California State University, Northridge Certificate in LGBTQ+ Health

Realizing My Purpose

I often wonder what my mom would think of the journey of my life and the man I am today. She raised me well, as a single parent to me and my older brother. She passed away when I turned 13, and my life began to spiral out of control. My brother and I were taken in by my aunt, but despite her best efforts the streets of Brooklyn claimed me and introduced me to drugs. To survive on the streets, I had to show how tough I was. I became a thug, a menace to my neighborhood and a disappointment to my aunt who was also a victim of my recklessness.

By the age of 18 I was homeless and sleeping on the subways. At 20, a friend of mine who had also been homeless but had found an apartment after a stint at a men’s shelter, encouraged me to do the same. I followed his advice, but instead of a shelter I was sent to a locked unit for substance abusers. By that time, I had explored every kind of drug from marijuana to crack cocaine and I knew I needed serious help.

During my 30-day detox, depression started to kick in and I became catatonic—totally withdrawn from everything and everyone, and most frightening of all, I started to hear voices. I was sent to a psychiatric hospital where I was diagnosed with major depression, schizoaffective disorder, and schizophrenia. I was offered Prozac, but being an addict, I feared further addiction. This probably was not the wisest decision. Soon the lack of medication and my drug withdrawal led to panic attacks. Now I needed a place that could provide me a home, treat my new diagnosis of mental illness and treat my substance abuse issues. Against my wishes I was given Haldol to manage my panic attacks and my behaviors.

I remember just being tired, just wanting to reconnect with my family and wanting to be well. I did not want to end up in jail and I certainly did not want to die. I landed in a supervised community residence, agreed to take medications for my psychosis, and made the decision to pursue my GED. In 1991 I moved on to a transitional treatment program at Services for the UnderServed (SUS) and shortly after, secured permanent housing in an SUS community apartment. I continued to work on my recovery and in 1994 after about 5 years clean, I was approached by a manager at SUS and offered a part-time position as a Peer Specialist. I readily accepted the offer and started as SUS’ first peer specialist working in Intake.

It was my first real job and I felt proud of the work I was doing and the prospect of helping others. As a counselor, I made people whose situations I had once lived feel comfortable coming to SUS. I understood their challenges and by sharing my story, let them know that recovery was possible, and they weren’t alone. I was always taught that ‘You can’t keep it unless you give it away’ at the self-help groups I attended, and that inspired me to contribute where I could.

I worked as a Peer Specialist at SUS with its Intake Department for three years, knowing then that I wanted to both give back and advance myself. Since then, I have continued my career in full-time positions serving as a Job Coach in SUS’ Employment Services division for nine years, with its ACT team for five years and now, I am in my second year with SUS’ Parachute Brooklyn Respite Center. I also helped to write the curriculum for SUS’ Project P.R.E.P.A.R.E., a training program for individuals seeking positions as peer counselors.

My work defines who I am because I share it with my peers, giving me purpose and the opportunity to serve others. I want to see my peers reach their potential, especially the younger generation. Being a peer specialist at Parachute, a peer-supported crisis respite for young adults experiencing their first break, allows me to do that.

In working with my peers, it has been valuable to wear the label of both consumer and employee. While many people may want to lose the label of ‘consumer’ once they no longer need support services, it’s a label I continue to wear proudly. It defines who I am, it keeps me humble and is what makes me great at what I do.

Having stable housing took a level of stress away so that I could pursue my employment goals. Employment helped me to gain a sense of hope and purpose. I enjoy being the consumer/the first peer counselor who stands as a testimony to others for what is possible. It is the powerful combination of housing and employment that supported my capacity to recover. This has made the biggest difference in my life.

I look forward to celebrating my 25th anniversary of being clean in October of this year. Since my days on the streets, I’ve rekindled my relationship with my aunt and keep in touch with my brother. I’ve always been a fan of music but now, finally, my DJ’ing business is really starting to take off. Today, I’m just living my life. Hey, I guess I don’t need to wonder anymore…I know my mom would be proud.

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