I have lived an unconventional life as I lived in group homes from 1988-1991, for as they described it, being an “emotionally disturbed adolescent”. My life in the mental health system began when I was about 7 years old. My home life was quite dysfunctional and I learned some maladaptive coping skills due to experiencing my parents in action, as they lived with their own dysfunctional behaviors. I learned to yell and scream when I did not have things go the way that I wanted and I learned to yell and scream when I did not have my needs met, which throughout my life, caused me endless amounts of trouble, suffering and pain.
I was put into a psychiatric hospital on April 13th, 1988. This is when hell really began for me. I was pulled from high school and never saw my classmates or friends again. I was told that I had a mental illness that would be with me for the rest of my life. I was put on heavy doses of psychotropic medication for schizophrenia, a condition I know now I never had. My parents would tell anyone and everyone who would listen, again and again, that their son was mentally ill. This helped sever or at least poison most of my familial relationships as well. After spending 4 months in this hospital, a hospital meant to keep people for about 7-10 days, and after being told that I could not go home, I was put into my first group home. It was terrible. At this point I was 15 years old and my life as I knew it was over.
Life in this first group home was awful. I spent 15 months living there. During this time I continued to be prescribed medications for schizophrenia. My life in this group home was incredibly traumatizing as one could imagine. I was then released from the group home as I was deemed “cured”, and sent home to live with my parents. After 3 months living at home, things once again became out-of-control and I was put back in the same psychiatric hospital as before for another 3 months. Again I was told that I could not go home and I was put in a second group home for 12 months. Throughout all of these experiences I repeatedly asked the staff, therapists and psychiatrists why I was living there as I could not make any sense of my life.
Once I turned 18 in May of 1991, I was put into a third group home for adults. There was a guy in this third group home that was very nice to me which was appreciated as I had no friends. He introduced me to alcohol as well as smoking pot, which was my first time ever getting high or drunk. Getting high was the greatest relief I had ever experienced in my life. I then spent many years living in different dysfunctional living situations and I smoked pot as much as possible. I made friends with people who were stoners and who were reliable in their ability to get me high. Smoking pot made me feel better and was the only reliable way for me to escape the raging pain that existed within me.
For 10 years I got high as much as possible. I had become an emotional addict and could not survive my daily life without getting high. Some people may smirk at reading this; however, in my case there is no question that I was dependent.
In 2001, as pot became more potent, I started to freak out more when I got high. This was a miserable experience and I knew that I had to stop. On May 20th I got high for the last time. It became easy for me to stop at this point because I knew that getting high inevitably meant that I would suffer immensely. This was the first step I had taken in my life, up to this point, that got me to where I am today.
I finally hit rock bottom in 2004 and chose to try one last time to make my life better. Fatefully, after getting a new therapist, receiving educational training from the state, becoming a certified peer specialist, obtaining safe housing, volunteering at peer recovery programs, earning my Associates degree in human services and graduating with a 3.88 GPA, finding a job I love working as a peer counselor (still there 4 years later), finding my soul mate and getting a new psychiatrist, life began to improve in ways that I never thought possible. My new psychiatrist suggested (after having the same one for 15 years), that I go off of the psychotropic medications that I had been taking since the 80’s.
The results were I felt a million times better. While some people do benefit from these medications, in my case these medications along with the life of trauma that I have lived were the real causes of my dysfunction and suffering.
Today I am a happy, healthy and satisfied person. I live with my soul mate and our two cat-sons. I have a good life. I don’t touch drugs or alcohol. I make decisions for myself to preserve my wellness, happiness and stability. All things considered, life is great. I do work hard every single day to manage my struggles and on some days I absolutely experience despair and this hurts terribly but I use my coping skills and I get through it- one day, one hour, one minute, one second and one split second at a time; for life is what you make of it. Sanity is a full-time job and I am happily employed. May you all have better days.
Craig Lewis is a Certified Peer Specialist living and working in Massachusetts. He has struggled immensely with mental health issues, addiction and trauma throughout his life; however, he has successfully transformed this into a life of wellness. Craig is successfully working as part of an outreach team in Boston, Massachusetts. He also tours the country speaking about his lived experience, sharing his struggles and triumphs to help others. Craig has authored and published the Better Days – A Mental Health Recovery Workbook. Craig based the Better Days workbook on his personal life and recovery, and every page has been used successfully in peer group settings. Craig can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org