Denver, CO

'All My Children' star, military veteran helps me accept my mental illness

David Heitz

(Photo/Submitted. Writer David Heitz and J.R. Martinez)

There is a bond and an understanding that exists among people who have been through hell.

When you meet someone like that who came out of it standing tall, you stand to learn a lot from them.

I had the privilege of meeting wounded veteran, "All My Children" actor, and “Dancing with the Stars” winner J.R. Martinez.

I met him at a fundraiser for the Vera French Mental Health Foundation in Davenport, Iowa. Little did I know when I met him a few years ago I would spiral into a nervous breakdown and sell my house on a whim.

Ultimately, I moved to Denver and wound up homeless before pulling myself up by the bootstraps and rebounding. More on that later.

I attended a talk a few years back given by Martinez at a high school where I used to live in the Quad-Cities. He called his speech, “Through my Eyes: A New Way to Look at Mental Illness.”

After the talk, I attended a VIP event in the Gold Room of the historic Blackhawk Hotel in downtown Davenport.

I got to shake J.R.’s hand, snap a few pictures, and thank him for his service. We briefly chatted about a few other things, too.

Martinez won 'Dancing with the Stars,' starred in 'All My Children'

On the surface, one would say that JR has been through a much different hell than I have. A much worse hell.

J.R. grew up without his dad. He saw drunks abuse his mother. His sister died at the age of three.

On top of all that, a roadside bomb burned part of his face off while he was serving our country in Iraq.

In his own words, he has been through a “sexy” hell. He said the military loves to put soldiers like him on pamphlets. After all, he rebounded from the brink and went on to become a television star.

As if winning Dancing with the Stars wasn’t enough, Martinez also starred three years on the daytime television drama “All my Children.”

More veterans who return from war suffer not from wounds of flesh, but mental illness such as PTSD, or PTS, as some prefer it be called. How can we really say that going through a traumatic experience should be labeled a “disorder?”

I have come to know several veterans with PTSD. I also have a dear friend who lost her son to suicide, while active duty, because he was not taken seriously when he reported his suicidal thoughts to his superiors.

That’s a story in and of itself that I hope to help my friend tell someday.

Once I got sober, I thought the chaos would end

I have written quite a bit about the hell I have been through. Much of it was my own doing. I spent years entrenched in drug and alcohol addiction.

On two separate occasions I got drunk and was raped and physically assaulted.

I had to get sober to be an effective advocate for my dad, especially after he landed in a memory care facility and slowly became, essentially, a helpless child.

My May 2014 assault, which occurred the night I took my very last drink, left me with a positive PTS screen. But even prior to that, I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2002.

Once you share that you have a diagnosis of mental illness, it’s out there forever. Anyone who stands to gain anything from discrediting you is going to use it against you, regardless of your current mental health status.

That is called stigma and we hear about it all the time. But are we listening?

Little did I know that an experience just as humiliating as the rape, just as frightening as the assault, awaited me even in sobriety.

Stripped naked and thrown in a ‘suicide” cell

It happened six years ago. I had gone to visit my father at his memory care facility, where he repeatedly had suffered from falls and injuries and claimed to be mistreated.

Three weeks before the visit I am about to reference he landed in the emergency room. According to the nurse who called me, he had lain all night on the floor of his room. She and a CNA told me they estimated it to be all night given the size of the pool of blood.

But there was even more going on that day that caused me to be on edge. I believed my own life to be in danger due to events that had occurred a few days prior. Whether it was real or imagined, it was real to me.

When I got to the memory care facility, I reported who I believed to be an intruder outside my father’s room. When I wasn’t taken seriously, I began screaming “Call 911!” The police came, but it was me who they took away.

I was assaulted in the Rock Island, Ill. county jail. I was stripped naked, my glasses taken, and thrown in a cell with “suicide” marked over it.

I was not suicidal. I was frightened for my life.

I lay on a concrete stab under a blaring light, for two days, covered with a straitjacket they threw into the cell after me. I was held without charge, even after being evaluated by a mental health professional. She told me I would be released in just a few hours.

You don’t throw people with a history of PTSD in jail for becoming frightened. I was a year sober at that time and visiting my father twice a day.

This all occurred almost to the day of the one-year anniversary of a horrifying assault that nearly left me for dead in my basement.

When another suffered jail abuse, I didn’t believe her

“Be kind to others,” Martinez said. “Don’t discredit their stories, however unbelievable.”

(Photo/Submitted. Writer David Heitz and actor and veteran J.R. Martinez post for a selfie.)

He warned, “Dare something like that ever happen to you, God forbid.” He spoke of his own struggles and of a friend who drove him all around Indiana one night as he sobbed and sobbed.

The friend just listened, and J.R. said that is what he needed more than anything. We all need to be that kind of friend to someone when they are in crisis.

A few years before my jail assault, a woman in my community reported that she had been sexually assaulted in the same jail. Some of the details regarding what happened to her and what happened to me are similar, some different.

At the time I never believed her. In fact, I was anything but compassionate when I heard her story, suspecting she brought it all on herself because of her big mouth.

This woman happens to be a veteran. And for me to accuse anyone of maybe going a little too far in speaking their mind is outrageous.

What happened?

God forbid, I suffered a fate like hers.

I thought I would die inside the jail

While inside the jail, I mostly prayed that I would get out alive. I thought I was going to die in there. I became physically sick. I screamed for help. I banged on the cell door.

To back up a bit, I was waiting calmly outside of the memory care facility when the police arrived. I thought they were coming for the “bad guy.” My entire time in the county jail I became more mentally damaged.

When I was released from the jail, I was taken to the local hospital where I spent two nights (with a short return home in between, before returning by ambulance). I had severe tachycardia.

The hospital forgave the portion of my bill which insurance didn’t pay, which not only is a blessing for which I am grateful, but I also think it speaks volumes of the incident.

I am strong enough to know when I need help

In the end, J.R. implored all of us to “be an advocate” for those with mental illness.

Despite all he has been through and all he has overcome, he told us that as recently as seven months ago he was unhappy. Why? He was separated from his wife and didn’t get to see his daughter every day.

Maybe you would think somebody who has been through what J.R. has been through could handle that on his own. But he can’t. He told us he saw a therapist and it helped a lot.

When I was released from jail, I represented myself against an order of protection the wellness director of dad’s facility filed against me. The order was dismissed. But the facility then chose to trespass me, and I did not see my dad for 108 days.

State reunites me with my father after trespass

My dad and I were reunited after I sought help from the state.

Who am I kidding? I also called former U.S. Secretary of Aging Kathy Greenlee’s office. I had the pleasure of interviewing the secretary once about elder abuse.

Thanks forever to the people who reunited me with my dad. He died less than a month later.

J.R. swallowed hard near the end of his talk. He said, “Do you think I feel good about not seeing my daughter every day? Do you think I feel good about being separated from my wife?”

I take medication and I see a therapist every week. I will continue to do so for the rest of my life.

And I am not ashamed of a thing.

Colorado sets me up to succeed

But the truth is, I thought I was strong after I met J.R. And I still ended up homeless on the streets of Denver, off my medication for a while.

It can't happen again. Here in Denver, I feel like I have ten times as much support as I had in Illinois. I had a great therapist in Illinois, but toward the end I was having a hard time paying for it. Here, it's paid for.

I see my clinician every single week. I trust her and I know she truly cares about me.

My medications are delivered to my door. I never run out of a supply. It could not be any easier. I don't have to do anything. The meds just show up.

Life feels more stable now than it has in a long time. And while I had a house and ample financial resources back when I met J.R., I had no people in my life at all. No one.

Now, I have a few people I call friends.

Colorado is treating me well now. I am so grateful to live here. I hope to contribute much with my writing.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO

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