This book helps those aspiring toward recovery and also those in recovery, because it addresses and challenges the individual—in very real, basic and honest ways—to make significant cognitive adjustments in how they live their lives. The beauty of this curriculum is that people want to do it and don’t consider it a chore, a demand, or a requirement, because every page subtly encourages the individual to think in realistic and forward-moving ways. This allows them to feel good about doing the work. I based this book on my personal life and recovery, and every page has been used successfully in peer group settings.
Today is the first day of my life. In fact, with every sunrise, life offers me a brand new day to try living in the best possible ways, over and over again. However, starting a new each day is much less a choice as it is something that I have been hardwired to do, by life, and by my experiences. Therefore, I fight for this better life, day in and day out, for if I don't, no one else will.
Without any question, the details of my life are tragic and horrific; yet they are also glorious and beautiful. But where do I begin? What story do I tell? Do I share of the nightmare that plagues my dreams and the sickness that infects my daytime thoughts, or do I talk about this unexpected and unfathomable yet revolutionary recovery out of the smoldering remains of hell from which I've ascended? The reality is that both stories are mine. I have lived and breathed both lives; and I still do.
I am a 41 year old man living less than a 10 minute walk to the Atlantic Ocean. My trusty sidekick, Max the Cat, smothers me with his love, and I love him back so much. Life has never been easy however it is particularly hard at the moment as I currently am in a great deal of pain. My partner left me 17 days ago, I no longer have the job I've been at for 5 years, working as a peer counselor, and I live in an apartment that I abhor, that is eating me like an acid. Yet, in spite of these realities, I am as fiercely committed and invested toward living the best life possible; a happy, healthy and satisfying life.
I spent my adolescence living in Psychiatric hospitals and group homes. They said I was “sick”,”psychotic” and “mentally ill”. I was put on heavy psychotropic medication for “schizophrenia” and developed a condition called “Gynecomastia”, which is when a boy or man grows breasts as a result of unregulated psychiatric medication. You see, no one cared about me or what happened to me. I was a teenager living in unnatural group living situations 'group homes', labeled “mentally ill”, on medication for conditions I now know that I never had, and I had breasts. I had breasts from age 15 through age 17 ½, when I finally had plastic surgery to remove them. It was during these years that I learned that my life had no value. I was trash. I was garbage. I was worthless, disgusting, pathetic and unlovable. I was set up to fail at life, and for a very long time, that is exactly what I did. Fail.
I began my 20's with a diagnosis change. I was now, as my mother said, “afflicted” with Bipolar Disorder. I took dozens of psychotropic medications over the decades for this “affliction”. I could not hold a job. I could not maintain friendships. I did not even consider that college was an option. Girlfriends, what's that? I spent the entirety of my 20's getting high, mostly on pot, and I tried a few other drugs and drank a bit too. I was chronically unstable and experienced endless and ongoing trauma, as a result. How many times I was beaten up, kicked out, fired, abused, alienated and arrested, no one knows.
I lived in substandard housing, often without heat in the winter, which was dreadful on an ongoing basis. I often lived in places that were filthy, surrounded by violence and chaos. I often lived with people who were not invested in my wellness, happiness and success, nor their own, but let's be real, neither was I. Out of desperation, I had been using drugs to kill the pain yet I was becoming dangerously paranoid whenever I got high, and as a result, I was both my accomplice and my worst enemy. I stopped using drugs and alcohol, cold turkey, in 2001, as I could not take the madness any longer. Although I was completely unaware of this, this was the first step I had ever taken to take control over my life, a fateful step, to getting better.
I continued to live in substandard housing and with problematic people. This was my sentence for being labeled “mentally ill” and having been forced to become sick due to the very medications, treatments and placements, that I was manipulatively forced to accept, ostensibly, so that I could getting better. Between 2004 -2005, I moved 6 times, and I ended up in an apartment that I was able to keep for two years. However, I was living with the scum of the earth, some of whom went out of their way to make my life miserable. In spite of this, I took a step forward and got myself a therapist.
This therapists name is Allison. She validated me and she told me that if I trusted her, that she would teach me how to cope with my problems. I did trust her, and she did what she said she would do. She is an amazing human being and while I no longer meet with her, she is with me every day as I battle onward for my better life. After 6 months of meeting with Allison, I sought out vocational counseling and was able to find out about a program that taught adults with mental health struggles to become peer counselors. I applied, was interviewed and I was accepted. I spent a year at that school. It was wonderful. It saved my life. I am forever grateful for this happening.
I became certified as a peer specialist, did an internship in which I began developing the 'Better Days' support group curriculum, which was based on my own battle to learn how to cope and make my life work for me. I then worked in a group home, (not a good fit) and I resigned and I then got a job at a peer recovery center, (it was a terrible place) and it lost its funding, for good reason, and I was out of work.
During this time period, I was able to obtain safe and stable subsidized housing. I lived in this wonderful apartment for 5 years. I began to have girlfriends which was a good thing, yet also very painful as I was very inexperienced in dating and how to be in relationships. I enrolled in community college and earned my Associates degree in Human Services, graduating with a 3.88 GPA. I got a new job working on an outreach team as a peer counselor, I was so grateful. I also volunteered at a recovery learning community, giving the 'Better Days' support group; a curriculum that I created and developed that somehow was helpful for other people. Life was still very difficult yet I was fighting harder than ever to getting a handle on my life and to manage my struggles.
In 2011, I got a new Psychiatrist. After having the same one for 15 years and couple equally unhelpful doctors for a few years after, this new Doctor told me that he didn't think I had Bipolar Disorder and that I should go off the medication I was taking for it. He said I had trauma, PTSD, as a result of being on all those medications for all those years, and how sick the medications had made me and all the traumas I experienced due to having been forced to be unstable (the result of the medications) and the chaos that this hellish reality brought to my life. So, I went off the medication for Bipolar Disorder and felt better almost immediately. This was a great thing however it opened up for me, a Pandora's Box of anger, which I am sure you, the reader, can understand.
Now it is 2015, my partner has just left me and I am heartbroken. However, I will survive and life will go on. While I am out of work, I am also in the middle of securing several different consulting and training jobs, in which I am sharing of my life experience, what I have learned about recovery and living a better life and, yes, my pride and joy, the 'Better Days – A Mental Health Recovery Workbook', yes, the same 'Better Days' curriculum from my internship and volunteering days. 'Better Days', has been taking me all over the United States, speaking at conferences, meeting so many wonderful people and so much more. This is a remarkably unexpected yet incredibly awesome thing to happen to me and the beauty is that so many people are benefiting from using the workbook, whether they are dealing with a mental health struggle, addiction or trauma; and their lives are improving, as a result.
I am now offering 'Better Days – A Mental Health Recovery Workbook – A Self-Directed Tool That Honors the Expert in You' workshops whenever and wherever possible. The 'Better Days' workbook is currently being translated into Spanish, French and German, and more languages soon. Max the Cat and I are going to move to a new apartment soon and we plan to live the best life possible. I love the city I live in, Salem, MA, the city of misfits, as my dear friend has coined it. 2015 is the best year of my life. Thankfully, the sun will rise in a few hours, and my life will begin anew once again.
Thank you to WAATME for allowing me to share my story with you. Sharing, for me, helps me heal. I hope you can getting something helpful for yourself out of knowing of my struggle. At the very least, please know that you are not alone, even if the world has caved in or is caving in on you. For as long as my heart beats, and for long after I am gone – the power our collective battles can create real change in our world; for ourselves, for others and for those in our communities who are having trouble speaking up and getting their needs met. I hope the best for all of you. You can do it; you can take control of your life. I believe in all of you. We getting better!
For this moment and for forever, I am fearless and I live this life with passion, intensity and determination. I will not be held down or prevented, from living a happy, healthy and satisfying life. I am in charge of me. I am living proof that we can learn how to cope with our struggles and find happiness and peace. I am living proof that the whole world can write you off and toss you in the trash, yet, in spite of this; the Phoenix will always rise.
January 23, 2015