The voices started when he was 48. Up to this point, Albert Garcia had already lived a hard life, so when as many as 40 individual voices suddenly began inhabiting his brain, mostly shouting insults or hissing obscene comments, he was on the brink of despair. After multiple incarcerations, hospitalizations and desperate periods of homelessness, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Even though his head was filled with constant chatter, Garcia felt desperately alone. With no outside support, he spent years struggling to understand how to live with his voices.
“There was no one I could really talk to about what I was going through,” he recalled. “It felt like nobody understood what was going on inside my head. It was like there was no way out.”
Still, somehow, after many years of struggle and medical intervention (“I stopped at 32 different diagnoses,” he said), Garcia managed to find a way to live with his voices, though they have never faded away. Garcia emerged from this experience determined to help other voice hearers. When he heard about a Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS)-sponsored training for certified peer support specialists, or individuals with primary mental illness who are trained to support others with similar diagnoses, he signed up. After completing a two-week training, Garcia received his certification, and in May 2011 was hired full time by People, Inc., a St. Paul-based support organization for people living with mental illness.
Garcia has worked as a peer support specialist at People, Inc. ever since, working directly with clients and running the organization’s weekly support group for voice hearers. In his free time, he started the Minnesota chapter of Hearing Voices Network, an international organization dedicated to providing support and education for people with schizophrenia.
Garcia and I met one afternoon earlier this summer at People, Inc.’s Huss Center for Recovery on Park Avenue in Minneapolis.
MinnPost: Do you remember when you started hearing voices?
Albert Garcia: I’ve had some trauma in my life. My dad was physically and mentally abusive. I was also molested as a child. At a young age, I started drinking. Then I got into drugs. I think I was just always trying to find love or somebody just to love me and stick by me. Then my brother passed away when I was 48: me and him, we did everything together. Up until then, I had suppressed my molestation, and when he passed away that just retriggered everything. That’s when my whole world fell apart and the voices started.
MP: What do the voices sound like?
AG: My voices are completely negative. They talk ruthlessly dirty and nasty.
MP: How do you cope with having so many voices in your head?
AG: For me it’s important to stay busy, really stay busy. When I’m occupied, the volume goes down on them a lot. Otherwise the volume of the voices is louder than we’re talking right now. Some people use drugs to quiet their voices. When I was first diagnosed, I was on a medication called Seroquel, but it was making me comatose. The voices take your time frame away. There is no time frame, actually. I could be sitting on the couch in the morning. The next thing I knew it was nighttime. Didn’t even know what I did during the day.
Ultimately, I stopped the medications. I stopped seeing doctors. I did my recovery without medications or doctors. I wouldn’t suggest this for everyone, but I felt like the medications and doctors were triggering my symptoms. I started working on myself, doing a lot of research, self-study. That’s what worked for me.
MP: How did you become a peer support specialist?
AG: While I was working on my mental health, I did a lot of volunteer work. Somebody I met at one of those volunteer places said, “Why don’t you become a peer support specialist? It’s people helping people that have mental health and addiction.” I said, “Let me check it out,” so went on the DHS website and found out what peer support specialists are trained for. It fit me perfectly. I filled out an application, got a couple of referrals, and went through the training program. They did the background check and everything.
Then I saw that People Inc. was hiring a certified peer specialist for their Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team. What was posted on the position was an exact fit for me, I thought. Because I had been homeless, I was incarcerated. I pretty much fit the bill for this team. I’d been through everything that the people we serve are going through. So I got hired.
MP: Can you describe your job responsibilities?
AG: My job is to bridge the gap between the mental health practitioners and the clients. When I meet with a client, I always share my personal history because, just like most of them, I’ve been through a whole lot of trauma in my life. I’ve been through the jail piece and the addiction piece, the homeless piece.
Sometimes a client won’t share their struggles with a mental health practitioner, but because I’ve already told my own story, they trust that I am the real deal. Some clients test my waters to make sure I’m for real. But then they feel open to share. Pretty much they share everything with me.
MP: What happens during a typical appointment?
AG: Say you’re homeless, and you have an addiction, and say your mental health is stopping you from moving forward. We’d talk about your mental health and how you’re feeling. Because I’ve experienced so many of the symptoms and life experiences, I pretty much know exactly how they’re feeling, and sometimes I can even feel how they’re feeling.
Sometimes, clients tell me things they don’t tell their case managers. What’s stopping them from talking to their case managers — their inner feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment — they’ll share that with me.
So say they’re afraid to say they don’t know how to fill out an application. At first, they’ll try to brush it off, like, “I don’t want to do this now. Can we do it another time?” I’ll go talk to them and I’ll ask what’s going on. I’ll say, “Can we work on this application?” And then they’ll eventually come out and tell me, “I don’t know how to write.” Or “I don’t understand what I’m reading.” Then I’ll take that back to the case managers and I’ll let them know what’s going on. We work as a team. We help each other however we can.
MP: Another part of your job is to run People, Inc.’s support group for voice hearers. How often do you meet? What goes on in the meetings?
AG: We meet once a week, every Thursday. Usually we have anywhere from five to 12 people in the group. This group’s been going on for about two years. We talk about problems about getting on the bus, problems about getting to their doctor’s appointments, problems with forgetting time. The group members actually work out what they can do to better help themselves remember these appointments. We talk about safe ways of walking through a park full of people, of getting on a bus. Together we discuss coping skills that may and may not help.
MP: What are some effective coping skills your clients have discovered?
AG: I worked with a woman who was never able to get on the bus because of her voices. Eventually she found a coping skill — I always emphasize that clients find the skill themselves, we don’t find it for them. She got a dog. Now, she takes the dog on the bus with her in her bag and she talks to the dog. She knows her bus stops. As she’s talking to the dog, she knows where she needs to get off. She doesn’t have to pay attention anymore. Before, she was so fearful of getting on the bus. The voices made her think that either somebody’s talking about her or thinking something bad about her. That’s how it works in group: Together, we go through all kinds of coping skills they could use, and they pick and choose whatever they feel might work for them.
MP: Where do you meet with your clients?
AG: The ACT team has a caseload of 60 clients, and I see all 60 of them. I meet with people probably about 7 hours a day. We have a team meeting for an hour in the morning, and then after that I’m out in the field. Ninety percent of the time I’m out there in the field. Once in a while a client will come in and I’ll meet here, but mostly I meet them at their homes, in the shelter, on the street.
All the clients on this team, they all say how good it is to talk to somebody that’s been where they’re at. It’s not fun for them: There’s not a person I’ve talked to that really enjoys it when I come around. They’re struggling, and we talk about that. It’s a painful conversation. But before I leave, I always make sure that they’re laughing or having a good time. I leave them on a good note.
MP: Does your work tire you out?
AG: No. Actually, it’s a rush. Because I’ve been there and it’s just like I don’t want anybody to have to go through what I went through. I just want to help them get through these barriers so that they can move forward. We have resources. It’s hopeful.
MP: This job sounds like a perfect match for your skills and experience.
AG: It does match. It’s more than work for me: This job does keep me going. It keeps me healthy and well. I love what I do so much that even after hours I go and volunteer to help other hearers. I need to stay busy in order to keep my voices from taking over, to stay healthy mentally.