Holly Bender sits in an office on the peaceful wooded campus of the Berkeley Community Mental Health Center where she meets with clients, showing them first-hand what recovery can look like.

Berkeley resources

Berkeley Community Mental Health Center in Moncks Corners offers a range of services, focusing on:

Adults with serious and persistent mental illness.

Adults with major, acute psychiatric concerns.

Children and adolescents with serious emotional disturbance.

Services include:

Individual therapy

Family therapy

Child therapy

Group therapy

Children's school-based services

Psychiatrist and nurse visits

Individual placement support services (to help people find jobs and provide support after they are employed).

For more, go to www. bcmhc.org or call 761-8282 or 1-888-202-1381.

In professional clothes, her blonde hair styled, her smile warm, she demonstrates that even serious mental illness does not have to rob people of their productivity, or their hope.

Growing up in rural Missouri, Holly says she was sexually abused by a family member when she was 9 years old. Although she and her mother went to police, the man wasn't charged.

From the ordeal, Holly learned that she was just a shell, nothing worth protecting, not a person of real value.

It would take a 20-year journey, one plagued with suicidal thoughts and major depression, before she could see otherwise. Ultimately, she would use her own mental illness to help others grappling with recovery.

Now 30, for the first time she can remember, Holly wants a future. She has a new puppy. She loves to exercise and cook. And she's planning her wedding.

"I hadn't planned on being here at 30," she says. "Now I am excited about what's to come."

Battling shame

After the childhood abuse, Holly's shame and social discomfort grew increasingly intense as she grew up. Her abdomen clenched so vice-like with nerves some days, she couldn't stand up straight.

She avoided social interaction and grew petrified of the normal bumping and jostling of school hallways, of feeling people so near, so close to invading her personal boundaries.

She lacked friends and didn't want any. She planned on ending her suffering and didn't want people close when she did so.

Instead, she hid behind straight As, sports and good behavior, until panic attacks made it hard to attend classes. Her school contacted her mother.

A single parent with her own struggles, Holly's mom sent her to live with an aunt and uncle. "Maybe a fresh start will do you good ..."

Victim again

The fresh start did help.

However, she began to date a young man, her first boyfriend. In hindsight, she sees the warning signs of an abusive relationship. He didn't want her to have friends. He controlled her money. They moved away and shared a car.

When he raped her, ashamed and scared, she didn't tell anyone. It only confirmed what she already believed: that she was that shell, a body, not a human with real value.

Finally, she left him and enrolled in college again. However, severe back and knee pain joined her mental trauma.

She sought the help of a chiropractor who lost his license, court records show, due to sexually inappropriate acts that he told her were part of treatment.

"He took advantage of a desperate situation," Holly says.

What did she get from a medical professional she trusted? Confirmation that she was just a shell, a body.

She grew up in a family that discouraged weakness. So Holly didn't tell people or seek help for her struggles.

"I thought I had to be strong enough to overcome depression on my own," she says.

Yet, her mental health spiraled until 2012 when, while a student at the University of Missouri, she Googled local therapists. She'd long wanted to die. But this time she planned how to do it.

None of the therapists could see her soon. Others wanted hundreds of dollars she didn't have.

Terrified of her own thoughts, Holly walked into an ER and asked to see a psychiatrist.

But due to her suicidal thoughts, she was committed to a psychiatric hospital, a decision that turned her life's path toward recovery.

Birth of recovery

She was released, taking new medications with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. For the first time since childhood, Holly awoke without thoughts of dying.

"I should have sought help sooner," she says.

Two months later, her new boyfriend landed a job in South Carolina. However, after they moved to Hanahan, the effects of her new medication began to fade. As depression gripped her again, Holly didn't work - couldn't work - for eight months.

"It's like the deepest grief that completely takes over your mind and your life. It's almost like you're grieving the loss of yourself," she explains. "You die, and your spirit dies."

Paranoia plagued her in this new place. Men were following her. She slept on the couch, afraid of being attacked.

"There's a target on your back," she says. "Every interaction is a threat."

Hope again

Holly called the Berkeley Community Mental Health Center in Moncks Corner, again desperate for help.

Due to severe budget cuts, the center's staff had been eviscerated, their remaining caseworkers and psychiatrists overloaded. Yet, a psychiatrist made time to see her.

Over the coming months, he changed her medications. Holly began individual therapy, and her counselor diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Through it all, she gained new understanding of her depression, paranoia and panic attacks.

After about a year, Holly began to awake in the mornings with a new sensation: hope.

Although it was a huge struggle, she got a part-time job tutoring special needs children and cleaning homes. And slowly, she realized that she had something valuable to offer the world.

"I felt so incapable for so long," she recalls. "This was the first time I proved I could do something that I thought I couldn't do."

Saving other lives

By late 2013, Holly felt ready to work full time. She'd been a client at the mental health center for two years.

"This place basically saved my life," she says.

By then, state lawmakers also had boosted the state Department of Mental Health's long-depleted budget. Those funds and others let the Berkeley County center hire a certified peer support specialist, someone who has journeyed through illness to recovery and can provide a role model to others.

Holly applied, and was hired.

Bernette Robinson, special programs manager, called Holly "a wonderful addition" who will help others move forward in their recoveries.

"Having been active in this program herself, Holly will know how to motivate other clients wanting to work," the center's Executive Director Debbie Calcote says.

At first, Holly was nervous about transitioning from client to co-worker. But working with a group dedicated to helping people with mental illness, she says she only felt their respect.

And when she shares her story with clients? "It's like they are relieved," she says.

Perhaps they see in her that hope she once so badly needed, hope for their own recoveries and for their futures.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.