The greatest success I have achieved in my life is the simple wellness I now enjoy.
When I was a young child, I experienced trauma due to witnessing domestic abuse in my home. This caused me to harbour feelings of sadness, which then evolved into clinical depression by the time I was eleven years old. Suicidality followed when I was twelve, and I experienced my first hospitalisation at age fourteen. This is when I started taking antidepressant medications.
I continued on through college successfully, where I studied classical music performance on the viola at a top conservatory. Due to my depression, I was unable to practice on the instrument effectively, and so my progress at school was stunted. This despair triggered emotions within me that eventually led to me believing I needed magic powers to play the viola better. After beginning my master’s degree in performance at the same school, I had my first psychotic break and was hospitalised again. My diagnosis changed to schizoaffective disorder, and I was unable to complete graduate school.
I attempted to return to school to become a classroom music teacher but was forced to quit when I had delusions that I was the reincarnation of Beethoven. After going on disability, I then suddenly joined a radical church and abandoned all of my friends. A few months later, I had the Beethoven thoughts again and returned to the hospital. It always occurred that I would take a medication for a while, but then it would stop working and I would relapse.
My seventh hospitalisation occurred in 2012 when I started believing I was the Antichrist. This time, I was hospitalised for three months and faced long-term institutionalisation. I was prescribed Clozapine, an atypical antipsychotic medication, which rehabilitated me significantly and allowed for me to be discharged.
For the next year, I attended an outpatient day program as I rebuilt my life. As I inventoried my interests and skills for returning to work, I learned about the career of the mental health peer specialist. A “peer” is a person who has lived experience with mental illness, and then publicly discloses on the job so as to empathise and provide support in ways that clinicians cannot. In 2014, I attended an intense training program at Howie the Harp Advocacy Center in Harlem, NYC to train for peer work, and then began working full-time at a mental health housing agency in Queens.
I have kept this full-time job for four years now. Additionally, I am currently in my second year of graduate school at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. My goal is to become a social worker who investigates the efficacy of peer practices in social work, which is still an under-researched topic today. As I simultaneously pursue higher education and continue working, my professional network of peers and social workers both continues to expand, and I always advocate for peer work as a way to cross-pollenate between the two professions, thereby closing the gap.
I realise now that life is not about success or prestige in a certain career or skill. The greatest success I have achieved in my life is the simple wellness I now enjoy. I remember the disabling struggles I once had, and now want to use these memories as tools to empathise with others, giving them hope that recovery is possible. I also want to create awareness about the peer career, and my dream is to see this profession expand into all agencies and organisations that provide mental health services.