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She Brings Authenticity, Honesty, and Lived Experience as Head of Interim’s Success Over Stigma Program

She Brings Authenticity, Honesty, and Lived Experience as Head of Interim’s Success Over Stigma Program

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SALINAS, CA. (June 14, 2022) — Kontrena McPheter, as the old saying goes, not only walks the walk, she talks the talk — about her struggles with drugs, mental illness, homelessness, sexual trauma, excessive weight, and her triumph over those daunting challenges.

 

McPheter, who goes by the nickname “Trena,” has walked a treacherous path in her five-decade-long life, but she feels she has emerged much better, healthier both mentally and physically, confident and filled with hope, an emotion that has been in short supply during most of her life.

 

She credits Interim, Inc. for most of those successes, not just the Interim programs that helped her get off the wrong path to another more rewarding one, but especially the people who have helped, supported, and encouraged her along the way.

 

Once a client of Interim, she joined the organization as an employee 15 years ago. First as a resource advocate, helping those who found themselves in similar situations, and, for the past nine years, as Peer Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator for Interim’s Success Over Stigma program.

 

It’s a remarkable success story, one that still has many more years to play out and one that she’s determined to continue.

 

“I still look forward to getting up and going to work in the morning,” she says. “I finally found my niche; I found my tribe. I know what I’m talking about and you’re going to get the best of me every day.”

 

Trena’s journey started at the former Fort Ord, where her father was in the U.S. Army and mother worked as a nurse. She first attended San Carlos School, a private Catholic school in Monterey, but got hepatitis, so had to transfer to a public school, which she admitted was a “culture shock” for her.

 

She managed to move on to other schools in Monterey and Seaside, including Monterey High and Cypress Continuation High School in Seaside. “Managed,” because she struggled through a major life change during those years.

 

“I gained 100 pounds between the ages of 9-10,” she says. “I experienced sexual trauma, so I went into hiding, I was eating the pain away. I didn’t understand I was going through trauma. I had a secret to hide and I didn’t know the toll it took on me both emotionally and physically. All I knew was to eat, it was a shield, a way of shielding my body.”

 

To compound her travails, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with manic depression, then her mother died, which actually was a catalyst for her to examine her life and why she was on this path of pain and self-destruction.

 

“No one was aware of what I was going through until my mom died,” she says. “I started looking at trauma and understanding what I did and trying to break the cycle. I’ve dropped 100 pounds in the past five years. At the height, I was 460 pounds. It affected everything in my life.”

 

To add insult to injury, while she was going through her weight loss, she was diagnosed with cervical and ovarian cancer, which forced her to abandon the lap band (laparoscopic gastric banding) procedure that was going to help her lose weight. But that also sparked more revelations about her condition.

 

She says she realized that she had never seen a fat cancer patient, so she questioned her diagnosis and her doctors, that if indeed she did have cancer, she would lose weight. That led her realize that all that weight she was carrying wasn’t protecting her at all.

 

“I told myself, my fat is not protecting me, so how can I take care of myself, how can I get better?” she says. “Little things, like more whole foods, less carbs, equals me losing weight. It’s slowly evolving, cutting out one thing a day. I’m feeling better and moving better. I still want to do things.”

 

Her journey to where she landed now hit a roadblock from when her mother died in 1997 and when she became involved in Interim, first as a client, then as an employee, around 2006. She was hooked on meth, using street drugs, and living in another woman’s van. Then the woman took the van, with literally all her belongings, and left her stranded and alone. Now she was not only hooked on drugs, but homeless.

 

“I thought I was going to die there,” she says about the Seaside women’s shelter she ended up in. “All I had was a T-shirt, sweats, and flip-flops; I had nothing. It took the community of Interim to get me clothing and shelter and food. I had to depend on them for everything.”

 

She eventually got on medication, got off meth, started seeing a doctor and found a welcoming and supportive community at Interim. “I appreciated them so much, I wanted to give back.”

 

Trena soon found herself cooking meals at the women’s shelter, inviting other clients for meals, and creating her own “tribe,” as it were.

 

“Interim noticed I was a community-builder, so they helped me work on things that I was good at,” she says. “Then my mentor Kate said, you should apply for this job at Interim and read me the job description. I told her, I can do this job, but I also told her I lied, that I didn’t graduate high school. She said if I got a GED, I could get the job.”

 

It took her a couple of years, but she did just that, and in 2007, she started working at Interim’s OMNI Resource Center as a resource advocate, helping others who were in similar situations to learn how to adjust to sobriety, having shelter and getting a job. Then in 2013, Interim Executive Director Barbara Mitchell asked her if she could run Interim’s speakers panel through Success Over Stigma.

 

“I said yes, I did it and I’ve been doing it ever since,” she says about her position as Peer Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator. “She allowed me a pathway to be self-sufficient. I have the confidence to do well now. Now I want to get my bachelor’s degree, I don’t care how long it takes. I want to travel to Africa and see Uganda and Nigeria. And I want to keep losing weight.”

 

Since July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, which hopes to bring awareness to the unique struggles that racial and ethnic minority communities face regarding mental illness in the United States, Trena is more aware that she has become a role model for others, especially people of color.

 

“I know I’m a role model,” she says. “It was hard to understand at first because of the self-doubt I had, but I’m an adult now and can make good decisions. I don’t mind people asking me how I did it. It keeps me honest and humble. So, I don’t mind being a role model.”

 

An influential position she could have never imagined 15 years ago, but one she is happy to take on now, because for her it’s no longer a daunting challenge or a worrisome burden, but motivation to keep doing and becoming better.

 

About Success Over Stigma (SOS)

Success Over Stigma is a community advocacy and educational outreach program designed to combat the three most prevalent forms of stigma: community perception, internal stigma, and external stigma.

 

This is accomplished by recruiting and training mental health clients to share their successful stories of recovery with their peers and the community.

 

SOS speakers tell their stories to schools, businesses, civic groups, and faith communities, helping to educate the public about the obstacles they have faced in their personal and professional lives, as well as their success in overcoming those obstacles. They also serve as speakers at inpatient psychiatric units, spreading the hopeful message that recovery is an attainable goal.

 

For more information about SOS, go to https://www.interiminc.org/programs/ .

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