It has never been my intention to write exclusively about my personal problems. That’s what the hell journals are for. Nor, do I have the burning desire to ramble along the well-traveled path of self-awareness/healing blogs or memoir diaries, because, quite frankly, I don’t feel like sharing my war stories. If you knew me 20 years ago, I’m certain you’d agree I had no fucking idea this would be how my life would turn out; otherwise, why didn’t you bitch-slap some sense into me?
Oh, but hard-hitting sarcasm is how I get through my days now.
My point is, this is a far cry from the style of writing I had envisioned I would be doing with my life today. I wanted to be the subjective, completely embedded journalist-storyteller: Twain, London, Steinbeck, Thompson, Hemmingway, Salinger, or Mailer- the greats you don’t see anymore. I certainly took after their lifestyles, absent the talent.
No one but myself to blame
The number one reason I am airing my personal laundry on the cyber-clothesline is to relate how the horrific tripartite—mental illness, addiction and incarceration—has drastically impacted my life. Regardless of acts committed, no man or woman who deals with all three symptoms concurrently, which is indicative of a much greater physiological disorder, should have to endure with current “treatment” options that are all we have available.
At first I was only hurting myself; only years later did I realize all the immeasurable pain and misery I’d inflicted upon friends and loved ones. Today, practically nobody wants anything to do with me, but I have no one to blame but myself. I’ve burnt many bridges over the years. Hell, I’ve scorched entire villages!
But just because I struggle with a drinking problem or depression does not take away personal responsibility; that is something that took me well into adulthood to accept, unfortunately. This is another touchstone for those with co-occurring disorders: accepting that accountability and pre-existing conditions have equal merit. For reasons biological, social and familial I always have struggled with major depression that I never fully understood, much less managed. The older I became, I was a prime candidate for ensuing unhealthy coping methods: substance abuse, acting out and impulsivity.
Our prisons are the new asylums; we don’t want to acknowledge the stigma of mental illness, much less treat it. And we certainly don’t want to fund treatment for it.
My issues are typical among the 1.2 million incarcerated people in the U.S. who have a mental illness. In recent years, grass-roots activism has been urging both lawmakers and the public to reconsider treatment alternatives for individuals who get locked up in jail and have a documented history of either addiction and/or mental health issues. There is still a long way to go with all of this.
Anyone arrested, often for low-level offenses, who had been seeking treatment and kept hitting their heads on a brick wall when trying to get assistance, should be afforded more alternatives than an excessively harsh jail sentence, where he or she is then locked away and forgotten about.
This current system—this “get tough-on-crime” protocol was implemented with public safety in mind. For starters, there is little to no evidence that such an approach implemented in the 1990s under former President Clinton has been effective. Furthermore, locking up people who struggle with outside issues does nothing to rehabilitate them, thereby exacerbating their negative characteristics when they eventually get out, making them more likely to reoffend. A few years ago, the Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project confirmed how inmates with mental illness in California are often treated. If it happens there, it most likely is happening throughout the U.S.
We’ve essentially trapped them in the system.
However, the get tough on crime, lock-em-up, throw-away-the-key mentality provides no benefit to anyone-the perpetuator or public. The person locked up either gets released in a worse off mind set only to re-offend because he has had no treatment plan. The public is at further risk once again.
Trickle-down-to the streets
In the early 1980s President Ronald Regan couldn’t wait to unleash “trickle-down” economics. To achieve conservative policy of eliminating government spending on what many on the right saw as unnecessary federal spending, Regan implemented his program to slash funding to social and health services. Inevitably, he closed psychiatric facilities throughout the country and essentially booted patients to the streets. For nearly four decades, if those with, say, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder didn’t have the financial means for treatment, and they were unable to care for themselves, they’ve been stuck with two remaining options: chronic homelessness or jail. Since the “great economic revival of the 1980s,” Regan supporters and their kin have led us to believe that: 1) we are saving tax dollars and 2) keeping the community safe by maintaining the status quo.
As I’ve mentioned, advocacy at local and national levels is chiseling away at the stigma that surrounds mental illness. Perhaps that can give hope not only to those incarcerated individuals who suffer, but also to everyone who deals with a mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a mental health advocacy organization, is urging lawmakers at the local and state level as well as mental health professionals to help people with mental illness get the services they need to stay out of jail.
While communities are finally sitting down and listening to advocates from a variety of social and health organizations about these concerns, legislation moves at a turtles’ pace. State lawmakers occasionally will shotgun a press release to the mainstream media about the “tremendous progress” they are making in the Opioid Epidemic that has hit our country like an unpredictable volcano eruption. When articles on the mental health/prison reform issue are posted or printed they are usually buried well beneath articles on legalized sports betting. Priorities of the democracy have always been swaggering.