Despite much progress in understanding and treating its symptoms, mental illness remains a skeleton in our national closet. While alcoholism is increasingly recognized as a disease, given a degree of compassion and even a sort of respectability, we cling to old wives' tales that isolate and sometimes harm the victims of mental illness.

That's why a Southeast Washington woman named Kathy Dyson is a survivor of a special sort. She's an ex-patient whose history of mental illness left her with a lot to overcome, but despite big odds she has turned her life around. Her story is an important one for all of us because it shows what strength and determination can do.

With some reluctance, Dyson talks of her life as a patient and the stigma of mental illness. "I'm still cautious about disclosing my illness to any more people than I have to," she said. "Past experiences as a mental patient undermines some of my confidence." Nevertheless, her concern about the stigma of mental illness and quality of patient care prompted her to tell her story.

In the early 1960s, Dyson, one of 13 children from a small town in West Virginia, was a veteran of one tragic marriage. A second marriage brought more turmoil--her husband was an alcoholic. She worked at any unskilled job to help support him and their six children. She recalls uneasily, "I knew he was going to die. It was like racing against time to accomplish something before it happened."

She lost the race in 1969 when she suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed as a manic depressive.

This is a mood disorder in which depression alternates with euphoria. One patient described the condition like this:

Mania: "Fast ideas come too fast and there are far too many . . .overwhelming confusion replaces clarity . . . you are irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable." Depression: "I am exhausted, dead inside . . . my mind . . . is virtually useless."

While Dyson was suffering from this condition, her husband died.

Marcia Lovejoy, an ex-patient who is a nationally known patient advocate, says several major myths cripple the recovery and progress of people like Dyson. The heartrending message that comes through from society, Lovejoy says, is: You've got a hopeless problem, you're potentially dangerous, you can't take stress, no one wants to marry you, you're different from everybody else and you will never recover.

Kathy Dyson struggled with feelings of inadequacy and impotence as she went in and out of hospitals. Many ex-patients say they are treated like children in hospitals--patronized and abused. Dyson says bitterly that the system "teaches dependence" on drugs and "gives lip service to patients' rights."

Dyson's persistence in standing up for her rights and that of other patients led her to be named a member of an ad hoc committee that became the National Committee on Patient Rights. That work motivated her to attend college. "I realized if I was going to help anybody with mental problems I'd probably do better working within the system," she said.

In 1981, at age 48, she graduated magna cum laude from the University of the District of Columbia. She is now director of volunteer services for the Greater Southeast Community Center for the Aging.

Still she worries about letting her history be known. "I know that in spite of my skill and achievements I will not be accepted totally by my coworkers if they know about my background."

The pain persists. "People generally have very little compassion for the mentally ill. If you were to say of someone , 'I don't think he likes me,' they would say you're being perceptive. If I say that, I'm being paranoid."

But she isn't bitter, and she still fights to maintain control over her life and her individuality. "As long as I'm mentally able, I intend to keep striving to have the same quality of life as anyone else."