Martin: Coming to terms with mental illness, addiction, homelessness
A homeless encampment in downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

Mental illness is not always hereditary.

It’s usually a combination of genetic changes and environmental factors that determines if someone will develop a disorder — and this is true for homeless people. Research and cellular biology has shown that about 5% of diseases are genetically determined, whereas the remaining 95% are environmentally based.

This makes a lot of sense to me. So much of what feeds mental illness and takes it to an extreme is shame — feeling like something is wrong with you or not knowing what’s wrong with you, feeling alone and isolated. It makes much more sense knowing that much of my mental health has to do with my environment.

According to the most recent count in 2019, there are 9,706 homeless people in Santa Clara County. A staggering 42% reported suffering from psychiatric or emotional conditions. Roughly 33% said they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, affecting their housing stability or employment.

I was one of those people.

The old saying goes ‘You are who you hang around.” This is important because it tells me I can do something to help my mental illness and myself to feel better. In other words, hang with like-minded people who are also striving to be better. If you don’t want to drink or use anymore, then don’t hang out with those who do.

For me to be a positive person who plays a role in my life instead of being absent in my life, then the people I choose to have in my life are also going to be positive and encouraging and always working to do better.

It has taken me a very long time to realize or admit to myself or anyone that I have a mental illness.

Growing up I was always lonely, didn’t fit in and was the person that nobody liked. I didn’t have many friends. Coming to terms with the facts and knowledge of having a mental illness hasn’t been easy for me at all. I probably wouldn’t have given a whole lot of thought to the subject, except my daughter is experiencing and displaying signs of mental illness. So much so I can’t tell you how many times I heard her say, “I can do it this way. I’m going to do it this way. I want to die. I’m going to die.”

One night she almost took her own life with a loaded gun to her head.

And I don’t know how to help her. She’s of age and blames me for a lot of her issues. I’ve been in my addiction for so long I didn’t raise my children. Some were in foster homes and two were raised by their fathers.

My daughter blames me for almost everything that’s wrong in her life — with good reason. So while I’m trying to find me and who I am, I’m also trying to get to know my daughter and mend the broken fences between her and I.

Watching my daughter and the things she’s going through is like watching my own life unfold right before my eyes. Again. For the second time. Growing up, I knew something wasn’t quite right for me. I always wanted to be a different person. Or just wanted to be accepted, and loved. Instead I always felt alone. I still do a lot of times.

I knew I needed to change but had no idea why or how. It left me with this empty feeling and most of all I felt powerless to do anything about it. And now seeing what’s happening with my daughter, it’s like replaying that old tape of my life. And still I can’t do anything about it. Because it’s her life.

The difference is when I was growing up I didn’t even know for a long time that anything was wrong with me or that I could become a better person. I’ve always taken the harder road, and struggled through life because I had no guidance or any knowledge of mental illness. So what I can do for my daughter is love her and support her with unconditional empathy. And give her direction through the knowledge and experience I have gained.

Together we are stronger than when we don’t reach out for help or to help others. Feeling like we’re always alone is just a symptom of mental illness. But being alone and isolated is our choice.

So while striving to become my better self, I want to say this: To all the children who didn’t have their mother when growing up for whatever reasons, you are never ever alone. Don’t be too ashamed or embarrassed to reach out and say, “Hey I need some help.”

And always remember this: a mother’s love for her child never goes away and is never forgotten. To the mothers who have felt lost without their children, you are not alone. There is someone who is just like you, who loves you and hopes the best for you. I believe with all my heart the world could use more love and kindness.

If you need help coping with mental illness, contact the county’s behavioral services office at 1-800-704-0900 or reach its 24/7 suicide and crisis hotline at 1-855-278-4204​​ or text RENEW to 741741.

Cecilia Martin is a resident at Second Street Studios. She is a leader of Second Street Voices and is part of a group of formerly homeless columnists writing for San José Spotlight’s In Your Backyard column to shine a light on the homeless experience in Silicon Valley.

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