SERV consumer earns degree, finds job, strikes out on his own
December 16, 2013
While their son stood at the podium in front of dinner guests at a recent SERV fundraiser, mother and father looked on with pride. Viral was telling his story of recovery from paranoid schizophrenia and drug use to where he is today -- a full-time counselor for people with mental illness and chemical addiction.
Viral, 37, who had utilized SERV Centers of N.J.'s residential and support services since 2005, recently struck out on his own to live and work independently in the community. "This is our hope for all of our consumers," said SERV President and CEO Gary van Nostrand at the event.
Before Viral left SERV in July 2013, he agreed to share his success story in June to reception attendees at the 23rd annual Volley For SERV Tennis Tournament at Cherry Valley Country Club in Skillman. The guests were in awe of Viral's accomplishments as they listened to him talk about how he was able to earn his final credits toward a master's degree from Pace University, thanks to scholarships he received from The SERV Foundation. He also gave credit to SERV counselors who supported him over the years and who encouraged him to apply for the scholarships.
"We are all very proud of Viral and for all he has accomplished," said Tammy Wilson, Director of SERV Centers of N.J.-Central Region.
Viral's story of mental illness began at the age of 20, when he had his first psychotic episode. A frequent user of LSD and a daily pot smoker, Viral attributed his paranoia to the drugs. He also made an inordinate amount of visits to his doctor, believing he had one disease after another. After examinations, the doctor would send him home, suggesting he had hypochondria.
Three years later, after a night of drinking tequila and doing drugs, followed by confusion and paranoia, Viral announced, "I quit." "I never picked up again," he said. "I've been clean for 14 years."
However, the paranoia continued. "I felt people were watching me and I kept looking for evidence. I tore apart my car and house to find cameras," he said.
He voluntarily went to UMDNJ for his first hospitalization for a week. The medication he received helped lessen the paranoia and helped him to build coping skills. "That's when I put on my 'game face,'" he said. "It was a conscious effort to look normal. I had lost many friends because my staring freaked people out."
Two more week-long hospital stays later, doctors in Virginia found the medication that worked best for Viral and it "changed everything," he said.
Now stabilized, Viral returned to New Jersey and his parents, who were getting the emotional support they needed from SAMHAJ, a program of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The South Asian Mental Health Awareness in Jersey provides support, education and advocacy for South Asians affected by serious mental illness.
Meanwhile, Viral learned of SERV through a friend who was a resident in SERV Centers-Northern Region. Knowing he needed support as he recovered, he participated in a comprehensive assessment at SERV.
During Viral's first three years with SERV Centers-Central Region, he lived with roommates in an apartment in Middlesex County. Longing for a bedroom of his own, he eventually moved into another of SERV's apartments in Middlesex.
Content in his new place, Viral considered going back to Pace University to finish the last two classes he needed for his master's degree in counseling. "I had dropped out of grad school and was very discouraged about school. I thought I would just have some mediocre job."
Viral credits his SERV counselors and Ms. Wilson with providing the encouragement he needed to pursue his educational goals.
"Tammy encouraged me to apply for a scholarship grant from The SERV Foundation," said Viral, who already had a bachelor's degree in criminal justice with minors in psychology and New York City Humanities.
"Viral was the perfect candidate for the SERV Scholarship," said Ms. Wilson. "Because he had defaulted on school loans several years earlier, he could not qualify for any type of financial assistance. The SERV Scholarship provided him the resources to fulfill his dream of completing his graduate degree and, ultimately, to help others in need. This was exactly the need that the SERV Scholarship Fund was designed to fulfill."
After applying for and receiving two grants from the Foundation's Scholarship Fund, Viral completed his graduate studies and later found jobs as a drug counselor and a peer counselor. Now, he is working full time for an agency in Newton as a counselor for people with co-occurring mental illness and chemical addiction. There, he works with consumers on relapse prevention, monitors medication and conducts group therapy sessions. "I have vast life experience and educational experience to offer (in this position)," he said.
In working toward this place in his life, Viral thanks SERV Senior Counselor Praseeda Jayanthan and Residential Counselors Ambrose Ekehlar and Quintella Thomas for their influence. "They helped me with job applications when I needed it, coordinating everything so that I could help myself. They wanted to make sure I was doing well and succeeding in life," he said.
According to Ms. Thomas, Viral's awareness about mental illness and his ever-positive attitude had much to do with his recovery. "He was very knowledgeable about his illness and he paid attention to his symptoms, knowing when he needed a med adjustment. He continued to move forward with is life even though he had a mental illness."
Mr. Ekehlar agrees. "There is something very unique about Viral," he said. "His level of acceptance of his mental illness was very critical to his own success, and with that acceptance came the realization that every so often one does need help."
Viral was proactive in most things, yet would seek help when necessary, said Mr. Ekehlar. "He would talk to several staff members about a problem, request their straightforward opinions, ask more questions, and then make his own decisions based on those conversations. He believed that a problem shared is a problem half-solved."
Because of his successful recovery from mental illness and his achievements at his place of employment, Viral became self-supporting and made the decision to leave SERV and find his own apartment closer to work. "I feel like I don't need services like others may need them, so it's time for me to go," he said. "SERV has been very good to me. I was always able to get a counselor when I needed one. They know how to handle crisis situations very well."
To others on the road to recovery, Viral offers this advice: "Stay on your meds regardless of how you feel, and hang in there; it gets better."