Photo by Tim Barber
I liked alcohol right from the start, and I got drunk off my very first load. I was 12 or 13 then. I guess it was around 1973. Liquor really clicked with me, and I was drinking pretty heavily from 13 until about 23 years of age. I got to the point where I was wet-brained—I mean, I had about two brain cells left. So I started going to AA. I'd been having problems with my mental health since I was a little kid—mood disorders and depression mostly—and it turned out that my alcoholism was self-medication for all that stuff. My first sober day was Christmas 1983. After about three years or so of being dry, I moved to live with my brother in Tucson, Arizona. I was there for about five and a half years. That's where I began to work the 12 steps. I was having experiences out there that were really meaningful to me. I think I was making some real progress. But then I had an opportunity to work for my cousin in West Palm Beach, Florida. I headed down there in the spring of 1992. It was landscaping work. My cousin ran the office. The first or second week I was there, my mental illness came creeping back up. I was working 12-hour days, five or six days a week. I didn't have a car, and sometimes I had to walk miles to get to an AA meeting. I think all the pressure started to get to me.
Art from the walls of WilPower
I started hallucinating. I was having audio and visual hallucinations, really all-engulfing stuff. I was experiencing mainly homicidal visions. I could clearly see myself shooting into and killing groups of people, like, crowds on the street. It seemed very real at the time. Afterward, I would feel like it had been a dream. It would be like coming out of a blackout, but when these visions were happening, it was undoubtedly real. After the episodes, I'd find myself wishing that I'd done what I'd been hallucinating. The audio aspect of these visions was major loud explosions going off right in my ears. Like dynamite explosions and bombs going off. I kept denying the visions, and I kept thinking they were going to go away. I would think, "This isn't happening. It's going to stop." But it didn't.
Then, one morning, I got up to go to work at five or six in the morning and I just said to myself, "God, I can't work anymore." I checked myself into a hospital—South County Mental Health in Del Ray Beach, Florida. I was on the locked ward for three or four days, and then I was in the hospital for about seven or eight days after that. They were evaluating me, trying out different medications and everything.
I was let out of there in late August, and my sister who lives up here near Chicago offered to take me in. I flew up here, basically with just the clothes on my back. I might have had more stuff down in Florida, but it was all such a fog that I can't even remember what I owned. Whatever it was, I left it down there.
When I got here, I entered a program, and I was diagnosed with manic depression, bipolar, and schizoaffective disorder. I wasn't a very happy camper then. I was heavily medicated. There was a job coach at my day program, and he found me a job over at Kraft headquarters. I was a utility worker, washing dishes and scrubbing pots. I did that five days a week, four hours a day, then went to my day program in the afternoons. I've been coming to the same program for 12 years now. I've seen two different buildings, a whole lot of patient turnover, and a whole lot of staff changes since I've been here.
Art from the walls of WilPower
I was at Kraft for two years, but they were piling eight hours of work on me for my four-hour shift. So 10 years ago I got a job at Dominick's Supermarket. A job coach at my program got it for me. Since Christmas Eve 1994, I've been working as a utility worker there. I bag groceries, do price checks, and stock shelves. I spend half my time in the parking lot, pushing the carts around. It's a pretty good job. I don't want to always be doing this, though. After I get my GED, I want to keep the job, and then join a program called Community Scholars. It teaches you how to take college classes—how to take notes, study for tests… all that stuff. It lasts about a year. Then I want to go to a community college and get a degree in drug and alcohol counseling. I already have a lot of experience with talking to people about their problems with that stuff. I'll stay working at the supermarket the whole way through school, though. I'm going to get a good pension from them.
In terms of my mental health right now, I guess there's always room for improvement. I've been facing some symptoms recently—a lot of heavy agitation and anxiety. It can really distract me. But I haven't had anything as severe as the hallucinations about mowing down crowds of people since Florida. I guess I should consider myself lucky for that. I really wouldn't want something that substantial or drastic to happen again. The thought of it scares me. I have a contact with reality that gets better as time passes.