I grew up in Rumford, a small western Maine mill town, and I have lived in Maine and New England almost all my life. There was a culture in my family, and in our little town it seemed, that asking for help was not only unnecessary, but a sign of some inherent weakness.
Growing up with four brothers and no sisters, ours was a rough and tumble household. The measuring stick for stoicism in our family was physical toughness, never revealing any emotional weakness, and at no time asking for help. Bruises and scars were badges of honor. Once my poor mother announced with incredulity to my father as he returned one evening from the mill that his sons were having a contest to see who could endure the most physical pain. Hoping for a stern reprimand, my father disappointed her, sheepishly asking “Who won?”
Unfortunately, my brothers and I were completely unaware at how woefully inadequate we were at dealing with emotional pain or asking for help.
In 1982, my wife and I bought land on Mount Desert Island, built our own house (of course), and raised our three sons. We found the Down East culture not unlike what I grew up with. My wife, who also grew up in Rumford, is also fiercely independent and a tough-minded individual, so I feel this is not just a male phenomenon but rather a Maine phenomenon.
In fact, in my practice as an addiction and trauma counselor, I’ve met many “tough as nails” women who also struggle with asking for help. Ironically, my wife and I both went into helping professions, even though we were well indoctrinated into New England stoicism and Maine’s do-it-yourself cultural beliefs. I still greatly value my self-sufficiency, and I will always be proud of that part of my character.
But those stoical values, inherently cherished as a part of our identity and beautifully elucidated by Henry David Thoreau and others “from away,” are now working against many Mainers when it comes to physical and mental health. In some ways, these worthy qualities are hurting us and, sadly, possibly harming those intimately involved in our lives, who may be suffering because of our suffering.
Mainers with mental health and addiction issues are woefully under-represented when it comes to asking for help and seeking treatment. Only about one in 10 people with an alcohol use disorder, for example, seek professional treatment. There are similar percentages with other substance use disorders and mental health problems. From my work as a trauma therapist, I’ve learned how harmful it can be to ignore emotional pain and the importance of acceptance and attention to that pain. It is not a coincidence amid an opioid epidemic that opioids dull emotional as well as physical pain.
I firmly believe one can be self-reliant and self-sufficient and still understand that some problems are best solved with help from others. Perhaps it is our pride that prevents us from asking for help. Perhaps it is how we were raised. Perhaps it is the unnecessary stigma surrounding substance use and mental health disorders.
Regardless of the reason, treatment for mental health and substance use disorders is remarkably effective and usually yields very good outcomes. Many of my clients have taught me what is actual toughness as they’ve wrestled with their painful pasts or challenging present issues. Being able to face those problems embodies real courage.
Unfortunately, I have had clients who sadly suffered for years before seeking help. I also have had clients like a young man who sought me out to resolve a significant trauma. For several weeks, we worked hard on it, and then he left. When I saw him a year later, he told me the issue not only no longer plagued him as it had, but he hardly thought of it.
Yes, it takes some nerve to face our problems and especially hard to ask for another’s help to solve them. But I have seen so many people make incredible recoveries when they took that risk. So, reach out and take a step toward wellness. You can still grow your own potatoes.
Dan Johnson, Ph.D., is executive director of Acadia Family Center in Southwest Harbor.