New life and fresh beginnings are often linked to spring and for one mother and son, this spring is nothing short of sheer resilience.
As Sequim resident Cathleen O’Connell proudly watched her son Auren beam in his own cap and gown at the University of Washington where he received his Doctor of Nursing Practice degree as a psychiatric nurse practitioner on June 11, she was awaiting her own graduation. At 56 years old, Cathleen also will graduate, but with her Associate of Arts from Peninsula Community College on Saturday, June 18.
For both mother and son reaching their own academic milestones represents far more than the degrees they’ll walk away with. For Auren, pursuing a career in mental health bloomed from an anything but traditional upbringing with a mother grappling with bipolar disorder.
“In continuing to relate to my mom through unconditional love I developed an empathy and personality that jives well with people that are struggling and I love seeing personal growth,” he said.
For Cathleen the thought of attending college always was just a far-off dream.
“I’ve always wanted to finish college, but I’ve always been too sick and never thought I’d be capable,” she said.
“I am so proud of him and I he’s proud of me,” Cathleen added, reflecting on the nearly simultaneous graduations. “We have a lot to be happy and proud of.”
Struggling to maintain her physical and mental health, Cathleen surrendered her parental rights of Auren and his two brothers when he was 6 years old. Bedridden with pain from severe rheumatoid arthritis and trying to manage a life with bipolar disorder, Cathleen said she was in a “fog” built by a variety of prescription drugs.
Auren only saw his mother a couple of times while living with his grandparents in New Jersey, but they talked weekly over the phone. Despite their physical distance, Cathleen always was supportive of Auren.
“She was my biggest advocate — whether I asked for it or not,” he said. “Her love is immense.”
Although Cathleen worked to be a loving and stable mother, her bipolar disorder manifested as a mix of depression with episodes of manic delusions.
“These phases were destructive,” Auren said.
Auren didn’t return to Sequim and to his mother until he was 17 years old and after the death of both of his grandparents.
Upon returning to a life with his mother, Auren deepened his understanding of “pray and forgiveness,” which enabled their relationship to sustain, he said.
Importance of community
Avoiding challenges tied to living with his mother, Auren stayed with Rich and Diana Hay of Olympic Bible Fellowship.
“They’ve done so much for me, as well for my mom,” he said.
Auren also gleaned support and life-changing guidance from his counselor at Sequim High School where he graduated from in 2007.
“She was huge in kind of stabilizing a dysfunctional situation,” he said.
While Auren quickly discovered a supportive network within the community, he also witnessed how the community supported his mother.
“I got to rub shoulders a lot with local law enforcement and the mental health system,” he said.
Through involvement with the community, Peninsula Behavioral Health, the Jamestown Family Health Clinic and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Auren could see his mother’s overall health improving and the importance of community.
“I really think my success and resilience and Mom’s success is a result of the community support,” he said.
Cathleen started swimming at the then Sequim Aquatic Recreation Center and with help from Auren found a medication to better manage her bipolar disorder. Given the correlation between mental and physical health, Auren said, as his mother’s mental health improved so did her physical health.
“I decided I wanted to make some radical changes in my life,” Cathleen said.
Like many illnesses, there’s a “stigma” associated with bipolar disorder, she said, but it doesn’t have to define a person.
Determined to overcome the health hurdles that had limited her throughout her life, Cathleen opted to pursue a college education — something she’d always dreamed of, she said.
Once enrolled at Peninsula Community College, Cathleen found the staff, professors and students all accepting and encouraging of her endeavor.
“People have been really supportive,” she said. “It’s really inspiring to be around such upbeat and positive influences everyday.”
Through assistance provided at the math and writing labs, relationships developed and with hard work, Cathleen was able reach something she didn’t think was possible.
“I never thought I’d be well enough to going down this road,” she said.
Receiving her Associate of Arts is only the first degree Cathleen aspires to earn at PCC. In the fall she’ll start working on her bachelor’s degree in business management. Stemming from her past experience and passion for interior design, Cathleen has hopes of applying her education toward an interior design business.
Setting her recent achievement and future goals aside, Cathleen acknowledges the challenges Auren and his siblings have had to overcome and how proud and amazed she is of each of them.
“Having a parent that suffers from a mental illness throws a huge monkey wrench in a family,” she said. But, “Through diversity came tenacity — something I think we all have.”
For those with odds seemingly stacked against them, Cathleen is quick to remind, “The way to success is simply taking one day at time.”
“Don’t ever give up on your dreams,” she said.