Donna Deigan sat in a downtown coffee shop Tuesday morning as the blizzard bore down on Brunswick, her materials neatly arranged before her on the table: a checklist of issues to discuss in our interview, her recent testimony to the Maine Legislature, a single dollar bill.
“This right here is a piece of paper,” she said, picking up the dollar. “It is not living, it is not breathing. But we put so much value on it.”
Putting it back down, she continued: “I’m a living, breathing person. And I may have a mental illness, but I still have something to contribute to the world. And that is sharing my story.”
It might be easy to lose Deigan in the rising tide of Mainers whose mental health services are once again under siege in Augusta – if not for one thing.
She refuses to disappear.
Deigan, 50, has long struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder – none of which was properly treated until she finally underwent intensive treatment with Sweetser, a statewide behavioral health care provider, just over three years ago.
She grew up in Cleveland, where she was verbally, physically and sexually abused as a child. She remembers coping with a dysfunctional household by becoming “Robin,” her imaginary twin, “in order to try and pretend I was somebody else because I hated the way I was being treated.”
She’s been raped three times over the course of her life.
She’s been hospitalized during mental health crises.
More than once in her tumultuous past, she’s attempted suicide.
Even now, if she forgets just one thing in her morning routine – get up, shower, brush teeth … – it’s likely to throw her off balance for the entire day.
Yet she refuses to disappear.
Last spring, Deigan was one of more than 400 clients of Merrymeeting Behavioral Health Associates who were thrown into a tailspin when the agency abruptly shut down with no apparent thought to those who relied on its services for case management, therapy and community-based support.
At the same time, she was one of some 8,000 Mainers rocked by changes in Maine- Care rules that now limit intensive community support services to those with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and other acute mental health impairments.
That crackdown continues under the broader effort by Gov. Paul LePage to cut taxes at the expense of Maine’s most vulnerable: Under a proposed rate change by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, reimbursements to agencies that provide support services to the mentally ill would be pared by close to 25 percent.
As a DHHS spokeswoman put it in January, LePage’s budget aims to shrink “the size and cost of state government” by targeting “short-sighted welfare policies that have perpetuated dependency.”
Still, despite such demonizing rhetoric, Deigan refuses to disappear.
Last month, she listened to LePage’s State of the State address – the first one she’d ever heard – and shook her head when she heard the governor thump away at the “Do No Harm” theme of his budget.
” ‘Do no harm.’ He kept repeating that,” she said. “But he’s harming people. And at what point do you draw the line between governing a state and actually hurting your citizens? At what point do you draw the line?”
Deigan draws it at the emergency room entrance to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick.
There, working for a local mental health agency, she now provides peer counseling support for those with no place else to turn.
Late last month, nerves shaking her like a leaf, she stood up before the Legislature’s Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees to talk about her work. No, make that her newfound calling.
“What happens when a person has a heart attack?” Deigan asked lawmakers. “They go to the emergency room and are treated!”
Not so for mental health patients, she continued, listing 10 teenagers, elderly folks and others in between who have showed up in crisis on her watch and waited for days to be routed to proper treatment – or, in some cases, to just be sent home.
“Physical trauma is treated immediately,” she testified. “Why does trauma of the mind, which is part of the body, get delayed, cut off and ignored?”
Last summer, working with state Rep. Joyce McCreight, D-Harpswell, Deigan co-founded the Behavioral Health Coalition for Maine. It’s a group of about 20 mental health providers, substance abuse experts and law enforcement officials leaning into the winds of blame and shame on behalf of those too scared, or too caught up in daily survival, to do it themselves.
Refusing to disappear, Deigan now chairs the group.
On Tuesday, she’ll speak to lawmakers about mental health recovery at a gathering of the Legislature’s bipartisan Behavioral Health Caucus, organized by McCreight to counterbalance LePage and Co.
In an interview Friday, McCreight marveled at the change she’s seen in Deigan since the two first met a year ago amid the unfolding MaineCare cuts and the Merrymeeting closure.
“She’s amazing,” McCreight said. “It’s been so inspiring to see her do this.”
That said, McCreight added, Deigan remains a person in need of her own mental health help – and she knows it.
Last June, the death of Deigan’s mother – they’d reconciled in recent years – drove her into a deep depression.
She climbed back out.
Then in December, issues with her estranged brother – her lone surviving direct relative – touched off a crisis so severe that she actually contemplated suicide for the first time in years.
Again, she survived.
“She’s one of those people who are very good about reaching out when she needs help – and we’re not all very good at that,” McCreight said. “All along the way, I see her getting more confident, stronger.”
Back at the coffee shop, Deigan explained what it’s like to be in a mental health crisis without readily available support:
“You’re in a very … dark … tunnel. Alone. You cannot see the light. And there’s a huge rock pile. The rocks are all over you. And you’re weighted down. And you cannot move those rocks on your own.”
As she spoke, the visibility outside dropped by the minute with the incoming storm.
Deigan reached once again for that dollar bill.
“It takes a village, it takes a state,” she said. “It takes people to choose to understand, not just take away a piece of paper and say, ‘We’re taking this dollar away from you because it has more value than you do.’ ”
In the coming weeks, the powers that be in Augusta will fight tooth and nail over that dollar. But win, lose or draw, one thing will not change.
Donna Deigan, living proof that mental health treatment creates a stronger, sounder, more compassionate society, will keep standing tall. Not just for herself, but for thousands of fellow Mainers just like her.
They will not disappear.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at: