Lived Experience

Navigating the Mental Health System as a Consumer

    I often hear how difficult it is to get social service assistance, especially when it comes to medical, and mental health care. To my own personal understanding, navigating the mental health system is rather simple and easy, if you are amongst the poor minority figures. Just agree to everything that you are subjected to and surely you will fall into place as a domesticated statistic. It also helps to be on the Center for Disease controls watch list. If your rather healthy, and more financially stable odds are, finding and receiving affordable mental health care can prove to be burdensome. 

    This was my mentality since the age of 17. Back then I had reached a point in my life where learned helplessness was not an appropriate description of my mental state. My mother had been trying to force me into “the shrinks” office for quite some time during my young adolescent stages of rebelliousness. I was reluctant and non compliant. 

     She treated me like a problem worth handing over to someone else, therefore I actively resisted, and dismissed her solutions as someone else’s problem…hers. I was such a naive, and bitter individual. The truth is…I didn’t need a shrink to fix the chemical imbalance of my being. I needed a safe place to speak, and be heard. I needed a mother I could trust, a family dynamic that was appropriately functional, and a home that was safe. I needed clarification of my sense of self, and belonging. I needed a peer intervention.

    I was disturbed, and displaced, not mentally ill. This is where the A.C.E’s come in. Adverse childhood experiences, thanks to my training at Howie the Harp, is a new theory that has been added to my self awareness, and newfound comprehension of time, and space, as an individual human being, not a mental health patient. A.C.E’s are defined as “potentially traumatic events that can have negative, lasting effects on health and well being. These experiences can range from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to parental divorce, or the incarceration of a parent or guardian”. 

    At 29 years old I am, to my understanding, a product of distortion, corruption, mal adaptation, and misguidance. This is something that I now realize is a common factor within my family dynamic, as well as within my community. Others have been led astray just as I have been, with little to no fault of their own. So, who can I honestly blame for the transgressions committed  upon me, or those which I myself have committed? 

     My answer to this is simple. There is no one in particular worthy of blame individually. Yet, I hold society, as a whole, accountable for the many flaws of the mental health and justice system as it has been allowed to flourish, and mishandle trauma. The land of the free, as America is often portrayed, is not so free. It is riddled with deception, and a dysfunctional social order. 

     There is nothing I can do to change the past. However, moving forward, I am determined to join forces with the combatants of the Peer Movement. This is not a war persay, but as someone who has lived in a constant state of “survival mode”, it can surely feel like one. Knowledge is my most powerful asset when I envision myself going up against a social order that has been classified, and dictated by a group of higher class socio economic tyrants. 

     A peer specialist, in short terms, is a person with lived experiences that is able assist others with like experiences from a trauma informed perspective, and dedication to long term recovery. I use the term recovery as it has been incorporated into my own journey frequently by professional, and non professionals alike. It is usually referenced in particular to substance abuse treatment, medical/mental health practices. I prefer the world establishment instead.

    There is nothing for me to recover. I am establishing myself as an able bodied  individual who is more than willing to fight back, against the social order of the mental health system. I learned about peer work as a participant at E.P.R.A. E.P.R.A is “ a comprehensive vocational rehabilitation program for individuals in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse based in New York City.”

    “The program helps clients explore vocational interest, identify transferable skills, re enter the workforce and sustain meaningful employment”. It was at E.P.R.A that I learned one distressing, and repulsive truth. That is, that I am in fact a mental health consumer with lived experiences through trauma and recovery. Survival instincts, and systems navigation has been an unsanctioned training for the scope of services provided by a peer specialist. A role that I am now determined to dominate as my own life fulfilling prophecy. 

     My burdensome experiences are now seen as assets, rather than the misfortunes of a broken soul.

E.P.R.A led me to a peer advocacy training program called Howie the Harp or HTH for short reference.

The training itself was an intense 20 weeks worth of what I like to call a radical reformation of the human mind. I would like to offer credit to the program as a whole from the impactful trainers, to the jagged staff members that made me feel at home, right down to the peers that sat alongside me testing my own human nature to be combative, and protective simultaneously.    

    Sure, they have provided me with an abundance of knowledge and awareness from a professional perspective, but quite frankly they gave definition to a way of life that I have been poorly living all along. The life of a self advocating peer, and a nurturing buffoon. They have taught me that there are ways to combat oppression, and help others without sacrificing my dignity, my sanity, or depleting my resources in the process.

     I have enhanced my sense of awareness, and understanding of myself, as well as the world around me by simply choosing to take advantage of this great opportunity that has been granted to me as a result of my disorder, and dysfunction. One can argue that an affiliation with the mental health system as a consumer is not something to brag about as it has been considered taboo since way before my time, but this is something that I have learned at HTH is a privilege beyond measure compared to those without “experience”. 

I have lived for 29 years trapped in a realm of distortion which can often be misrepresented as a learned helplessness. I have never been helpless in my life. I simply did not believe in my right to be anything more than a stigmatic statistic, as an H.I.V positive individual who was exposed to deprivation, oppression ,incest, child pornography, substance use,and a wide range of domestic violence. Because of this, many experiences that could have or should have been avoided have formed the person that I am today thanks to the New York City mental health system. A person who isn’t quite so well, yet better than I was a decade prior. A person destined to triumph over the evil known to man as ignorance of human nature. A person who was privileged enough to have a not so free, free ride through the medical and mental health system. As an infected minority figure I am more privileged then the more wealthy consumers of American soil. My sacrifice came not out of pocket, but out of my soul. This is not something to brag about but it is my truth.

I do not say this from a condescending perspective. I say this because I truly believe that knowledge is power, and that deprivation of it is truly an evil act of oppression. I have spent a long time mourning the loss of my dignity, innocence, and purity because I was spending too much time comparing myself to the “American Dream”, and those deemed worthy of obtaining it.

    Once I was old enough to make my own decisions, I still allowed myself to embrace a  distorted sense of my nature. My lack of confidence and self esteem, which was based on poor conditioning, which accumulated over the years, prevented me from embracing another topic of enlightenment bestowed upon me by HTH. The Dignity of Risk and The Right To Fail. 

     I honestly believed in my unworthiness whole heartedly. I turned down any idea of education and success, and embraced the mentality of a trauma stricken, and diseased ridden waste of precious oxygen. Out of boredom, submission , and compliance I navigated the mental health system as a depleted social service consumer. My body now consumed by H.I.V, physiological distress, and a non suppressive internal noise, is the only thing I truly have left worth fighting for. My voice, which demands to be heard, and my soul which demands to be spoken to.

I feel psychologically, and physiologically exhausted at times, yet my rebelliousness continues to be my guiding strength. What once led me down a path of destruction now leads me towards the art of reconstruction. This is the best way I can explain my stance on the mental health system, as well as my validity, and right to surpass the stigmatic role of a consumer and progress into a structured role as a provider.

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