Romeo’s Ups and Downs

By Ivan Becerra

Sitting on a black chair that has seen better days, Romeo considers for a moment the question at hand. He fixes his gaze on the wall across the small living room and a smile plays on his young face. “I’m an actor, I’m a funny guy; I've been acting since second grade." Anticipating the next question, he adds, “When I'm acting I feel I just can be anything I want to be; I can do anything. I love the feeling of being in a character and acting with passion. I can let out all my pain."

Romeo’s life has seen some “ups and downs,” as he puts it. Among his “ups” he counts the love of his family; among his “downs” are his struggles with mental health as a teenager. Thinking of high school brings painful memories of hopelessness and loss. He has suffered from hallucinations on and off since he was seven, but when he was fourteen his symptoms became more serious.

Hit by the intensity of emotions he couldn’t understand, his feeling of isolation increased and his social life collapsed. Cast as an outsider, he became the target of bullying. “I used to be this guy who wanted to fit in. I just wanted to be like everyone else. But in high school everything started to go wrong. Everything flipped."

When he was a sophomore his father died. “At that moment teenage life was over. All of a sudden it was ‘welcome to all these mental problems’. Welcome to hospitals, welcome to therapy, and welcome to case managers.”

The situation profoundly affected Romeo’s mother. He remembers how she took care of him in a time of uncontrollable sadness. “My mom is a happy person, but she cried a lot because she didn’t want to see me like that. She tried to cheer me up; she pushed me to dress nicely, to hang with friends, and date. She's one of those cool moms.”

After a year of adjusting her work schedule to attend to the needs of her son, his mother realized that Romeo needed more help than she could provide on her own. Searching the internet for answers, she found Fred Finch Youth Center.

Fred Finch Youth Center is an organization that provides mental health and social services to children, young adults, and their families. One of the programs offered by Fred Finch is called Supportive Housing for Transition Age Youth (STAY), an MHSA-funded program of Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services (BHCS).

“My mom got an interview for me with a guy named Roger” Romeo recalls. “I was all dressed in black, with long messy hair and I was kind of gloomy. Even though I looked like that, it was as if Roger saw I was really a good person, that I was something special."

In the words of Roger Daniels, STAY Program Director, “STAY is a multidisciplinary program made up of mental health clinicians, medication management professionals, and other support staff. It addresses the individual needs of each person as well as creating a sense of hope for future success among participants.” The STAY program includes crisis support and mental health services for youth ages eighteen to twenty-four. The program also assists participants with accomplishing goals in other life domains such as competitive employment specifically designed for people with mental health issues, housing, strengthening relationships, substance usage, independent living skills, and obtaining clothing. “Whatever they bring, we try to meet them there and start providing the support they need,” says Daniels.

Once he was in the program, Romeo was assigned a clinician who teamed up with him to develop an individualized treatment plan. “Some people don’t want the help. For me, I knew I needed the help, and I knew I needed to help myself,” Romeo stressed.

“We took it day by day. In the beginning, we weren't getting anywhere; I guess I just had to deal with trying to get rid of all the pain. He [the clinician] said: ‘before you get a job, and before you do all your super schooling, you need to work on the pain you are feeling.’”

During a couple of years of work, Romeo's condition became increasingly stable, and one morning he had one of those moments of clarity that come just a few times in life. He described it like this.

“One morning I woke up and felt different. I said to myself, ‘This is your life; this is your family that loves you.’ The sun was shining and my mom was cooking breakfast. I took a step out the door, and for the first time in a long time I looked up at the sky.” Romeo spoke with the clinician later that day and expressed his desire to “do something different.” It was clear to Romeo that although life was not what he had expected, he now had a sense of purpose and direction. The next step for him was to get a job.

The road to recovery is not a straight line, and Romeo lived that reality in a painful way. At a certain point he began to experience a shift in his mood that led to difficulties with his family. Strong arguments with his sister became common, and his mother “started to get a little itchy and kind of ticked off.” Anger as well as an unpredictable and often explosive mood took over Romeo’s usually friendly disposition. For a four-month period he was put on several involuntary psychiatric placements known as “5150s” at John George, Alameda County’s psychiatric hospital.

Back at home, after an especially strong fight, his mom couldn’t take it anymore – she asked him to move out of the house. “At first I thought she was being unreasonable for kicking me out of the house,” Romeo said, and after a pause he added, “I didn't realize at the time that she knew it was time for me to go out on my own.”

Always with his STAY clinician by his side, Romeo embarked on a journey he describes as horrible and amazing at the same time; a journey that, in less than a year, would transform his life. He went from living at home with his mother to a shelter for homeless youth, and then to a group home that supports individuals coming from psychiatric crisis, and finally to the Fred Finch campus housing.

“They [the STAY program] wanted to know if I could handle living on my own," he said. Just a few months after that Romeo got an apartment through STAY and he now lives there by himself. Within three years, Romeo has learned to manage his symptoms, and his condition is now stable. At twenty-one, he has found a new sense of empowerment, fuelled by his independence. “My life has completely changed, from hopeless to strong and unafraid of the future,” he says. He volunteers for a teen program at a nonprofit; he has a job at a restaurant, and has got a part in a play put on by a local theater company.

“I know it’s not going to be easy, but now I feel that I have control, and I cannot let myself down,” he reflects, and then adds, “Looking back at everything I've been through and seeing where I am now, it motivates me to say, ‘Imagine where you're going to be ten years from now.’”


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