I was one of those folks who couldn’t decide what they wanted to be when they grew up. I knew that I wanted to do something that would give back to the community, but I couldn’t seem to find my voice. Never in a million years did I think that, one day, I’d be helping those living with mood disorders find their voice and leading a national organization like the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). But it has been a long, hard road, both professionally and personally.
After I graduated from high school in New York State, I found myself working in the human services field, in the office of MRDD (Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities), providing direct care to individuals with severe handicaps. For a young man with barely two decades of life experience, this work was rewarding but also very challenging emotionally. The same was true in my personal life. I married at 19 and was still very young when my wife left; making me a single dad to two wonderful children I loved very much. During that period, in my late 20s—around the same time that I received my MBA—I also received a diagnosis of depression, an illness that haunted me for many more years and one that I manage successfully today.
Being diagnosed made me feel like a lesser person, a 2nd class citizen. And it was devastating to my relationships, work, and social life. It drove me to the brink of suicide (more than once), medication addiction, and the humiliation and inhumanity of psychiatric hospitalization. For years, I was very resistant to keeping up with any kind of treatment for my depression – this resistance, and a disabling accident at work, only intensified my struggle with the illness. A turning point came, though, when I attended my first support group meeting. I was at home one night with my kids when the doorbell rang. My kids were taught not to open the door to strangers, but that evening, for some reason, my daughter answered the door. The man there on the porch was a member of a local support group and had come to invite me to the next meeting – starting soon that same night.
Somehow, this stranger convinced me to go. I went to the meeting, but I sat on the periphery of the group just listening, not saying a word. I continued to go, week after week, and continued to be a silent observer. Some time later, after a meeting, one of the participants invited me along for coffee with some of the others. I was more comfortable in this relaxed, social setting, and I joined in the conversation. That night of coffee and chit-chat encouraged me, and I found myself joining in the discussion at the next of what would be many support group meetings.
My support group experience helped me find my voice, and that helped lead me to what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” Now in my 50s, I can look back and see the parallels between that journey and my journey to recovery. Professionally, I stayed in the human services field. In 1993, I joined the staff of PEOPLe, Inc., a nonprofit organization in New York State dedicated to helping those with special needs live more meaningful and independent lives. There, I found a safe environment with folks that had lived with and experienced mental illness and were willing to share their voices of strength and hope for recovery. And it was there, almost 10 years after I was diagnosed, that I acknowledged my depression and disclosed that I was a consumer of mental health services. In my 40s, I finally made a decision that the consumer movement was the right track, professionally, for me. And for the last 15 years or so, I’ve worked to impact the service system in organizations that support those with mental illness.
From PEOPLe, I went to work with Mental Health America of Dutchess County, New York, and in 1995, the statewide Mental Health Empowerment Project (MHEP) where the mission was (and still is) to develop and strengthen self-help and recovery activities for consumers. There, I was thrilled (and honestly, a little surprised) to be offered the leadership role. I did all I could to change the ways consumers received services…and to help them find their voice, as I was continuing to find mine.
In 2007, I accepted the position of executive vice president at DBSA. I moved from a state-level role in New York to Chicago, where my voice could be heard on a national level. Our mission at DBSA is to improve the lives of people living with mood disorders. Being one of those people myself, and having seen my own life improve, I feel like DBSA is the right place for me, both professionally and personally. Here, I’ve returned to my roots and come full circle to lead an organization that got its start the same way my recovery got its start—support groups. That’s why DBSA’s motto is “We’ve been there. We can help.” And, in a way, that’s my motto, too.