Recovery in the Justice System: An Interview with Tracy Love
Tracy Love’s story of recovery and hope was recently featured in the NAMI STAR Center’s three-part series on Supporting the Recovery of Justice-Involved Consumers. Tracy took time recently to tell her story for CIT in Action.
Tell me about your experience in the justice system and how you got involved in mental health advocacy.
I got into mental health advocacy by personal circumstance. I started to notice in my late teens that something wasn’t right. There was something going on within myself that I did not understand. No matter where I went–family, church, friends—I couldn’t get any answers that made sense to me about what was going on. I was constantly being told to snap out of it, get over it, and that I had a good job and a wonderful child, so I had no reason to feel the way I was feeling. Even after two suicide attempts, I had convinced myself that there wasn’t anything wrong. I was a single parent, so I went into what I now call “survivor’s mode”—this perpetual mode of forcing myself to do what I needed to do. I was raising two children by myself, and that added more stress and pressure. I just continued to force myself to move forward and there were times I had to stop before I would break.
I was back east, in Rochester, and I moved to California with my youngest son. Things didn’t get better because of the move, and I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. I got involved with the criminal justice system after being arrested one night because of the abuse. At the time, I didn’t realize I had any mental health issues. When I was arrested and taken to the county jail, I had to go through an intake process. That’s when I first got answers about what was happening to me. I met with a psychiatrist during the process and answered his questions. He asked me if anyone had talked with me about severe depression and trauma. This was the first time that I had ever heard of this. He was the first person to give me hope. It was interesting; I had to go to jail to find that out. By this time I had lived undiagnosed for over 20 years.
How are you doing now? What's important in your life right now?
I’m doing much better. My wellness and my recovery—for me it’s just like any other recovery. It’s a daily awareness and sometimes a battle. Because of my illness, there are external and internal situations that can trigger me. For instance, I can have this internal monologue with myself and end up in a depression. Sometimes I can experience someone or something externally that takes me right back to the trauma that I experienced. So I have to be very aware and very careful about the people that I have in my life. A huge part of what keeps me focused on my wellness journey is my support system. I have a handful of very close friends and a couple of family members that are there for me without judgment when I need them to help me through the rough times.
There’s a thing that I do daily. It’s kind of like a little wellness ritual. Every night I try to catch the sunset. I congratulate myself and say good job, Tracy, you made it through another day. I allow myself to feel my feelings, go through the process. I allow myself a certain amount of time and find a way to get through it. At the end of the day, I still say congratulations.
I have managed to raise two beautiful sons. My sons are of the utmost importance to me. They were young and I had not been diagnosed and they had to live with me and my illness. Just before he was married last year, my older son started asking questions. He started speaking to me for the first time. Now I understand his perspective and what he went through.
The other part of my journey of recovery is my work as a wellness educator. This is not only empowering for me, it also allows me to help empower consumers, family members and peers, and be a support for them. I work with African-American leaders in the community to give them knowledge, skills, tools, and opportunities to address mental health and mental health challenges from trauma within their community. Unfortunately, within the African-American community, they are experiencing a lot of trauma and violence. I am doing as much as I can to help heal the community.
When you were in jail, how did you stay hopeful?
I was in jail for about five months. Well, the first thing that helped was the psychiatrist. I was just dumbfounded. This had been going on, these emotions and experiences, for over 20 years. This had been going on and I didn’t understand. He was the first person to listen, validate and explain what was going on with me. There was a huge sense of relief. It wasn’t in my imagination, it was real. It was finally real to me. I wish I could remember his name. He was such a Godsend to me. What he did is, he put me on some medication and I did start to feel better. I was able to get the first peaceful night’s sleep—that was not from self-medication–the first few nights that I was in jail.
Once the clouds started to part a little bit, I was beginning to see a future. When you’re in jail, you’ve got nothing but time. I just tried to work on keeping the feeling of relief, and deal with legal matters. Plus my son was taken from me and put into foster care. It gave me clarity to be able to work with my attorney on the legal matters that I was facing. I often wonder if this doctor had not been my hope, would I have had enough clarity within myself to move forward on that?
Besides the jail psychiatrist, is there a particular program, person or practice that really helped you?
I had to do reunification to get my son back. I knew how to comply with the court orders; I knew how to comply with the terms of reunification. But I didn’t know what to do in order to keep myself well outside of jail.
That’s when the second angel was sent to me. I was in the public mental health system in Contra Costa County (Ca.) and Yvonne Far became my case manager, coach, angel, mother and commander in chief. She was the one who introduced me to the life that I have now. She introduced me to mental health recovery. She gave me the attention, the knowledge and the strength that I didn’t get from my family.
At the beginning, I had been out about three weeks, and she asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to get my life back. She would go, “Mmm hmm, okay.” She asked again and I told her the same thing. Maybe the fourth time she asked me, I became upset with her, and said, “Why do you keep asking me that question?” She said, “I’m confused, considering what your life was, I don’t understand why you want that back. I don’t understand why you don’t want a new life.”
When she said that, my whole way of thinking changed. I didn’t understand why I would go back, why I didn’t want something new. She told me, I know what I’m doing, I have a lot of successes, I’m so good at it you won’t even know what I’m doing. And she was so good, I didn’t even know! She always let me direct myself where I wanted to go.
My wants and desires changed and I had new goals on how to achieve my life. Once my goals changed, what I was able to achieve was something new, something I hadn’t thought about before, or even allowed myself to think. As that journey continued, I got better. I was actually initially misdiagnosed; the psychiatrist diagnosed me with depression and PTSD. There was another thing that was happening with me: panic attacks and anxiety.
That psychiatrist and Yvonne were the first two people to give me any type of hope.
What do you think people should know about individuals with mental illness involved in the justice system?
The person directly involved in the criminal justice system, in order to do their best, they need to have a support system. Not everyone has the ability to do that. The support system needs to know everything about the issues and illness. The person involved in the justice system needs a good attorney. It could be as simple as helping everyone around the person know what [he or she] is going through, what they are suffering and what their rights are.
I think it’s very important for people working in the criminal justice system to really understand what’s going on. They need education about mental health wellness and recovery. Not everyone with mental health issues is violent, and if the person is being treated based on that assumption, that’s not helping them. They need to understand that society’s definition of wellness may not be the same as the person going through it. They way want to get through three hours without hearing voices, or get out bed despite physical pain. If they are able to express that, ask them. Treat them like the person and not like an illness. I wish I could get everyone to understand that.