Guest post: We Can Still Dream Big by Neesa Suncheuri
The notion of disability and its profound impact on one's life occurred to me when I myself had to admit I was disabled. Already having developed depression and anxiety as a child, I was stricken with Schizoaffective disorder in my early twenties. Up until then, I was a classically-trained violist, aspiring to find work playing with a professional orchestra.
But Schizoaffective disorder ravaged my life. I developed delusions that I was the reincarnation of Beethoven, and other ideas of piecemeal logic. Things got so bad that I was unable to hold down even a part-time job. Nor was I able to focus my mind to return to school and get a Masters.
After a few years of failed attempts to restart my life I "threw in the towel." I applied for disability. SSI. Supplemental Security Income.
My pride was bruised, but I surprisingly moved past it quickly. Acknowledging my disability allowed me to take my condition more seriously. I no longer tried to hide it. I also became more forgiving towards myself. I began to find meaning in the little things in life. I realized that everyone living thing has value, not just the "productive people.”
I had time on my hands, so I began writing silly poems. Then I went to open-mic nights in Manhattan and Brooklyn to read them publicly. I heard many singer-songwriters play their original tunes at these places, and that inspired me to write my own songs too. I already had the musical background, so it came easily to me. I eventually became a regular performer at the Sidewalk Café open mic in the Lower East Side. That allowed me to make eclectic friends and enjoy a social life.
I am very lucky to live in New York City. The psychiatric care in this city is unparalleled, and the doctors here really seem to know what they're doing. I remember living in Indiana for college, and as kind as the doctors and therapists were there, they were in over their heads with my delusions and psychosis. Also, New York has tons of social service programs and public assistance opportunities. It’s easy to get by with a food stamps card too. Almost every corner bodega takes EBT.
My story fortunately has a happy ending. Three-and-a-half years ago, I was in the throes of psychosis yet again, and was hospitalized for three months, my longest stay yet. It might sound bad, but this was absolutely necessary. I was put on Clozapine, an antipsychotic medication, which rehabilitated me profoundly. After discharge, I spent a full nine months in rehabilitative programs. During that time, I learned about the career of Peer Specialist.
A peer specialist is a mental health professional who also has mental illness him/herself. Immediately, I liked the idea of a career where I could publicly disclose my illness! So much of my previous stress was due to my being forced to hide my illness. There were times when my school mates, teachers, and employers found out about my illness. And each time I was "found out," people began to handle me with kid gloves, as if I was fragile. They also became distant and distrustful of me. People said terrible things to me.
"I know you want to become a music teacher, but are you safe around children?"
"You're not going to become a professional musician. You can play in a community orchestra."
"Don't worry. You can live in a [insert spiritual community for the developmentally disabled]. You'll be safe there."
Being a peer specialist has become a way for me to fight back against these negative, stigmatizing comments. No longer will I let these grim statements determine who I am and what my future will be. Instead, I now make my own decisions. I alone decide what I want for myself.
And what do I want?
I want my voice to be heard.
I want to tell my story to the world, so that those suffering can know that they are not alone.
I want my story to give hope to people, encouraging them to never give up, because there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
I want to tell the world about peer specialists. Peers have lived experience with mental illness, which you cannot learn in school. We have expertise that psychiatrists and therapists do not. Our experiences empower us, and we aid one another in recovery.
Since becoming a peer, I dream big! I hope that more people with disabilities in the future can dream big too. This is the way to live, because dreams can lead to a sense of hope and motivation. Every person deserves this.
Follow Neesa on twitter @NeesaSuncheuri and you can check out What is Wellness? A Mental Health Discussion Group on Facebook.