woman Kimberly met at the yard sale, stood on the dais and started the service. Then, unexpectedly, she announced a visitor.
“I met this young lady yesterday,” Jackson said, gesturing toward Kimberly. “If you would, Miss Kimberly, would you please come up and share your testimony?”
Kimberly was stunned. She thought she was there to hear the service, not be a part of it. Nevertheless, with inner trepidation but little outward hesitation, she rose and took the microphone.
“She delivered the rest of the sermon,” her mother said, still awed by the memory.
Kimberly recounted the pain of the past few years. She talked about how hard her parents had prayed. She added scripture to her story, and she cried. Watching his daughter tell her story, Stephen’s eyes welled up with tears. Their family had felt so alone in their struggle. Now members of this congregation were crowding around Kimberly and hugging her. Someone asked for her phone number. “Can you come back?” someone asked. “I want you to talk to our young adults.”
“It was really therapeutic for me and my parents,” Kimberly says.
It was the first time she had told her story in public, but it wouldn’t be the last. She realized the telling had power.
A mission is born
In September 2011, Kimberly re-entered Georgia Perimeter, once again as a freshman. This time, though, she took the offer of disability services. She was permitted to take tests outside the regular classroom and sometimes given more time to complete them. She also was provided with an academic coach, who set up a color-coded schedule that not only designated classes and study times, but hours for relaxation and sleep.
“He got me straight,” Kimberly said. She realized she had a tendency to take on too much, to agree to do things even when she had no time. She realized she needed to take care of herself first.
That fall, Kimberly learned about Active Minds, a nonprofit organization that educates the public about mental illness on college campuses. She helped organize a chapter at Georgia Perimeter, and became its president.
One day the organization polled 52 students on the Georgia Perimeter campus, asking them if they had ever considered suicide. Twenty-nine said yes. Of those, one-third said they had never spoken of it to anyone.
Kimberly has made it her mission to educate the public on mental illness. She has spoken on panels at Georgia Perimeter campuses, Emory University and Morehouse School of Medicine. And she cosponsored the first Active Minds Southeast Regional Summit.
When Kimberly talks about students who complete college in four years, her voice has a wistful quality. That’s not how it has gone for her.
Nevertheless, she was thrilled last Friday to graduate from Georgia Perimeter’s two-year program with high grades, and she’s making plans to continue her education at a four-year college.
Earlier this year, Kimberly was told by her psychiatrist that her illness was in full remission. That same day she was invited to speak at the Carter Center on a panel called “Beyond Stigma: Bringing the Conversation about Mental Illness Forward.”
Looking chic in a black jacket and high heels, her hair cut short and sleek, Kimberly mounted the carpeted stage that night at the Carter Center. An attentive audience, both young and old, filled the auditorium.
Mental illness can’t be reduced to extremes, she told them. It exists in varying degrees, and we can all relate to it because we all experience ups and downs.
She addressed the parents of young adults who have mental illnesses. “Don’t let their hands go,” she said.
“My parents prayed and prayed,” she said. Their faith led her to believe she had a purpose in life. But what saved her was treatment. “We had to learn about mental illness.”
Kimberly told the audience she will never discard her diagnosis. It’s taught her that there’s no blueprint for life. Life unfolds.
After being derailed by a chemical imbalance, “I found out I still have a life to live,” she said.
Geneva and Stephen sat on the front row at the event. Kimberly’s former therapist Bern was in the audience, too. And afterward, friends crowded around Kimberly, congratulating her on a job well done.
From the dark days of being locked inside her head and plagued with paranoia, Kimberly had stepped into a warm circle of people with whom she could share her experience. To them, she brought the knowledge she had gained and a new mission: To educate people about mental illness, to erase the stigma and to encourage people to seek help.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Even off the clock, our newsroom staff is always on the prowl for good stories. Digital editor/producer Stell Simonton was invited by a friend to attend a panel discussion on mental illness at the Carter Center. Of all the panelists who spoke that night, it was Kimberly Minor who made the biggest impression on Stell. The courage it took for Kimberly to tell her story and the eloquence with which she told it stayed with Stell, who, even as she prepared to leave the AJC for other opportunities, felt compelled to share Kimberly’s story. It’s just another example of the level of dedication our staff brings to readers of the AJC.
Suzanne Van Atten
Features Enterprise Editor
About the reporter
Stell Simonton is a former digital editor/producer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she worked for 19 years. She was online channel manager for metro news and managed the online travel section. Previously, she was a copy editor. A native of Marion Junction, Ala., she lives in Atlanta with her husband and daughters.
About the photographer
Phil Skinner has been a photojournalist at the AJC for 16 years, working on a variety of stories, including the Masters, Olympics, Atlanta Braves, presidential campaigns, hurricanes and all kinds of human interest stories. Previously, he worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Boca Raton News, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Jupiter Journal.
Next week: From Perry Homes to “Walking Dead,” IronE forges his own path.