REAL CHATS with Kathy Flaherty
Kathy is an attorney and the Executive Director of Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc., a statewide non-profit agency which provides legal services to low income individuals with psychiatric disabilities who reside in hospitals or the community, on matters related to their treatment, recovery, and civil rights. She has been married to Jim Valentino since 1998. They are parents of rescue dogs. Kathy is also an avid runner, on a quest to run a race in all of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns.
PROJECT 375: What is your diagnosis?
Kathy: Bipolar disorder
PROJECT 375: What is your biggest fear?
Kathy: That policy makers at both the federal and state level will hear, but not truly listen to, the voices of people who have first-hand experience of the mental health treatment system as recipients of services, and make policy decisions that they, with the best of intentions, believe will help us – but instead will ultimately undermine our legal rights to access the supports and services of our choice as we follow multiple pathways to wellness and recovery.
PROJECT 375: What really makes you angry?
Kathy: (See my biggest fear, because the answer is essentially the same.) It makes me angry when people who should know better try to minimize my lived experience of the mental health system by labelling me as someone who is “worried well” when they have absolutely no ability to comprehend the depths of my experience, because they have not been in my shoes. I do not measure my pain against that of others because all of us are individuals who experience pain differently. However, to claim that my mental health experience is not serious – before you say that, I would ask you to speak to my husband, or my parents, or any of my friends who visited me in the hospital. I may be doing well now, but that was not always the case.
PROJECT 375: What motivates you to work hard?
Kathy: I think of the Latin mottos of my three schools: “Vincit qui se vincit” (Kingswood-Oxford) – he/she conquers who conquers him/herself; “Non ministrari sed ministrare” (Wellesley College) – not to be served, but to serve; and “Veritas” (Harvard Law School) – truth. Learning how to manage my mental health conditions was one of the toughest battles of my life. I have received services that have helped me – and I have a moral obligation to give back. By sharing the truth of my experience, I can help others.
PROJECT 375: What is your favorite thing about your career?
Kathy: I have had the good fortune to work at jobs I love, doing work that I care about. I went to college thinking I would be a research scientist – I was a biochemistry major. My senior year of college, I was plagued by symptoms of depression and anxiety that were so severe that I literally could not walk into the Science Center. I needed two classes to graduate on time, and I took two law-related classes: one on criminal justice and another on anthropology of law and justice. I adored them and decided to go to law school. I knew that I was only ever interested in doing public service work – and through the generosity of the Law School’s Low Income Protection Plan I was able to afford to work for legal services organizations my entire career. I was a staff attorney at three different programs in Connecticut before I came back to Connecticut Legal Rights Project – where I had interned after my first year of law school. Life has come full circle.
PROJECT 375: What is your proudest accomplishment?
Kathy: My proudest accomplishment is one I share with my husband, Jim Valentino. We were married on October 3, 1998. Despite the challenges that my bipolar disorder placed on our relationship, including my quitting a job within weeks of returning from our honeymoon and multiple (unsuccessful) suicide attempts the first 1.5 years of our marriage, we are still going strong.
PROJECT 375: What is your favorite book to read?
Kathy: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I first read it in high school, when I had no desire to be an attorney. Now that I’ve been one for almost 20 years, Atticus Finch remains a role model of the ideal lawyer – despite, as we learned in “Go Set a Watchman,” that his character was more nuanced and complicated than we originally thought – but isn’t that true of all of us? Standing up for justice on behalf of a person on whom society looks down, and exposing the brutal truth about the reality of people’s experiences embodies everything I aspire to be.
PROJECT 375: What makes you laugh the most?
Kathy: Two things: my husband – no matter how difficult a day I am having, it’s a guarantee that he will say something or do something that leaves me no choice but to laugh; and the BBC comedy “Red Dwarf” even though I have seen every episode countless times and have most of the dialogue memorized.