Second chances: WRCC helps turn life around

Posted: Monday, September 09, 2002

Huddled on the side of a Juneau mountain, with no food and little water, Lisa Greenleaf was as close to the emotional and physical breaking point as she could get.

It was then that Greenleaf decided she had no choice. She had to get off the mountain, she had to get help.

Greenleaf's trek up that mountain and back down again began the day her husband, Greg, died of complications from battling diabetes. That day was Jan. 21, 1998, and for the next two years, Lisa was plunged into a nightmare world that nearly ruined her life.

Following her husband's death, Greenleaf was unable to cope, even with the little things in life. Her savings were depleted, and soon she was no longer in a position to care for herself and her son.

"I was shattered. I just couldn't get over it," she said in an interview Friday.

Greenleaf was forced to move from San Diego to Orange County, Calif., where she moved in with her sister. Her son went to live with his grandmother. But after a few months, Greenleaf said even family members were unable to give her the support she needed.

"It was just too much to ask my family to take on," she said.

With no prospects and unbearable grief clouding her every thought, Greenleaf soon found herself with no place to go.

"I wound up homeless. I was a mess. I couldn't get a job," she said. "I couldn't get past the grief."

Homeless and alone, Greenleaf decided the best way to change her life would be to leave southern California. So in March of 1999, she hopped on a plane bound for Juneau. She said she doesn't know why she decided to run to Alaska, just that it seemed like the right idea at the time.

"I guess I wanted to see Alaska. Sometimes I think the ravens called me," she said.

However, Alaska didn't exactly fulfill her dream of finding a better life. A stranger in a strange place, Greenleaf quickly found herself worse off than when she left Orange County.

"Suddenly, I was on the street in Juneau," she said. "I fell into an unhealthy relationship."

That unhealthy relationship was with an abusive man who persuaded Lisa to move into a tent outside of town. That's where she lived for 5 1/2 months. It was a life lived constantly in fear for her safety, both from the man she was living with and the numerous bears that constantly prowl southeast Alaska.

"The situation got more and more scary, the bear kept coming around. It was horrible," she said.

Greenleaf began to despair that she'd never leave the mountainside. Then, she got her chance.

"Finally, he left me alone for three days, with no food or anything. It was just enough time where I could realize what I had to do," she said.

Greenleaf made up her mind then and there that she had to take control of her own life.

"Women who are stuck in a violent situation, it's kind of like being held hostage. You learn to survive within the situation. I had just enough time where I was able to recognize that I could leave. I could go get help. So I went and I asked for help," she said. "I literally crawled off that mountain."

She made it back to town with little will to live, and nowhere to turn. But luckily, this time when she went searching for hope, she found it.

In Juneau, she found a job at the Perseverance Theatre with the help of local women's agencies, and through them she heard of a program in Kenai that she thought might help.

The program was the Kenai Women's Resource and Crisis Center's TLC program, designed to help women in similar positions. She scratched enough money together to fly to the peninsula, with nothing more than a little hope and the clothes on her back.

"I had it all on the line at this point. It was up to me to change my life," she said.

It was November of 2000, and Greenleaf arrived at the crisis center alone and frightened.

"I had no idea what Kenai was going to be like. I had no clue, except to make this work somehow -- and I did."

Her turnaround didn't happen overnight. Once she was at the center, she had to begin the long process of healing her shattered psyche.

"I couldn't even go outside to the mailbox. I was just too frightened to begin seeking mental health assistance," she said.

Eventually, she learned she was suffering from mental illness.

"I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks," she said.

Greenleaf had the option of taking medication to control her condition. However, she decided that if she was going to truly turn her life around, drugs would not be part of the plan.

"I could have taken drugs. I opted not to. I decided I could change my cognitive energy without it. I wanted to have a normal physical and mental body chemistry," she said.

Over time, and with the support of the counseling and support she received at the center, Greenleaf began to have normalcy creep back into her life once again.

After a year and a half in the program, she was able to move into her own apartment. She got a job. And, perhaps most important of all, she was reunited with her son.

"I have managed to turn my life completely around," she said with a smile.

However, she's quick to point out that she could never have done it without the help she received from the center.

"It's huge to have someone offer a safe place to get better. To just have a small window of time to repair yourself. But I couldn't have done it alone."

She's now looking toward the future with hope instead of dread. Recently, she walked down the aisle with her class at Kenai Peninsula College, receiving an associate degree -- with honors. And she doesn't plan on stopping there.

"It's my hope to go into cognitive neuroscience. I want to help find out what's going to help people," she said.

Following her ordeal, Greenleaf said she's gained quite a bit of insight into the problems of mental health and abusive relationships. She said women who are in bad situations need to realize they're not responsible for what's happened to them.

"These things that happened to me -- I didn't do anything wrong. All we are responsible for is getting better. The WRCC helps us to do that. They said, 'OK, how are you going to take care of yourself?'"

And she said women's health issues should never be viewed as simply a women's problem.

"In helping the women in our community, we're not just helping the woman. We're helping her sons, her family ... her children who would end up in permanent crisis without the help, all because of services made available to one scared woman."

Three years ago, Lisa Greenleaf was that scared woman -- broken, alone and wet, crouched in a lonely tent on the side of a nameless Alaska mountain. Now she's off that desperate mountain and ready to take on the rest of her life.

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