By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
PUEBLO — She started cooking at age 7 and taught herself to drive at 12.
“Somebody had to go to the grocery store,” says Trish, now 28.
She says her mom was a drunk and her dad wasn’t in the picture. Trish has three older siblings, but when her parents broke up, they also split the kids: two each. The sister who lived with Trish was much older and mostly hung out with her friends.
So Trish started taking care of herself and everyone else at a young age. Life is no different now.
Trish is studying graphic arts in college, working a job that pays $8.03 per hour, raising her 17-month-old son Caden and trying to preserve her relationship with her live-in partner, Ron, 48. He admits to repeatedly cheating on Trish, but is a loving father to her son and is also attending college and working to transform his life after serving nearly a third of it in prison.
In the spring, Trish felt like her responsibilities might crush her.
Then at Pueblo Community College, where she works and goes to school, she happened to see a flyer with phone numbers dangling from the bottom like fringe.
“It said, ‘Stressed out? School work or personal life got you down?’ There was a little 1-800 number on it. I wanted our relationship to work out,” Trish said. “I keep everything to myself, which is really hard. I thought maybe if I could get somebody to talk to us, we could make it.”
Thanks to Mental Health America of Colorado’s Pro Bono Outreach Program, Trish and Ron have been receiving free therapy sessions since June. Dr. Mary Jane Kruse, an experienced therapist, is donating her time. (Click here to read more about their therapist. Solutions is identifying the couple only by their first names. They agreed to allow a reporter to sit in on their therapy and to discuss their personal challenges.)
The program started 25 years ago in the Denver area and recently expanded to Pueblo. The first of its kind in the nation, the pro bono program has become a nationally recognized model. Initially, the program targeted homeless adults. Today it serves seniors, children and a full spectrum of low-income adults, touching people in places of need from homeless and domestic violence shelters to autism support groups and schools. The most recent expansion, however, is reaching people like Trish and Ron, who are struggling with basic challenges and can get help in a private practice setting.
Mental health needs rise as economy falters
As economic troubles have mounted over the last three years, pressures on the poor have increased and calls to Mental Health America Colorado’s hotline have spiked. Few low-income people have access to counseling that can serve as a life raft for them.
“What if you’ve lost a job and you have no insurance? If you’re anxious and you have economic problems, the private practice model allows us to screen clients and connect them with a professional,” said Jacy Conradt, community relations manager for Mental Health America Colorado. “This program allows us to help people with depression, anxiety, job loss, family-related issues.”
Screeners find long-term help for people with more serious mental illnesses. The pro-bono program is designed to provide immediate help to people with relatively straightforward mental health dilemmas. It connects qualified callers with volunteer mental health professionals who give six free sessions.
“Being able to offer and connect people to services at a critical point can save a life. When you’re with a professional, good things can happen,” Conradt said.
The Pueblo expansion has included outreach to Spanish-speaking therapists and clients.
Last year, more than 1,600 people received services through the pro bono program in Colorado. Most were in the Denver area, but new programs are now reaching people in Pueblo and Glenwood Springs.
For Trish and Ron, the therapy has given them great relief. They continue to meet every week or two with Kruse and are confident that they can preserve their relationship and provide a good home to Caden.
“We’ve learned a lot of communication skills,” Trish said. “He’s gotten in touch with a lot of personal problems that he’s held onto for a long time. He wants to be a better guy. He’s a full-grown man. He doesn’t need to come to therapy. But he knows it’s helping me. And when we’re good and strong, we are good and strong. We’re a very good family.”
Adds Ron: “Being able to come and get treatment, to get some therapy for no price is actually priceless. It’s going to pay off in the end. You’ve saved a relationship and a family.”
A “beautiful childhood.” Adulthood behind bars
The image that haunts Ron is one he can never change. He was behind bars awaiting trial on cocaine possession charges when his father became sick from a common lung ailment called chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder in 2001 and ultimately died. Ron’s father had always been healthy. He hunted regularly until he was 74. But the breathing difficulties changed him.
“My sister told me that she was taking him from the car to the house and he was so weak, he couldn’t walk. My dad needed me and I let him down,” said Ron.
He describes his childhood as “beautiful.”
“No one in my family was ever in trouble,” Ron said. “I like being accepted. I would go above and beyond to do stupid things to be noticed. He started getting in trouble as a juvenile, then continued breaking the law as a young adult.
Ron had loving parents. He said his mom, Geneva, was a great cook famous for her tuna casserole. She died of a heart attack at 57. His father, who worked for the city, lived until he was 80. Even while Ron was in prison, his father carefully tended Ron’s car, keeping it tuned, clean and ready for Ron’s release.
His parents owned a home in Pueblo. Ron has inherited it. But, while he was in prison, a woman who was supposed to be caring for the house let it go. Half re-roofed, the house sat open to the elements and became unlivable. Ron and Trish are trying to fix it up. But they don’t have enough money yet to finish the job. So, they pay $450 a month for an apartment. Cash is often short. Trish had to apply for emergency funds to pay the rent for September and received a notice that the utilities would be shut down. She borrowed money to keep the lights on.
Like most couples, they fight about money. Ron likes to smell good and wants to spend $40 on cologne. Trish grew up wearing Goodwill clothes and wants to pay bills first. She says she could buy two boxes of diapers with the money Ron would spend on cologne.
Like the half-ruined house, Ron feels that he’s thrown much of his life away. He came from a good family, but squandered his parents’ and sister’s support by landing in prison on drug and burglary charges.
Kruse doesn’t have time to dwell in the past and still help Ron and Trish. Instead she teaches them to understand why they behave the way they do, then creates a treatment plan so they can move forward on a fresh path into the future.
“Mary Jane asked me how my dad would feel if he knew that I was still kind of stuck,” Ron said.
“He would want me to live my life to the fullest. He would be so proud of me now. ‘You’re going to college? You’re eight months away from being a college graduate?’” Ron said.
But Ron acknowledges that his parents would be disappointed with his poor treatment of Trish.
“I never saw domestic violence or my dad drinking or disrespecting my mom,” he said.
“Right where I’m supposed to be.”
Ron lost most of two decades serving prison sentences in the 1990s and 2000s. He was behind bars from 1991 to 1999 for burglary. He had been using and dealing drugs and went to collect money for a friend. But he barged into the wrong apartment. Ron was not armed and didn’t take anything from the apartment, but still received a 10-year sentence. Not long after his release, he was using cocaine again. The second time, he received an eight-year sentence for cocaine possession.
Ron got out in April of 2009 and met Trish soon afterward at a Pueblo bar where she was working. The two hit it off and soon were living together. Almost immediately, Trish learned she was pregnant by her previous boyfriend. She told Ron the truth and expected him to leave. Instead, he decided to stick around and become a dad. He had gotten another woman pregnant years earlier right before he went to prison. That daughter, who turns 21 next year, has never forgiven him for his long absences.
“I’ll never put another child through that again,” Ron says. “I definitely have dedicated myself to Caden. When I don’t see him, even for a little while, it really hurts.”
Caden shares Ron’s last name and their love is clearly mutual. Trish recalls a recent morning when Ron was already gone and Caden was searching for him, calling out “Da Da” and pretending to put on Ron’s hat and shirt.
Ron’s attentiveness to Caden won over Trish.
“I think he really wants to change his past. He wants a restart. This is a great opportunity to move on from doing bad things. He’s always talking about how he wants to stop making bad choices,” Trish said.
Of course, Ron’s dedication to Trish seems to lapse when it comes to women.
Because he lost so much freedom during his years of incarceration, he believes he’s entitled to seize any sexual opportunity that comes his way.
“I struggle every day. I like being admired, especially by females. I like it when they show me attention,” Ron says.
During a recent therapy session this month, Trish arrived angry and frustrated.
“We’re right back where we were. We might as well go back to session No. 1,” she tells Kruse.
Trish has found out Ron’s been in touch with two women, both of whom happen to be named Jessica. Ron says they are no threat. Trish says they’re poison.
“I found text messages and voice mails. He lied. I’ve already done all of this before,” she says.
Her past boyfriends have always been cheaters. Ron’s infidelity plays into her worst fear: that men will always betray her.
“I always have jerks. That’s how people are with me. I can work and work and work and I’m always going to get a C,” Trish says.
What she hates most is deception and having to rage at Ron to find out the truth.
“I can handle pain and suffering. I can’t handle being lied to and being the dummy. I can’t look stupid,” she says.
Ron is sheepish.
“I don’t want to be disrespectful to my lady, but I know my actions are. I don’t get up in the morning with this black heart and think, ‘Oh, I’m going to hurt you.’”
“I feel that’s an excuse,” Trish responds. “When you sit and talk to another woman, you are out to get me.”
“It could cost you everything,” she tells Ron.
He acknowledges that he needs help to stay on track. He knows he needs a strong woman and credits Trish with helping him stay away from drugs since his last time in prison.
In fact, in every aspect of his life, except his relationship with Trish, Ron is doing great. He is almost finished with his associate degree in social work at Pueblo Community College. He is working for AmeriCorps and leads groups with troubled teens. He pushes young men to stay in school and avoid the mistakes he has made.
Yet, he acknowledges that he’s sometimes out of control himself.
“I need somebody to ride on the back of the saddle with me and hold the reins,” he tells Kruse. “Sometimes I let go of the reins.”
She calmly replies, “There’s a lot more you can both do to work this out.”
She tells them that they are both learning to stop their old patterns of behavior.
By the end of the session, both Trish and Ron are drained, but Trish isn’t nearly as angry and Ron feels hopeful that he can be a better partner.
“I feel a little relieved. It was nice to hear his side without me cutting him off and being irritated,” Trish said. She feels more emboldened to stop nagging and instead give him friendly advice.
Ron, in turn, is determined to earn Trish’s respect.
“I know that I’m in the best place where I’m supposed to be with my life and with my family.”
He insists he’s going to stop hurting Trish, making her doubt him and making her cry.
“It’s like a sharp tool to your foundation,” she said. “We want to make this work. Don’t give up.”