The nerves alone were enough to cause an attack. I was waiting outside and sifting through my nerves to stay calm. What I was about to see and experience was something that was going to change my life. This was my first official assignment as a specialist, or whatever that meant.
In fairness, I have to admit I thought the word, “Specialist” was a little much. I thought the word was reaching for something or trying to make me out as someone other than myself. To qualify my feelings, I had to admit that I gave into the mental obstacles that had plagued me for most of my life. I struggled with the ideas that I was uneducated, that I was not a professional by any means, that I was educationally challenged and that my life’s experience alone was not enough to help as an interactive support. Hence, the anxiety. Hence, the insecurity and hence the fear that I was out of my league.
I thought to myself, “My God, what the hell did I get myself into?” I was intimidated by the job. I was intimidated by the people around me and their positions. I was just me. At least, this is how I saw it. What the hell did I possibly have to offer anyone? I didn’t have any degrees on my wall. I didn’t have any college under my belt. At best, my only experience with college was one semester which ended poorly. I wasn’t thrown out or anything. The split between school and myself was mutual. Neither school nor I could see eye to eye with each other. Plus, I never liked the feeling of being belittled by professors with their typical brand of social snobbery.
Plus, no one was going to pay me to go to class. I needed money so instead of going to school, I worked. I took any job I could find. I worked in three different retail stores at once. I was a salesman. I was a stock boy. I took a job with a window manufacturer and sold windows. I had a job doing door-to-door sales. And then there was the garment industry. I sold buttons and buckles, zippers and zipper pulls, woven labels and other trimming needs. I sold to designers and different garment manufacturers. I did a lot of things to make money and not all of this was legal. I did what I could but none of what I did was ever done with passion.
In fairness to myself and to the jobs I had failed with, I lacked the one most important detail of all. I lacked the drive and determination and the love for what I was doing. I lived this way with this type of thinking for most of my life. And here it was, I was hired to be a recovery specialist. I was hired to share my experience with clients to help them choose a different direction. My job was to provide a new plan instead of going back to the street to end up with a needle in their arm.
Of course, I had my own conflicts with this. I had people tell me things like, “What do you know about this?” My life’s experience was different. Perhaps not as intense or maybe my previous career was like “Kiddie time” to some of my clients. Maybe the substance at hand was not the same as mine but either way, I had an understanding about my needs and my wants. I had experience with depression and suicide. I had my background and a PhD in misery, self-destruction, hatred, self-hatred, anxiety, insomnia, depression and so on. Rather that tussle with the comparisons of substance or abuse, I worked towards pointing out the core reasons for my behavior. I broke down my attitudes and my life to simple, understandable ideas and offered analogies to give a description as to why I thought the way I did. My job was to relate. Not compare.
I knew what I would say if I was in the hot seat. I knew what I said when it was me in the interrogation room. I figured rather than interact with the argument, I supported my stance by taking a totally different approach. Instead of proving myself, I offered a trade. At least, this was my plan, which I was hoping would suffice. It turns out that my stance was a good one. I did not come off as an authority. Instead, I came off as an advocate.
I was afraid that it was too late for me. I was too old to change my career. Besides, what did I know? I saw myself as educated, but yet, I never had the papers to prove this. My education was more raw and brutal. But hey, at least what I had was honest. I had my high school equivalency. I never wrote a paper. I never completed any course or anything that gave me the technical grade to say that I was traditionally educated. No, my education came much differently.
Meanwhile, I was hired to act as a recovery specialist. I was told to stay in my lane and that my position was only to help the client agree to treatment options. There was a line drawn in the sand. On one side were the professionals and on the other side was me. By the way, this was the last time I ever referred to myself as a junkie or used any of those old terms to define myself. I came to the understanding that if I degrade myself then this allows others to do the same thing.
I waited outside of a prosecutor’s office to start my day. I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea what kind of people I would meet or how I would be treated. I had no idea how it would feel to walk into a station and be on the other side of the law. This time, I was sitting on the other side of the table in an interrogation room.
I admit to the nerves. I admit to my old thoughts and discomforts. There was an initial struggle of being in a roomful of people with guns and badges. I also fully admit to my ignorance because in my life, I have never met nor been involved with such a strong and impactful group of people. Safe to say this event was life changing for me.
The initiative was simple. The police would make a drug arrest. They would bring the person back to be processed. Only, this time, the intentions were different. This time, the people under arrest would sit with a specialist like myself (or one of the other specialists on site) and together, we would talk about a different approach to their arrest.
If the person agreed to treatment, the specialist would then return with a clinician to make the necessary arrangements. This is where the line was drawn between the professional and the specialist. Meanwhile, it was us that sold the program and in many cases, it was the clinicians that ruined the deal.
But man, I have to say this was emotional for me. I’ve seen people like this before. It had been a while since my trip into the concrete jungles and the dope spots. However, my memory served to be accurate. In fact, each and every single person that I interviewed was similar to either myself or someone I knew.
Maybe this is when I knew what I wanted to do. Maybe it was my successful realization with the people I spoke with. Maybe it was my distaste for the clinicians and their snide little games they played. Maybe it was the fact that I realized there are people who cannot help themselves. And perhaps I can help them.
Meanwhile, there was a news camera on the premises. They were taking pictures and asking questions. They asked me what I thought about the operation. To be honest, my answer was simple.
I never had anything like this. There were no helping hands for me in my time. There was only the coldness of consequences, which were degrading enough to keep me high instead of looking for help. We never had an outreach program with people that understood. We never had peer specialists or advocates. None of this existed. In fact, this program that I was part of was so successful that many states throughout the country made it a law, which stated that all treatment facilities must have a peer advocate on duty. That would be me.
I saw the best and the worst during this time. I watched people run from themselves. I heard from some people who chose to get well. I know of some that chose to build a new life for themselves. Not all attempts were successful. Not everyone survived either. The overdoses and the effects of this life are painfully real. But hey, this is an addiction we’re talking about.
All the degrees and the credentials, all the fancy job titles and executives and through it all, I was the one that was mentioned in the newspaper. I was on the news for the first time in a long time. In fact, one of the officers asked if I had ever been in the newspaper before.
I told him, “Sure.”
The officer asked, “What were you in the paper for?”
I laughed . . .
“There was a helicopter chasing me through my town,” I told him.
The officer smiled and said, “Yeah, well this time it’s a little different.”
I made the front page . . . .
I had to learn more about this. I had to fall a few times to keep my ego in check. It’s nice to look back and see where I’ve come from. It’s nice to know that I can improve and people can change. No matter how bad the circumstances might be, we can all change. I had to learn that not everyone that takes a job to help people has the best of intentions. I also had to learn that before I could go forward, I’d have to improve my education.
I’ve seen the worst become the best and today, I am humbled. I am grateful and I am still here. I am looking to make a break into the mental health world; to find my passion, to pay for some of my sins, and who knows? Maybe I might help someone along the way.
Maybe . . .
Either way, as I see it, mental illness took most of my life from me. Mental illness claimed the lives of my friends and people I knew dearly. Some of the people I lost are people that I would call my brother or my sister. The way I saw it, mental illness took from me. And for me, this was my way of taking back.
I never thought I would be a guy with certifications on my wall or a bunch of letters after my name but if anything, experience has taught me this: you can have all the mental know-how; you can have all the fanciness and the degrees and you can have all the requirements for a job and still be lacking. Skill can be taught but passion is a rarity. It took me decades to find mine.
What a waste it would be to let it go . . .