2 Stories: Achieving Freedom From Isolation
© 2014 Luke T. Bush
[ NOTE: This article is based on information provided through email and sit down interviews. The interviewees reviewed the pre-publication copy for any factual errors and minor revisions were made to the final version below. ]
PLATTSBURGH CITY, NY – 6/9/14
Impeerium Peer Specialist Nicholas Dubay is a self-described “punk,” as in punk rocker.
He fits the image with his beard, tattoos and ear gauges but at 33 years old he isn’t a young punk. Or an angry cynical one — that’s evident from his friendly tone. He belongs to that segment of punk subculture that wants to better the world while still enjoying and creating loud raging music.
Raised in the town of Jay he was home schooled and then attended SUNY-Plattsburgh where he graduated with a BA in Theater. Before he became employed by Impeerium Peer Network, a program to help someone working towards mental wellness, he found himself isolated, dealing with depression and addiction.
“I had stigma that I had created for myself,” says Nicholas, “that said if you go out and you tell people that you are depressed or mentally ill, that you're not well today, that you're going to get shunned, people are going to not like you anymore. So I was depressed and I hid. I hid and it was not good. Fortunately I have great support, I have a great understanding family."
It was this support that helped free him from isolation.
"My daughter,” he continued, “is what pulled me through my depression. She wanted to go do something and I told her I was sad. She said, "Dad, don't be sad. I love you.’"
From that moment he decided he had to get better. He said he was lucky because unlike many other people he had the support to do it on his own without using traditional mental health services. He adds that he would have recovered sooner if he did seek out those services.
He had to decide what steps he could take to break out of his isolation. So he did something radical: he became a bouncer at a local bar. In that setting he saw others dealing with mental health issues.
Then he met Amanda Bulris, director of the NAMI-Champlain Valley, the local organization affiliated with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Impeerium in turn is affiliated with NAMI-CV.
NAMI describes itself on its website as “the nation’s largest grassroots organization for people with mental illness and their families.”
Talking with Amanda at an anti-stigma event he appreciated NAMI’s independent approach to “mental differences,” its “punk attitude.” Until he met Amanda he didn’t realize that advocating for those suffering from mental illness could be a career.
Like Nicholas Peer Support Specialist Terri Satoris experienced the realization that only she could lift herself from the pit of mental illness. Hailing from Malone she moved to Plattsburgh sixteen years ago. In her fifties she is married, the mother of two grown children. A pleasant person who found it easy to laugh on occasion during my sit down interview with her.
"Today is my one year anniversary working at Impeerium,” she told me with a smile. Terri coordinates the Creative Expression group that meets weekly to work on various art projects, a time to relax and talk. She related how she transitioned from being a peer to becoming a peer specialist.
In contrast to Nicholas Terri went through traditional services and was finding the right help — until her insurance no longer paid for it. Through an outpatient program she had a therapist and just as importantly she talked with peers with similar circumstances who understood her struggle. But a change in family income made her ineligible and she found herself without the support she needed.
Fortunately she noticed an item in the newspaper about Impeerium that mentioned its arts group.
“I’ve always loved art,” she said, “and so the idea of being involved in an art program thrilled me.”
After attending the art group she became involved with Impeerium outreach efforts. One day she showed up at a Headstart Easter egg hunt to assist another volunteer with face-painting for kids. The other volunteer had to drop out. Terri took the big step and filled in.
"I wanted to say 'I'll help,' but I was so scared,” she said. “At the time my anxiety around people was overwhelming but I thought, 'No, I can't let them down,’ the little kids."
A few weeks later Impeerium asked Terri to join the staff as a peer specialist. After being a specialist for two months her love of art and helping others came together when she started running the Creative Expressions group. She had traveled a long way from keeping to herself, afraid to leave the house, afraid to even enter other rooms in her home. She realized she could longer be a prisoner of isolation.
“I was extremely motivated,” she said, “to change my life because I knew if I didn’t do something I was going to die without a shadow of doubt.”
Sometimes working with peers helps her maintain her mental wellness. And while her life is greatly improved, she continues to work on staying free from anxiety and depression.
“Even though I’m better I still have to deal with my mental illness,” she said. “I still have to learn how to deal with it and do a full time job and support other people.”
Terri talked about the stigma and stereotypes that some people have towards those with mental health issues.
"We're really no different than they are,” she observed. “That when they feel really sad and it goes on for a really long time that's depression. It's no kind of weird scary thing. When you're really scared about going to the doctors, that feeling inside, that's anxiety, again it's not some weird mystical creepy thing, it's worse, it lasts longer."
For anyone thinking about joining Impeerium Terri said that peer specialists offer more than what can be learned out of a book. “We can give you support because we’re been there,” she explained.
Terri believes that “no one can make you better, you have to do it yourself.” While people go to counselors and doctors hoping they can be fixed, she said, the truth is that everyone has the tools inside to better their situation. They just have to learn to use those tools.
For info about Impeerium: Amy Belair, email@example.com, or call (518) 324-6250.