Thursday, November 14, 2013

Where There is Breath There is Hope

Documentary poster
Where there is breath, there is hope. Today I was left with those words from Tonier "Neen" Cain, a trauma survivor that endured two full decades of sexual and physical assaults, homelessness, mental abuse and many other ills that come with being a part of our broken, social, mental health and criminal justice systems. She was the keynote speaker at Clifford Beers Clinic's 11th Annual Builders of Hope Breakfast. Even as I write this post, her words "Where there is breath, there is hope," still resonate with me. The short but powerful phase is a personal reminder to me why I love stories and believe in the power of one person's story.

I was invited to the event as a guest of a colleague and while I'm familiar with Clifford Beers and what they do, I wasn't sure what to expect from the speaker. I wasn't familiar with her story. The moment she stepped up to the podium she had a strong presence.  She captivated me, and I think the greater audience as well. 

On all accounts her story was a tragic one. She grew up in an abusive home with an alcoholic mother that was more concerned with getting her liquor fix and pleasing the men that came in and out her bed then raising the multiple children she birthed. Her mother's neglect also lead to physical and sexual abuse that would put a nine year-old child on a path to seek a temporary escape through alcohol that she found left over from her mother's parties and eventually to an addiction of crack-cocaine that would engulf her in life of crime, putting her in and out of our criminal justice system.

Her story is familiar, at least familiar to me. I've heard it before as it has become a common story within our urban cities. On occasion it may draw attention in a news headline or a segment on the five or six o'clock news as a breaking story. While her story is a tragic one as a society we have come to accept it as a norm and move on with our lives. The truth is that we don't really move on.

The destruction that drug addiction has in our cities and towns is epidemic and the connection they have to mental illness is often overlooked and not addressed and if it is, many times its too late. Luckily that wasn't the case for Tonier.

She stood on a stage, confident, engaged and despite the trauma she has endured she was able to talk about it. It took her more than 20 years to get the help she needed, but she got it and reminded the audience the need for change. In my short life I've come to learn that we talk a lot about change, but when push comes to shove, many people aren't willing or ready to embrace it. That's a major problem because if we don't change we become the victims of our own actions.

In Tonier's story I was also stuck with how she continued to slip through our systems. No one ever asked her why or what is going on? Where do the bruises come from, instead they checked off lists as if the job was done and she continued to spiral downward. To deal with her trauma, drugs became her outlet, her way to numb the pain. Can you imagine how different her life may have been if someone actually cared about a nine year-old black girl being neglected and showing clear signs of abuse and actually did something about it? I can.

I take solace in the fact that she made it from the darkness to the light and can share her empowering story with others. I commend the mental health practitioners that got it right after 20 years and helped her work through the trauma. 

In all accounts, she should have been a lost cause and as a society we would have accepted the fact that she is a crack-head that is never going to change. 

However, "Where there is breath there is hope." Tonier's words are a reminder that as a society, while it's easier to dismiss drug addicts and crazy people, as a society we pay when we refuse to help people deal with their trauma, mental health issues or drug addiction. It costs the individual, their families and has an even more devastating impact in our communities.

None of us in this world can fix our problems alone. It takes support. Our systems and services have to work together. We have to stop turning a blind eye and start asking the right questions. If we don't how can we expect to find the right answers. 

Below is Tonier's story and I hope it continues to have the power to inspire and give hope to others as it did me. Where there is breath there is hope!

Healing Neen - feature length from Gallery144 Productions on Vimeo.