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Carrie Seidman: 'We all do better when we all do better'

The Herald-Tribune - 2/16/2020

Feb. 16--Last week I attended two educational events hosted by two local nonprofits serving different populations in different ways.

On Tuesday, at a Mental Health Community Centers "lunch and learn" session, my son and I participated on a panel exploring the role of family and social support in a loved one's recovery from a mental health crisis. On Friday morning, I sipped a cup of joe while members of Project 180 shared what's needed for someone to successfully reintegrate in the community after release from jail or prison.

The conclusions on both occasions were strikingly similar. Whether you are, like my son, someone whose academic and professional dreams were dismantled by the onset of mental illness or, like Josh Linden, someone whose addiction led to incarceration, the first step toward recovery is often someone else's belief that you are not beyond redemption.

Linden put it this way: "The work of recovery has to be done in a loving and supportive environment. You have to love someone before they can learn to love themselves."

Yet the guilt, shame, isolation and self-loathing someone in recovery feels is often exacerbated by a punitive legal system and a ostracizing society. Turning things around calls, perhaps counterintuitively, not for a big stick but a strong and consistent safety net. The best hope for recovery, whether from a mental illness, an addiction or a life of crime, lies in having access to the very things we all need to thrive -- shelter, sustenance, health, socialization and a sense of purpose.

That said, the walking wounded can sometimes be among the hardest to reach and the most disagreeable to work with. Friends and family members who've tried (and failed) for years to help can feel they have no option but to walk away from someone so bent on self-destruction. (And sometimes that is the necessary, if the most difficult, choice.)

When you're talking about someone who has broken the law, burned every relationship bridge to feed an addiction, or become so disconnected from reality that it poses a threat to that person or others, there is no quick or singular solution.

The two young men with lived experience on the mental health panel and their parents emphasized recovery is an incremental process that may last a lifetime. And that, while the way forward may begin with medication -- Western medicine's immediate and sadly, sometimes only, response -- it mustn't end there.

"We need to have a more holistic approach," said Linda Cournoyer, whose son, Chris, a gifted artist and musician, was diagnosed with bipolar and schizo-affective disorder in his 20s. "I used to make a chart that said 'mind, body, spirit,' and every day I'd try to find something that fed each one."

For my son, while medication was a stabilizing factor, it was barely a beginning. It took nearly six years of graduated, practical steps -- from isolation to group therapy to building a circle of friends and a routine of activities; from group housing to independent living; from volunteer work to supported employment to a steady job -- to build an independent, fulfilling life.

Linden began experimenting with drugs at 12 because he'd "always felt a little different, like I never fit into any community." Eventually his addiction led to lying, manipulation, crime, homelessness and estrangement from his family. He got clean while serving his time in the Sarasota County Jail's recovery pod, but felt his isolation "only compounded" after his release.

"To feel you're surrounded by people who have no idea what it's like to be addicted, to lose your freedom, to be institutionalized, and to know it's only your own actions that put you in that world is paralyzing," Linden said. "How is one supposed to reenter society if you've never felt a part of that society to begin with?"

Moreover, Linden said he lacked "all those life skills I never learned because I was too busy living high." Filled with the fear of returning to his previous lifestyle, he eventually found Project 180, an organization devoted to reintegrating the formerly incarcerated into community life.

Linden was given one of just six coveted spots in Nik's House, the organization's first residential facility, and took advantage of its comprehensive programming, which includes financial literacy classes, employment support and referral services. As essential were his housemates, who who understood his mistakes as no one else could and fueled his motivation, as no one ever had before.

"I feel home probably for the first time ever in my life and I cannot stress enough how important that is," he said. "It helps me feel hopeful instead of afraid, secure instead of vulnerable, a part of, not apart from.

"This solid foundation has allowed me to remember my true nature and given me the opportunity and platform to regain my rightful place as a participating member in the human family. I have been searching for that feeling in all the wrong places my entire life. We all do better when we all do better."

Read more stories by Carrie Seidman

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