By G. Wayne Miller, Staff Writer, The Providence Journal
Raised in dire circumstances, living with mental-health challenges, Jeremiah Rainville will be honored with a national Inspiration Award
CRANSTON — This is not how the story usually goes. You do not survive childhood abuse, a succession of foster homes, the trauma of a mentally ill mother who took her life, your own suicide attempt, and diagnoses of posttraumatic stress disorder and depression to become a beloved leader in the recovery movement.
But this is how Jeremiah Rainville’s story goes. And this is why this weekend, Rainville, 31, will visit Washington to receive the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Inspiration Award, bestowed annually to one person selected from hundreds of candidates from across the country.
One day recently at Eleanor Slater Hospital, Rainville shared details of the journey he has traveled from state ward to statewide manager of peersupport programs run by the Rhode Island chapter of NAMI. He was about to lead a support group for patients living with mental illness who will be returning to the community.
Son of a woman who suffered from severe schizophrenia, Rainville was placed in state foster care at age 2 when his mother’s parental rights were terminated and his father had abandoned him. Seven foster-care placements in five years followed: new strangers and new “homes” every eight months, on average.
“Six out of the seven were abusive, that I remember,” Rainville said. Physical and sexual abuse, to be specific. When he was 7, Rainville was sent to St. Aloysius Home, an orphanage in Smithfield. After it closed in 1994 following allegations of staff abuse, he was transferred to St. Mary’s Home for Children in North Providence. After a stay there, he was adopted. He was a preteen living with his new family when symptoms of his illnesses surfaced.
“Basically, I was getting sick around that time,” he said. “I had to start taking medication.” Two admissions to Bradley Hospital followed, and after the second, he was sent to another residential center. While there, he experienced more trauma. “My adoptive father died,” Rainville said. “He had bipolar. He also had a brain tumor and he was going into surgery to try and fix it and he ended up in a coma. They had to pull the plug.”
His birth mother, meanwhile, had lost her life to suicide . Rainville was placed in a group home and re-hospitalized several times, including at Slater for five months after he turned 18. By then, he had attempted suicide. “I ended up ingesting pesticide,” he said, “and by a miracle, I’m here.”
He is, and NAMI Rhode Island is thankful for it.
“Anyone who listens to Jeremiah’s story would have to ask themselves: ‘If I experienced half of what he experienced, would I even survive?’” said Cindy Elder, executive director. “And Jeremiah has done a whole lot more than survive. He has committed his life to helping others. Even on his worst days, his darkest days, he somehow manages to get himself up and out and continue his work — which is not easy work. The very fact that he’s doing the work is inspiring to not only the people in his groups but very much to the people around him who get to walk his walk, side-by-side with him.”
Thus did Elder nominate Rainville for the national organization’s Joyce Bur-land Inspiration Award, named for NAMI’s retired director of its Education, Training and Peer Support Center. “He survived a series of setbacks and experienced his own rock bottom with virtually no family support,” Elder wrote. “However, Jeremiah found an inner strength which inspired him to devote his life to helping others find their personal pathway toward recovery.”
Certified as a Peer Recovery Specialist and Wellness Coach, Rainville joined Elder’s organization in 2011 as a resource recovery coordinator. Elder promoted him to statewide Peer Program Manager last year after she became executive director and started to re-energize NAMI Rhode Island. Rainville has since expanded services. He has brought his expertise to testimony before the General Assembly and in other advocacy. And he has distinguished himself as a poet:
Trust leads to friendships
Friendship leads to peace
What a grand world this would be
If we had peace
I can make a start to peace
Treating people with respect
— From “Peace”
After stays in two adult group homes, Rainville in 2007 began living independently. “Now it’s ten years and three months in my own apartment, a Section 8 apartment in Cranston,” he said. “I’ve had some slips but I’ve been pretty good the past six years or so.”
The source of that inner strength Elder describes? “Whatever I was trying to do that was self-destructive was not working. So maybe there was another reason for me to be here.” Talking about that reason animates him. “It’s awesome!” he said. “People want to go back to work, want to go back to school. It’s all about people moving forward. Mental illness does not make a life sentence. It’s something you live with, but I don’t think it’s an excuse that says we can’t work, we can’t be productive. And I try to help people realize that they’re more than an illness. That they can be productive. “And people do. People get there.”
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Photos by Steve Szydlowski, The Providence Journal