I’ve been arrested so many times that I can’t count them all. For years, I bounced between jail, homelessness, and the hospital in Connecticut—at least until they closed the hospital. I would go to the hospital, get stabilized, then I would be discharged to homelessness. The streets aren’t a good place for a person who is psychotic. The police arrested me several times for scaring people, standing in the street yelling. I’m a big guy at six foot seven and back then I was very fit. I think the police were trying to be helpful and to get me to a safe place, but once I started to get better I didn’t have any money so it would take me a long time to get out.
The only time I was convicted of a felony was after I took some newly-prescribed Ambien to help me sleep. It hypnotized me. The next thing I knew there were police in my apartment and they arrested me for second degree robbery and larceny. I had been sleepwalking and I went to Walmart, picked up a computer, walked out, and put it in my car.
That was before the side-effects of Ambien were publicized. There were no “medication side-effect” defenses back then so the state had a case that I couldn’t counter. I pled guilty under the Alford doctrine, a guilty plea of a defendant who asserts he is innocent of the crime.
I was fairly sick then and when I had my intake with the prison psychiatrist, she said I didn’t have schizophrenia, that I had other mental health issues, even though I’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia for ten years and she has since proven to be wrong. I did have schizophrenia. At the time she wouldn’t give me the medicine I had been taking, so not only was I in a scary environment, but I had to undergo a meds adjustment.
I was struggling with the change in my meds and I had a lot of psychosis. I would go into the day room and stare at people. People tell you that you shouldn’t stare at the guys in prison. The other inmates challenged me and I got in a couple of fights.
My turning point happened when I ended up being hospitalized after I was released. A woman named Yvette Sangster was running a program called Advocacy Unlimited. She came to the hospital to talk about recovery and advocacy. Until then, I had the same story as dozens of my peers: our doctors didn’t talk about recovery. The doctor told me I’d be in the hospital for the rest of my life and that I should give up on having a family and a job. That was the fate of a person with schizophrenia. It was almost a death sentence.
Yvette said it wasn’t fate; it was an illness that could be managed. She said that you have to find out what works for you and do that.
Ever since I took Yvette’s class 15 years ago, things started getting better for me: I hung around Advocacy Unlimited for a number of years until Yvette hired me; then I was asked to serve on Connecticut Gov. John Rowland’s blue ribbon commission on mental health. I talked to legislators. The advocates that we trained went and helped to convince the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Commissioner Thomas Kirk to enact Policy 83, which turned Connecticut into one of the first states that created a statewide recovery system for people with mental illnesses.
Marc Jacques is the executive director of Mental Health Advocacy Incorporated, a national mental health advocacy organization. He lives with paranoid schizophrenia and currently resides in North Carolina.