Before my recovery, I was all of those horrible, scary things that you hear about regarding mental illness and addiction. I was that in spades, not only on the outside, but on the inside as well. I believed that’s who I was. It was a hopeless place to be and I was there for 40 years. Forty years is a long time to be anywhere, but especially there.
I came into the mental health system for a respite from the situation that was my life. I was referred to a fairly traditional case management program. I clung to the treatment model for quite some time. The counselors there recognized that I had an ability to speak; they heard the power of my voice. One day, they pulled me aside and said, “We’ve got some people you have to talk to.”
A Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training group was doing a site visit. A lot of the CIT training group were police I had had fights with before. The officer who had broken my back was there. I was dealing with a myriad of emotions. There was one lady who had the nicest face. I didn’t know who she was, but I focused on her, because I didn’t feel comfortable looking at the others in the room.
After that, the people at the recovery program referred me to NAMI’s Peer-to-Peer class. Before that, my investment in recovery was this: go to Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous and get my sheet signed. I thought recovery was me not going backwards. I didn’t have a vision for going forward. When I went to NA meetings I felt incomplete. I didn’t like saying over and over, “My name is Bill and I’m an addict.” I thought if I tell myself that, I will believe it. The power of life and death is in our tongues.
NAMI Peer-to-Peer spoke to my intellectual side. We talked about the science of addiction. When I was exposed to this, I had an epiphany. There wasn’t something wrong with me morally. I’ve got a disease. I used to think I was a bad person because I smoked dope. In Peer-to-Peer, I realized this wasn’t a dope fiend thing; it was a mental health thing.
When I first came into treatment, the treatment language was so scary that I kind of wanted to risk staying where I was. NAMI exposed me to the human element. I realized, “These ain’t dope fiends, they are human beings.” I didn’t know anything about human beings. I used to eat human beings for lunch.
Today, I work with people who have educated and invested in me. They are not afraid of me. My relationships propel me forward. In Georgia, at Savannah Counseling Services, we just call that recovery. Today I’ve committed my life to that process for other people.
Bill Carruthers is director of the Peer program at Savannah Counseling Services, and serves on the board of directors for NAMI Georgia. He is a U.S. Navy veteran.