One of the most desperate moments of my life happened when I was in prison. I was standing in the prison yard in San Diego and I thought, “How did I get here? Maybe it wasn’t all my fault, but it’s my life and I have to take responsibility for it.”
A realization like that doesn’t necessarily change your life. If I’m honest, being in jail was pretty tough — but the next five years was tougher. I felt so much despair and worry over whether I would find a job. Before prison, I had been a school administrator and had always thought I would eventually be a superintendent. But I couldn’t go back to that career.
To stay afloat, I worked a series of crummy, low-wage jobs. At the same time, I started facilitating a Bipolar Support Alliance group in the evenings. It happened by accident, but facilitating those groups gave my life meaning and purpose. Eventually I facilitated three support groups and created a new facilitator’s manual.
I had felt like a failure for five years, but to be contributing and making a difference changed that.
Later, I interviewed for a job at Mental Health America in Greensboro, North Carolina. The executive director, Kate Gaston, looked at my resume, my past, and my criminal record, and said, “This looks like the life of someone who has bipolar disorder and is recovering. I want to hire you.” After that, I worked for Recovery Innovations, another mental health agency. My boss, Paul Evans, had such a grace about him and he never disapproved of me. He knew who I was and he still gave me his unconditional respect. Once, I really screwed up, and he said, “We’ll deal with it.” He believed in me and always saw my strengths.
Today I work as a consumer affairs specialist for Cardinal Innovations. It’s my job to help people navigate the difficult maze that we call our “mental health care system.” In that role I do a lot of things — training, presenting in CIT classes, public speaking, and working with families — but I like that I still connect directly with people. It reminds me of my purpose.
The other thing that helps me is respect: the respect of the individuals I work with, the respect of my colleagues, and especially the police officers in CIT training. Receiving the respect of these officers has meant so much to me. I tell them all the time, “You are part of my healing process.”
I don’t believe people can get well without respect, meaning, and purpose. I would still rather be a school superintendent and never have been diagnosed bipolar. But I’m thankful that my misery was put to good use and the opportunity to make a positive impact.
Mike Weaver is a consumer affairs specialist at Cardinal Innovations in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina and serves on the board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). He was incarcerated in California State Prison as a result of actions during a psychotic episode.