Editor’s note: This is one in a series of profiles in the Humans of Wausau series, which is funded in part through a grant from the B. A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation. Follow the Humans of Wausau Facebook page here.

By Kelli Oligney for Wausau Pilot and Review

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Michelle Gleason, 40

Q: What is your career?

A: I am a licensed clinical social worker and what that means is you can do a variety of things with that degree and licensure, but what I do is work with North Central Healthcare and I provide clinical supervision for youth and adult teams that serve folks with mental health issues and substance abuse issues. I’m also a mental health/substance abuse therapist for my part time job at The Centre for Well Being.

How long have you been doing this?

I’ve been with North Central Health Care almost 17 years in a variety of different roles and
my current role for 3 1/2 years.

What other roles have you had there?

I started in employment – helping people with mental illness and developmental disabilities find employment. I then moved into a role where I was a case manager for adults with mental illness and substance abuse. When I went back to school, I wanted to try to work with kids so I moved into a role as a case manager working with youth and then I moved into a lead position and manager position and now I am currently a clinical coordinator.

How did you decide that’s what you wanted to do?

That is a good question. When I was younger, my Dad struggled with mental health and substance abuse issues and I don’t think when I was younger said, “I want to help people,” but I think it influenced me and maybe, subconsciously I knew I wanted to be in the helping profession. I think from my personal experience when I was younger, it pushed me into being in the helping profession now. When I was working with my adults doing case management, that’s when I knew I wanted to do social work forever and that’s when I went to school to get my Masters because that’s when I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

What advice would you give to those that wish to be in your profession?

I would suggest practicing empathy and compassion because it can be challenging. It sounds simple, but it goes a long way working with people that are most vulnerable in our community. Empathy and compassion can go a really long way.

What are struggles you face in your job and what are positives?

Some struggles, I’d say, would be lack of resources at times and lack of community awareness. Lack of resources, what that might mean, is we have a number of homeless people in our community and that’s a really difficult thing to coordinate in my role. The people I supervise often have the challenge of finding people housing with no income, no job, and maybe not even the skills to get a job. It really is a challenge to find housing for someone and that’s what they need to get better and then I look at it as a community issue. There’s stigma around mental illness and often times people don’t want to talk about it, or hide their own mental illness. With substance abuse too, I think there comes a lot of judgement at times and people thinking there’s a choice and there’s blaming on choices like that.

Positives, I would say that helping people is great. It’s fulfilling when you can see people that don’t have a voice, gain a voice and gain skills to advocate for themselves. We call it recovery. So, recovery is like a journey for people to get well and have their mental health become more stable. If there’s substance abuse issues, it’s refraining from use and finding ways to live a better quality of life and we get to be a part of that as helpers – which is really special.

What has been one of the hardest moments in your career?

When I was in my third trimester with my first child, going to graduate school, commuting an hour and a half every week, while holding a full time job and completing my final internship – it was really difficult.

What’s your favorite memory of living here?

When I was younger, my Dad would take me (my parents were divorced) and pick me up every Sunday and take me to Aladdin’s Castle, it was in the mall. It was an arcade and I love games and arcade games. We’d go there, but before there he’d take me to the doughnut shop which was over by Menards now, but hasn’t been there for years. Another place he might take me is Ponderosa on Grand Avenue, so we’d have a little breakfast and we’d go to Aladdin’s Castle and play video games.

What was your hardest age growing up and why?

I would say middle school, which is common for people. The transition is difficult from elementary to middle school, but for me, that’s when my father passed away and I had a lot of friends that went to a different high school than me.

This was your Dad that had the mental illness and substance abuse issues?

Yes. My dad, when I was 12 years old, made a choice to end his life. It was because he had untreated mental illness and substance abuse. Alcohol was his drug of choice and he didn’t get any help for it and he was a veteran. He had some PTSD which, I think, he would have been diagnosed with today. He ended his life and it shaped me and made me stronger and maybe subconsciously pushed me into the helping profession. At first, I would almost deny it and lie about it to friends because it was easier to do back then. Now, 28 years later, I’m able to talk about it in a healthy way and process it, make sense of it. It’s still very sad, but a part of my history.

What is something you learned about yourself from that experience?

I learned that I am resilient and I learned that I wanted to help people. I didn’t know it back then, but I think it was there then because someday I’d like to focus on the veteran population. Maybe, in my retirement years or private practice, I could do therapy in that population.

What is your favorite local spot and why?

I love Wausau, so much, so that is a hard question. I love everything downtown Wausau. I love Rib Mountain, but I would say Downtown Grocery just because I go there a lot for lunch and it’s downtown; which I love. The ambiance is great. Other local favorites are breakfast at Blue Willow, coffee at the Ugly Mug, dinner at Back When Cafe, a night out at Malarkey’s, shopping at Second Peek Boutique, family fun at WOW.

What motivates you each day?

My two sons motivate me to be a better person each day. Helping people in general motivates me.

What is your favorite quote and why?

It’s by Ghandi and it’s, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I try to self-reflect each day and take time each day in thinking, “What can I do better?“ I try to make the world a better place.

What is one moment that changed you as a person?

Becoming a mother, actually. Growing up, I don’t think I ever wanted to do that and then my niece was born when I was 18 years old and I thought, “She’s cool!” As I grew older, it just felt natural, but it definitely changed me as a person and made me more loving, nurturing, patient, empathetic, driven, and life just got a little fuller.

If you had any advice to give anyone, what would it be?

This kind of goes back to the career advice as well, it translates to everyday life — to practice empathy and compassion. I think if many people practice that, our world would be different. Self-empathy, too. We are so hard on ourselves and being kinder to ourselves would be great.

What has made you stay in Wausau?

Mostly friends and family, but I love Wausau. I think there’s a lot to do here and I’m really into live music so I think Wausau has a lot to offer with The 400 Block. There are several venues around town that draw in great artists. It’s really a nice location to travel to other cities like Madison and Minneapolis, I like the community, and all my family lives here. I’m pretty fortunate that all my family lives here as well as my in-laws. All of my siblings, parents, cousins; they all live in Wausau.