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Former patients speak on behalf of current ones at API

On a sunny Friday morning recently, Faith Myers and Dorrance Collins arrived at Alaska Psychiatric Institute early.

With smiles, they carried photocopied handouts detailing their numerous grievances against the state's largest psychiatric hospital.

The couple was there, as they had been dozens of times before, to testify before a meeting of the hospital's advisory board. The doctors and executives in the meeting knew them by their first names.

When Myers and Collins go to API now, they wear badges stamped VISITOR and are free to leave whenever they want.

It wasn't always like that, says Myers, a 60-year-old former preschool teacher with long gray hair held in pink barrettes and a singsong voice. Coming back to the place where she was once an involuntarily committed patient is always a little scary.

"TWO OF US MAKE ONE PERSON"

Faith Myers has struggled with paranoid schizophrenia throughout her adult life. She has been hospitalized five times at API and at institutions in Nevada and Washington State.

In 2003, when she was a patient at API, she and Anchorage attorney Jim Gottstein challenged the state's ability to forcibly medicate psychiatric patients like her against their will. In 2006 the Alaska Supreme Court decided Myers vs. Alaska Psychiatric Institute in her favor.

Since then, Myers and partner Dorrance Collins, also a former psychiatric patient, have become relentless and vocal activists for the rights of the mentally ill.

Over the past eight years they've managed to get API, an 80-bed hospital that cares for mentally ill adolescents, adults and prisoners, to review its policies on everything from its system for giving patients privileges to outdoor recreation time.

In 2008, their efforts led to legislation that allows people receiving mental health treatment in a hospital to be involved with choosing the gender of staff members providing them with intimate care, such as bathing and changing clothes.

It's a remarkable track record for two people from an often-ignored constituency, said Gottstein, Myers' former attorney and the head of the patient-advocacy group PsychRights.

Gottstein has struggled with his own mental health and considers himself a survivor of a broken system.

"I'm a big fan of them (Myers and Collins)," he said. "I think (their success comes from) their perseverance."

They say without each other none of it would be possible.

"Neither of us could survive our disability without each other," Myers said. "The two of us make one person."

CHAOS IN THE BRAIN

Myers and Collins, 67, met around the year 2000, at a crisis center in Anchorage.

"We were both looking at a bookshelf," he said. "I was impressed with her taste in science fiction."

Collins, a bearded Vietnam veteran with the heavy accent of his native Bangor, Maine, prefers not to discuss his own mental illness. He says he now suffers from cognitive problems related to age.

Myers is open about her paranoid schizophrenia, which came on when she was in her late 20s. Doctors put her on different medications that made her feel like a hole was being punched in her brain, she said.

Her psychosis began innocently, she said, with something like a stuffed animal that she liked to make up imaginary stories about.

But the disease leaked in, and soon the stuffed animals were ordering her to do bizarre things.

"They would tell me to stop eating cabbage because they were born in a cabbage patch," she said. "They would tell me to stop eating pork because they were guinea pigs."

Soon the mother of two adult children was doing things like storing clothing in the fridge of her apartment, hanging cabbages for wild animals and keeping money in a bag outside, as her daughter testified at an involuntary commitment hearing in 2003.

"It was chaos in the brain," Myers remembers of the times when her illness became acute.

She left her time at API traumatized, she said.

"For me, API was not a safe place," she said. "I felt powerless and vulnerable. They wouldn't listen to me."

She and Collins have been trying to get administrators to listen ever since, she said.

Their current focus is changing the state law that governs the way psychiatric patients file grievances against institutions. They say the current law is vague and has loopholes that deny patients a timely response and an appeals process. Myers and Collins are careful to always write down beforehand what they want to say in public testimonies. They take care to print neat, spell-checked copies of their complaints.

When people already think you're crazy you have to try doubly hard to get your point across, Myers said.

"MISINTERPRETATIONS"

Myers and Collins' life together looks like a best-case scenario for two people living with mental illnesses, says the hospital's chief executive, Ron Adler.

They seem happy, connected to their community in a meaningful way and full of purpose -- even if that purpose is being the resident gadflies of the institution he manages.

"In many ways, this is how we define recovery from mental illness," he said. "It's profound."

But he says some of their current complaints are based on "misrepresentations" of policy.

"I think over time their story hasn't changed when the system has changed," Adler said.

Myers and Collins disagree. They say they base their complaints on what they hear is going on inside API and speak for patients with no voice.

"My experience is that what Dorrance and Faith are saying is accurate and API's responses are not accurate," says Gottstein. "When people are labeled crazy what they say is dismissed."

"HE TAKES THE SCARY OUT OF IT"

Myers and Collins live in an East Anchorage trailer that serves as headquarters for their patient rights movement and as a respite from the outside world.

They have a garden of blooming flowers and a refrigerator covered with pictures of family. Inside, Collins' paintings and photographs hang on the walls.

They have never legally married. But years ago they made a promise to God that they would take care of each other for the rest of their lives, Myers said.

The two live a steady, ordered life that centers on their activism.

"It gives us purpose and meaning," she said.

Each day Collins wakes early to exercise and cook breakfast. They eat together, read and discuss the newspaper over coffee.

Myers makes sure they each take their medication. She has voluntarily taken a monthly injection of Haldol, an anti-psychotic drug, for years now. She does it to keep peace with her children and grandchildren, who visit regularly.

Even the stuffed animals that once triggered psychosis -- two toy guinea pigs she calls the "Rodentia" -- have lost their power.

Myers still keeps them tucked away in a cabinet.

She brings them out to the kitchen table to show to a guest. With the press of a button they play a tinny song.

Collins gently teases her about them. She laughs.

That's part of why their life together feels right, Myers says.

"Dorrance gets it," she said. "He gets what it's like to be mentally ill. He takes the scary out of it and puts humor there."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS

Anchorage Daily News

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