When I was between jobs about four years ago after my two year dog grooming career, I thought I might want to go into mental health. I had been facilitating a support group one day a week and very much like being a role model and being able to share my recovery story. I am the kind of person who thinks that when you are unemployed, your 40 hour a week job is finding a job. To do some networking, I went to a Joel Slack prentation hosted by Tri-County Mental Health. He told his recovery story and his RESPECT theory of how mental health staff should treat the people they serve. I was so inspired that I thought right then, “This is what I want to do.”
At that presentation I met up with a friend, Al Henning, who had trained with me to facilitate the same support group I was running. He networked with me at that event and offered me the inside scoop about the community mental health center to which I was applying for job. Al and I stayed in touch and that fall he offered me a spot to go to Alternatives, the national mental health consumer conference that was being held in St. Louis. I told him that I couldn’t afford it, and Al got me hooked up with a spot as a volunteer. Later on before Al died, he put on his resume that he was able to partly recruit me into becoming a mental health activist by getting me to that conference. Working his contacts for me gave him one of his needed moments of pride.
At Alternatives 2007 I heard so many different presentations that were so exciting and incredible that it took me till the third day or so to realize that every single one of the presentations had been done by a person that identified as having a psychiatric label at one point. It was beautiful to see so many people in recovery all at the same time. At the conference I decided, “I’m going to do a workshop at this conference next year.” At the conference, I also met up with Randy Johnson, who at the time was working for Mental Health America. He remembered my application to a previous job of theirs and talked with me about a current opening they had. “We’ll have to bring you in for an interview,” he said.
During the inteview, Randy asked me, “Did seeing all those exciting programs inspire you to get involved and make a difference?”
I said, “Well, it was kind of the other way around. I looked at the program ahead of time and saw all of the things that people were working on, and knew that I HAD to find a way to get myself there.”
I ended up getting that job and loving it for a couple of years. I co-coordinated a warmline, which is a call-in support line where people with mental illnesses support each other through difficulty. It’s better than a crisis line because studies have found that 80% of crisis line calls are non-emergency. Also, people who run a warmline are often more familiar with recovery and are not as quick to think that callers need to access emergency services. We’ve been through tough times, so just saying, “I’ve been suicidal before, too, and it went away,” is extremely soothing. At that job I starting creating presentations to bring to all the mental health centers to recruit volunteers.
I really liked meeting all the people and performing and talking about recovery. After I’d been doing presentations for about a year, I wrote a grant for the Creative Capital professional development workshop and had the great idea to start incorporating spoken word poetry into my presentations, which was a big hit. I always collect evaluations at the end of each workshop and very often people will say that the best or most useful or most motivating part of the workshop is the poetry. That’s why I keep it in all my presentations. It can reach people in ways that lecture and demonstrations can’t. I try to make my presentations about 1/3 poetry, 1/3 motivation speaking, and 1/3 audience interaction, where everyone in the room is up and moving around and doing something.
That summer I applied to present my Building America presentation at the Alternatives conference in Buffalo, NY, for its national audience debut. The workshop got accepted, and later I found that it’s pretty tough to get an Alternatives workshop accepted on your first submission when you aren’t well known in the national level advocacy community. I created a walking Alley Kat race all around the inside and outside of our Buffalo hotel. People had a lot of fun at the workshop and one person told me that it was the most interactive workshop at the conference. That felt like my iniation into the national speaking circuit, and I was on my way. At this point, I’ve performed about 60 gigs and keep on building new audiences and fans everywhere I go.