Back when I was just a yuppie, I learned a few points of wisdom about working through stigma. I needed mentors to help teach me how wrong stigma is. Now, I want to pay forward some of what I learned outside the class room to some mental health academics and administrators who may not have gotten the same lesson.
I was learning to chop cheese steaks at a Korean owned deli and instantly enamored with this mentor on the grill, Mister Ray Gee. The deli was located just across the river from downtown Philadelphia, in the North Camden ghetto. This Mister Ray and I were just meeting. We were both the same skin-and-bones size, our last names went together in rhyme, and any middle aged man who didn’t have a gut was an inspiration to me.
Mister Ray took one look at me and exclaimed in one breath, “Wow you are an Asshole! But don’t worry, it’s not your fault! You were just raised that way!”
Without missing a breath, our supervisor, a short and stout man who we called Doc set me to work scraping grease off the floor with a razor blade. I dove into the work very comfortable with what had just occurred. I felt a little charge with the challenge. On my knees I scraped and scraped to overcompensate.
I immediately found myself thinking about how when I returned to school from four months of incarceration in two different mental health hospitals, I had only scoffed when my peers, the majority of whom had previously bullied me, welcomed me back with a little gift certificate. I had reasoned that it wasn’t all that unusual of a gesture for peers at a private Quaker school to extend. I had only been humiliated. I had to acknowledge that it was asshole behavior.
I thought even more about the sessions the family had in Salvador Minuchin’s reputable inpatient clinic. One day in session, my Mom openly admitted that she shared the content of a session back to a work colleague. My Mom worked at the school I attended. She later gave me evidence that my private information was filtering down to the jury of my peers who were sorry and praying for her. When I returned to school much of this would appear to be confirmed. Worse no therapist on the hospital staff seemed to acknowledge my perspective.
On my knees, I sensed Mister Ray was intuiting aspects of these complexities with his test. If I was willing to pass his test, he was giving me a chance to learn something new.
In the yearbook back at Quaker school, my peers lied about the local commuter school I chose to attend. They said that I went to the high cost prestige of Antioch University in Ohio. I was an honor student and I was making them all look bad when I moved to the ghetto with a twenty-five-year-old girlfriend and save my parents money. Communication in my family about finances is such that I still don’t know if I really had a choice.
A few months later, I got my second point of wisdom from Mister Ray. By this time I had learned to use the grill from him. I had heard about his sexual exploits with white girls without judgment. I had aptly proven that outside work I was just a book worm in the library, but could curse. And though it was true that by that time he knew I lived with roaches to escape from an abusive relationship, I think what really earned me respect was my willingness to let him con me into driving him uptown after work to cop.
In any case, he decided to help me. He said, “Boy, you have got to work smarter, not harder.” It became a mantra along with his nickname for me, Nervous Norton.
Again, I felt profoundly understood. It wasn’t that I marveled because I didn’t expect anything from him. We had fallen into a pattern of respect. With few words and resilience of spirit he inspired a spiritual healing within.
As a man with significant learning disabilities, I couldn’t afford to immediately practice Mister Ray’s second lesson. When I would be a graduate and fledgling social worker I would have a habit of positioning myself beneath supervisors as I worked my way through a Master’s Program and carrying out their will.
This worked fine until I graduated and got hired by a supervisor who also sustained a cocaine habit in a west coast city. I became radicalized and started breaking standard drug war codes of behavior in a section 8 housing project. This caused me to believe that I was being followed. I ended up incarcerated in an old order state hospital. It took two and a half years of poverty, but I eventually would recover. In order to recover I would need to learn how to do things like honor my mother in spite of those perceptions I had back in high school.I would need to accept stigma and find ways to do battle with it.
It wasn’t till six years after I recouped my career that I actually started to use Mister Ray’s well remembered advice. I started running groups about surviving “psychosis” using my own experience. I started my own personal practice of keeping in real in therapy.
Perhaps it was unique privilege to be taught points of wisdom by Mister Ray. They continue to help me see through the lies and shortcomings that currently limit our mental health field, evidence based practice and the medical model. I even see through elements of cultural bias in some anti-establishment rhetoric.
Sadly, Ray and Doc had only lasted a few seasons before they both quit because of becoming disgruntled with the Korean mobster management and oppression. I certainly didn’t blame them even though I ended up losing touch. At the Deli, stale cereal sold for seven dollars a box and there were no supermarkets within a ten mile radius. Neighborhood contacts reported that Doc, who had used unacknowledged expertise to diversify the menu, had a subsequent binge on crack.
I ended up partnering with a similarly aged cohort from the neighborhood because I did need the money. My partner and I ended up mentoring youth beneath us. They had a choice, I would learn, between working with us under the table, and working to sell crack under the bridge. Some didn’t have longevity, but several did. For several years they were my family and social life.
Though I am well aware that not all academic and administrative folks need a lecture about mainstream paradigms, now that I am advocating for the development of an out of the box program in an utterly oppressive system, I find many who do. I believe we can train individuals who have experienced “psychosis” and are on the streets to run support groups. I have helped prove this could be done, but not everyone wants to listen.
At work as a psychotherapist in an inner-city program, I do therapy with good Mister Ray people who have more beauty in their hearts and suffering in their bones than me, but who are rendered immobile and impoverished. I believe a lot less harm could be done. I believe solutions exist that can transform the system from being a cotton industry to a soil saving industry of mixed nuts. It’s just that no one wants to listen.
I think of Mister Ray’s mentor-ship and what it must have been like him to observe an upwardly mobile, eager to work, perfectionist, anorexic white boy and decide in spite of my disgust, to support him. I figure it is something like making friends with a person who defends those stale seven dollar boxes of cereal paradigms that fail people.
I wish I had thought of him when I was thirty-years-old and working under pot smoking teenagers who acted so superior to me. I am not sure I am as good of a man as Mister Ray. But I sure wonder if more people who walk in the hacienda corridors of mental health power learned to have real mentors instead of facts and figures. It might help more of us learn how stigma hurts those poorly paid yuppies among us who benefit from it. Me, I am still just trying to get better every day.