A View Behind the Lens: Capturing the Often Tortured Path of Recovery

Eric's Story

Eric long considered himself to be a loner, somewhat of a misfit. He has minimal recollection of friends as a child and, throughout both junior high and high school, he recalls his peers calling him names, making fun of him, or just ignoring him. Eric recalls having symptoms of anxiety throughout his early years which later manifested into symptoms of depression and years of anxiety and low self-esteem.

Eric graduated from high school with hopes for a fresh start. Instead, he experienced his first episode of major depressive disorder and spent the next year isolated in his home. He rarely went out in public, and when he did, he was riddled with anxiety that forced him back into his home. It became a vicious cycle he would experience again and again throughout his life. His fear and sadness overwhelmed him and he felt as if he was making no progress in life. Eventually, he found the strength to make that fresh start he had hoped for a reality.

In February 1981, Eric joined the army and was stationed for the next two and a half years in El Paso, Texas. During this time, he met new people, drove tanks, traveled to Germany and began to live a lifestyle that would help him "fit in." He also began drinking on a nightly basis. At times he was with fellow soldiers doing things that he considered to be "stupid or dangerous." His alcohol consumption increased. He would drink with his peers. He would drink when alone. He was approached by his superiors regarding his behavior on a number of occasions. After a three day drinking binge he went AWOL and, when he returned, was told that he would be discharged from the service.

Eric spent the next few months riding a wave of emotions and with increasing symptoms of depression as his discharge date neared. The mask of alcohol was no longer working. He was filled with internal struggle. He came back home to Pennsylvania and sunk into a deep state of depression, again isolating himself. After nine months he decided to take a job at a local grocery store in order to get out of his house. He worked part-time for the next two and a half years but decided he wanted something more engaging. He enrolled at a local school where he earned his certification to become a travel agent. Upon completion of his studies, the school provided a week long cruise to all of the graduates. Though he had already begun seeking employment opportunities, Eric didn't want to pass on the opportunity to travel. Once the ship set sail, however, Eric's problems arose again. His social anxiety reached new levels. He was fearful of being near others and he couldn't spend time on the deck without wanting to run to his cabin. So he did exactly that - he stayed in his cabin the entire week, drinking, shut off from the experiences he desired.

Upon returning from the cruise, Eric once again felt like a failure, his self-esteem shattered. To make matters worse, he had not received any response from prospective employers. He felt rejected, lost, alone. As the years passed, Eric had minimal contact with the outside world. He walked his dogs each day before dawn so no on would see him. He attempted to make small trips to the store with his mom but would leave before they were finished. He ignored his physical health. In 2008, a few weeks following his father's death, Eric attempted suicide. He took large amounts of sleep medication with alcohol. He was semi-conscious when his mother found him. He remembers asking her why he wasn't dead.

After a stay in the intensive care and inpatient units of a local hospital, Eric was discharged to Family Services Adult Partial Hospitalization program, a goal-focused, time-limited, intensive treatment program designed as an alternative to inpatient care, or as a transition from inpatient to outpatient care. He remembers Partial being "so crowded and anxiety provoking" but he slowly began to trust his therapists, so much so that he shared his suicidal thoughts with them, a milestone along his path to recovery. Following a setback and a return to the hospital, Eric began participating in the agency's Psycho-Social Rehabilitation program (PSR), a voluntary day program built on the proposition that individuals should actively be involved in their treatment. He remembers barely anyone speaking to him in group settings at PSR, however, he acknowledges that he was not going out of his way to speak with others. In the evenings, he also began participating in a more intensive outpatient program within the agency. There, he learned to organize his recovery in stages and to set targets. For two months, Eric attended both day and evening programming learning new coping skills, rebuilding his self-esteem, and maintaining a sense of structure and balance in his life. His recovery was finally taking hold.

In March of 2009, Eric took the next step when he attended an outing hosted by PSR to Phipps Conservatory. This was his first outing since joining PSR; he was too fearful to attend in the past. The Conservatory was having an orchid show. Eric had been taking some pictures around his home of his pets and thought that the show would provide him with a nice subject for pictures. And did it! Eric's photos were amazing! He brought them to PSR to share with other consumers and staff. Everyone was in awe at his eye for photography. The attention at times became anxiety-provoking but Eric began to use his love of photography as a means to distance himself from the symptoms and irrational thoughts that had haunted him in the past. Taking pictures, editing, matting and framing.these all became Eric's wellness tools for coping with his symptoms.

With support and encouragement from family, friends and staff, Eric enrolled in an eight week photography course at the Community College of Allegheny County. This was a huge accomplishment for him; not only was he committing to engaging with strangers in an area that is only somewhat familiar to him, he also had to take two buses both to and from the city in order to attend the course. Eric remembers the anxiety that he felt each time he stepped on the bus bound for Pittsburgh, however, he was able to maintain his desire and motivation to continue with the course. He was permitting himself to experience life in new ways!

Today, Eric continues to struggle with symptoms of anxiety and depression but they no longer overwhelm him. He relies on the coping skills he learned at Partial and at PSR to assist him in challenging times. His photography, well, that still plays a huge part in his recovery, too. His pictures adorn the walls of the PSR offices; Employment Solutions for People with Disabilities asked if he would contribute photos to their 2012 calendar. Eric is also participating in a project with Westmoreland County, submitting photos of his community that show what recovery means to him, and has committed to submitting photographs to be displayed at local libraries.

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