July 10, 2012

I found NAMI New Jersey (NJ) through a self-help clearing house index. I was looking for a non-profit to volunteer with, as was my way when I was very ill and could not work. I was new in the area and had never heard of NAMI, but I figured if I was going to help a non-profit organization, I should help the one who helps people like me.

So, I called. Right away I was invited to come to the office and talk. And so began our seven year relationship. I have stayed even while working because the stigma free environment is welcoming. For me, it is a good fit.

I have been dealing with schizoaffective disorder for about 30 years. Up until five years ago, I existed in a state of psychosis and suicidal ideation. It was in this condition that I landed on NAMI’s doorstep.

Don’t get me wrong, I had learned to mask my symptoms very well on the outside—25 years will do that for you. I was still very afraid of people. I had isolated myself through the course of my illness except for work when I could tolerate it, but the whole environment was welcoming.

I started out as a volunteer in the office doing miscellaneous duties. I volunteered half a day every week. This responsibility helped in my attempt to rebuild my self-esteem. I had begun the in-and-out of the hospital cycle again, but I continued to volunteer when I wasn’t in the hospital.

After about a year, the coordinator of AACT-NOW asked if I would join the advisory group. AACT-NOW is the African American mental health outreach program of NAMI NJ. I was shocked and honored that someone would value my input.

At first, I felt inferior because I was the only consumer in the group, on disability and not working at the time. But, everyone treated me with warmth and respect and I soon forgot those feelings.

After about a year, there was a documentary project coming to fruition which would showcase people of different cultures and their stories and concerns about living with a mental illness. They were looking for consumers of different cultures to volunteer. I volunteered as an African American consumer because I wanted to help humanize the face of mental illness for people in my community and everywhere else.

I had a poem featured in the documentary, which was eventually named for my poem (Documenting Our Presence: A Multicultural Experiences of Mental Illness).

It was a courageous move on my part to undertake this project, but I hadn’t thought it through. After the film came debuted, I realized I was immortalized in that stage of my recovery on film. Now, five years later, I get choked up when I see it, because I remember the intense pain and depression I felt at that time, that I no longer feel now.

After the film was debuted and started to circulate, I realized that I was “outed” anyway, so I decided to volunteer as a NAMI In Our Own Voice presenter. This program sends consumers into the community to educate audiences on mental illness by telling their personal stories. I feel this is a very important tool for helping to eradicate stigma. So, I joined this program in addition to my other responsibilities as a volunteer at NAMI NJ.

The next year I trained to be a facilitator for the consumer run support group NAMI Connection.

In the years following, I did appearances with the film, participated in panels at NAMI NJ state conference, the AACT-NOW conference, did a few poetry readings at NAMI NJ functions, and two book signings for my poetry chapbook in addition to the responsibilities mentioned before.

I then decided that I would pursue a career in mental health as a peer support specialist. I took classes and managed to get a position at a major hospital in Central New Jersey. The main selling point for my being hired was my experience with NAMI NJ. Because of my involvement, peer classes and B.A., my resume was almost impeccable for the position. The “holes” in my resume were not closely scrutinized. One of the main requirements is that you be in mental health recovery yourself.

Over these years, with NAMI NJ’s help, I have built up my self-esteem to the point that I am now building the foundation for a motivational/inspirational speaking career. Recently, I spoke at Tougaloo College’s Mental Health Week in Tougaloo, Miss. This past May I ran a workshop at the Intensive Case Manager Services (ICMS) Conference given by New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addictions Agencies (NJAMHAA).

When I first stepped into NAMI NJ, I never envisioned myself handling, accomplishing and enjoying the many responsibilities I have undertaken as a volunteer on behalf of the organization. I perceive these to be the things that put NAMI and NAMI NJ over the top for volunteering consumers:

  1. The stigma free zone located wherever NAMI is
  2. NAMI’s avid support of volunteering consumers
  3. The office staff’s non-judgmental, encouraging attitudes

In the last seven years God, my family, my medical team and NAMI New Jersey have been instrumental forces in my recovery.

I now know that no matter where I may move, I will seek out a NAMI office and volunteer doing something. I owe so much for NAMI New Jersey’s continued support through my recovery process.

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