A Different Kind of Worker by Tim Dreby

Tim Dreby profile photo
Tim Dreby profile photo
The author, Tim Dreby

When I took the job at the Housing Authority facility dubbed the “Hotel of Horrors” in the local media, I thought I was on a mission from God.

The weekend before I started the job, I took a spiritual retreat with the Quaker community I frequented. Out on an island on the Puget Sound, in a quaint room, I told a small group of my cohorts that I was following a spiritual calling by taking this job. Maybe that’s just how I dealt with my nerves.

Everybody at the community mental health center where I worked was far too afraid to take a job there.

I was a master’s level professional. I was physically fit and good at helping others. I knew that trying to “save” a community was risky. But I did not imagine what I was about to endure.

Years earlier, in college, I’d moved to the inner-city in Camden, New Jersey to hide a history of male anorexia.

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Photo by Jose Fontano on Unsplash

During my senior year, I had to take a semester off because of a mental health crisis. An observant resident of my apartment complex introduced herself to me upon my return from the hospital, as if she knew what was going on with me. Her name was Cece.

Like me, Cece was a fish out of water in the inner-city, entirely alone, surviving amid the roaches. She admitted to a history of shooting heroin into her toes. She knew a lot about psychiatric meds and liked to recommend different medications to me often second-guessing my doctors. She had been on all of them! Now she was on social security, clean, and was seeking employment.

At the same time, I started to get invited out with a group of my fellow students who all commuted in from the suburbs. The leader of this clique was an English student who wanted to help me out despite my hospitalization. He would go to law school and use my rental history to establish a bachelor pad for the four of us. I was invited to go out with the group but they made it clear: I was not to bring Cece.

A year later I had moved in with the suburban clique and I received a call from Cece. She was working at a photography store and had managed to get off social security. I had just landed a job in a mental health clinic and was starting my master’s program. Somehow, Cece found out my work number and called me.

“You are getting ready to do things that are really wrong, but that’s okay, I forgive you.”

What a wise intervention that was! Indeed, I felt bad about leaving her behind. At my new job I was directed to follow the lead of my supervisor who seemed to demean the clients. Cece was right: I’d surely done wrong, and I was fixing to do a lot more that I didn’t feel was right.

empty orange plastic pill bottles
empty orange plastic pill bottles
Photo by Haley Lawrence on Unsplash

It was the psychopharmacology craze of the nineties, and I learned to see schizophrenia as a medical problem that just required medication. I distracted myself from feelings of guilt by chasing connections with fellow students in my master’s program and holding on to the bachelor pad clique. Maybe curing my loneliness — and tendency to get scapegoated by suburbanites — really was as simple as a complex cocktail of four medications.

To my credit, I worked hard and went the extra mile to help the people coming to the clinic where I worked. And as I got credentials, I took more risks and made more effort to do the right thing.

Once I successfully graduated, I left it all behind and moved to the west coast.

Photo by Emma Claire on Unsplash

So, as I was on my “mission from God” and entering the “Hotel of Horrors,” I pledged to only do what I felt was right.

In six months there I saw doors torn off of hinges by thugs in broad daylight. I saw addicts get stabbed and nothing get done about it. I saw vulnerable residents get hauled off to jail when they were bullied into using their apartments for drug deals. Mostly, the police only came around to take a barricaded paranoid resident off to the hospital because he refused to pay rent.

I did a lot to support vulnerable clients. I met with local advocates. I leaked stories to the media. My job was threatened. When a resident without an addiction ended up dead from a heroin overdose I was suspicious. I arranged for a young newspaper reporter to investigate. I stopped taking my medication.

“One time we had a social worker come down here like you and try to straighten out this mess,” a resident told me. “They told him to stop but he wouldn’t. He ended up having to move down here with us. I just don’t want that to happen to you!”

I started to get a sense of connection. All parts of my life were in play. Had I heard those words for a reason? Were they a threat! I was getting scared.

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Photo by Chad Tetzlaff on Unsplash

I left my job and tried to escape to Canada, but I was followed and harassed by police. My parents had put out a missing person report so the police were initially violent with me. I believed that they were trying to trap me in a hospital and went to great lengths to resist. Finally, I surrendered.

Being confined to Montana State Hospital for three months was a lot to go through. Two months in, I was transferred to the chronic unit which was barely heated above freezing, and over-crowded. When I finally got discharged to the streets, I purchased a Greyhound bus pass to Fresno California.

I couldn’t seem to find a job and, with my money dwindling, my family arranged a job for me if I moved to the Bay Area. If I didn’t take the job I was on my own.

It was quite a coincidence because I had decided that my family was a mafia family, and the job they arranged for me was at an Italian deli. I kept the deli job for close to a year before I agreed to go back on medication and try to return to working in mental health.

Preparing to return to my former career wasn’t easy though. I had to bike twenty miles plus take the rails for two hours just to get to my job at the deli and back. Customers and co-workers targeted and humiliated me; they seemed to know things about me they shouldn’t. I ran into residents I recognized from Seattle on my way to work who sat next to me on the train. Every day there were signs I was being followed. Sometimes it seemed that I was the only person who could recognize the signs, but they were always there. One day the police tailed me in the car I managed to acquire.

When I started back on medication the following continued, but I was better able to ignore it. Eventually, I was able to get hired away from the deli and back into a mental health position.

For me, it took being diagnosed a schizophrenic to finally realize that just because I am an educated rich kid who knows how to write billable notes, I am not any better. I never fit in with the graduate students that went on to populate suburbia, I was a better fit with my inner-city neighbor, Cece.

Photo by trail on Unsplash

Now, I am grateful for all I went through.

I have found so much meaning in my work in the seventeen years since I returned to my career in mental health. It took me six years to start to disclose my history. Then, I started psychosis focus groups and looking for a systematic way of redefining psychosis. I have truly appreciated my privilege of working and being innovative to get results that might not have happened if I didn’t know that recovery was real.

I still take medication, but I would never do something like leaving Cece behind again. Instead, I am opening up a practice that aims to help people like her rise above a hopeless mental health system.

I feel for people who work in mental health and believe schizophrenia is just a medical disease that entitles mental health workers to their salary and power. I would be so burnt out and uncaring if I still believed that to be true. I am grateful that I have learned to be a different kind of worker.

Tim Dreby is a psychotherapist and the award-winning author of Fighting for Freedom in America: Memoir of a “Schizophrenia” and Mainstream Cultural Delusions. He currently works at Highland Hospital in Oakland CA and is opening an adjacent psychotherapy practice. For more stories or information see his blog at www.timdreby.com

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