Irene O’Neill


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“The Most Important Thing is Hope” Article

Victim to Victor Painting

I became a Recovery Educator in April 2009, but since April 2004, I have facilitated PSR classes in W.R.A.P., Self-Advocacy, Healthy Grieving, Understanding Bipolar Disorder, Ready for Change, Stress Management, Expressive Writing/Poetry, Expressive Arts, and various Pre-Vocational Classes at the DuPage County Health Department (DCHD). My classes average 6-12 students, so each gets individualized attention, and the opportunity to express their points of view. I have witnessed much growth in many people during that period of time. I have also mentored some of my peers to lead classes on their own, e.g. Basic Drawing, Theater, and Arts & Crafts. In February 2010, I was promoted to a PSR Specialist. I believe I have a talent for sharing my knowledge and experiences so that others may learn and benefit from them.

I am an ambassador for the arts, am President of The Awakenings Project, where I have curated, organized exhibits, and written grants for this internationally recognized organization for the past 20 years. I worked full-time for nearly 20 years with Bell Laboratories, now Alcatel-Lucent, while living with and openly speaking about my bipolar disorder. While working full-time, I finished my B.S. degree, majoring in Computer Science, and graduated in 1986, Magna Cum Laude, from North Central College.

I respect diversity and individual differences, and am open to learning more about all cultures. I speak German, Spanish, and am proficient in American Sign Language. I was one of four illustrators of a children’s book entitled, “Coffee, Cream and In Between.” I have been prominently featured in several videos and articles produced by various media organizations, describing The Awakenings Project. I also maintain our website: and have done so for several years.

I believe I am an effective communicator, both individually and in groups. I have spoken publicly about Awakenings and about mental illnesses for many years. I love my job, my volunteer work for Awakenings, and I love people. I continue to do much public speaking about recovery. I believe I am a beacon of hope and encouragement for the people who receive services at DCHD, for Awakenings artists, for the general public, and I also learn a lot from everyone I come in contact with.

Listen. Relate. Understand with Irene O’Neill #isharehope Episode 110

Summary: Irene’s answer to the five questions! Listen to the full conversation on the player above; also available on iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud.

Question 1: How do you define hope or what is your favorite quote about hope?

Irene O’Neill:

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” ~Emily Dickinson

My philosophy or my definition is why look somewhere over the rainbow when you can find happiness right here under the rainbow by looking up? Hope is an optimistic feeling that in spite of sometimes difficult circumstances, things will work out in the end especially if you do more than just wish for it – you work for it.

Question 2: Who has shared the most hope with you?

Irene O’Neill:

I think all the artists of the Awakenings Project. There are many who were with us right from the beginning in 1996 and those who joined forces with us along the way and are still joining us now especially the young ones who I hope will carry the project on even after the founding members no longer can.

The Awakenings Project is an art project that helps develop artists who have a mental illness to learn their craft, to hone their craft. We mentor each other, we help each other grow in artistic ways. It’s not just visual art, it’s also a literary journal that we produce called The Awakenings Review in which we get submissions from people from all over the county and all over the world. We have done that almost every year since 2000, so we have 14 journals that we’ve created. We also have a little music development project. We made one CD. It was a combination of music and poetry. We also have a little bit of a drama group going on. Our founder, Robert Lundin, goes to Chicago Dramatists and The Victory Gardens Theater Access Project for people with disabilities. He has written several plays and is really hoping to get one of them produced.

Question 3: How have you used hope to make it through a difficult time in your life?

Irene O’Neill:

When I was first diagnosed with a mental illness in 1976, I felt completely hopeless and helpless to do anything about it because the doctor at the time said this is a chronic, progressive illness and you’re going to be on medication for the rest of your life. I thought my life was over at the time. I dropped out of school, I left my job. I didn’t think I could handle anything. I had no idea that I could get better, that there is such a thing as recovery and some people get to the point where they don’t even need medication anymore. I still take medication, but I also use other wellness tools to help me stay well. That’s part of a WRAP – Wellness, Recovery, Action, Planning which is developed by Mary Ellen Copeland. When I met Robert Lundin 20 years ago, he had come with the idea for Awakenings and I was slowly regaining hope and I thought that I had missed the planning meeting because I was at the hospital at that time. When I got out, I said is still there anything I can do? And so 20 years later we’re still doing it. That was going to be one weekend. One art show.

Question 4: How are you sharing hope today?

Irene O’Neill:

I have the hardest time with my husband because his mantra is “hope brings disappointment”. He really believes this and I can’t change his opinion, but he respects the fact that I am an optimist about hope and he is more pessimist and, you know, opposites attract.

It’s hard because sometimes when we do hope for things and they don’t work out, we can be disappointed. Sometimes people think it’s better to not get our hopes too high because then if they aren’t met then we feel bashed. Some people expect the worst and if it doesn’t happen, then hey it’s great. I just feel like we create this energy by having hope and by being optimistic and looking forward that it will help things to happen if we work at them.

Question 5: How should I (the listener) begin to grow in hope or share hope today?

Irene O’Neill:

(1) Whether you believe it or not that things are going to work out the way you’d like, you can inspire other people.

Listen to the full conversation on the player above; also available on iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud.