REI Tour Director Johnette Hartnett was interviewed by NAMI's STAR Center for their Recovering Together Newsletter. Johnette shared her story of loss and recovery. The STAR Center provides Support, Technical Assistance and Resources to assist consumer-operated and consumer-supporter programs in meeting the needs of under-served populations. Specifically, the STAR Center’s focus areas are cultural competence and diversity in the context of mental health recovery and consumer self-help and self-empowerment. Read an excerpt below or download the newsletter here (PDF) to read the interview in its entirety.
How Have Mental Health Challenges and Illness Touched Your Life?
The Loss of Family
One night in 1983 while I was away from home, my sitter and three children died in an early morning house fire. At age 33 I had lost my family and was soon to be divorced. There was no remedy for fixing this in my toolbox of life. The morning of the fire my pastor (albeit young) told me that “God needed my children as angels in heaven.” I kindly told the dear Father that the God in my life would not take children. I inherently knew that things happen that are outside our control and not necessarily God’s will. I also knew I was not home when they died and would have to come to terms with the guilt of not being able to save my children.
Some people don’t like to use the word recovery when talking about the loss of children. They say you can never recover. My dear father used to write to me and remind me, “Remember Johnette, recovery is a choice.” I hated that. But he was right. I slowly peeled off the layers that really had nothing to do with the fire but with my struggle to survive. None of us know how we will react to sudden traumatic loss until it happens. My therapist told me I needed at some point to go back home to Vermont and do some “recovery work.” So, two years after the fire, I moved back home and found a new therapist who worked with people who had experienced loss. I saw this therapist over a five-year period—sometimes twice a week. I had no mental health insurance so I would pay as I could which in those days was $50 a visit. He allowed me to keep a “running tab” so to speak. When I ended my therapy and started making a living, I paid him back in full.
It was at a statewide mental health conference in New Jersey in the winter of 2010 that I actually shared this recovery story. I realized then that I too have been in recovery for 28 years.