Meet Lyndsey Fennelly: Mom, wife, businesswoman, athlete, media personality, volunteer, … and mental health patient.
By Steve Sullivan
When she got out of the hospital, the first person Lyndsey Fennelly called was Georges Niang.
They hadn’t spoken in weeks, which was unusual for these close friends.
“Where the heck you been?” asked Niang, former Iowa State basketball star turned NBA player.
Fennelly explained she’d been in the hospital. More specifically, she’d been at Mary Greeley, being treated in the Behavioral Health Unit.
“It was a freeing moment,” Fennelly said. “I planned all along not to hide behind the reality of what I had because I have nothing to hide. Mental illness is like any other disease or disorder. We talk openly about cancer and diabetes and leukemia. We should be able to talk openly about mental illness.”
Fennelly is doing just that, using her high-profile voice to reduce the stigma of mental illness and raise awareness of the services available at Mary Greeley Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Unit.
“I love that hospital, and to have that quality of mental health care available in central Iowa is incredible. That’s why I want to share my voice and my story to encourage others
facing mental health issues to step back and take care of these problems,” she said. “Mental health involves a variety of conditions—anxiety, depression, substance abuse; none are more important than the other. Recognizing the symptoms is what’s important.”
A Full Life
On the surface, Fennelly would seem to have it all.
As a college student, she was a standout on the Iowa State women’s basketball team and was drafted into the WNBA in 2007. She married Billy Fennelly, assistant coach for the ISU women’s team and son of Bill (long- time women’s head coach) and Deb Fennelly. They have two children—Will, 4, and Callie, 1. She does radio commentary for the women’s games, runs sports camps, and is an enthusiastic volunteer. Two years ago, she and her business partner opened CampusCycle, a spin studio in Ames and Ankeny. Fennelly is smart, quick witted, and high energy.
She also has a mental illness, which presents itself through intensely manic behavior.
With Fennelly’s permission, Dr. Kasey Strosahl, a psychiatrist with Mary Greeley’s Behavioral Health Unit, offered insights into her condition.
“Mania is one of the most difficult diagnoses to convince someone of because they feel so good, so on top of the world. They don’t see it as a problem,” she said.
Mania is marked by impulsivity, disorganization, irritability, and a feeling of grandiosity, as if the person has special powers, said Strosahl. Catching the symptoms early so a person can enter a high level of treatment is vital.
“There is a decreased need for sleep, which Lyndsey displayed. Someone may sleep zero to two hours a night for days or weeks,” she said. “It can include, as it did for Lyndsey, delusional ideas.”
Fennelly fit the profile. She was a multitasker extraordinaire.
“I’m making dinner, texting my husband, tweeting about the women’s team, … trying to do as much as I can in a short amount of time. You can’t truly be present in anything when you’re doing that,” she said.
When planning her business, she impulsively cranked out a 17-page outline on how to build a gym. She compared the experience to Tom Cruise’s title character in “Jerry
Maguire” writing his manifesto.
In some ways, this was who she was—lively and always on the move. She’d respond to email and texts within seconds after receiving them, no matter the time of day. Her creative juices flooded her brain with one idea after another. None of this, ultimately, was healthy. The highs always turn into lows.
Despite what she thought she was accomplishing, Fennelly wasn’t sleeping. She really couldn’t focus. She couldn’t distinguish reality anymore.
This led to her hospitalization in April, but it wasn’t her first time in the Behavioral Health Unit. Her problems originally presented themselves five years ago.
“I didn’t eat, sleep, or drink for four straight days. I went to the Emergency Department and was admitted to the Behavioral Health Unit for 16 days.
I remember it was January 29, and I got out on Valentine’s Day,” she said.
She admits she did a poor job of taking care of herself after getting out of the hospital that time. She didn’t fully recognize that she was sick, that she had a serious illness. She ignored follow-up treatments and her medications.
And why not? She had everything going for her. She was loving life and living it fully … or so she thought.
In April 2018 she was in California, on a trip with a close friend, when “I snapped, lost control.” She had so much going on and ultimately just couldn’t keep juggling so many proverbial balls. The trip was cut short, and her friend got her on a plane home.
“Two plane flights with a very manic individual is not easy,” she remembered. “I had pushed myself so fast, so hard to the point of completely losing control.”
She doesn’t remember much about the ensuing days except that at one point, she looked at her husband, Billy, and said, “You have to take me to the hospital.”
“While we would like to pass things off as life circumstances, most mental health problems are lifelong conditions,” said Strosahl. “They are in our genetics. They aren’t something you can have-a-good-life your way out of.”
On the Unit
The first few days on the Behavioral Health Unit are foggy. Fennelly at first didn’t recognize—or maybe refused to recognize—the level of her illness. With therapy she eventually came around to the painful truth, said Strosahl.
“It’s much easier on the provider’s part when someone gains insight into their illness and recognizes they have it,” she said. “You need mental health professionals to help manage a mental illness.”
Treating a condition like Fennelly’s involves medications to stabilize moods and specialized therapies to help with sleep regulation. Being an athlete is in Fennelly’s favor. She’s competitive and likes to win.
“She sets goals for herself and looks for small victories, like sleeping through the night,” Strosahl said.
Lindsey kept to herself a lot, only occasionally interacting with other patients.
“We’d strike up conversations about what we did for a living, whether we were Cyclone or Hawkeye fans,” she said. “But I was personally untrusting of myself. I was still recovering.”
She felt safe though. She had three meals a day, which wasn’t typical for her.
“The staff would ask me what I wanted to do for the next hour,” she remembered. “I’d take a shower. Have breakfast. I took it slow, which, like most moms, I never did much. I’d do crafts, which I’m awful at, but I made stuff for my kids. I had group therapy. I paced the halls. I’ve never paced like that.”
“Being in a manic state, I was so confused. I had scary thoughts. I thought I was pregnant. I thought I was having a heart attack,” she said.
Her husband, Billy—“my rock”—visited her every day. Fennelly’s four-year-old son visited one day, too. They met outside of the unit and Will gave his mom a note “that kept me going those last few days.”
Being away from her kids was the most difficult part of being in the hospital. Getting better and getting home to see them was her goal, and “if that meant a doctor saying that I’m going to take medicine for the rest of my life, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
As with most Behavioral Health Unit patients, getting better takes time and treatment. Fennelly was discharged in late April. It was June before she felt stable enough to interact with people outside her family and closest friends. She went weeks without that ever-present phone, fighting the urge to check messages and respond ASAP.
Fennelly knows she’s doing well “when I can wake up after a great night’s sleep and just be present. Not everything is an emergency. I don’t have to respond to an email within 60 seconds after receiving it. I can be a mom and a business owner, but I don’t have to do everything at the same time. I’m learning to be okay with silence.”
She’s taking her medications, meeting with her psychiatric nurse practitioner, and talking while taking long walks with her therapist.
“I wrote a letter to myself before I left the hospital. It was my commitment to taking medication, continuing ongoing treatment and therapy,” she said. “And I added a P.S. that I am going to become a strong voice for mental health.”
Go Behind the Locked Door
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One of her first public events was the annual Georges Niang Golf Tournament. At Fennelly’s urging, the tournament raised money for mental health treatment at Mary Greeley, eventually pulling in more than $30,000.
Two days before the golf event, Fennelly asked Niang to tour the Behavioral Health Unit with her.
“I wanted it to be personal to him,” she said. “It was the first time I’d been back to the unit. We toured the same halls I had paced. It was as powerful a moment as I’ve had in my life. But I was at peace.”
Jody Kapustka, psychiatric nurse practitioner with the Behavioral Health Unit, provides outpatient care for Fennelly through her private practice. She met Fennelly on that first visit to Mary Greeley five years ago.
“I was familiar to her when she came up there,” Kapustka said. “There was an immediate comfort level, a feeling of safety.”
Being public about her condition, being an advocate, can be beneficial to Fennelly. Those activities, however, need to be managed as much as the illness itself, said Kapustka. Fennelly has already had to pull back on some of her public events.
“She wants to be public about it and help other people. That’s what she does. She’s a coach and wants to be there for other people,” Kapustka said. “I think she can be a great
spokesperson for mental health. She’s experienced it, gone through a lot, and is being successful. That gives other people hope.”