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Tuttelman family breaks the stigma of mental illness

Sasha Tuttelman, a 39-year-old social worker from Petaluma who serves the homeless community in San Francisco, sees many people suffering from anxiety these days.

“Anxiety tells us the worst possible thing that can happen,” he says to them, “but it’s bad at telling the future.”

Sasha recognizes how difficult it is to be homeless, especially in a big city during the pandemic. When people have a mental illness, it is even harder for them to see that change is possible. Sasha knows this because he grew up with severe anxiety and other mental illnesses.

Sasha was a year-and-a-half old in 1983 when his parents, Sam and Cynthia Tuttelman, realized that their son was developmentally behind for his age. One sign was that he couldn’t hold his head up while sitting. A specialist told them that he would be “globally retarded” and unable to walk or talk. The couple was devastated but also skeptical of that grim prognosis. As a physician, Cynthia knew, “Some things can be predicted in medicine, and some cannot.”

Determined to find the right care for their son, the couple took Sasha to one specialist after another.

“We didn’t know what was going on,” Cynthia explained.

But they did know that Sasha would need their care and attention, so Cynthia quit her time-consuming job and worked part-time as a family doctor in Santa Rosa. Sam was a social worker in Napa. The family moved to Petaluma in 1983.

Those were anxious years, but they also did was Sam calls “regular family things.” Cynthia picked up Sasha from school after work and Sam cooked dinners. Sam took Sasha to the library every week.

Sasha was bright and loved to read books but had a different way of thinking.

“For instance, he had a photographic memory of the meals he ate on a particular date,” Cynthia laughed. He once memorized a world history timeline in National Geographic magazine.

Despite their professional experience, the Tuttelmans found it truly tough to navigate the system alone as Sasha grew up. So they created a community of support in Petaluma to raise him. They found teachers who understood his needs and an occupational therapist to improve his balance and mobility. They took on the school district for his right to access the special education program.

“Every time we spoke up, we met another family who had been suffering in isolation because they felt stigmatized,” Sam remembers. They worked hard to ensure that Sasha received the right care and education because they knew there is a limited window in childhood to develop the skills and resilience children need to make their way in the world. “It shouldn’t be such an uphill battle,” Sam reflected. “I can’t imagine how hard it would be if you don’t speak English and now with Covid-19 ...”

The couple became advocates for special needs kids.

“Because kids with special needs have a lot to give to the world,” Cynthia said.

In the 90s, as Sasha entered adolescence, he suffered several psychotic episodes, severe anxiety, and bouts of depression. He doesn’t remember much about that time, but his father does.

“We were at a loss,” Sam said.

Eventually, the family found an expert in Arizona, but their insurance didn’t cover the $1,000-a-day residential treatment.

“I couldn’t believe it!” Sam admitted. “They suggested we use our credit card, so that's what we did.” Though it was prohibitively expensive, it paid off because eventually Sasha received the most helpful diagnosis he’d had.

“I have Schizoaffective disorder, kind of a mix of schizophrenia and bipolar,” Sasha explained. Knowing this was a relief, and gave the family a direction for his treatment and care.

“We love and admire one another,” Cynthia reflected. “We needed all three of us to get to where we are now.”

Sam introduced Sasha to the Interlink Self-Help Center in Santa Rosa, run by people with mental illness. Sasha was inspired. With a friend, he started the Petaluma Peer Supported Recovery Center in 2012. He also experimented with ways to manage his mental health.

“Because ultimately it comes down to choices I make,” he explained, “something that I could do.”

“Sasha never gave up,” Sam said. He completed college and earned a Masters of Social Work, all online. Following his father’s footsteps, he became a social worker. This spring, he started working with the homeless community in San Francisco. His parents are worried because of the pandemic but are also immensely proud.

“We love and admire one another,” Cynthia reflected. “We needed all three of us to get to where we are now.”

And Sasha’s own experience gives him profound insights into the challenges people with mental illness face today.

“I love my work,” he said. “I can't imagine doing anything different.”

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