Finding a few moments in Laurie Ahern’s schedule isn’t easy. Her easy-going leadership style and dry, self-effacing humor belie the hectic pace of life these days. As the Associate Director of Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI) she is often leading teams to investigate human rights abuses against adults and children with developmental and psychiatric disabilities in institutions all over the world. From her office in Washington DC, she puts her talent as a former investigative journalist to work while writing reports on findings in psychiatric facilities in places like Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Romania, Turkey, Kosove, Serbia, Hungary and soon the African nations and Asia as well. When we spoke a few weeks ago, Laurie had just spent the day encouraging United States officials to join the world in adopting the first United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The meeting took place only a few days after her return from the European Union as part of an effort to make disability rights one of the conditions for joining the Union. “It was a pretty good couple of weeks”, she adds with a smile. “But one of the best things that happened was when officials in Turkey finally agreed to stop using electroshock on children and to cease using it on adults without anesthesia”.
“When I speak my truth today, I feel strong”, she relates, “but it wasn’t always that way.”
Like many other young people diagnosed with a mental illness, she had been subjected to years of severe sexual abuse by a family member and threatened to keep the secret. She left home at the age of seventeen and agreed to see a psychiatrist. “I was on my own and imploding because I didn’t know how to reach out”. Laurie had learned to turn inward to protect herself from the ongoing betrayal and pain; she became adept at self-reliance and independence. However, the very skills she developed to survive were now preventing her from connecting with other people. Drifting into further depression and despair, she finally agreed to be hospitalized in a psychiatric facility at the age of eighteen. “No one asked me why I was so desperate, terrified and withdrawn. I was assessed for about ten minutes after which I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and put on massive amounts of psychotropic medication. I told them I needed someone to talk with me. I kept screaming …why won’t anyone talk to me? That’s when they put me in restraint.”
While in restraint, Laurie was raped by a staff member causing her to withdraw further into a world where no one could hurt her anymore. “I decided I had to escape or I wouldn’t survive.” One night in the middle of February, they opened the door and she slipped past, walking three miles back to her apartment through a snow storm wearing only spongy green hospital slippers that stared back at her with a mock smile. “I huddled in my closet terrified that staff or police would find and arrest me for escaping. After three days, I came out of the closet but had no family support or job and was soon evicted.”
Laurie stayed at shelters but was often too frightened to sleep and describes the experience of homelessness itself as “traumatic.” The chronic transience, lack of security and control reinforces the same messages people receive when they are violated: that the world is a fundamentally unsafe and unpredictable place. “I came from an upper middle class background. Homelessness wasn’t even in my consciousness. I learned that it can really happen to anyone.”
When asked what helped, Laurie quickly remarks, “the support of other women who had been impacted by trauma and homelessness as well. I was invited to participate in a women’s group by a psychologist who had been diagnosed with manic depression and hospitalized herself. She reached out to me and it really turned my life around. The group bonded with each other.” A couple of the women from the group invited Laurie to stay with them until she found a job. “They believed in me and that gave me strength to begin to believe in myself at a time when I was still so incredibly vulnerable.”
Today Laurie Ahern describes herself as “a mom and a survivor, not a victim.” “I still don’t like airplanes”, she says laughing at the irony, “but there isn’t anywhere in the world I wouldn’t go to spread the word that recovery is possible….for everyone. Regardless of diagnosis or circumstance, people deserve to have someone believe in them, the way those women believed in me”. Laurie is a powerful visionary, leading by example and going into places time forgot, to carry the message of hope. She was once told that no one would believe her when she spoke her truth. Now she stands in front of policy makers, legislators and diplomats from around the world, and speaks it clearly, and people are listening.