Driving home at night, she can identify the make of a car from nothing more than the shape of its headlights in her rearview mirror. Walking up the driveway to her house, she can pick out the distinctive silhouette and shadow of each familiar object in her yard.
It’s a skill she’s learned out of necessity, because in that darkness West can see back to the morning nearly two decades ago when she opened her front door and stepped into a world of fear, a world she would come to know intimately in the minutes, hours, and years to come.
“I try to be strong, but it’s not always easy. A lot of memories get stirred up,” admits West, speaking from her office at Sarah’s Refuge Crisis Center, where she works as a domestic violence community educator.
In 1995, West, then 19, broke off a relationship with 26-year-old Joseph Muller. Shortly afterwards, Muller began turning up unexpectedly at locations West frequented, first at ballgames, then at the homes of her friends and her aunt.
“He was not taking ‘No’ for an answer,” remembers West, who at the time was working at her mother’s beauty salon while finishing her senior year in highschool.
Though annoyed by Muller’s actions, West said she never related her concerns to friends or family members. “I was stalked without letting anyone know for at least a couple of months. I just kept a lot of that stuff quiet because I felt like I could handle it.”
After a time, Muller broke off all contact with West, leading her to believe he had finally accepted that their relationship was over.
In the months since their breakup, West had graduated from highschool and was living in a recently purchased home. West says she thought little more about her former boyfriend until she stepped through her front door one morning on her way to work.
“When I came out of the house he came from under the steps,” she recalls. “I could smell alcohol on him. He told me the reason I hadn’t heard from him was because he had been plotting how to kill me for a month. He kept calling me a bitch and saying ‘Today is your last day.’”
After telling West that he was carrying a gun, Muller methodically related his plan to kill her and dump her body down a dirt road in Fayetteville, after which he would drive to California. “He told me he had been saving checks from his job and he had enough money to get out of town,” says West.
Muller told her he had already written letters to his family members apologizing for her murder.
As she turned and attempted to flee, Muller dragged West back inside her house, where he proceeded to rape and beat her.
It was the Monday after Thanksgiving, November 27. West’s ordeal was just beginning.
Muller dragged West to her car and made her drive towards Fayetteville where he forced her to stop at a gas station.
“I was looking around to see if I could find anything to blow the car up with,” remembers West. Fearful that Muller would hurt others, she made the decision not to reach out for help.
Once they were on the road again, West says she suddenly remembered advice Oprah Winfrey had given during a broadcast concerning women who have been abducted. “Oprah said you should never allow your captor to take you to a second location. If you do, it makes it much easier for them to abuse you and do what they are going to do,” West recalls.
As she began to pray, West pleaded with Muller for any solution that would allow her to live. “I started to lie, saying I was sorry for leaving him. He said the only way I could live was to be with him, to get back in a relationship with him.”
Having convinced Muller that she would take him back, West says he told her to make a right turn at an intersection. A left turn would have taken them to Fayetteville and the location Muller had chosen for her murder.
Instructed to head back towards her home, West was allowed to stop at her mother’s beauty salon to break the news of her and Muller’s reconciliation. Before they arrived Muller assured West he would kill her mother if she interfered with their plans.
Believing that he would be moving into West’s trailer that afternoon, Muller left the beauty salon to collect clothes from his home, located less than a mile from West’s trailer.
After he was gone, West related the desperate nature of her situation to her mother, who immediately called the police.
“We had to go to the local Sheriff’s Office and then I had to do a rape kit,” remembers West.
Muller was arrested at his home and held for trial. Though it was discovered he had prior charges in New York, he was allowed to plea bargain his sentence down to less than two years. “My lawyer at the time advised me to accept the lesser charge so I wouldn’t have to testify in front of him,” says West.
After serving his sentence Muller was released, with the stipulation that he not enter the state of North Carolina for five years.
Looking back, West says she never recognized any signs of violence in Muller during the time they were together. “He was always very nice to me, he was always buying me gifts,” she says.
Only once during their relationship did Muller show his true face. “We were just talking with some of my family and someone joked around about us breaking up,” remarks West. “He just came out and said ‘She’ll never leave me. If she tries to leave, I’ll kill her.”’
As she looks over a newly constructed poster covered in statistics on teen dating violence, West appears relaxed as she talks about the events that changed her life so profoundly. Waiting patiently for a school group that she’s scheduled to address, the youthful, small statured 36-year-old betrays little of the anxiety one would expect as she describes the details of her abduction.
But appearances, says West, can be deceiving. For years after her attack, she explains, her self-control teetered on the edge of collapse, as day after day she put on a brave face designed to hide her increasing sense of panic.
It was during this time that West realized she had begun focusing on cars driving behind her on the roads at night, had begun peering into the trees around her home, watching and waiting for what she believed was inevitable.
“I lived in fear. I kept waiting for him to come back,” she says.
While West stayed busy working at the beauty salon, the memories were there waiting every night when she returned home, to the same trailer where Muller attacked and violated her.
“I had to relive that over and over,” she states.
Though Muller never attempted to contact her after he was released from prison, West says she had no doubt that, given the chance, he would hurt others. “I knew that if he didn’t get some help eventually there would be another victim.”
Fourteen years after her attack, West’s sad prophecy proved correct.
In 2009, she received a call from a friend who told her to turn her television to WRAL News. According to the newscast, Joseph Muller, age 40, was wanted on a charge of first-degree murder in the death of his former girlfriend, Jessica Ellis of Durham, who had been found shot in her home on June 13.
The report said Muller was armed and dangerous.
“On the news they said they had no idea where he was,” West recalls.
West would later discover that Muller went to the Sears store where Ellis worked, lured her into his car and took her to her home, where he shot Ellis in front of a family member.
West says she immediately contacted the detective handling the investigation. “When I told him what had happened to me he said it sounded exactly like the story her family was telling, how he was so nice and loving to her until they broke up, and then he couldn’t handle being rejected.”
West, who by then was a mother of two young children, moved out of her home and lived with her mother for a time. She had received word from law enforcement that Muller’s abandoned car had been found off of Interstate 40, between Warsaw and Rose Hill.
After a month staying at her mother’s home, West decided to go back home with her the children. Friends and family members kept watch. “I couldn’t live like that anymore, always afraid,” says West.
Three days after returning home, a month and a half after the murder, West was notified that Muller was dead, his body found hanging in a Miami hotel room. His remains were identified using information—a panther tattoo and other distinguishing marks—provided by West.
In the days following Muller’s death, West’s life began to change.
“The way I lived before was fearful but functional. After he killed himself, I felt like I could breath,” she reflects.
Many Survivors Fearful to File Restraining Orders | DomesticShelters https://t.co/sQuS1411qs
— Sarah's Refuge, Inc. (@SarahsRefugeInc) May 11, 2015
Through her work in the hair salon she began to entertain the idea that she could help others who had been through similar traumas.
“I feel like I’ve always been a semi-counselor,” she states. “All my life I’ve been dealing with women who come into the salon who have issues, with verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual assault with their spouses or mate.”
Last June, after speaking with a client who worked in abuse counseling, West made the decision to volunteer at Sarah’s Refuge.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t understand why you don’t go to the authorities and a lot of that is driven by fear and uncertainty,” explains West. “I knew what these women were feeling, so I thought who better to help someone like that than someone who’s been through it.”
In October, West was hired on full-time at Sarah’s. In her role as community educator she travels to local schools, telling her story and pointing out the warning signs that she missed so many years ago.
Though West has learned to manage the fear, to breathe, she knows that fall morning in 1995 is still with her, acting on her life in ways not always easily understood.
Several years after Muller was convicted, West married a man she describes as verbally and emotionally abusive. “Some of the things he said stick with me a lot more than what happened with the guy who kidnapped me with the intention of killing me,” she comments.
Trusting people, simply letting her two teenagers go off with friends, will never be easy.
But her story, say West, and the lives she can touch and possibly alter through its telling, have offered her a new freedom, a new way of seeing past the darkness into an undimmed future.
“People die all the time. I was one of the blessed ones,” she says, leaning forward, her large dark eyes solemn yet intent. “If I can save one person, it’s worth it.”
When Giving Thanks, Don’t Forget Yourself
As we give thanks at the holidays, it’s easy to overlook someone important: your past self.
While it’s well documented that gratitude toward others can improve wellbeing, two University of Florida scientists find that gratitude toward your past self also has benefits.
Does thanking yourself seem a bit…selfish? The researchers, UF psychology professor Matt Baldwin, Ph.D., and undergraduate student Samantha Zaw, think not.
“Despite the fact that past gratitude is self-focused, it reminds people that they’re part of a bigger story and that they have the power to grow,” Baldwin said. “It’s possible this promotes a pay-it-forward type of mentality.”
Gratitude is what psychologists call a self-transcendent emotion, one that lifts us out of the everyday and expands our perspective, which can help us get along with each other better. In a recent experiment, Baldwin and Zaw asked participants to write brief gratitude letters. The first group thanked someone else, the second thanked themselves, while a third, the control condition, wrote about a positive experience they’d had. Zaw and Baldwin then surveyed the participants about their self-perception after writing the letter. Although the results are not yet published, early analysis shows that the exercise gave the other- and self-focused gratitude groups a sense of redemption and helped them feel they were morally good people. However, the group that wrote to themselves scored higher on both measures.
The past-self group also saw a benefit the others didn’t: an increase in the self-awareness measures of clarity, authenticity and connectedness.
“Unlike gratitude toward others, being appreciative of ourselves carries an added benefit of truly understanding who we are and feeling connected to ourselves,” said Zaw, a McNair Scholar who has been working with Baldwin since her freshman year as part of UF’s Emerging Scholars Program.
Zaw and Baldwin’s research — the first known data gathered on past-self gratitude — was inspired by a Reese’s cup. When Baldwin’s co-worker, boredom researcher Erin Westgate, returned to the office after pandemic lockdown, she was delighted to discover a peanut butter cup she had squirreled away in her desk.
“She texted me like, ‘Oh my gosh, my past self left my future self a Reese’s,’” Baldwin recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait a second. You’re expressing gratitude towards something your past self had done. We have to study this.’”
As Zaw and Baldwin dug into previous studies, they found plenty on gratitude toward others and a few on self-compassion, but nothing on past-self gratitude. They designed the letter-writing experiment to test its effects, presenting their findings at the Society of Southeastern Social Psychologists in October and at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in February.
If you’re curious about the benefits of self-gratitude, Zaw offered a way to try the experiment at home, maybe as a new Thanksgiving tradition. Take a few minutes to write a thank you message to someone else, and another to yourself for something you did in the past. Sharing what you wrote could foster connections between loved ones, she said, but the exercise can also pay dividends if you try it on your own.
“At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we focus on other people, but self-care is really needed too, especially if we want to feel more clear about ourselves,” she said. “Maybe it can even lead to a better vision for ourselves for the next year.”
A Lifeline for Primary Care Amid a Crisis in Youth Mental Health
Most mental health care in America doesn’t happen in psychiatrists’ offices – especially when it comes to children, teens and young adults.
Instead, young people with depression, anxiety and more turn to the same people they already go to for all kinds of other health issues: their pediatricians, family doctors, school-based clinics and other primary care providers.
But where do those providers turn when they need more help in handling the mental health concerns of their patients – especially more serious issues that they’re not trained to handle?
If they’re anywhere in Michigan, they can turn to the team at MC3.
For nearly a decade, the MC3 program has helped thousands of primary care providers throughout the state care for the mental health needs of young people up to age 26. It also aids providers caring for pregnant women and new mothers of any age who have mental health needs.
More than 16,000 times since 2012, MC3’s psychiatrists and pediatric behavior specialists from the University of Michigan have connected directly with more than 1,800 primary care providers by phone, for consultations about their patients.
Together, they’ve mapped out plans for handling ADHD in young children, suicide-prevention safety planning for teens and symptoms that might signal schizophrenia in young adults.
There’s no charge to providers or their patients, thanks to the program’s funding from state and federal grants.
For providers whose patients recently had a mental health emergency or are waiting for an appointment with a child psychiatrist or a psychiatric inpatient bed, the service can literally be a lifeline: one in five of the consults involve a patient who has expressed suicidal thoughts or harmed themselves.
How it Works
MC3 also offers video-based telehealth appointments to connect patients of participating providers with psychiatrists. U-M and Michigan State University experts have also created a wide range of training options for professionals available on the MC3 website.
Though the demand has grown in recent years thanks to the pandemic, the program has room for more Michigan providers to join the network and get access to its services.
Each connection starts by contacting one of the trained professionals in MC3’s network of Behavioral Health Consultants, located throughout the state. MC3 also works closely with the state-funded Community Mental Health agencies across the state.
“Only about 3% of the children, teens, young adults and moms that our participating providers have consulted with us about are in treatment with a psychiatrist. We’re providing access to specialist-informed care to young people who wouldn’t otherwise have it,” said Sheila Marcus, M.D., who heads the pediatric component of MC3 and is a professor of psychiatry at Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s academic medical center.
“The reality is that no matter where they live and no matter what their family’s income level, most of these patients would not have easy access to a specialist because of the critical shortage of such providers,” she added. “In some counties, there are no local providers trained to provide this level of care.”
Primary care providers inside and outside Michigan can also access MC3’s free online resources, even if they’re not enrolled in the program.
These include prescribing guides for mental health medications and online provider education, to equip them to provide diagnosis and care that might not have been part of their formal professional training. Much of that training offers continuing education credits that can help physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certified nurse midwives keep up their license.
“For me, MC3 has been a game changer,” said Lia Gaggino, M.D., who first interacted with the MC3 team through her pediatrics practice in Portage, Michigan and now is the team’s consulting pediatrician. “Since its inception I have used their services for children and teens who presented with very complicated mental health concerns. I wished I had had a psychiatrist to help me and then MC3 appeared and offered me a lifeline. Their services changed my prescribing practices and improved my skills and I am so grateful for their advice and support. I encourage my colleagues to sign up and call –MC3 is there to help us!”
Local Care Amid a National Emergency
As the nation grapples with a national emergency of rising mental health concerns among young people, MC3 and similar programs in other states are expanding access to critical psychiatric services at a time when demand is soaring.
The national organizations that declared that emergency in October called for more support of mental health care in primary care settings, as well as efforts to overcome the national shortage of mental health specialists for young people, especially in rural and low-income areas.
That shortage is what drove the creation of MC3 in the first place.
Michigan is third from the bottom among all states in supply of mental health professionals for young people. Only Washtenaw County, where the University of Michigan is located, meets national population-based criteria for having enough mental health providers specializing in children and teens.
The pandemic has made matters worse across Michigan and the United States. A national report from November 2020 showed that anxiety and depression in pregnant women have more than doubled, and emergency department visits for mental health concerns in children had risen by double digits since the pandemic began.
Joanna Quigley, M.D., another MC3 consulting psychiatrist from Michigan Medicine, recently presented data at a national meeting showing that 30% of MC3 consults during 2020 focused on pandemic-related concerns.
The pandemic has prompted MC3’s team to plan to offer extra training to help providers identify the needs and handle the concerns of children traumatized by experiences they or their families have had during COVID-19.
Trauma-informed care is also important for children who even before the pandemic experienced very disruptive life events.
Terri Rosel, NP-C, a nurse practitioner at Cherry Health in northern Michigan, wrote to the MC3 team: “I work in a small student health center in Cedar Springs and am the sole provider in the office. Since starting this job four years ago I have had the pleasure of seeing so many students with mental health concerns. I felt ill-equipped at times to help them with my degree as a family practice nurse practitioner. I would utilize MC3 often to help with treatment plans for these wonderful kids who needed help but could not get into psychiatric services soon enough.”
As the program continues to grow, it will partner more with schools through a direct connection with the TRAILS program that offers mental health awareness and support services.
Positive Feedback from Providers
The MC3 team has surveyed participating providers and found that 99% agreed with the statement that “following phone consultation(s) I felt more confident that I could effectively treat patients’ behavioral health problems.”
The team published other findings from its survey of providers, and responded to feedback by making changes.
The quotes they received from providers are equally compelling.
“This service has been absolutely ‘practice- changing’,” said one. “As we have more and more patients with mental health issues and limited local resources- we are essentially the only option for these kids. Having MC3 support helps us make good treatment decisions and is also ‘on the job training’ which we can apply to future patients.”
In fact, MC3 data show that 25% of the interactions help the patient avoid a higher-level of care that may be difficult to access, such as a psychiatric hospital bed or emergency psychiatric visit.
One of the maternal health providers who joined MC3 recently said, “I can’t even express how this service has enhanced the care I can provide. In the past, we’d screen and diagnose and then send moms out. We’d place referrals and hope that folks could navigate the complex system. Now, with MC3, I can collaborate with psychiatry, start meds or treatment, and access community resources that I am confident they will be able to access. It’s really been invaluable.”
America Has an Anger Problem – Can Better “Mental Nutrition” Fix It?
America is a pretty angry place these days. Formerly respectful spaces like school board meetings have become bitter battlegrounds. Some people are harassing healthcare workers and threatening restaurant staff for enforcing COVID protocols. Others are openly furious with the vaccine-hesitant. Everyone, wherever they stand on the (deeply divided) political playing field, is outraged about something.
Sure, anger is part of the human condition, but have things always been this bad? Elaine Parke thinks not—and she has a plan to get America the anger management tools it needs.
“We’ve stopped listening to one another because we’ve become addicted to our own narrow and sometimes selfish points of view,” says Parke, author of “The Habits of Unity: 12 Months to a Stronger America…one citizen at a time” (Outskirts Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-9772-4276-1, $21.95, www.12habits4allofus.
“It’s way past time for us to take a collective deep breath and treat others with dignity, respect, and civility—and listen to them—whether we agree or not,” she adds. “It’s urgent that we make this shift now.”
Dialing down our ire is easier said than done. We are living in extraordinarily stressful times. But there’s more at play. Parke says we are shaped by the messages we consistently consume—and in today’s connected world, a lot of those messages come from our digital diet.
“Social media isn’t solely to blame for stoking our emotional flames—in fact, it was designed to be a source of information and to bring people together,” Parke clarifies. “But if your newsfeed is making you an angrier person, it’s on you to either log off for a few days or reassess the kind of content you’re engaging with. When we choose to focus on stories that are positive and nourishing, we go a long way toward resetting our emotional equilibrium.”
Parke’s “The Habits of Unity” is her attempt to help people take charge of what she calls their “Mental Nutrition.” Much in the same way that we (hopefully) approach the food we eat, we need to develop the discipline to make more nutritious mental choices every day. Her book’s 365 “one-magic-minute-a-day” motivationals make it easy to hardwire these choices into habit.
With her simple, doable framework for uplifting ourselves, boosting our mental health, and practicing unity, Parke hopes to get everyone focused on the same branded behavior each month. The idea is that the sheer force of all that concentrated positive energy sparks a unity revolution that rises from the ground up and sweeps the nation.
Yet, until that happens, we can leverage the power of “The Habits of Unity” on a personal level by forming one good habit per month:
January: Help Others
February: You Count
March: Resolve Conflicts
April: Take Care of Our Environment
May: Be Grateful
June: Reach Higher
July: Become Involved
August: Know Who You Are
September: Do Your Best
October: Be Patient and Listen
November: Show a Positive Attitude
December: Celebrate Community, Family, and Friends
Those who’ve tried it say the plan is easy to put into practice. It feels good, so you’ll want to keep doing it. And there’s a ripple effect. As you become more positive, centered, and respectful, others will be drawn to you and your relationships will improve.
“As these ripples expand, they will improve the emotional climate in our country and make it easier to seek common ground, instead of lashing out,” says Parke. “But we can’t sit around waiting for others to take action. Each American must recommit to making our country a welcoming, affirming melting pot—instead of a stewing pot.”
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