Maria Hermsen acknowledges that the following paragraph isn't likely to be found in many professional biographical statements:
"She was drinking every day, blacking out frequently, and getting into increasingly dangerous and frightening situations. Despite hitting several apparent 'bottoms' and the concerns of many around her, Maria was deep in denial, depressed and felt powerless to make a change ..."
But as program manager for Clackamas Drop, Hermsen is sending a powerful message by sharing her personal struggles with mental health and addiction on the official website of the after-school center for youth and young adults at 11097 S.E. 21st Ave., Milwaukie. Hermsen's biography on the website goes on to describe how she began recovering through a combination of Alcoholics Anonymous and professional therapy.
"A lot of kids come here because they don't want to see a therapist and would like someone with a different type of training," Hermsen said. "It's kind of weird to be so vulnerable to have your full name attached to a website with a full story, but that's a big part of what we do to strategically tell parts of our story to develop trust."
Trust is an important ingredient in the type of peer-support services provided by Clackamas Drop and largely funded by the Clackamas County Behavioral Health Department. After more than three years sober, Hermsen said she is proud to provide peer-support services not only to young people at Clackamas Drop, but also now as a peer-support sponsor to other young women entering the Alcoholics Anonymous program.
As manager of the Clackamas Drop center since April 2016, Hermsen oversees four employees, two of whom are licensed to go anywhere that youth want to meet in the county. The center opened in 2011, but Hermsen said it's been great for Clackamas Drop to have the MAX station open up a block away in 2015, because the center now serves more youth outside of Clackamas County.
Clackamas Drop serves a mix of kids, some who stop by the center voluntarily and some who are told to work with the center's staff. Therapists, juvenile justice, DHS and schools can give referrals for youth to work with Clackamas Drop staffers. The center's "wrap-around" peer-support employees sit on teams that bring together the young person's probation officer (if the teen is involved in juvenile justice), parents, teachers and therapists.
'Bridge' for youth
Any young person 14 to 25 is welcome to come to the center open from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday across the street from Milwaukie High School. The center offers a computer lab, movie theater, pool table, virtual reality room, cafe with snacks, and an internship program.
Coming for the after-school activities at Clackamas Drop, teens and young adults who are in danger of getting into trouble often end up having conversations with the center's staff about their struggles. All of the staff members have 40 hours peer-support training, plus suicide intervention training and collaborative problem-solving training amounting to about another 40 hours.
"We can be a bridge for youth to a higher level of care," Hermsen said. "We're definitely not anti-therapy, but it can be helpful to have someone walk beside you who remembers what it was like to live with untreated mental health and addiction issues. I do have a therapist; I think that's really important for my own self care. For me to be able to share positive experiences with therapy can be really positive in helping them navigate a difficult system."
Hermsen and her Clackamas Drop staff are careful not to tell youth directly what to do about their issues. Psychologists have shown this indirect technique to be more effective for adolescents, and Hermsen found it to be the most effective method in getting her to combat her own alcoholism.
"A lot of people told me that there was a problem with me drinking over the years, but I wasn't ready to address it, and I had a lot of rock-bottoms," she said. "It took someone who I trusted who didn't tell me that I needed to stop drinking."
Instead of telling her to quit abusing alcohol, he waited until she asked him on her own whether he thought she had a drinking problem. His response was that Alcoholics Anonymous has a webpage titled "Is A.A. for you? Twelve questions only you can answer." The questions ask whether you have had "blackouts" from drinking, and as another example, whether you've missed work or school because of drinking. If you answer "yes" to four or more of the questions, the quiz suggests that you're probably in trouble with alcohol and could consider A.A. as a method for finding out how others are learning to live "one day at a time" without drinking.
Hermsen's friend prepared her for what she might find out if she took the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-part quiz. "Why not take the quiz?" he asked Hermsen.
"I know that the answer is yes to many of these 12 questions, but don't take this as me judging you," Hermsen remembers him telling her.
Justified by the formal training she's since received, Hermsen has incorporated her friend's indirect technique into her own methods with the Clackamas Drop youth.
"It's kind of like the technique I use now in that I would never give direct advice, but I would kind of ask open-ended questions," she said. "I'm not going to tell you that you have a problem."
Milwaukee to Milwaukie
Hermsen grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with "loving, but strict parents" who saw her get straight A's through high school. They were all pleased when she got into Reed College, a prestigious liberal arts institution in Portland.
"I was pretty dorky in high school, but I thought I could be whoever I wanted to be out here, and I tried to be cool using drugs and alcohol, but I was also self-medicating," Hermsen recalls.
Hermsen got her first wake-up call her freshman year at Reed, after she largely stopped attending classes to engage in drinking. Reed classes were much more academically rigorous than what she was used to. While she was the president of the Spanish Honor Society in high school, she got a D in freshman Spanish at Reed.
The wake-up call at Reed worked, albeit temporarily. She found her "academic passion" in Reed's religion department.
She graduated in 2012 upon completing a 129-page thesis titled, "One hell of a problem: An analysis of the discourse of religion vs. culture in contemporary American evangelicalism through the lens of the Rob Bell firestorm."
She believes that her thesis adviser, Reed religion professor Ken Brashier, never knew she was dealing with untreated mental health and addiction issues.
"I kept it pretty well hidden from most of my professors, and by junior year I was doing pretty well," Hermsen said.
Meanwhile, a major source of stress for Hermsen, her sister's diagnosis with thyroid cancer, was resolving itself. Hermsen's sister is now doing well and is in grad school.
"After I graduated, I didn't have that structure so I started to struggle again," Hermsen said.
The time between her graduation in May 2012 and becoming sober in November 2014 were some of the toughest years of Hermsen's life. She worked at a group home for developmentally disabled adults for three years. She was looking for "something different" and saw an ad on Craigslist for a job at Clackamas Drop. After interviewing for the job in the spring of 2016, Hermsen realized that she could have a job where she didn't have to keep her previous struggles with alcoholism and mental illness anonymous.
"These aren't things I need to be ashamed of," Hermsen said. "Some of my lived experiences that I didn't really think of as assets could actually help me get a job and a career."
In addition to the A.A. meetings, Hermsen says that regular meditation, exercise and reading are helpful in keeping her sober.