By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Heidi Huiskamp Collins, a successful banker and devout Catholic, recalls the darkest days of her journey with mental illness. She was 36 and had been hospitalized for a second suicide attempt (the first attempt occurred in college). The psych ward staff took away her shoe laces as a precautionary measure. Her roommate, who suffered from schizophrenia, hugged a Raggedy Ann doll and said “she was going to kill me.”
Now 53, Heidi is sharing her story as the 2016 honorary walk chair for NAMIWalk Greater Mississippi Valley. “I’ve navigated my whole life with eating disorders. I’m also bipolar and have obsessive compulsive disorder. But people need to understand those are genetic in nature. It’s 2016. We need to stop the stigma, and address those (disorders) just as if I had diabetes or heart disease or anything else,” she told TV talk show host Paula Sands. That interview followed Heidi’s July 15 talk at the kickoff luncheon for NAMIWalk in Davenport. The annual fundraising event begins at 9 a.m. Sept. 24 at Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport. NAMI provides support and education for individuals and families of those living with serious mental health conditions.
Heidi said she knew as a young child she was different from other children. While she excelled as a student attending a Catholic school in Keokuk before her family moved to Rock Island, Ill., she remembers having to fill a chalkboard in her head every night before going to sleep. She thought everybody did the same thing. But she also had trouble sleeping. “We had a crucifix in our hallway. I used to stand in front of the crucifix while everyone else was asleep and ask God to help me,” Heidi told The Catholic Messenger. “I felt touched by God at a very early age.”
Her academic success continued at Jordan Catholic School and Alleman Catholic High School in Rock Island before she moved to California to attend Santa Clara University. During her sophomore year she attempted suicide. Her father flew her home for treatment. She dropped out of college temporarily, but with help from a “very wise therapist,” got back on her feet.
But mental illness still manifested itself in the early part of her career when she worked 90 hours a week and attended graduate school. “I was sleeping two hours a night for years,” she recalled. By the time the second of her two children was born, she reduced her work hours to part-time. She admits it was hard to make the transition from a high-achieving businesswoman to stay-at-home mom. “My kids are such a blessing in my life. I made a lot of mistakes, but they turned out phenomenally,” says Heidi, now the senior vice president at Blackhawk Bank & Trust who volunteers for a myriad of organizations.
Heidi said she resisted taking medication for most of the 25 years she saw her first therapist. At age 34, she told him, “God and I have this under control.” But the therapist, a Catholic, told her “God in his greatness has provided this medicine and therapy to get you through.”
She realized that truth even more so after descending into depression that resulted in her second suicide attempt and hospitalization. During that dark time, a glimmer of hope emerged. She felt this presence, what she describes as the Holy Spirit’s guidance. “A feeling came to my heart; it was so strong.” It was a sense that she needed to volunteer with at-risk children. Her own children were about 9 and 10 at the time. Still feeling scared, depressed and fragile when she was discharged, Heidi contacted the school district where she was living and told a staffer that she wanted to volunteer at the worst school in the district. It took a little persuading, but Heidi got far more than what she asked for.
Focusing on others
When she arrived in the first-grade classroom she was assigned to, “30 first-graders surrounded me and hugged me and affirmed me and gave me enough strength so that I could get through the next week. Even though I struggled to get out of bed in the morning, I did, because those kids depended on me. I got the love and affirmation from the kids that kept me going through my darkest hours. That was the Holy Spirit working through me,” Heidi said. “I was flawed, but still needed. I’ve worked with at-risk kids ever since then.”
Along the way, Heidi found her soul mate, Steve Collins, who became her husband. She had been married twice before. Both marriages were annulled and she promised her children she wouldn’t remarry while they were still living at home. Steve chose to enter the Catholic Church after participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. “It’s such a blessing to have a husband to share the faith with,” Heidi said. They attend Mass together at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Rock Island, talk about the homily afterwards at breakfast and pray together before meals. She also serves as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, a ministry she cherishes.
Heidi describes Steve as her rock, but she, too, is resilient. “I have to wake up every morning and consciously make a decision that I’m going to have a good day,” she told Paula Sands. “Taking medicine is the easy part. I have to surround myself with positive people. I volunteer a lot because that helps me stay “other focused” so I’m not thinking about my own problems.”
Heidi and Steve held hands tightly before and after she gave her talk last month at the NAMI luncheon. As she concluded, Heidi choked up. Public speaking isn’t something that comes easy to her, but her husband and children affirmed her belief that God was calling her to do so. She told the audience, “Maybe one of you was supposed to hear my story and decide that today is the day to reach out and get help for yourself or someone else.”
NAMIWALK Greater Mississippi Valley will be held Sept. 24 at Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport. Check-in is at 8 a.m. The 5K walk begins at 9:30 a.m. For more information contact: Arlyce Musal, walk manager, at (309) 269-1066 or visit the website: namiwalks.org/greatermississippivalley.
“We must work together as a community to raise awareness about mental health disorders and encourage individuals and families to seek help without the stigma often associated with mental illness,” said Heidi Huiskamp Collins, the 2016 NAMIWalk honorary walk chair.
Huiskamp Collins helped found the Quad Cities Eating Disorders support group. She serves on the board of directors of the Amy Helpenstell Foundation, the executive committee of the board of directors at the Two Rivers YMCA, and the audit and finance committee for Friendship Manor.