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Kimberly Richards Marquez calls it “stuffing her emotions.”

It was how she dealt with the death of two of her soldiers and three of her sons. How she coped with the abuse of her husband. How she stayed afloat despite debilitating depression and anxiety. By ignoring her feelings and burying them deep inside, Richards Marquez could muster the strength to wake up, go to work, and make her way through the day. But emotions must go somewhere, a lesson she learned the hard way and with near-fatal results.

Richards Marquez was in her teens when she began struggling with anxiety and depression, and in her 40s when the pain became so great she tried to end her life. Now 55, the La Crosse woman has found strength in others, and within herself, becoming a force of hope for those coping with mental illness. Her courage and honesty have earned her the 2019 Shining Star Award from the Mental Health Coalition of the Greater La Crosse Area.

Kimberly Richards-Marquez

Kimberly Richards-Marquez of La Crosse is being honored by the Mental Health Coalition Board of Greater La Crosse with the Shining Star Award. Richards- Marquez, a Gulf War veteran, has learned to cope with PTSD, depression and anxiety disorder.

Given annually to a individual who has confronted mental illness, accepted the challenge of seeking help and encouraged others to do the same, the Shining Star Award serves as both an honor and a reminder to the community that a supportive environment is crucial for the management of mental illnesses. During the celebratory event being held from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 29, at the Cargill Room at the Waterfront, three Iris Awards also will be presented to La Crosse County Jail clinical therapist Sam Seefeld, former La Crosse Tribune health reporter Mike Tighe and the Catholic Charities Live By Program.

Though a prestigious recognition, Richards Marquez said she had to “think twice” about accepting the Shining Star Award, having declined a previous nomination by Alice Holstein, her peer support of eight years at the Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Clinic.

“She wasn’t ready to wear this scarlet letter of ‘I’m mental illness,’” said Holstein, who nominated Richards Marquez’ again this year with her permission. “It’s about honoring someone who is willing to come forward and shine a spotlight on mental-illness recovery... Kim is prepared to tell her story if it will help others realize that even some of the worst conditions can yield outstanding success. Hers is a courageous, heartfelt story of suffering transformed into survival, wellness and service to others.”

Holstein, who has bipolar mood disorder and served in the Air Force from 1965 to 1969, bonded with Richards Marquez, an Army member from 1983 to 1994 and captain during the Gulf War, when the fellow veteran sought support at the VA River Valley Integrated Health Center in 2011. Diagnosed with PTSD, major depression and anxiety disorder, Richards Marquez says Holstein made her feel heard and respected without any sense of judgment.

“She didn’t see my mental illness — she saw my journey,” Richards Marquez said. “The key word is patience — she didn’t push me, she encouraged the things I could do to help myself and let me make the decision. (I practice) the three Cs: catch the negative thoughts, check how realistic they are and change what you can change. Recovery is a lot of work — inner work.”

“Many people don’t do the inner work,” Holstein noted. “They don’t know how to do it or they are scared. Kim was brave.”

Richards Marquez has had to brave many challenges and losses in her life. Several years into her military career, in the Gulf War era, two of her soldiers died under tragic circumstances — one in a forklift accident, and the other to suicide. Richards Marquez, who was in command of a unit that supplied munitions in support of the war, considered both family and was despondent but determined to be strong for her soldiers. Her composure, however, would later manifest into symptoms of PTSD — recurring flashbacks and both mental and physical exhaustion and strain.

“I didn’t face the emotions,” Richards Marquez says. “I put them away, and I learned what you put away doesn’t stay away. PTSD always comes back.”

Richards Marquez, who married a member of the Army and chose to leave the career herself in 1994, was still struggling emotionally when she became pregnant for the first time, losing her son shortly after his birth. Her second pregnancy brought renewed hope, only to end in tragedy when the infant boy died within hours.

“The one thing I wanted most in life was a child ... to only know a funeral after a birth is hard,” Richards Marquez said.

Descending into a deep depression, Richards Marquez and her husband began to grow distant, and while the couple welcomed a “miracle baby” in 1998, a healthy son, she was too depressed to feel joy and her husband’s anger issues began to materialize.

They decided to relocate to Puerto Rico, near family, for a fresh start but her spouse became “combative and abusive,” Richards Marquez says, and she felt increasingly isolated by the language barrier, without friends or a job.

The family returned stateside in 2004, where Richards Marquez became pregnant again only to suffer a miscarriage when labor was induced at 19 weeks. The devastation led her to attempt suicide.

“I wanted to leave this world. You don’t see getting better, you just see the nightmares and the pain,” she says.

In 2011, Richards Marquez found the strength to seek help, attending therapy at the VA River Valley Integrated Health Center. Her husband was unsupportive and refused to participate in therapy, though he was increasingly abusive and controlling of her whereabouts and relationships, she says. Her cloak of support staff at the VA encouraged her to leave the toxic relationship, and in 2015 the couple divorced, though the loss of the 25-year marriage hit Richards Marquez hard.

“I broke down,” she recalled. “The dreams, you know, the white picket fence, were gone.”

The breakup, however, gave her the space and freedom to truly begin the healing process. Through therapy, meetings with Holstein for peer support, gatherings at RAVE Recovery Avenue, art, music and medication, Richards Marquez began to experience relief. She keeps a photo of her son in her car to remind herself of what she has to live for, and understands the need to ask for help, especially with an illness where pain is not always obvious to others.

“Trauma is normal. With any other wound you get a cast or a Band-Aid,” Richards Marquez said. “With a wound in the brain — your mental health — you don’t get crutches. People can’t see it and they don’t respond the same way.”

In 2017, Richards Marquez finished Wisconsin Peer support training herself and was hired at the Family and Children’s Center, where she is now case manager and works with adult clients suffering with severe mental illness, trauma or homelessness. The work, she says, is tough but rewarding. One of the few consistent people in her clients’ lives, Richards Marquez leads with empathy and uses herself as an example that relief is possible. She hopes to do the same for the community.

“I’m accepting this award to be a part of bringing awareness to mental health and the judgment and discrimination against those who struggle with the symptoms of their diagnosis,” Richards Marquez said. “I want families and friends to know that there is support and education opportunities to help them support their family member and understand the symptoms of the mental illness. Usually family members are overwhelmed and burned out dealing with the symptoms, so they walk away or give up on the person struggling. Many people choose to suffer in silence and not seek help. The fear is real. The judgment and shame are real. The stigma is real."

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Emily Pyrek can be reached at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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General assignment reporter

Emily Pyrek covers human interest stories, local events and anything involving dogs for the La Crosse Tribune. She is always interested in story ideas and can be contacted at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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