Treating more than just addiction

‘I had no idea there was something wrong with me’

When she was a young girl, Joan Ayala says she was sexually and physically abused by a family member her grandfather, usually in his basement while her grandmother slept upstairs. Her family was no help, ripped apart as they were by alcoholism and mental illness.

Our hearts break when we hear stories such as Ayala’s.

People have far less sympathy for abused children who grow up and, like Ayala, turn to drugs or alcohol in an effort to dull their pain or feel like a “normal” person. The abuse she’d endured led her to use alcohol, marijuana and LSD at age 14. She dropped out of school soon after and began using cocaine at age 22, she says, because the high helped her “imitate,” if not truly experience, the emotions of others her age. By 26, she was a hard-core cocaine addict. Later, she began using methamphetamine.

The nation turns away from such damaged souls, providing little help to people whose mental illness and addiction are closely intertwined.

About 8.9 million adults in the USA suffer from mental illness and substance abuse disorders, but only 7.4% receive treatment for both conditions, and more than half get no treatment at all, according to a new report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Without treatment, lives fall apart, and millions of Americans spiral downward into homelessness, jail or suicide each year.

In a series of stories this year, USA TODAY is exploring the human and financial costs the country pays for not caring more about the 10 million Americans with serious mental illness.

Studies show about two-thirds of people who have a substance abuse condition also have a mental health condition, says Ron Manderscheid, executive director of the National Association of County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Directors.

“Seeking help for my addiction was the gateway to getting therapy,” says Ayala, 57. “It’s easier to admit addiction, because it’s a substance outside yourself that is causing you problems, than it is to accept the mental illness, which means your basic functionality, who you are as a human being, is flawed.”

Ayala says she didn’t begin to really conquer her drug addiction until she got professional help for her mental illness. She is in recovery for both her addiction and mental illness.

During her many years of abuse, Ayala says, she learned to protect herself psychologically by shutting down her emotions and separating her mind from her body. The abuse was so frequent that Ayala grew up unable to experience normal emotions and even suffered from periods of amnesia.

“I pretty much shut down all conscious presence,” says Ayala, a mental health clinician and addiction therapist in Portland, Ore. “My physical functions were there, but my person-hood was not. … I can describe it as having no soul. There was no underlying spirit inside me. … Having no other idea of what being alive is, I had no idea there was something wrong with me.”