My name is Ramiro Guevara. I have been asked to share a subject that is so close to my heart -- the path to mental illness recovery. NAMI has been very supportive and an integral part of this journey.
Before I share my story, I want to be certain of three things. First, I hope that you will view my self-revelation as a beacon of hope -- that absolutely no one is too far-gone, or too sick to be reclaimed. There is no such thing as a throwaway person. Mental illness does not encapsulate who we are or what we could be.
Secondly, I want to make sure you do not take away the impression that families cause mental illness. My story and the dysfunction that I experienced in my family, resulted from years of undiagnosed mental illness, alcoholism and drug abuse, and the failure of a mental health system, as President Bush's New Freedom Commission reports.
Thirdly, I do not want to leave you with the idea that people living with mental illness are violent. The fact is most persons suffering from mental illness are more afraid of you and are more likely to be victims of violence then perpetrators.
You see, we need to do more to educate the public about mental illness. One out of 5 people in the United States will experience a diagnosable episode of mental illness in their lifetime. Most will never seek treatment because of the fear and stigma associated with mental illness.
Now, here is my story…
I was born in Houston in 1971. My mother was 16. She had been living with mental illness and had been a victim of unspeakable abuse at the hands of my grandfather. My grandfather was an active alcoholic and abused his children. In fact, through family members' stories, I am convinced that mental illness has run through my family for several generations.
With the shame of being an unwed mother, my mother tried to abort me. Unsuccessful, I was in ICU for six months and my mother was told to make funeral arrangements. There was no baby shower, no parties, no cigars. But, the moment my mother laid eyes on me she said, "You were the first thing I ever really loved." She went on to explain, "I told God I was sorry and begged that you would live!"
Growing up was extremely frightening. My mother had a breakdown when I was two and soon afterwards, she began to drink, I believe to self medicate. It was a usual sight for me to find my mother drunk, her hands tied because she would get violent. I remember crying myself to sleep with the feeling of loneliness, and with an emptiness that engulfed me.
Never knowing my father, my father figures were older uncles. I remember one family member teaching me how to stab someone and how to kill them. I was beaten, abused physically, emotionally, and sexually. I was hanged. I watched someone being murdered. And one close uncle, right before my eyes, made a suicide attempt-dousing himself with gasoline and lighting himself on fire. I was a witness to all this before the age of ten!
School was a nightmare. I was very poor and it showed. In second grade my family was told that I was developmentally disabled and they held me back. I was put in special education and made to ride the "special" little bus. I internalized all the more, "You are really different and you will never fit in!"
In junior high, I found what I thought was the solution -- drugs and alcohol. They made the depression and loneliness go away. I could forget how different I was and nothing mattered.
What I remember most about this time of my life was extreme emotional pain. I remember waking up on many times thinking, "Another day, I wish I had died in my sleep."
Many of my teenage years involved street gangs, and self-loathing that increased to a point where I stopped caring if I lived or died. I actually wanted the rival gangs to kill me.
When I was 15, I tried suicide a second time. This time I had taken a bottle of an unknown medication and called someone I hardly knew. I simply wanted her to tell everyone that I was tired and it was no one's fault. But, she called 911, leading to my first stay in a mental health facility. They arrested me, cuffed me, and took me to the hospital.
I became a ward of the court. We at NAMI call this the criminalization of the mentally ill. I was sentenced to ten years and nine months. During all this time, no one offered me any mental health help unless there was a crisis situation!
When I was released at 18, I had a "break" that lasted about a year. I was hopeless, helpless and had lost faith in everything. Hanging out, waiting to die -- either by my own hand or someone else's. I really was a dead man walking.
A new chapter in my life started… [read part 2]