Without the Rome, Georgia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), I’d probably still be floating around going nowhere fast.
Before NAMI, my life was never exactly what you’d call stable. As a child, I moved around a lot. I bounced from parent to parent, and even when my two sisters and I got situated with my dad, we still moved around as he searched for work. We didn’t have the structure some kids have; we needed more parental guidance.
Because of that, I developed a bad behavioral problem in my teens and early twenties. To make matters worse, it was around that time that my mental illness started to show itself. According to my sister, I was only fifteen when I started cycling with bipolar disorder, undiagnosed at that time. That coupled with my ADHD accounted for the huge amounts of energy I had as a child. I’d ride my bike for fifty miles sometimes and think nothing of it. I was always the type of kid to roam the streets, and it wasn’t long before I got into trouble.
At seventeen, I was arrested and charged with four felonies. After three months in boot camp, I was released but eventually went back for eight months at age nineteen for an underage DUI. Afterwards, I moved out on my own. I got my driver’s license back but also got on drugs—you learn a lot about drugs in jail. It was only a matter of time before I got another DUI. What kept me going during this time was my job in heating and air, which I held for three years. That job got me off drugs, slowed down my alcoholism, and supported me. Because of all of my excess energy, I could easily work twelve hour days, and I quickly became known for my strong work ethic.
Of course, all that energy couldn’t last. I was twenty-one when I had my first crash. I stayed in bed for three days until my friends and family forced me to go to the emergency room. At the hospital, I flipped out. I thought everyone was after me. I spent a long time screaming in bed, and I bit one doctor that leaned in too close. Eventually, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
When they released me, I was given medication which I took once and promptly threw away. One pill knocked me out for four hours, and there was no way I was going to be able to take two a day like they prescribed and still be able to function at my job. I remained manic for six more months. Throughout that time, I was the lead man on a million dollar job for the heating and air company I worked for. I put in unbelievable amounts of work. But, as soon as that job ended, I crashed again. I lost the promotion I was up for and, eventually, lost my job because of all of the time I spent in the hospital. I was hearing voices and my diagnosis changed to schizoaffective disorder, or essentially schizophrenia plus a mood disorder like bipolar.
From then on, it seemed that whenever I did get a job I just made a fool of myself. My mind was scattered, and my performance extremely low. I got off my medication and got back on drugs and alcohol. I was in and out of homelessness and staying wherever I could find. Throughout it all, my disorder was a serious problem. At one point, I was staying with a friend in Atlanta and went on a rampage. I drove all around Atlanta trying to wreck my car. I remember being delusional and thinking my car was a spaceship that I could make fly. Eventually, I succeed in destroying my car by hand. The next day, my friend called the police, and I was sent to the hospital where I stayed for the next two months.
When I got out, I got off my medication—as simple as that. Of course, all I succeeded in doing is ending back in the hospital. The doctor there was frank with me. He told me no one wanted to take me back—not my family, not the local hospitals, no one. I had driven everyone away.
It was at that point, as I was sitting in the emergency room because I had nowhere else to go, that I chose to get my life back on track. I didn’t know how long it would take, but I realized I needed to change. I was going to live a good life and take my medication. And I did. I stayed in the hospital for four months. After release, I got a place to live and found a job.
Things weren’t automatically perfect when I decided to take control of my life, but they were better. Eventually, I found out about NAMI through friends. It was at NAMI that I met my fiancée who also has mental illness. It was a struggle at first. She had to learn to deal with my disorders, just as I had to learn how to deal with hers. But, in the end, we made it work.
Since I’ve become part of NAMI, my life has never been better. I’ve gained a newfound confidence in myself and understand my illness better. I’m now a facilitator and lead NAMI Connections, a peer support group. Before, I never thought I could be a leader, nor have the empathy needed to serve in that position. NAMI has given me the opportunity to tell my story to groups through a program called “In Our Own Voice.” There is so much more that I can and want to get involved in with NAMI from the classes to the support groups and the awareness walk.
I want it to always be in my life and to be a part of its future.
-As told to Kacee Culpepper
This story originally appeared in Facing Hope, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Georgia Highlands College, Georgia Northwestern Technical College, and Berry College in Rome, Georgia.