By Frank Pace
I remember laying in my bed when I was about five or six and wondering why I felt like I just didn’t belong, or if there was just something wrong with me…I felt defective. It was like everybody else had instructions for living and I never got mine. As I got older, I just tried to fit in. Hoping no one would notice that there was something wrong with me. I was anxious, afraid, and felt inferior most of the time. I know now it was not that different than what a lot of young people go through. But for me the fear and anxiety were debilitating.
I was about twelve when I started drinking. It helped me in talking to people and becoming more sociable. I soon started smoking pot. While it helped relax at the time, it also helped me to fit in. And that was always my primary goal: Don’t let them know there is something wrong with you. In the next five years I was using every drug that was available. As I drank and used more, I fell in with other people doing the same. As long as someone around me was using more than me, I felt I had it under control. The truth was that I had no control and was now shooting heroin. My friend Bernie died of a heroin overdose one night. I may not have been “scared straight”, but I was scared off of heroin. I’m not sure what would have happened to me if I went on, because at that point heroin had become my main drug. I was probably fortunate to have not been using very long at that point. The problem now was that without heroin, anxiety attacks became panic attacks. So, I used more of the other drugs (Quaaludes, etc.).
By the time I was 20 I was on the road looking for that geographical cure. The problem being that I would always show up with my addictions, anxiety, and alcoholism. And things would go bad. Besides waking up there were rare moments I was not high. When not high I was depressed, anxious, and just sick. Now even pot had started to make me paranoid. After getting my second DUI in Los Angeles I tried to get it together. That was short-lived. But now because of the paranoia I only smoked pot with others. I know that makes no sense, but despite the paranoia I was still very afraid to be discovered as different and defective. And smoking pot…well that was the norm then.
I would occasionally come back to Michigan and find that most of the people I had gotten high with were settling down, getting married and raising families. I was lying, stealing, and dealing to keep my habits going. My road trip continued. My primary drugs at this point were cocaine and alcohol.
It was the summer of 1989. I was sitting in a drunk tank in the Lee County, Florida, jail with a fourth DUI charge when it occurred to me (despite two previous rehab stints) that I needed to stop getting high or I would die… I think they call that an epiphany. On 8/8.1989 I stopped getting high. Honestly at this point, it was only temporarily less miserable. I was 37, and besides the four DUIs, I had burned a lot of bridges (personal and professional), had been homeless on several occasions, was about to enter my third rehab and I had Hep-C.
Strangely, besides the initial 48 hours of hangover, I was not feeling very bad. Some anxiety and one panic attack in a month was excellent for me. I left rehab feeling pretty good about myself and my chances, and even joined the Lee County Anti-Drug Coalition. However, it wasn’t long before the anxiety and the panic attacks returned. But I did not drink or get high. I had avoided any of the recommended twelve step programs and didn’t want anything to do with a higher power. Somewhere in my past I decided there was no God. I don’t know, maybe believing in God and acting the way I did was just too much? I had made other halfhearted efforts to stop. I had attended AA meetings, but would leave early to avoid people. I thought I knew better and could do it on my own. Apparently not, and I was again at crossroads.
I decided that I really wanted to change and to give AA a serious shot. How serious? I found the most controlling and strict sponsor I could find. Tom was a taskmaster! But he probably saved my life, and I am eternally grateful to him. Within weeks of becoming my sponsor, I was living in his home and had agreed to let him make all the major decisions in my life for a year. Forget the 90 meetings in 90 days recommended by rehabs. Tom lived around the corner from the local AA clubhouse in Ft Myers. I was at two or three meetings a day! We would travel to different meetings, and I would also go to Narcotics and Cocaine Anonymous meetings. And because of the location there were often people from AA at the house. This went on for about a year. Despite my non-belief, Tom told me to pray every night. Oh, what desperate people will do. I don’t know when, but one night it was as if there was another presence in the room and I was communicating with it. Things were looking up and I even joined a church. I remember little anxiety and no panic attacks during this time. I was feeling pretty good. Tom and other people in recovery had helped me get jobs. But none of them lasted. Then someone suggested a job as a psych tech on the local Crisis Stabilization Unit. I was hesitant and to be honest a little afraid. Despite all the progress and all I had learned over the last year. There was still a part of the little boy that thought there was something wrong with me, and if they found out they might keep me there. Illogical yes, but in part still real to me…But I took the job.
Required reading was a book known in the mental health field as the ultimate guide to mental health: the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual). What I read was a little scary and ultimately freeing. What was scary was that I related to so many of the symptoms of the mental health issues, disorders, and illnesses they described. It was freeing because it also described (at least in parts) almost everyone I knew or had known. I was not so different. I was just human!
I would learn more about the many causes of mental health issues (chemical imbalance, situational, head injuries and predisposition, etc.), I would also learn more about the effect these issues would have on people and the treatments needed. While many with mental health issues can get by with a little therapy and education, some mental illnesses require more intensive care that can require a combination of therapy, medication, and more. In many cases, patience is often most important in finding a treatment balance that works. What I took away was that mental health is not an apples vs. oranges thing as I thought. It is something that affects most, if not all, of us. And more importantly, everyone is capable of a happy, productive lifestyle with the right treatment, support, and effort.
I was fortunate, from day one I had supportive supervisors, program directors, and even CEOs, who would also push me out of my comfort zone on occasion. I learned that I was someone who needed to be pushed out of my comfort zone or I would regress. I was fortunate to learn from and be encouraged by the people around me. I tried to spread that same support and encouragement to the people I served, along with an occasional nudge out of their comfort zones. This was particularly helpful as I moved on to be a psycho-social rehab specialist at David Lawrence Center in Naples. I held many positions, got some recognition, and a couple of awards, before retiring from David Lawrence Center as a mental health court-case manager 23 years later.
Whatever my position was, I had two main goals everyday with everyone I saw: make them laugh, and leave them with a more positive attitude than when I first saw them. During this time, I was also a therapeutic foster parent, YMCA basketball coach, and—ironically—on the board of trustees at my church. I felt I had finally done something positive with my life and even more than the awards, I cherished the little gifts I would get from clients or their families. Thanks to Tom and others, it was clearly the best 25 years of my life!
Initially, retirement was great. I eventually moved back to Detroit to be nearer family, and Florida was booming and losing its allure to me. December of 2013: The worst winter ever! Who does that? Maybe I wasn’t doing as well as I thought? After a while I started to get some of those old feelings of anxiety. So, I volunteered at Children’s Hospital and the Humane Society. That helped for a while, but eventually there was more anxiety and just a feeling of more insecurity and low self-esteem.
It was the fall of 2016, and usually I like the fall. But it was getting cold, so I headed back to Florida. I lived on St. Pete Beach before taking a job with my old officemate and friend who was now CEO of NAMI of Collier County. She originally hired me as assistant manager of the Sarah Ann Drop-In Center, and then added outreach specialist and housing coordinator to my job titles. I almost immediately started to feel better about myself and my life.
But things change, and the Florida boom went on. The Florida I fell in love with had exploded with people, buildings, and traffic. Even the water quality and weather patterns were changing. Because of family, friends, and what I consider the best summer place to be anywhere (short but sweet), I moved back to Michigan. Again, initially things went well. Prayer, meditation, and helping some old friends through their struggles seemed to keep me going.
I moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor seven days before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. At first, I was doing okay and getting through it with movies, books, music, prayer, and meditation. Then there was some anxiety and that feeling of uselessness again. Eventually, I reached out to NAMI Washtenaw and Volunteer Coordinator, Patricia Doyle, about being a volunteer and maybe doing some presentations. Initially we agreed that my history of working with others would qualify me for the “living in support of” role. Internally, I became uncomfortable with being just in support of, because of my own history with anxiety, panic attacks and addiction. I know I have a lesser burden than some others have, but despite what people like SNLs Pete Davidson said about basketball’s Kevin Love—that people with anxiety and panic attacks should stay in their own lane—mental health is not a contest. And it’s not “normal” for a six-year-old to lay in bed and wonder why they don’t belong in this world.
When I finally put it all together, and when I was at my best, I was hit with another realization: those 23 years trying to do good for others was what made me better. I got more from those years than anyone I was supposed to be serving, I was basically in therapy 40 hours a week for 23 years.
I had done so well for so long and was so involved with other people that I forgot my own issues. But I can never afford to forget how I got to that point, and for me that has been what I learned back in my AA days: working with others and reaching out. So that is what I intend to do with, NAMI and as new board member with Fresh Start in Ann Arbor.
People who read this should not feel bad for me or think I have had a terrible life. It wasn’t always bad, and the reality is that if I did not go through what I went through, I would not be who I am today. I probably would not be the guy who had the empathy and determination to help others later on. And I doubt I would have the appreciation and gratitude I do today for the simple things, the people around me, and life in general.