The Long Walk Home
(Column: Veterans' Issues: The Long Walk Home)
The Making of a Peer Mentor
Peer mentors have become increasingly popular helping consumers achieve our rightful place in society. Today I am writing from my new job as a Peer Mentor in a Supported Apartments Program operated by Our Space, Inc. and Social Rehabilitation Resources. Our goal is to assist the program participants maintain their apartments within one year.
Am I a peer? That's for you to decide. I was diagnosed with severe depression last summer by a Veterans Administration psychologist. A nurse practitioner prescribed two antidepressants, citalopram and trazadone. My therapy sessions were weekly or bi-weekly. I felt better almost immediately, no longer being shy and withdrawn, but outgoing and talkative.
The first issue I confronted was finding work or collecting benefits. I debated filing with the Veterans Administration and Social Security, which would provide me with a regular income. But I had once been a librarian with the University of Wisconsin and the City of Milwaukee. Later I had co-founded the Dr. Howard L. Fuller Education Foundation, my proudest moment. This made me realize that I was a highly functioning mental health consumer with the skills to become an advocate.
Last fall's elections provided a route to begin the process. American Coming Together and Wisconsin Citizen Action Fund both hired me. This gave me an opportunity to learn whether medication and psychotherapy would help me overcome work stress. I was engaging strangers, helping to compile reports and working long hours. This was extremely risky behavior so soon after my diagnosis but I was determined to test my limits.
I soon discovered that work aggravated some of my symptoms. I grew increasingly remote and found my colleagues' voices almost intolerable. I sat alone during lunch break and even argued with co-workers. One night, as I rode along with an environmental canvassing group, I found that they had planned a big drinking party. Since I was living at Vets Place Central, which required me to remain clean and sober, I decided to steer clear of the environmentalists.
My irritability literally exploded in a major blow up on primary election night, resulting in a new diagnosis: bi-polar disorder. My psychiatrist and I arrived at a compromise: tegretol. Some symptoms still remained but I coped with them much better as I achieved small victories. I moved out of Vets Place and into an apartment in November.
Returning to the outside world offered advantages and disadvantages. I was still highly educated and had new allies from community groups like NAMI and others. On the other hand, I was a black man in my 50's living in one of the most segregated cities in America. Life without that safety net offered by a VA pension or SSI hasn't been a golden staircase.
NAMI hired me to write a proposal about a new program, "Hand in Hand", that would assist children of consumers but the grant request was rejected. Luckily, since the directors of NAMI and Our Space are close friends, I secured part-time employment. When I returned home with my first paycheck I discovered that my electricity and gas had been accidentally shut off. I took extra medication to help me sleep.
I was angry, hearing a lot of mental chatter and frustrated when I began the peer mentoring that I now do. Somehow, listening to my new friends relaxed me. I ended up watching an auto race with two of them. There are always things beyond our control. I spend fewer days and nights locked away in my room. And occasionally I find my voice.