Jason, 30, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; Misdiagnosed
At age 21, when one friend killed another then hung himself, gang member Jason says his pain was unbearable. "I remember going into the bathroom and pulling out pills and my gun and wondering, 'should I take my life right here?'"
At the funeral, a social worker noticed all the cuts and scars on Jason's arm, evidence of his self-mutilation, and convinced Jason to go to the E.R. But Jason's prior experiences with incarceration had left a different set of scars. To him, the huge double doors of the hospital were reminiscent of those in jail. When they asked him to take off his shoes and socks, he figured they were going to try to keep him there. So he wasn't honest about how he felt, and didn't get the help he needed.
Four years later in New York, friends and family again convinced him to seek help, but his fear of being institutionalized led him to ask for help with anger management rather than tell the truth about his feelings. The next day, he attended an open-forum follow-up with a psychiatrist, but says, "It was a quick rush job." He waited for hours then the doctor scribbled down a diagnosis of "paranoid schizophrenia and manic depressant bi-polar" and told him to get Medicaid to pay for the prescription. But Jason had no address. "Trying to get Medicaid when you're on the run doesn't work," he says.
Jason filled the prescription, but his body was used to heavy street drugs and morphine. The medication, he says, "had little to no effect." After emptying the bottle, he didn't try to get more.
By 2005, he was plagued with visions of death and dying. Jason couldn't tell for sure whether the vivid violent scenes were real or imagined. At a friend's suggestion, he started writing and was introduced to author Terrie Williams, who runs a public relations and communications agency in New York. Williams secured a publishing deal that put Jason's poetry in each chapter of Dashaun Morris' memoir, War of the Bloods In My Veins: A Street Soldier's March Toward Redemption (Scribner, 2009).
Williams, who is a mental health advocate and co-founder of the Stay Strong Foundation to bring mental health awareness to the black community, also asked a psychiatrist friend to see Jason as a favor. Rather than a "quick rush job," the doctor spent time with Jason, and discovered his symptoms fit Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In Jason's earlier E.R. experience, he'd been misdiagnosed.
Jason is grateful for the doctor's free help. "He usually charges three hundred an hour," says Jason. He could never afford that. Like a lot of people struggling to make ends meet, Jason, who is now 30, works two jobs to support his four children. Of paying for regular therapy visits, he says, "It's just not realistic. I never had medical coverage to take care of that."
Silent suffering is often what leads to gang involvement, and Jason wants to break that cycle. "I never spoke up to any teacher, principal or anybody about things going on in my house. I never spoke up, but it got the best of me in the long run."
Gang lifestyle can feel like a war zone experience. "Only it's your whole life," says Jason. "Your mind hasn't gotten a chance to heal or cope."
Jason now speaks out about his experiences, and finds great healing in helping other people. "It should be normal to speak about feelings," he says. He is now a spokesperson for The Stay Strong Foundation and was featured in a Public Service Announcement as part of their Stories that Heal Campaign.
Recently, Jason has become involved in community projects including food and toy drives. "People in the trauma unit, I.C.U., the burn unit, they feel like outcasts too." Through this work, Jason has found a connection point where he can help. "No one's dealing with what they're dealing with," he says. "They're not afraid I'm a gang member. You hand them toys almost like a surrogate Santa. That's where two different plains connect, and on that level it makes the world different."