An aura of gentle kindness surrounds Jessica. The lilt to her voice invites people to relax and feel comfortable. She has a great sense of humor and laughs easily. Yet, her outward appearance belies the emotional struggles she has had to overcome. Dealing with these challenges helped her decide at a young age that her life’s work would revolve around helping others.
Jessica was born in 1979, at a time when children were given freedom to explore the world around them. She spent much of her childhood outside with friends. “We built forts, forged for berries, road bikes all over town, hiked the train tracks, and played at the beach.” Set loose without much supervision, she also occasionally got into trouble.
“I was a dorky, insecure kid who could not spell, read out loud in class and didn’t seem to have any real talent outside of being obsessed with MTV. When I was nine, some friends and I began shoplifting and engaging in property destruction. I eventually got caught breaking into a vacation rental. I began sobbing and confessed to everything. I felt so guilty and ashamed. I think the deputy knew he had done his job terrifying me into never doing that again.”
At the age of 12, she spent two weeks in Japan on the first Mendocino Miasa student exchange program. It was an eye-opening experience for this young teen who was living in the tiny hamlet of Albion on the Mendocino Coast.
“It was interesting to see the contrast of the architecture of this ancient culture right next to the bullet train. How people lived was so different from my experience—the food, smells, the schools. The formality was unlike anything I had seen before.”
In 1997—when she was 17 and a student at the Mendocino Community School—she traveled to Bali for two months to research her high school senior project. “At the time, I thought I wanted to become a midwife. My friend, Anna Marie Stenberg, knew Robin Lim, a midwife in Bali. I made arrangements to work with her.”
Upon her arrival, she learned that Robin had gone to Texas to deliver her daughter’s baby. “I’d gotten sick with laryngitis before I left and had started antibiotics. A driver picked me up at the airport and took me to Ubud where I stayed in a one room bungalow with beautiful tile flooring, woven thatch walls and huge, flying cockroaches. ”
The antibiotics were not working and the weather was uncomfortably wet and hot. The next day, Ketut, the semi-adopted daughter of the midwife, put her on the back of her scooter and took her to a doctor. “I was sent off with a bottle of mysterious green pills that eventually cured me. Ketut drove me through the Monkey Forest to Robin’s family compound in Nyuh Kuning. It was like the ‘Jungle Book’ with monkeys hanging out in a temple.’”
Jessica studied Balinese midwifery through reference books while working at the Pondok Pekak Library. “This practice is tied to Hindu culture which is tied into everything in Bali—offerings in the street, protocols on how to pray, and their beautiful elaborate ceremonies.”
“My parents didn’t have an email account so I’d send messages to their friend once a week and they would email me back from their friend’s computer. One time, I sent them a carefully constructed email that told them not to freak out, but I had something to tell them. They probably thought I was pregnant, but the big reveal was that I had gotten a tattoo.”
She loved the people of Bali. “They’re Hindu, very spiritual and friendly. I learned I didn’t want to become a midwife, but thought maybe nursing would be fun until I realized I wasn’t comfortable with potential of death and complications. Not to mention my tendency to pass out around surgical equipment.
“The biggest thing I learned from that experience was that I was a privileged white girl.” This realization was reinforced when she went to Cabrillo College the following year and took a Race, Class and Gender English 2 class taught by Ekua Omosupe, a radical female professor.
“That class made me realize I never had to deal with people assuming things about me based on the color of my skin. While I thought I knew what poverty looked and felt like—the commodity cheese, short pants, and trailer parks I spent time in when visiting relatives—my parents were college-educated and people in my family owned their own homes. That class made me want to learn how to be who I am—a white, bisexual female—in a way that didn’t make other people smaller, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual preferences.”
As Jessica grew through her teenage years, a darkness emerged. “I partied a lot in high school. We called it partying, but many times it was miserable. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant so it definitely didn’t help my depression.”
At age 19, she became lost in a deep depression that nearly took her life. With the help of healthcare professionals and her parents, she was able to function, but continued to struggle. She spent the following year taking every art class available at the College of the Redwoods coast campus, especially classes from Bob Rhodes.
“It was tremendously therapeutic to stop analyzing and use my hands to make things my head wasn’t exactly planning. I love to make art, but don’t do a lot of it these days. I spend free time gardening. I like growing things instead of making things that will just get dusty.”
In 2000, Jessica went to Prescott College in Arizona for a year and then to the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. “In 2001, I got a BA in Integrative Studies, which qualified me to work at a Starbucks in Portland.” She laughed.
She lived with her sister in Portland. “I got sober and was in therapy, but still felt depressed. I moved back to Fort Bragg in 2003. I was diagnosed bipolar by a psychotherapist who referred me to a psychiatrist. That’s when I decided to became a caregiver. It was a very sweet time in my life. I worked for Eva Andersson’s Caregiving agency on and off for the next eight years and loved it. I got to be a person in a family who wasn’t really in the family. I could support and help people.”
During this time, Jessica married and had a child. The marriage ended in 2009. In 2012, she entered the Master’s in Social Work Program at Humboldt State. “It was a distance learning program that focused on serving rural and indigenous communities. It allowed me to live and work in Fort Bragg so I could be available for my child. I stopped caregiving and started a housekeeping business in order to have more time and flexibility.” She also volunteered for local agencies that helped the homeless and troubled teens.
Nine years ago, she became smitten with Matt Howard, the sales manager at Sport Chrysler Jeep Dodge. “I asked him to a movie with a group of friends, but didn’t invite anyone else.” She laughed. They live a sweet life with her 13-year old daughter Alice and their rescue basset hounds Miss Daisy Duke and Flash Bandicoot.
After she obtained her Master’s in Social Work (MSW) in 2015, she worked for the Mendocino Coast Clinics for a year and then for Redwood Community Services (RCS). She focuses on assessing the needs of kids and working with them and their parents. By early 2019, she had amassed the 3200 clinical hours necessary to sit for her Licensed Clinical Social Worker exam. On April 1, 2019 she took the exam and passed.
Jessica continues to work for RCS, and also opened a private therapy practice in November at 327 Redwood Avenue.
“My goal in providing psychotherapy is to meet people where they are and offer tools to develop skills to make the changes they are willing to make. My own background has given me the assurance that anyone can make changes, lead a deliberate life, overcome addictions and childhood traumas.”
Jessica continues in recovery and appreciates the gifts that depression has given her. “My experience with my own mental health helped me develop deep compassion for people who struggle in this way. What could be considered liabilities have become my ninja skills.”