Overcoming mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism is an arduous, often exhausting journey, and it’s difficult to do alone. Five years ago, three Preston Hollow neighbors who battled addiction and mental illness shared their stories of redemption and recovery.

Originally published March  2011

Thanks to tabloid and reality TV, we know that people are sometimes prone to self-destruction. Watching it can be morbidly entertaining, but more intriguing than the train wreck is the rare story of one who manages to pull himself out of his pitiful existence — the drug abusing, jailbird celebrity who finds lasting sobriety and subsequent success or “Biggest Losers” who shed hundreds of life-threatening pounds. These are the stories that move us, and you don’t need to turn on the TV to see them. These true tales of redemption are being lived, and touching lives, right here in our neighborhood.

Read their stories below.

Julie Hersh

As she teetered on the edge of a cliff, Julie Hersh contemplated what might happen if she jumped. She didn’t think about leaving her children motherless or her husband a widower.

“I thought, well, if I jump, I might hit that other rock and survive. Then I’ll just be paralyzed and depressed. That’s how distorted I was.”

Today, most people know Hersh as the Dallas Children’s Theater board president. But for years, she battled severe depression, attempting suicide three times before seeking serious help. She wrote about her experience in the book “Struck By Living”, and she speaks at venues across the country to raise awareness about mental illness. She’s also an active supporter of the suicide and crisis center CONTACT.

Hersh’s story doesn’t begin with a troubled childhood or traumatic event that led to her mental illness. She had a normal life, a loving husband, two beautiful children and no logical reason to abandon it all.

“I think I was depressed long before I knew it,” she says. “I just felt more disconnected from the world. It’s like being inside a glass tube. You can see everything going on outside, but you can’t participate in it. I had a mental deficiency. I was convinced I would never get better.”

That’s what drove Hersh to suicide.

First, she stood outside her home with a knife to her wrist, but her husband found her in time. She checked into rehab, but relapsed and nearly jumped off a cliff during a family hiking vacation. Lastly, Hersh closed the garage door and locked herself in the car with the engine running for 90 minutes. She thought, for sure, that would work.

But the garage was well ventilated, so she survived.

Hersh sought treatment again — this time undergoing electroconvulsive therapy, also known as ECT. Through the procedure, doctors attach probes to the head and send a small pulse of electricity through the body — basically resetting the brain.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently debating the use of ECT, but Hersh says the controversial treatment saved her life.

“When people think of ECT, they think of ‘[One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest’. Unfortunately, it was abused during the ’40s and ’50s. But today, it has an 80 percent success rate.”

Hersh says it’s like a triple bypass for the brain. Although results differ from person to person, she remembers exactly how she felt after her first treatment.

“My experience was instantaneous,” Hersh says. “I can remember … looking at my journal and thinking, ‘Who is this person?’ Something completely changed my brain.”

Hersh believes that people have chemical predispositions for depression just like those with heart disease, diabetes or cancer.

“Every thought and every feeling we have creates an electric and chemical reaction in the body. We are the environment.”

Part of her mission is to help eliminate the stigma attached to mental illness so people won’t feel afraid or embarrassed to seek help.

“You can’t measure it,” she says. “If you break a leg, the doctor takes an X-ray, and you can see it. With mental illness, there’s really nothing to show in a tangible way.”

To maintain her current mental health, Hersh follows a consistent structure that includes what she calls her “top six”. She takes her daily anti-depressant medication; gets plenty of sleep, nutrition and exercise; listens to family and friends; plans ahead for times of emotional stress; excites her brain with new activities such as attending an art exhibit; and finally, she surrounds herself with friends who have different perspectives on life — older people who are living proof that life gets better.

“Don’t underestimate the power of reaching out to each other. Saying a kind word to someone, physically being there for someone — I believe that can save a life.”

Julie Hersh’s book “Struck By Living” is available at Barnes & Noble at Preston and Royal. For more information, visit struckbyliving.com.

Michelle Adams

Her addiction began with alcohol — hard liquor — at 12 years old. Then came cocaine at age 15.

By the time she turned 20, Michelle Adams had become a complete meth addict.

Michelle Adams“After that, I never cared about another drink or hit of cocaine. I didn’t look like myself. I didn’t sound like myself.”

Only prison could break the cycle, and her parents made sure she stayed there.

“I knew things were serious, but I had no idea what my family knew.”

Adams only recently discovered that it was her own brother who turned her in to the police, landing her in a jail cell for 13 months.

“He said to the police, ‘You either pick her up, or I’m going to have to bury my sister.’ He felt guilty, but that was the most loving gift that anyone has given me in my life. Now, because of that, other people have had the chance at recovery.”

Adams, a neighborhood resident, not only overcame her addiction, but she established a way to help other women do the same. In January 2008, she founded Recovery Inn, a nonprofit that operates six housing facilities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, helping former addicts transition into sobriety. At Recovery Inn, women re-learn daily routines such as cooking, shopping and financial budgeting. The houses offer a family-style environment with accountability and spiritual guidance, which Adams says you don’t receive at typical rehabilitation centers.

“We are the missing link,” she says.

Adams’ Christian faith played a major role in her recovery. She had been a believer for most of her life, but remembers the moment when she finally started following.

After about six months in prison, she was to spend the rest of her sentence at a halfway house along with several other inmates. But while she stood in line, anticipating her release, it was thwarted for reasons still unknown.

“[The guard] said ‘Adams, go back to your cell.’ I was kicking and screaming and frustrated and crying. I finally said, ‘OK, God. Whatever your plan is.’

“I think that for someone who has been through so much, the faith is that much deeper. Recovery Inn is guided by that.”

She saved up her own money to buy her first facility in East Plano, and from then on, her parents have provided most of the financial support. Last July, Adams founded another nonprofit, the Texas Transitional Living Coalition, aiding all recovery homes in the state.

Only personal experience inspired Adams to start Recovery Inn, but she acquired more specialized skills after finishing a nonprofit leadership program at Southern Methodist University.

Adams left her old life behind and is now seven years sober with no cravings for drugs or alcohol.

“I never felt like I existed. With drugs and alcohol, I felt like I existed. Occasionally, the lifestyle screams at me. But my life now is better than anything I could have had. We’re like a family here [at Recovery Inn]. I’m 37 and haven’t had kids, but I have 300 girls.”

The Friends of the Inn will host its annual fundraising gala for Recovery Inn 7-10 p.m. April 2 at Boardwalk Porsche in Plano. For more information, call 972.801.7980 or visit recoveryinn.org.

Holly Hunter

Holly Hunter: Can Türkyilmaz

Holly Hunter: Can Türkyilmaz

She had everyone snowed — her parents, teachers, school administrators all thought the private school honor student was a relatively good kid.

Sure, she’d been kicked out of the Hockaday School for swearing at a staffer, but that was typical teenage angst, no?

And, yeah, she had wrecked the car, but she was trying to avoid a dog that ran into the street — that’s what she told her dad anyway.

“Of course he believed me — he knew how I loved animals,” says Holly Hunter, who today runs a counseling service with an office in our neighborhood.

In truth, at age 16 Hunter was the school drug dealer. She asks that we don’t share the name of her private Dallas high school (the one she attended after the Hockaday incident) where she was such a good student that she graduated a year early.

Marijuana, alcohol, cocaine — she loved drugs, she says. She started selling them not to feed a habit as much as to nourish her ego.

“Ego is when you edge God out,” she says. She points to the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”, which sits on her desk. “That’s where I got that acronym — E-G-O, see? I like acronyms.”

Her boyfriend, who was older, cooked the drugs, and she sold them.

“I was trapped in the money game,” she says. “I could make $1,000 for 20 minutes of work.”

And while that sounded pretty cool to the young rebel in Hunter, she knew deep down that something was terribly wrong.

“I thought I had it good, but I was living in fear. Constant fear. I no longer had a relationship with my family.”

One day, after sleeping for several hours — “I didn’t sleep much back then,” she says — she woke up staring at a copy of the Bible that a family member had given her.

“It was covered in dust — that made me feel bad. Then I prayed. I said, ‘God, I wish I had my life back.’ Well, be careful what you wish for. Less than 72 hours later, I was sitting in jail.”

Police raided Hunter’s place and locked her up — that wasn’t her last time in jail, either. She couldn’t shake the addiction, and she ultimately revisited prison multiple times.

“Let’s just say — all told — about a third of my life was spent in prison.”

It was during that last stint that she committed to getting clean.

She could have taken drugs while behind bars. Her cellmates regularly did, she says, but instead she asked for help.

“I began requesting substance abuse counseling immediately when I got to prison [in the 1990s]. It took two years for me to get into classes — Life Skills and Drug Education.”

After her last release, she embarked on an education in chemical dependency treatment that included becoming certified as a licensed chemical dependency counselor, certified clinical supervisor and certified anger resolution specialist.

Now she runs A Court Class, which specializes in drug counseling and education, especially for those in legal trouble because of drug abuse.

Neighborhood attorney Sharon Diaz says she refers her drug-related offenders to Hunter. Diaz says Hunter’s personal experience makes her an effective counselor.

“I send my criminal drug clients to her for evaluation and to get them sober to face their cases,” Diaz says. “She is amazing, and open about her journey.”

Hunter’s office is filled with gifts and cards from clients she has helped (one is from a well-known newscaster who was a heroin user, she confides).

“This is not a zip code problem,” she says. “People from all walks of life are subject to [drug or alcohol abuse problems].”

For example, she mentions a high school student from a “good neighborhood” with whom she’s currently working. He and his friends were smoking marijuana in a garage in his gated community when an off-duty officer patroling the neighborhood arrested them. The youngster tried to run from the officer and, in the process, ran into him.

“Now the kid is looking at possession, assault and evading arrest charges. Those charges kept him from going to the college he had already been accepted to. Yes, what he did was very wrong, but he needs help. He needs someone to work on his behalf to make sure legal problems don’t prevent him from becoming a productive member of society.”

Hunter works closely with the courts to help people — some like this teenager, others with even deeper problems — successfully complete court-mandated probation and find sobriety. Each person is different and requires an individualized treatment plan, she says.

In addition to having a successful business that serves people from many Dallas neighborhoods, Hunter says her personal life is back on track and better than she could have ever imagined.

“I have a relationship with my mom. We talk every day. I have true friendships and intimate relationships.”

And maybe most importantly, she is at peace: Hunter says she doesn’t condemn herself today for what happened in the past.

Again, she reads from the literature on her desk: “Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake.”

Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Preston Hollow.