By Karina Bland
The Republic |
Fri Aug 30, 2013 6:54 PM

Jill Hogan snapped Bentley into his chest harness and leash and rubbed the old English springer spaniel’s head.

She walked him slowly down his owner’s sloping driveway, a little way down the street and then back up the driveway, talking the whole way.

“All right, all right. There you go, buddy!”

Bentley is 12 years old, a bit arthritic, blind and hard of hearing.

“Just a little bit farther — you can do it!”

Up and down the driveway, up and down the street.

It is a challenge that Bentley’s pet-sitter understands. Living with a mental illness is like that, too. Up and down, up and down.

For Hogan, having a mental illness has meant a lifetime of falling into depression and climbing out, learning to recognize what’s real and what’s a hallucination, checking into the hospital and getting out, and experiencing both hopelessness and hope.

So as Labor Day approaches, a time when people recognize the contributions of workers, Hogan is grateful for a government program that allows people like her who receive federal disability benefits to work part time and still keep those benefits.

Because the chance to work, to run her own business and to own a car allows her a level of independence that makes even her marvel.

People living with serious mental illness often feel dependent — on family, government support, publicly funded services, even public transportation, experts say. And that can fuel feelings of being a burden, having nothing to offer, or even having no reason to live.

Part of the world

The first time Hogan tried to kill herself, she was 16. The next time, she was 21. The last time, she was 30.

Now she’s 51, and after years of therapy, finding the right combination of medications and hard work on her part, she’s created a life with lots of small freedom.

She expanded her business in true entrepreneurial spirit, and when she saw a wrong, she helped right it with the political process.

“My worst days now are better than my best days ever were when I was having suicidal thoughts,” Hogan said.

Back then, she felt disconnected from the world.

Now she feels like she’s an important part of it — through her paid work as a pet-sitter and her volunteer work as an advocate for people with mental illness.

At the top of the driveway, Hogan bent down to pat Bentley, his tail wagging.

“Good job, Bentley!” she told him. “Good job!”

Inside, she guided him to his water bowl, and he drank noisily.

“There you go,” she said. “Good boy, Bentley.”

Just the sound of Hogan’s voice made Bentley wag his tail, which in turn made Hogan smile. That’s just one of the perks of the job.

Hogan has worked her whole life, off and on.

After high school, she earned an Associate of Arts degree in theater at Lincoln College in Illinois and a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Phoenix in Colorado. In the years that followed, she worked as a case manager for foster children and sold office furniture with her dad. She was a veterinary technician and a food distributor.

But in the hard times, when her medication wasn’t helping, when her depression worsened, or when she was overly stressed, it was often difficult to get to work on time, or stay there, or even call in when she couldn’t make it at all.

Employers tried to help. They let her work part time or take leave when she had a setback.

When Hogan moved to Arizona in 2005, she enrolled at ITT Technical Institute and got a degree in computer-aided design.

But by then, she had begun receiving Society Security Disability Insurance, the federal program that provides assistance to people who have disabilities who have worked and paid Society Security taxes.

Typically when a person receives federal disability assistance, he or she cannot have a paying job at the same time.

And that left Hogan feeling desolate: “You feel like your life is over. You have nothing to contribute.”

“Like anyone else, people living with mental illness need to have a sense of purpose in our lives,” she said. “We are more than our diagnosis.”

Unemployment is difficult for anyone, said David Covington, vice president of clinical and program outcomes for Magellan Health Services, the state’s largest mental-health contractor. But for people with mental illness who are already struggling with feelings of isolation and being a burden, that loss of productivity can have devastating effects.

“Making a contribution is not based on a quantifiable, win-the-Nobel-Peace-Prize kind of thing. It’s me looking at my life and thinking that I am doing something tangible, something that matters,” he said.

It can be volunteer work, or paid. It can be as big as holding a full-time job or simply working a few hours a week.

That is the idea behind the state’s Freedom to Work program, run by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid program. It allows people who receive federal disability benefits — a monthly check and health-care benefits — to start or continue work without losing those benefits.

Hogan heard about the program in 2008 and asked herself, “What could I do?”

She had enjoyed working with animals most. So she started by taking care of the pets of her sister’s friend, and then another friend hired her to walk her dog.

Hogan’s clientele has grown to 20, all through word of mouth. Her business — Jill Hogan Pet Sitting — is bonded and insured. She has her own logo, business cards and a good reputation.

Bentley’s owner, Brent Adleman, met Hogan almost four years ago when she was walking two dogs near his office complex. He asked for her business card.

She walked Bentley once a week while Adleman was at work, and then twice. Over time it grew to four times a week.

“She’s a lifesaver for me. I couldn’t do it without her,” Adleman said. “When she’s with him, I don’t worry at all.”

Even on the weekends, Bentley went over by the garage door about 10 a.m. to wait for Hogan. Laughing, Adleman said, “I tell him, ‘She’s not coming today. You’re stuck with me.’ ”

Hogan is her own boss, and there’s independence that comes with that. But it also means she has to stay on the ball.

“It gives you a sense of responsibility,” she said. And there are no more days when she feels like there is no reason to get up.

“It’s not just about walking dogs,” says Jill Hogan, with Bentley. “It’s about having your customers count on you.” (Tom Tingle/The Republic)

“It’s not just about walking dogs. It’s about having your customers count on you,” she said. The animals, too: “They can’t tell time, but they know when you are coming.”

They greet her at the door, smiling as dogs do, tails wagging.

Bentley lay half on and half off his bed in the living room, Hogan beside him. The dog stretched out and pushed his head onto Hogan’s knee.

“I need to be needed,” she said. She especially felt that way during the past few weeks as Bentley’s health worsened.

There’s also the freedom that comes with the extra money she makes. Hogan has always been frugal, but living on Social Security means having just enough for necessities.

With her job, she can afford to have a car to get to the houses of her customers and to pick up friends who don’t have transportation of their own.

And because she’s working, she can say yes to going out to dinner or to the movies with friends. “Saying, ‘No, I can’t afford it’ all the time got old,” she said. She can take her nieces, ages 10 and 13, out for smoothies.

The exercise she gets walking the dogs she cares for is a bonus. Some medications for mental illness can cause weight gain. Hogan is in great shape.

Most important, the more she worked, the more referrals she got. As her customer list grew, the more confident she became: “It is really a sense of pride.”

“So many times our identity is wrapped up in our work,” she said. “It means so much more to be able to answer someone when they ask, ‘What do you do?’ by saying, ‘I’m a pet-sitter’ than to say, ‘Oh, I don’t work.’ ”

Because that leads to another question: “Why not?”

Telling anyone that you have a mental illness is difficult, Hogan said. Many people don’t understand what it entails or the treatment and medication available.

It is even more difficult when the person you are telling is a potential employer.

“There is that fear of rejection,” Hogan said. Yet she also can see it from an employer’s point of view.

“It’s hard for an employer because they need someone to do the job. They need someone who is stable,” she said.

To be honest, Hogan says, people with mental illness often worry a lot on their own.

“That’s so humiliating to know yourself that all of a sudden you may not be capable of doing your job. We know what we’ve been through, and we know that it could happen again.”

Adleman had no concerns about Hogan.

“Every one of us has challenges in our lives,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful that Jill is out there working.”

In 2010, when Hogan was last hospitalized, she let her customers know she would be unavailable for a week or so. One customer asked so many questions that Hogan ended up explaining her mental illness.

The customer asked her own doctor whether it was safe to have Hogan working in her home. The doctor assured her that it was, and Hogan still has the job.

“It broke the stigma for her,” Hogan said.

Maybe for Hogan, too.

About that same time, Hogan started getting more involved as an advocate for herself and others with mental illness.

She has helped run a support group, helped others trying to navigate the state’s mental-health system, attended training sessions and conferences, and served on advisory groups to non-profit and government agencies that provide services to people with mental illness.

“Mostly,” she said, “I show up a lot. I think it makes a difference when we talk about these issues to have a real face, an actual person there.”

Then in April, Hogan made headlines when she helped change a state law.

In Arizona statutes that address diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses, the wording uses medically correct definitions. But Hogan and others noticed that the state’s law books defined “mentally ill person” to include “an idiot, an insane person, a lunatic or a person non compos mentis,” which means “not of sound mind.” She was shocked.

Hogan contacted Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, who represents the north Phoenix area where she lives and also chairs the House Health Committee. Hogan had worked on Carter’s campaign, and the lawmaker agreed that the language was archaic.

Hogan testified at hearings in the House in January and the Senate in February, a time when the public discussion about people with mental illness was heated and wrapped in with gun control.

“It seemed extra important that they be mindful of people with mental illness and not see us as monsters,” she said.

What they saw instead was Jill Hogan, pet-sitter, who looks like anyone else.

Lawmakers approved the change unanimously.

“I want people to see me as a person, not a diagnosis,” Hogan said.

Bentley sat up and pressed his face against her neck. She rubbed his ears and kissed the top of his head.

“You do, don’t you, Bentley?” she said, and he wagged in agreement.

The old dog passed away this week. It was a sad loss, but there’s solace, too. Hogan made a difference, both for Bentley and for his owner.

Reach the reporter at or 602-444-8614.