From when I was 17 until I was 30, I would go to the mental health center and tell the doctors and social workers that I talk to myself, I can’t relate to people and I have a lot of grandiose thoughts. And they kept telling me I had low self esteem, and that I needed to snap out of it, get a job and stop being lazy. They prescribed me depression medication, but ultimately said there was nothing wrong with me.
In that same amount of time, I had about 35 jobs. I could never keep a job because I was always talking to myself or to my pencil. After I lost another job, I became very depressed. I felt as if I had nothing to lose. I threw my medication down the toilet, and I had a nervous breakdown. I was walking around the French Quarter of New Orleans with a sheet wrapped around my head, claiming to be Moses the Prophet. After about six months, my family found me and brought me to a hospital. That is when I finally got my diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder.
It was the first time I had ever received the proper medications that led me on the path to recovery. For once, I felt “normal,” and no longer suffered through the mania and paranoid thoughts that had plagued my life for so long.
I got a job at NAMI New Orleans as a janitorial assistant. I joined a church that accepted my mental illness. I was drinking a lot of alcohol at that point in time, so I started going to Alcoholics Anonymous. I found a whole new world to me—a world of peer support. After a while, I became sober, started making friends and began living my life.
In 2007, and after over a decade of stability, I began working as a NAMI peer support specialist. Working in peer support helped me feel empowered. Not only could sharing my lived experience be a career, but I could also genuinely help people.
At the start, I met one-on-one with other men, working as their mentor and talking with them about their paths to recovery. I connected with multiple peers who also live with schizoaffective disorder and were eager to learn more about our shared condition. I typically held 30-minute sessions each week, but I would meet for longer if I felt someone needed it.
I would also try to help my peers with daily living tasks if they couldn’t do it on their own. For example, I helped my peer Barry, who was 65 at the time and had difficulty with housekeeping, grocery shopping and making it to medical appointments. I also helped David, who had a traumatic experience with public transit early in his life and needed a companion to join him whenever he rode the bus. After about a year of riding the bus with him and sharing my own experiences conquering fears of public transit, he grew more relaxed and was able to finally catch the bus on his own. Learning about the recovery of my peers only enforced the value of peer support.
After several years of working as a peer support specialist, I was asked to take training for NAMI In Our Own Voice (IOOV). At first, I was apprehensive because public speaking made me anxious, but after my first presentation—to the executive board of NAMI New Orleans—I was surprised by how natural it felt to present before an audience. A few board members even told me I was good at presenting and suggested I do IOOV more often in the community. So I did. My experience and recovery helped me educate hundreds of people at local police departments, churches, synagogues and university psychology classes.
Throughout the city of New Orleans, I’ve had people come up to me and call me the “NAMI Man,” telling me that I helped them better understand mental illness through my IOOV presentations. Following some of the presentations, reporters have even reached out to me, giving me the opportunity to do interviews on air, helping countless people in my area better understand mental illness.
In the early 1900s, streetcar drivers from New Orleans went on strike, and many of them could barely afford to eat. To help them survive, various restaurant owners made them sandwiches with leftover bread and inexpensive luncheon meat like salami. These sandwiches were called “po’ boys” for the poor boys who ate them. Today, those po’ boys have become the signature sandwich of New Orleans.
When people call me the “NAMI Man,” I feel just like these po’ boys: A New Orleans native with humble beginnings—who helps the downtrodden and touches thousands of lives.
Jessie Smith III is a certified peer-support specialist from NAMI New Orleans. He is trained to provide many NAMI signature programs, including as a peer-to-peer facilitator, a national presenter and trainer for In Our Own Voice, a national facilitator and trainer for NAMI Connection, and a peer-support specialist for NAMI New Orleans Drop-In.
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