Play Ball - An Interview with D.J., Peer Advocate

  • D.J.

    On Thursday night I got the idea to conduct a series of interviews called "100 Individuals with Schizophrenia." Over the next year, I want to showcase people who are doing well in recovery to give a voice to the nameless, faceless champions, and in so doing hopefully beat down the stigma.

    My inaugural Q&A features D.J.-a friend I met four years ago when we were trained to present NAMI's In Our Own Voice program. In 1980, he obtained a B.S. in economics and business administration from Wagner College, where he played on the baseball team and was the intramural athletics assistant director. He truly is a winner at the game of life. The Sunday afternoon I talked with him, his good humor was as sunny as the weather.

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    CB: First of all, how old are you?

    DJ: Fifty. I'm half a century!

    CB: Tell us a little about yourself, what you were doing before you got sick.

    DJ: I worked full-time as an assistant teacher at a day care center for 13 years. And I worked on the weekends at a group home for adolescent boys for five years. The stress and anxiety built up, and I started drinking heavily. I couldn't sleep, and I had the shakes.

    CB: When were you diagnosed, and what were your symptoms?

    DJ: I was diagnosed in September 1993. My symptoms were hallucinations, lack of sleep, racing thoughts and frustration. I saw people on the street chasing me, banging on the door. I only came out at five o'clock in the morning, just before the sun came up, to buy a few beers to last me the whole day.

    CB: How did you first know you needed help?

    DJ: I couldn't stand up. I had the "D.T.s"-that's how far along I was in my drinking. I lost 50 lbs. I went from a highly functional person to a dysfunctional person in two years.

    CB: At what point did you first come around to feeling better and getting your life back on track?

    DJ: April of 1996-I finally had enough of it. Somebody came to my door and asked, "D.J., are you okay?" I was struck that he was thinking about me. It was baseball season, he knew I usually came out, and he didn't see me all winter. Just that knock on the door was like "Wow-somebody really cares!" The next Monday I went to St. Vincent's Hospital to get help.

    CB: How soon after did you start getting relief from the symptoms of schizophrenia?

    DJ: That came about when I got my first job. After April I went to a program for six months. Without the alcohol in my system all the imaginary things went away. I started to "get my bearings back," as we say. The counselors got me a job as a mental health technician at St. Vincent's for the MICA patients. I did that for five years straight and it helped me a lot, I got my self-esteem back.

    CB: So you feel work is beneficial to giving people a sense of self-worth?

    DJ: Yes, because before I felt like I couldn't do anything - I was stuck in a "pity pot." Helping others was the best thing at the time for me, because I'm a giving person, so I gave them knowledge. I taught them about things they didn't know about. I also showed them how to play pool, to play cards, bingo, ping-pong. I was like a recreational counselor to get them exercising and to start moving.

  • CB: What can you tell our readers about the benefits of recovery?

    DJ: Recovery is probably the best thing that could've happened to me. I would say 100 percent but getting my college degree was the hardest thing. I was diagnosed in 1993 at 35 years old, so I'm 15 years in this battle and I'm going to stay in it for the rest of my life. When I was sick I used to call the beers "misery beers" because after I drank them I was miserable. I wished I could stop, but I couldn't. With the proper care of a nice therapist I finally took control.

    CB: Isabella?

    DJ: Yes, she was the therapist I saw after two weeks in the program. She wanted to know what happened and how I wound up there. It was the first time someone asked me about this, and I told her everything. The next person was supposed to come in, and she said, "No, I can't see you today, I have to finish with someone." At that point, when someone stood up for me and I wasn't just another social security number-another "next!"-that's when I told her the story and got it off my chest. Those 45 minutes saved me for the rest of my life.

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    CB: You feel someone taking an interest works wonders?

    DJ: Yes, in recovery, in any walk of life, if someone sees potential in you, and they keep on you, that means they care and it makes all the difference.

    CB: What are your top three techniques for managing the schizophrenia?


    DJ: Avoid alcohol, any little bit, not even a drop. Second, taking medication for me was the key in the beginning, because I also have Seasonal Affective Disorder. You need to get the proper rest and eat well, and stay around others in recovery to get that foundation.

    CB: Tell us about the In Our Own Voice presentations. How did you get involved with that?

    DJ: I've been volunteering with NAMI for 11 years, I was on the Board of Directors of NAMI-Staten Island for two years, and now I do the IOOV with you. I went to the training upstate in Albany, and I've been doing the lectures for three years. It gives us a chance to express ourselves to people in schools, hospitals, courts, libraries, wherever people need to learn about schizophrenia. As a peer advocate, I'm able to go out and speak about alcoholism, schizophrenia, living with mental illness and working with mental illness. It gives me pleasure because I know how hard it is and I want to give people hope.

    CB: What can you tell others just starting out in recovery?

    DJ: I'd tell them to work on their recovery, take their medication, go to program, and get enough rest and sleep. Once they start to realize they have to get back out there, they have to go out and keep at it. Every day is going to be a challenge, and you might not want to get up, but you have to. Never give up, just never give up.

    CB: With all you've achieved, I can only imagine a brighter tomorrow. Talk about your plans for the future.

    DJ: It would take two years to get everything together, and this is what I plan to do: get all the local agencies that have consumers-like Skylight and Project Hospitality-involved to go out to a place like South Beach that has a softball field, and play two games on a Thursday evening. Each team could have a uniform-cheap stuff, like 20 shirts bought at a dollar store and hats, too. To make each person feel like part of a team, teach them the rules, how to keep score, batting average, everything. After the season's over we'll have a little party, give out trophies and everyone would have a good time, meet different people, do different things. It would empower them to get out on their own. That's my dream.

  • CB: Spoken like a true winner!

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    Would you like to be considered for an interview? Please e-mail me at, and I'll get back to you. If chosen, you'll need to sign a standard interview release form, send me a digital photo (.jpeg) and model release form. The interview will be a 30 minute session taped over the phone.

Published On: August 13, 2007