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Worth the fight: Goodwin shares story of battle with mental illness

Karen Goodwin of Alexandria, who has overcome struggles with mental illness, is the co-chair of the Douglas County Local Advisory Council. She has been living on her own at Viking Towers for the past three years, something she is proud of. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)

Karen Goodwin received an unusual Christmas gift in December 2012. Many people would not have viewed it as a gift at all.

But she did.

On that fateful Christmas Day more than five years ago, the 28-year-old was civilly committed to Prairie St. John's in Fargo, a psychiatric hospital that addresses mental health issues, substance use addiction and co-occurring disorders.

"Being committed was truly a gift," said Goodwin, who for the last three years has been living on her own at Viking Towers in Alexandria. "I now realize that living with mental illness is a battle, but it's worth the fight."

Being civilly committed meant that she was forced to legally receive treatment and take her prescribed medications.

Goodwin, who is originally from Fergus Falls, hasn't always struggled with mental illness. After graduating from high school, she went on to college and began a successful career as a welder.

But at the age of 22, she said, mental illness hit her out of nowhere.

"My life became unstable and I was going from job to job," she said. "I moved from Fergus to Seattle and that turned out to be a disaster."

Goodwin said she knew something was wrong, and suspected some kind of mental illness, but she just didn't know exactly what was happening. She said her moods were unstable and she was experiencing horrible depression.

"I was unhappy and my life was spiraling out of control," she said. "And that's when the chemical dependency started, mostly marijuana and alcohol."

Prior to her civil commitment, while still living in Seattle, Goodwin said she tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills.

"I called all my friends back home in Fergus and told them I was going to kill myself," she said. "They called the police. I think it was more of an attention thing, a cry for help."

And help is what she received.

The friend she had been living with in Seattle "kicked her out" and made her move in with a friend in Minnesota, realizing that the help Goodwin needed was in Minnesota. Goodwin thanked her friend for kicking her out, saying that was what she needed, and they have remained friends.

When she moved to Alexandria, she connected with Lakeland Mental Health and started receiving services. Unfortunately, Goodwin wasn't quite ready to make the changes she needed to make.

"That is when my behavior became erratic again and I ended up getting a DWI," she said. "And that is when I got civilly committed."

Goodwin was transferred to Prairie St. John's, where she remained for three weeks.

"I was homeless at the time so I thought, 'Thank God, I'm not being thrown out on the streets,' " she said.

Her time spent at Prairie St. John's was a blessing, she says, as she was finally diagnosed with several different mental health disorders and was given the treatment and medications she needed to start on her path to recovery.

"There was a real reason I was the way I was, and knowing that made me feel less crazy," she said. "It finally gave a name to my inner chaos."

When she left Prairie St. John's, Goodwin was transferred to Milestones in Alexandria, which provides intensive residential treatment services. She lived there for four months, which she said allowed her to focus on getting better and helped her return to baseline functioning.

From there, Goodwin has remained on her own for the past three years, which for her, she said, is a "really big deal."

Goodwin received another gift on June 1, 2016. That was the day she became sober, which she said completely changed her life for the better.

"I have made the best friends in recovery because we are all on the same journey," she said. "I have also now become a professional volunteer and I am preparing to become a peer support specialist."

Goodwin is co-chair of the Douglas County Local Advisory Council, something she started doing at the urging of her case manager. The council, which meets the third Thursday of each month, holds discussions on mental health related issues, including barriers clients might be facing. The council also hosts events such as "lunch and learns" and the annual mental health walk.

One of the key lessons Goodwin has learned throughout her journey and wants others to know about is the importance of building a support network, which she said gave her a sense of community.

"It's best to surround yourself with positive people," she said. "The council was a community for me when I was in need. It made a difference. And now I hope I can make a difference. I believe that's what I am meant to do. Helping others aligns with my personal value system."

Many of Goodwin's family members live in Fergus Falls and she feels blessed by their support. She said she has been "truly amazed" by them and is thankful to have them in her life.

"My dad always tells me I'm such a fighter," she said.

Celeste Edenloff

Celeste is a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press and has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in June 2016 to report on the community she calls home. Besides writing articles for the Echo Press, she has a blog, “Newspaper Girl on the Run.” Celeste is on a continuous healthy living journey and loves to teach bootcamp fitness classes and run. She has participated in nearly 200 races with her husband, Al, covering the 5K, 10K, 10-mile and half-marathon (13.1 mile) distances.

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