Kristy Barrieau has lived with depression and anxiety for most of her life, so she’s seen her share of therapists and counselors. While she appreciated the fact that these mental health professionals were able to provide her with a diagnosis and treatment options, Barrieau’s regular appointments often left her feeling that something was missing.
“In my experience with a traditional counselor, it is like they want to fit you within a box,” she said. “You either have this diagnosis or you don’t. But I’m not black and white. My life isn’t, either. Traditional counselors don’t seem to want to navigate or talk about the gray areas.”
Another thing that frustrated Barrieau about traditional therapy was the relentless, singular focus on her life experiences. While she’d reveal intimate details of her life, or tell stories about her mental health struggles, Barrieau’s therapists would listen, never revealing anything about their own lives or similar struggles they’d faced. She understood that this approach to mental health treatment was widely accepted and ethically sound, but somehow it felt unbalanced.
“I know therapists aren’t supposed to talk about themselves,” Barrieau said, “but it always felt one-way — and a little disappointing.”
Then, earlier this year, Barrieau was introduced to a different approach to mental health counseling when she made an appointment with Heather Boll, a certified peer support specialist based in her hometown of Waconia. Peer support specialists are individuals who have lived experience with mental illness or addiction and have been trained to support others with mental illness, psychological trauma or substance use.
Boll, whose own struggles with mental illness go back as far as elementary school, helps her clients address their own mental health and addiction issues through a combination of deep listening and shared experience.
When Barrieau met with Boll, she said she appreciated this more “equal” mode of therapy.
“I loved the, ‘I know exactly what you are feeling because I have gone through that,’ approach. You are never going to get that from a doctor or a counselor or a therapist.”
When Boll shared her own struggles, Barrieau felt that she’d finally found a mental health professional who could relate to her own experiences — and could give her sense of hope that recovery was possible.
“It’s a very open conversation,” she said. “I like that Heather was open to talking about whatever was going on in my life, the pandemic, my marriage, friendships, work. And just knowing what she’s been through in her own life — and where she’s at now — is a real inspiration for me.”
Long journey to recovery
Boll is happy that her life story can be an inspiration for her clients, but it wasn’t all that long ago that she couldn’t imagine her struggle with mental illness ever being anything more than a source of pain.
Starting from when she was 8 years old, Boll’s life was consumed by anxiety and obsessive behaviors. In third grade, she missed 33 days of school. Emetophobia, or a severe fear of vomiting or seeing another person vomit, morphed into obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and panic disorder. She didn’t have words to explain what was going on, so she complained to her parents about having headaches and stomachaches. Boll even had periods of suicidal ideation, or fantasizing about ending her own life.
“I’d go to the doctor every other day,” she said. “Nobody could figure it out.” Boll didn’t get the emetophobia diagnosis, or any other mental health diagnosis, until years later, so she struggled along in her own way, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol through her high school years.
For Boll, drinking and using drugs “worked beautifully until it didn’t.” In college, her hard-partying ways intensified. “It was like putting gas on a fire,” she said. “I loved to be blacked-out drunk because it turned everything off. One night at the bar I fell over, blacked out and woke up two days later. I went to the hospital many times.”
Somehow, Boll was able to complete college, find love and get married. On her wedding day, when she was 23, she was struck by her first massive panic attack.
“I thought it was wedding-day jitters,” she said. “I couldn’t go to the ER. I was walking down the aisle. After the wedding it would happen every single day. I was having four to six panic attacks a day and nocturnal panic attacks.” She visited her family-practice doctor, who put her on a low dose of antidepressants. The medication helped, and soon after Boll and her husband decided to start a family.
Though her mental illness continued at a muted level after her first child was born, Boll worked hard to keep her symptoms from the outside world. “I hid behind a smile and laugher,” she said. “Nobody knew. I hid it so well.”
Then, when Boll gave birth to her second son, she went off her antidepressants, and her mental health started to deteriorate.
“This,” she said, “is where it gets dark and bad.”
After her youngest son’s birth, Boll said, “It was like a switch was flipped.” She had dysphoric milk ejection, a condition where a breastfeeding mother experiences a rush of negative emotions during milk letdown. Boll’s symptoms were severe. At her six-week checkup, she talked her doctor, who was skeptical. “I told my doctor I felt crazy every time I breastfed,” Boll explained. “I became afraid of my child and afraid of breastfeeding.” Though she said she “pushed through” the feelings, “It was so bad. I was having panic attack, panic attack, panic attack.”
When her son was 3 months old, Boll attempted suicide. “It didn’t work,” she said. “When I called the suicide hotline, no one answered. I thought, ‘I guess that’s the sign that I should do this.’ I felt I was a failure because I couldn’t kill myself.”
After her suicide attempt, Boll was hospitalized for three days. Her years of hiding the truth about her mental health were over. “Finally my husband and everybody knew,” she said. When she was discharged, she had a diagnosis — of anxiety, depression, panic disorder, ADHD and suicidal ideation.
Boll was eventually referred to a psychiatrist who helped her find a drug that worked. With the help of a therapist, and a devotion to exercise, yoga and mindfulness, she was eventually able to stabilize her mental health, but she said she still yearned for “someone to say, ‘I have this too and you’re going to be OK.’ Nobody could do that for me. If that had happened for me it would’ve been such a game changer.”
In 2017, Boll learned about peer support specialists and training programs offered by the state of Minnesota. This style of mental health treatment seemed like what she had been looking for, and so she decided to complete the training and certification process. Boll wanted to use her own experiences to help others navigate the long road to recovery.
“I want to show people you can still live a beautiful life even with the greatest challenges,” she said. “I want to take those challenges and help turn them into a blessing.”
Building the hive
Boll’s dream, as many of her dreams do, started with a vision board. She’d noticed a small blue house on Main Street in her hometown of Waconia. She took a picture of the house, and put it up on her vision board. It felt important to her, and Boll decided that it would be the perfect place for her to start her own business.
Boll already ran Heal-her, a private peer-support practice, where she offered support to individuals struggling with mental health concerns. Her vision was to create something bigger, a place where women could come for peer support, group meetings or to just sit and be quiet, read a book or drink a cup of coffee. She leased the blue house and renovated it with a new kitchen, group meeting rooms and private offices. Because she liked the idea of a group working together to support each other, Boll named her new venture The Hive.
“We use the phrase,” Boll said, “‘Life will sting. Community will heal.’”
Because she felt that women especially needed mental health support, she decided to make The Hive a woman-focused space. The Hive’s grand opening was July 24.
“My vision is that this is a health and wellness facility for women who have a mental health condition,” Boll said. Just like at a gym or a health club, Hive clients can purchase memberships at different levels (from a $50 monthly “daily bread” pass to an annual $2,000 full membership) that include perks like passcode-protected 24-7 access to the building (with its well-stocked coffee-and-snack bar), one-on-one appointments with peer-support specialists, and unlimited visits to group therapy (or “circles”) with other clients.
Clients don’t need a diagnosis or a referral to join The Hive, Boll explained. “We meet you where you’re at. It is spa-meets-mental-health. One-to-one peer support is like getting a personal trainer. Our circles are like group fitness.”
When people visit The Hive, Boll said, “we walk them through the different packages. We create a wellness plan for them. We mentor and advocate. We help them prepare for anything. We do a lot of referrals. We help them find the best psychiatrist. We can accompany them to any of those appointments. We teach them coping skills and self-help strategies.”
Tiffany Splettstoeszer, Hive assistant director, said that the program is designed for ordinary women who are searching for support and encouragement to cope with the stresses of everyday life.
“There are facilities that help people who are in a crisis mode,” she said. “Those places need to be there, but when it comes high-functioning people like myself who still struggle with their mental health, we saw that there was gap.”
A certified integrative wellness coach, Splettstoeszer is in the process of completing her certified peer specialist training. She believes that her own life experiences with depression and anxiety will help her to relate to her clients.
Peer support specialists, Splettstoeszer explained, “use our lived experience to help others. That’s done with listening and affirming and sharing our own story, letting them know they’ve been heard.” This approach is different from traditional counseling or psychotherapy, she said: “We’re not pretending to be therapists. We know our lane.”
Emily Anau is a Hive member. She lives with anxiety, and has seen a number of traditional therapists to help her manage her symptoms. When she heard about Boll and Heal-Her, she signed up for an appointment, eager to try a different approach to working on her mental health. And when Boll told her she was opening The Hive, she was one of the first people to sign up for a membership.
“I view therapy and peer support in two very different ways,” Anau said. “Therapy is all about me. Peer support is all about sharing your mental health experiences with somebody else who’s been through the same thing. A therapist doesn’t talk about their experiences. Because she’s a peer support specialist, Heather can relate her experience of panic attacks and anxiety to me and say, ‘This is what helped me.’ Then I don’t feel so alone.”
‘I think of it like a coffee shop’
Hive members say they think of the blue house on Main Street as a place where they can go if they want to get away from the pressures of everyday life, talk to other women, check in with a peer-support specialist or just chill out.
Barrieau, who joined the Hive at the beginning, likes to spend time at the house when she needs some peace and quiet. “I think of it like a coffee shop,” she said. “I used to go to a coffee shop in town, get a coffee and put my headphones on. Now I don’t need the headphones. I personally find it to be a great benefit.”
Just the other day, Anau paid a drop-in visit to The Hive. “I’ve been having a rough time,” she said. “One day I was in tears. I couldn’t stop crying. So I just walked in there. There were a few peer support specialists on duty. They talked to me. We hung out. I got a bottle of water. It was a nice option to have. If I had been home, I’d probably would have taken a nap: This gave me an outlet to talk about how I was feeling and work things through.”
Boll loves that Hive members feel they can stop by whenever they need support. She wants the little blue house to be a refuge, something that she could’ve used in her darkest hours, and she hopes that her new place will grow to be a source of support and strength for women in need.
“People who put their mental health and wellness as their top priority are successful people,” Boll said. “I know that empowering and woman-to-woman camaraderie is important. I am a common-day feminist. I believe we deserve to have a voice and be heard. I want The Hive to be a place for that.”