Sometimes we’ll pass by someone on the street who is engaged in an angry conversation with what appears to be no one. Or we’ll see someone pushing a shopping cart full of what looks like garbage to us but seems to have some sort of intimate personal value to the person pushing it.
That’s when I talk with my daughters about mental illness. I explain that I have mental illness that has been successfully treated. The more obviously challenged people we see on the street probably just aren’t as lucky as I am.
I’ve written before about how I am in long-term recovery for a substance use disorder, a mental illness. I’m grateful and lucky I found a spiritual solution that allowed me to recover from alcoholism. Before I began recovery, I also was diagnosed with depression. To be honest, receiving a diagnosis before I started recovery gives me pause. How could my mental health be assessed when I was an active alcoholic? It’s complicated, for sure. In any case, after years of learning more about myself while I’ve been in recovery and with appropriate medical care, I continue to count myself among the approximately 40 percent of people with a substance use disorder who also live with other mental illnesses.
Recovery from my substance use disorder saved my life. The program of action I follow to keep me connected to my spiritual life has made it possible for me to recover from alcoholism. My life has improved in immeasurably wonderful ways. My brain, however, still has some chemical misfirings — mental illness beyond the substance use disorder — that require treatment.
The new MaineCare cutbacks, both in reimbursements to providers and to services for patients with mental illness, are ill-advised and unwise. Closing mental health peer centers is equally misguided. There have been some excellent pieces explaining why these policies are harmful to all Mainers. We need to provide care for people living with mental illness. High-quality health care, including mental health care, benefits us all. It is more cost effective than depending on emergency rooms and prisons to hold people who actually just need sufficient health care.
As someone living with mental illness that is effectively treated today, I have deep empathy for people living with untreated or under-treated mental illness. About six years ago, my life was in crisis. My marriage was ending, I was declaring bankruptcy, I had two young children, and I hadn’t been using the skills I learned in recovery for my substance use disorder. In addition to restarting my recovery program, as I had been shown how to do, I needed professional help. The darkness I was living in during those days is comparable only to my life right when I began recovering from alcoholism nearly 20 years ago. My MaineCare mental health benefits were part of why I survived it.
When my children and I see people who are notably different in their appearance or behavior, maybe they don’t look clean or they have unexpected mannerisms, it’s important to me that I tell them I have mental illness and that the people we see probably do, too. I want them to realize there’s no shame in having mental illness. It doesn’t mean I’m weak or broken. And simply because someone else’s mental illness is more severe or hasn’t been effectively treated that doesn’t mean that they are weak or broken, either. We are all equally human and equally deserving of respect. And, of course, we all need and deserve access to high-quality health care.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.