Nancy J. Montagna’s smile lit up the darkened ballroom of Avalon Country Club at Buhl Park Thursday night in Hermitage.
Her voice resounded with strength and determination as she bore witness to the road to recovery from mental illness.
The Warren, Ohio, woman spoke to a packed room at Community Counseling Center’s annual dinner.
Her goal: To leave her audience inspired.
In order to achieve it, Montagna had to share some of her “most unpleasant moments,” she said.
She shared those moments with a group of people who work to help people with problems like hers.
The folks at Community Counseling Center help those coping with mental illness, addiction and other disorders through a myriad of programs and services.
Montagna’s story rang true to those who attended and she spent Friday morning at the center’s Hermitage offices sharing strategies she uses in her job as program coordinator of recovery services at Youngstown-based Help Hotline.
“I really like this counseling center, it’s one of the best that I’ve seen,” she said. “And boy, the people are nice.”
Montagna uses her life experience to help others going through similar situations, she said.
Despite having a wonderful childhood and three supportive sisters, Montagna developed depression that evolved into mania and alternated on that rocky road of raw emotions now termed bipolar disorder.
Growing up, “there was nothing painful about my childhood,” she said.
“Well, except maybe when I fell off my bicycle and almost broke my nose.”
When she turned 17 her idyll changed and the “ghastly nightmare” of manic depression began.
She shared her memories of her first suicidal thoughts, while “lying in bed one night in a fitful sleep.”
“I will never forget that moment,” she said. “An intense fear overwhelmed my soul … with that fear came a strange sense of relief.
“I truly believed that I had discovered the only answer for the pain I was in,” she said. “The next day, I knew I needed some help.”
Her cry for help was dramatic.
“It was a beautiful sunny Saturday when my mother came home from the grocery store,” Montagna remembered. “My father and I came outside to help my mother with the groceries.
“As my mother parked the car, I ran over and laid down with the front tire touching my heart and the other tire at my feet,” she said, her voice filled with the emotion of that remembered moment.
“I could feel the heat of the engine,” she said. “I began screaming ‘Run over me! Smash my brain! I cannot live like this anymore!”
“Is that any way to greet your mother?” her father replied.
She started therapy and treatment for depression, but when the darkness lifted and the manic period began, she stopped seeing her doctors and counselors and was OK for a time.
“Fast forward to Kent State University. Full blown mania into a full blown depression,” she said. “Again suicide became a comforting decision.”
The next 10 years were a hellish roller coaster ride, as her life veered from mania to depression again and again, she said.
“The one and only reason I did not successfully commit suicide was because I had two parents, three sisters and three brothers-in-law who begged me, begged me never to do it,” she said.
During that time, if someone asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, her honest responses were polar opposites.
When she was depressed, her answer to that question was “A tombstone.”
When she was manic? “A movie star.”
“A tombstone. A movie star. That was me,” she said.
She’s chronicled her life and recovery in a book, “What’s Behind The Smile: One Woman’s Journey With Bi-polar Disorder” that’s being edited and readied for publication.
Montagna hopes it’s done by fall, she said.
Her message is similar to the one espoused in the award-winning movie from last year, “Silver Linings Playbook,” which she said she has yet to watch.
“There is hope,” she said.
“That’s all I can say. There is hope. Mental illness does not have to be a curse. There always is a light at the end of the tunnel. You will come out of it.”