Brian Paul is a good conversationalist. Easy to engage, quick to respond informatively and thoughtful. His talk is also filled with honest description of his 36 years. This includes being the son of a now-deceased alcoholic father, a history of chronic depression and self-harm, and years of struggle with substance use.
In late spring of this year, Brian ended up in the psychiatric unit of a hospital in Chicago where, homeless and stealing alcohol to support his addiction, he was assaulted and robbed on the street.
“I was in a great deal of despair and hopelessness, but I also decided I don’t want to die,” said the Connecticut native who had been living in Boston. “I wanted to save my life. I looked virtually at 12 different rehabilitation programs in Massachusetts, and MHA’s Yale Street was my first choice. I went through the application process from Chicago, and was accepted. I made my way here successfully and sober by train.”
Brian was accepted into MHA’s residential GRIT program in Holyoke for those with a substance use and mental health diagnosis. He now spends his days working to achieve what the program acronym stands for – “Growing, Re-imaging, Inspired, Transformed.”
The program is housed in a welcoming 16-bed, renovated Tudor-style that sits on nearly one acre of land in a quiet neighborhood. Brian likes its structure in contrast to others he has tried and the fact that it is for those with a dual diagnosis.
“I have suffered from mental illness since I was a teenager and my addiction to alcohol started when I was 20 years old, so I have been fighting that battle for about 16 years now,” he said.
He added Yale Street has already been “incredibly helpful in boosting my self-esteem and helping me to see that I do have the ability to manage my disease of alcoholism as well as my mental illnesses and to learn how to cope in healthy ways with that and with the trauma I have experienced over the last decade.”
He particularly likes that “everything is done as a house” and that “it is not the same everyday. We do a morning motivation group where we set our intention for the day as well as talk about our emotional, mental and physical well-being and then at night we reflect on that after dinner,” Brian said.
He said programming ranges “from training that is great for trauma to recovery-based groups to AA to yoga to mindfulness as well as an anger management group” and that staff is available 24/7.
“It doesn’t matter what time of day it is if you are looking for support, if you need someone to talk to, if you are going through something, you can sit with any of the staff members and have a conversation,” Brian said. “They are all very supportive and kind and understanding.”
He added he feels “very comfortable to share very vulnerable things in group as well as in therapy with my clinician.”
“I am mentally in such a better place than I have been in years,” Brian said.
His challenges started in early childhood. He was diagnosed at six with a rare genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerve cells and underwent several surgeries. Time spent with his biological father became “a nightmare.”
“My biological father was an alcoholic and not the nicest man. He was abusive toward my mother and me when I was young,” Brian said. “He was a very difficult man to be around. My mother remarried and my stepdad has been my father and a supportive figure in my life. He is a really great man and I am grateful that my mother married him.”
Brian was prescribed both medication and talk therapy at an early age for his hyperactivity and inability to concentrate, and the therapy became more intensive after he was shunned at school and attempted suicide. His family moved so he could be in a more supportive educational environment. The interventions helped to a point. He did well socially and academically in high school and participated in sports, but in going off to college, the truth, he said, showed he was “not in control at all.”
“I graduated high school at 17 and the drinking started immediately,” Brian said. “I partied with friends, smoking cigarettes and using marijuana. The first year in college in Boston I was doing cocaine, and using crystal meth. My addiction took off quick.”
He did graduate with a degree in business and became a licensed insurance broker by trade, but continued to struggle with his mental health and drinking to fill an internal void.
Now, he says, with what he is learning in MHA’s GRIT program, he is “confident that a year from now I will be capable of living on my own without the need to cope with alcohol.”
He is already repairing ruptured relationships with family and friends and back to doing some of the artwork – mobiles and wind chimes made with found objects – that he likes to do and that now adorn his room and the Yale Street foyer.
“If someone is offering you help, then take the help. Do not brush it aside and hope that things will get better. Things are not going to get better without actions,” Brian said. “If I could go back and give myself advice or give someone advice who is struggling with depression, anxiety and addiction, it would be that – to take the help. You are worth it. I remember feeling that nobody likes me, I am not worth it, what does it matter anyway.”
He added, “Through the help of Yale Street today I realize those things are so far from the truth.”
“Because I have these diagnoses that I have, my brain is constantly trying to trick me into thinking terrible things about myself,” Brian said.
“Alcoholism is a disease and it is OK to have that disease and be honest about it. I think I was very much in denial about my addiction and mental health problems until very recently. You can really feel hopeless when you are plagued with mental illness and addiction. You can feel really alone and not valued. MHA has really lifted me up and made me feel a part of, and not a part from, what is around me and that is exactly how I want to feel.”