A Hopeful Place
Those suffering from an array of mental health disorders discover hope, support and a safe place to heal at The Retreat, part of the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore
by Bill Donahue

On the surface, Christina Lowe* appeared to have it together: a hardworking, high-performing executive with an enviable career in the life sciences industry, as well as a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom home in the suburbs. Few people knew about her darker side, the one spawned by numerous unresolved “traumas and betrayals” from her past, the one that had kept her locked in a pattern of destructive behavior and inner turmoil for nearly 20 years.

“I was in a crisis state emotionally,” she says. “My life had become out of control and relatively unmanageable on my own. I was feeling hopeless, to the point of suicidal ideation.”

Her job, at which she excelled, had become a convenient distraction from her emotional pain. At the day’s end, however, her alcoholism would take over, and she would engage in “risk-taking, blackout-drunk behavior” that resulted in increasingly harmful consequences in her personal and professional lives.

For example, Lowe once fell while holding a wineglass, and the broken glass lacerated a tendon, an artery and nerves in her dominant hand, thereby requiring major surgery and physical therapy. Another time, while heavily intoxicated, she drove the wrong way down a major thoroughfare; she was alert enough to realize what she was doing and pulled into a nearby rest stop, but in the process she drove over the median and caused significant damage to her car.

Lowe had already been seeing a therapist, but she sought out additional help in the form of a psychiatrist, who suggested intensive inpatient treatment. Although Lowe resisted the idea at first, she ultimately realized it was necessary. Lowe inquired about a number of facilities, but none of them seemed quite right—impersonal, disconnected and more interested in what kind of insurance she had than how they could help. In addition, few of the places afforded residents the autonomy of connecting with the outside world through cellphones or tablets, and fewer still offered the possibility of a single bedroom with its own private bathroom.

Somewhere in the process, Lowe discovered The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore, and from her very first interaction, she knew she had found the right place for her.

“When I called for the very first time, the response from the woman who did the intake for me was, ‘I’m so glad you found us, I’m so glad we can help you, tell me about you,’” she recalls. “I liked that they would care for me as an individual, and they were not concerned about geography or insurance. … They wanted to know my story and understand what my goals were.”

It didn’t take long for Lowe to reach a decision: It was the beginning of a new year, January 2015, and she would “put her life on pause” to prioritize her mental health.

At The Retreat, Lowe found a comforting, welcoming and idyllic place to heal, where people from all walks of life had committed to seeking treatment for various mental health disorders: emerging adults struggling to make the transition to adulthood, professionals dealing with substance use problems and other stressors, and adults facing marital and other problems. Like every resident who comes to The Retreat, Lowe benefited from a hand-selected treatment team to guide her care, diagnose her condition and craft a plan for therapy and treatment. In Lowe’s case, her team included Thomas Franklin, M.D., medical director of The Retreat, and Denise Connelly, a certified addiction counselor and social worker.

“We dig in pretty deeply in a lot of different ways,” says Dr. Franklin. “People are exposed to a lot of different therapies while they are here. We offer an enormous amount of treatment in a typical day. People come here to work hard, and we offer 30 hours of group and individual treatment per week. Most psychiatric hospitals are not healing environments; they’re scary and loud and tough places to heal. Here at The Retreat, we know people are going to be here for several weeks or months, so it’s a pleasant place to call home for a time. It’s outfitted very comfortably to make an environment that facilitates healing rather than getting in the way.”

Led by Dr. Franklin and others, Lowe immersed herself in dialectical behavior therapy, art therapy, health-and-wellness counseling—even horse therapy, which she describes as “one of the most enlightening and meaningful experiences of my life.” She also received treatment through The Retreat’s co-occurring disorders track, created specifically for people diagnosed with a mental health disorder who also suffer from substance use issues.

“I resisted the idea of inpatient treatment because there was no way I was going to share anything intimate about myself with a bunch of strangers,” Lowe says. “And there was surely no way that those strangers would benefit me in any way. … [At The Retreat], my loneliness and isolation were completely replaced by the knowledge that there are so many people who feel like I do, who are scared like I am, and who hurt like I do. There is no greater power in healing than realizing you are not the only one.”

“We have everything a drug-rehab program has to offer embedded in a high-level psychiatric program,” adds Connelly. “Between groups and individual sessions, we offer more hours of facilitated treatment than any other treatment center in the country. Much of the therapy happens among the patients, as well. In matters of addiction, a lot of people are very depressed and feel isolated to the point that they can’t get up and function. It can be devastating. In the group therapy, they have conversations with their peers and come to realize they have similarities that can help them relate and come to acceptance of ‘Yes, I do have a problem.’”

When Lowe first arrived at The Retreat, her treatment goal was to resolve her mental health issues so she could drink in moderation, because the idea of life without alcohol was, in her words, “terrifying.” To her, alcohol had been the only solution to her deep-seated pain, self-loathing and regret, but Dr. Franklin, Connelly and others at The Retreat worked together to help her understand the connection between her alcoholism and her depression, loneliness and anxiety.

Lowe spent 20 days at The Retreat, with her own private room and ample opportunities to connect with her husband and other vital members of her support system via phone or computer when she wasn’t in treatment. She then moved on to the Ruxton House, a transitional living space in a neighborhood only a few minutes away from Sheppard Pratt’s main campus, for an additional 59 days. The therapeutic environment of the Ruxton House helped her—and the small group of residents there with her—gain confidence and independence as she worked toward returning to everyday life.

In the end, The Retreat gave Lowe the support and tools, not to mention several cherished friends, she needed to regain control over her life. Three months after her discharge from The Retreat, Lowe is, in her own words, doing “phenomenally well.” She recently celebrated her 166th day of consecutive sobriety, her marriage is on a course to repair, and she has a good, full-time job with a new company. As of press time, she was less than two weeks away from completing her 90th Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 90 days; also, she was preparing to make her first AA speaker engagement at a local rehabilitation center, as an example of someone in early recovery who has succeeded in committing to turn her life around.

“I want people to know that where there is hopelessness, there is a path toward hopefulness, no matter your age, no matter your circumstances, no matter how far down the scale you feel you’ve gone,” she says. “I encourage anyone who knows they are struggling to find it within them to surrender and ask for help, and there is amazing help available. The rewards far outweigh any trepidation you might have in admitting you need help.

“It’s a life-or-death situation, and I believe The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt saved my life,” she continues. “The application of the skills I learned there put me in a position to save my own life and continue to improve. I’m indebted to the people I met there—the residents and the staff. I learned that the best way to express my gratitude to them was to take what they taught me and live a life they would be proud of and I can be proud of, and I’m trying to do that every day.”

The Retreat
Part of the Sheppard Pratt Health System
6501 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21204

* Name changed to protect privacy

Photograph by Jody Robinson