Crippled by depression and anxiety after her husband left, Rhonda Belissimo did not leave her bedroom for nearly 10 years. “My son took care of me for a whole decade,” Rhonda said. He moved in with her while she struggled hoping he could help her get better. During that time period Rhonda tried to take her own life 14 times. She returned to McLean Hospital so many times, the staff knew her. The last time she was there, her son and the hospital staff convinced her to go to North Suffolk Mental Health Association’s Independence House. That was 20 months ago.
Independence House is a 12-bed residential program located on Broadway in Chelsea for people with severe mental illness. Each one of the 12 residents, men and women, has a different and unique story – some have been here for years, while others for just a few months. The program is double staffed 24/7. Staff assist residents with cooking, activities of daily living, money management, medication administration, and anything else they might need.
Before she experienced agoraphobia, Rhonda had a great career as an Executive Assistant, owned her own homes, and by all accounts maneuvered through life quite well, even with a diagnosis of bipolar and PTSD at the age of 19. Rhonda, now 56, matter-of-factly says “I learned to live with it through medication and therapy. I did well enough to get through life.”
When Rhonda first got to Independence House she did not leave her room. Slowly though, she began to roam around the house, then she tried the front porch. When she got comfortable with that, Rhonda walked to a store. Now, she frequents Market Basket for groceries regularly. Recently, Rhonda went to the Museum of Science with her social worker, and a few months before that went to the Franklin Park Zoo with her housemates. “I’ve been doing things like a real person again,” Rhonda exclaimed, her voice filled with joy, and what seemed like a huge sense of relief.
A turning point toward wellness was when Rhonda began to let herself believe that other people really did love her. Today she has a beautiful and healthy relationship with her son, who she talks with every day. She FaceTime’s with her six year old granddaughter daily as well. Prior to Independence House, her granddaughter only ever saw her in her bedroom. “She is obsessed with me,” Rhonda says of her granddaughter, the joy of it obvious.
Today, 20 months after showing up at Independence House, Rhonda says, “I feel like I am wasting a room [at Independence House], I feel guilty that I’m taking up someone’s chance to get better here. I give all the credit to Chrissy and her team.”
Rhonda’s suicidal thoughts have abated. She has a strong and engaged care team. And Rhonda has loving and healthy family relationships. It is with this backdrop that Rhonda is giving up that room so someone else can benefit from caring team at Independence House.
Rhonda is moving into her own place but she won’t live there alone. She will be sharing her new home with her gray and white, green-eyed cat Leo.