The morning sky was choked with fog and laced with the aroma of coffee from the nearby café when I arrived to the local library in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Upon realizing that the library was not open for another hour, I put down my books and pulled out my phone, trying to keep myself occupied.
A woman walked up the steps to the library and attempted to open the doors, turning the door knobs with increasing frustration and annoyance before stepping away and beginning to pace. Her curly grey hair was askew and a faded crocheted purse dangled from her wrist. Her pacing stopped abruptly as her panicked eyes locked with mine and mumbled, "Excuse me, ma'am? May I borrow your phone, I gotta call social services. I gotta."
I nervously obliged, handing her my phone.
Her face broke out into a smile before quickly morphing into a frown ridden with anxiety, her forehead furrowed. "Oh, but ma'am? I don't know how to use a smart phone, and I don't have the number for social services. Can you call them for me?"
I offered her a sympathetic smile and accepted my phone back, looking up the number for social services as the woman carried on friendly conversation. I pulled up the number for the local social services station before dialing and offering the phone back to her, but she shook her head and backed away from the phone. "Can you call them for me? My hands don't work so good, it's cold, I don't like talking to people, I don't know how to use this." I smiled again, and nodded before placing the call.
As the phone rang, she woman crouched down and examined my face, and began to speak. "I know your sister Katherine, yeah, she's off with that dude. She could do better though, and her face is really breaking out, you should tell her to do something about that." She stood up abruptly and began to pace again, muttering to herself about various people.
The thing is, my sister is not named Katherine.
She is not dating any boys,
she has no acne,
and she most certainly has never met this woman before.
That was when it became clear that this woman might be dealing with some mental health issues, and I became concerned for her well being. Between her anxiety about the phone and the muttering to herself about various people, it became clear that she needed aid and I patched her though to the social services offices of Portland, Maine.
She thanked me with enthusiasm before taking the phone and began talking with the office of social services. She sat down next to me on the bench as she detailed how she was living out of her car, had been on disability since 2005, was currently broke, and in dire need of assistance. The call lasted for about fifteen minutes, ending with her being given an appointment time two hours from then at the local office. She hung up and handed me back the phone.
She rummaged through her tattered purse before producing a half burned cigarette, her eyebrows knit together in concentration. She took a drag of her cigarette and expelled the smoke into the hazy sky. "I don't have a GPS, and these meetings are always bullshit. I've had a counselor since 2005, and look where I've ended up. I've had two representative repayees for my social security checks, but both of them didn't work out. I'm desperate. I've been desperate for years now. I'm so desperate. I've been arrested three times now, each time I've violated the conditions of my release because I'm technically not allowed to drink, but gosh, I need to drink. The last time I got released, they said I could finally drink because I must really need it."
Her last sentence grabbed my attention, how could a law enforcement officer allow her to continue to drink and not provide help for her substance problem?
She took another drag of her cigarette before continuing. "Yeah, they said if I mess up my conditions of release again, I'll get a bail of a thousand dollars. I met a young man in jail, 20 years old. He was on bail for 50,000 dollars. He sold heroin to an undercover, the dude was real jittery before his hearing. All he was worried about was his girl on the outside and if she had enough money to get by without him. Real sad stuff."
I was caught off guard completely, and couldn't help but feel a pang of sympathy for her. She continued to rattle off a long list of drugs and substances she'd done, reminiscing on how it "helped her ignore the pain," and "continue on for this long."
When the cigarette between her fingers finally burnt down to the filter, she pressed the smoldering end into the ground and put it out before dropping the butt back into her purse. She stood up, smoothing her skirt and readjusting her shirt, embroidered with the local police station logo. She gave me a large grin before thanking me immensely, promising me she would go to her appointment at the social services office. She took down my name and phone number, promising that one day, when she was back on her feet, maybe she would buy me lunch. I watched her walk away from the library and turn a corner, disappearing from sight.
Later that afternoon while at a local restaurant, I overheard some waitresses discussing "the crazy lady in town" and her antics from that morning. I turned to them and asked them to describe her, before realizing with a sinking feeling that they were discussing the woman I had met this morning. The waitresses continued their conversation, laughing and exchanging stories of how she got kicked out of various local bars, had stood up on stage during a local band's performance and had started singing until she cried, and was "off her rocker." I turned my back on the conversation and resumed eating, anger building in my chest. The fact that the locals knew this woman was clearly struggling, and did nothing but watch her misery and struggle and laugh about it during their work shifts angered me. Something needs to change.
Upon further thinking, I have reached the conclusion that the social services within the town and state have not done enough to help those in need of mental health service or those that are in the grips of substance abuse. While I acknowledge that the stories the woman recounted may be slightly warped due to her mental instability and substance abuse, the fact that the local waitresses and other local residents are familiar with her behavior and living situation, proves that this woman is in a difficult situation and is in need of assistance. The town of Boothbay Harbor, and the state of Maine, must do more to provide mental health aid and substance abuse aid to those in need. There was no pay phone available in the town for the woman to use and call for assistance, and going to the police station may have been intimidating and impractical for someone who is dealing with addiction to illegal substances and has mental instability and anxiety. There must be an easily accessible public pay phone for people to use and call for help should they seek it.
Furthermore, the local law enforcement officers must intervene and act when someone is faced with the hardship of substance abuse, poverty, and mental instability. The woman had been arrested three times, and while she did not feel comfortable disclosing the reasons behind her arrests, it is clear that the prison system failed due to the fact that she was arrested and jailed, yet again. This proves that the correctional system is not effective nor productive for those who have broken laws, deal with substance abuse, or are in poverty, and should these rules and protocols must be reformed. Additionally, the woman recounted stories of others who had been arrested for other substance related charges, all of them faced with poverty and trying to make an income. The local law enforcement should make an effort to be a resource for those struggling and in poverty, and direct those who are in the grips of drug addiction to a recovery center or shelter, that way arrests for possessing or selling substances are reduced and those in need of mental health service or those trying to make a living are given alternatives and a way to sustain themselves until they are given the aid they require and are stable again. This is crucial, given that Maine is in the midst of an opioid epidemic.
Lastly, local towns should provide a safe space or shelter, and be alert to those who may require assistance from the shelter. Since the woman and many others in poverty may be unable to pay for or access or schedule appointments for basic healthcare or psychiatric care, the shelter should try to aid these people or monitor their wellbeing so they do not continue to worsen or continue on without any help.