Motivational speaker

Mental health advocate

In recovery

Jay’s story

I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the Midwest of the United States. I lived with my parents and three brothers, and we were a very-close knit family, with both sets of grandparents living nearby.

My childhood was idyllic. When I was growing up, computers and phones had yet to become ubiquitous, so there was lots of outdoor play, with my friends and brothers, at the park nearby.

Sports were a big part of all our lives. My dad put a baseball mitt on my hand when I was three years old and I didn’t stop playing until I turned down an offer to join university team, aged 18. I was also a cross country and track runner

The one thing that wasn’t great was that I was a terrible student. I still am: in the usual approaches to learning and education, I struggle. But instead of looking at ways to support me, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as a child, and placed on medication.

Each time a new drug was launched, every six months or so, my therapist would switch me onto it.

In 1987, the year after I was born, there were roughly 400,000 kids in the US who were medicated for the umbrella of disorders that we call attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. By the time I was diagnosed aged 11, that number had swelled to two million kids. Now, more than four and half million are treated every year. Children of my generation were the first subjects in an ongoing experiment of using medication to get children to conform to our antiquated education system. And while I don’t doubt that medication can be helpful for some people, it’s hard to believe that every one of those millions of children really need to be medicated.

The 1990s, when I was growing up, was the golden age for pharmaceutical interventions for ADHD. By my teens, I had tried as many as five different medications. Each time a new drug was launched, every six months or so, my therapist would switch me onto it.

All medications have side-effects, and mine were no different. A couple of years into my treatment, my anxiety, depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which I’d began to experience before my ADHD diagnosis, became much worse. One’s teenage years are often stressful, with big physical and mental changes causing turmoil. Add the gasoline of ADHD medication, and it was an explosive combination.

But instead of helping me to manage these side-effects, my therapist identified them as being signs of a larger issue. He first called it a mood disorder, elevating it to bipolar disorder a couple of years later. By the time I’d graduated from high school, my therapist had started treating me for bipolar disorder, prescribing even more medications to help me cope.

I was never on the same combination of medications for very long

In my first year of university, I had a major period of depression. I hadn’t been doing well academically, rarely studying and partying a lot. Increasingly, whenever I experienced a difficult emotion, mood or thought, I’d reach for my medication. I’d make frequent calls to my therapist saying I was struggling with different issues, and he would always call in a new prescription. I was never on the same combination of medications for very long; it changed constantly. 

In addition to the prescription drugs, I rediscovered weed at university. I found it helped bring me down from the increasingly chaotic state that my prescriptions left me in. Prior to this, I hadn’t taken any illegal substances, nor drank, since experimenting a bit at school. As a high school athlete, I wouldn’t drink or smoke because I wanted to be at my best on the field – ironic, given all the legal drugs I was on back then. But at university, the only thing I thought I could do when I wanted to relax was smoke weed. I smoked copious amounts, and got into dealing along with my roommate.

At one point, we were supplying roughly a third of the students of my small university with marijuana – they were constantly in and out of our room to buy it. And I was having a wonderful time – there were always people around and I was making lots of new friends, and smoking and drinking, not dangerously, but definitely unhealthily. I also started experimenting with hallucinogens like mushrooms, which I loved. But while fun, on top of all my medication, it caused my mental health to decline further.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before I got arrested for dealing. Luckily, because I’m a white guy from a privileged background, I got a lawyer, and the only repercussion was losing my driver’s licence for six months. It was later expunged from my record. Sadly, that’s not the case for a lot of people of colour here in the US. But after my arrest, with my mental health deteriorating and studies going nowhere, I transferred to another university before I officially failed out.

It was in my home town, and I moved into a dorm there. But a lot of my high school friends were still around, and instead of my studies improving, they actually got worse. I ended up joining a fraternity, which turned out to be fortunate, because when I did eventually drop out of university, it gave me a place to live and a friendship group to support me. I still partied all the time, and my mental health continued to erode. And by the time I turned 21 that summer, I was completely physically and mentally addicted to my medications.

they couldn’t believe that anyone other than a major drug dealer would have that many medications on them

A sign of how far this had gone was when I went on a trip to the Middle East with my fraternity brothers over the winter holiday that year. As I was walking through security at JFK airport in New York, I got pulled out of line because I was carrying a backpack that had all of my pill canisters in it, and nothing else. They rubber-glove searched me, because they just couldn’t believe that anyone other than a major drug dealer would have that many medications on them. They weren’t even convinced when I showed them that all the canisters had my and my therapist’s names on them. I eventually persuaded them that I wasn’t a criminal, but it should have been a wake-up call.

By this point, I was swallowing a month’s worth of prescriptions in a matter of weeks. My therapist continued to mix and match, adding new drugs and increasing dosages, even though he knew I was severely misusing them. The worst was Klonopin, an anti-seizure drug that was also used to treat anxiety: I’d take handful of these pills multiple times a day. It got to the point where I was taking more than the recognised lethal dose every day, as well as five other drugs on top of this. As a result, my mental health was not in a good place at all, and my symptoms were spiralling out of control.

My life had become bizarre and surreal. There almost ceased to be a difference between being awake or asleep. When I was asleep I was never restful; my fraternity brothers used to laugh at my ‘night-terrors’. Someone would say something innocuous and it would start cycling in my mind, and I tended to lose control over my ability to regulate my emotions. I couldn’t stop cleaning, and my mood was cycling constantly up and down. And because I’d learned to treat my every mood and feeling with pills, when I started to feel a way I didn’t like, it became almost automatic to reach for my pill canisters. Eventually, my Klonopin never left my pocket: I’d leave the house with my wallet, keys and Klonopin.

I knew I wasn’t doing well, but by that point – I was 22 – I’d been told for about four years that I had a serious mental health condition. And that led me to believe it was out of my control. My dad likes to remind me that I was so convinced of this label, I was going to get the world ‘bipolar’ tattooed on my arm.

I wasn’t fun to be around, so I started losing friends. But I also made new friends who were struggling with substances and mental health as well. I moved into a house with ten or 11 other people, and the only thing we had in common was that we were doing a lot of drugs together. So that was my life: I was 22, unable to hold down a job, spending my days sitting on the couch, occasionally going out with the few friends I had left.

I came to handcuffed to a bed in hospital, in terrible pain

That all changed in August 2009, when I was 23. I had spent the past six weeks following a band around the country and living out of my car. I’d had a great time, but when I got back to my home town, it dawned on me that I had alienated most friends and family, didn’t have a job, wasn’t studying: I wasn’t really doing anything. And my supposed debilitating mental health condition, bipolar, wasn’t getting better; in fact, regardless of all the drugs I was on, it was getting worse. That’s when hopelessness set in and I attempted suicide.

I took what I was sure would be a lethal dose of my pills, then called a friend to tell her what I was doing. She texted some other friends who called 911, and unfortunately here in the States, that means the police come. So I was led out of my house in handcuffs, and thrown into the back of a police car. The last thing I remember before I succumbed to the overdose was my head slamming into the side of the car, and being pushed into the back seat.

I came to handcuffed to a bed in hospital, in terrible pain, going through overdose, before losing consciousness again. When I finally came round, I was in a secure unit at a different hospital across town. It was frightening; at first, I had no idea where I was. Unfortunately, the medical team still believed I had bipolar, so I was put on even more medication.

Everyone sat in a room and ganged up on one person at a time. It was horrible to watch

I was at this in-patient facility for about three weeks. The hardest moments were when my grandparents, mother and younger brothers came to visit. I was angry with the world because I didn’t want to be there, but needed my parents’ permission to leave. It was tough.

After I was released, I was taken to a long-term care facility; what we would have called a mental institution 50 years ago. It was in a different part of the US, the Berkshires, which is a beautiful region in New England. The beauty of the location was in juxtaposition to how horrible this facility was. They practiced what is now known to be a really harmful model of care, where everyone must sit in a room and gang up on one person at a time. I hated it; I was never the centre of attention because I kept my head down, but it was horrible to watch it being done to other people. Any grievance a person had, they were allowed to hurl at the victim.

One day, it was done to a woman I’d become friends with, and I snapped. I got in the face of the guy who was really verbally abusing her, and we almost came to blows. It was a big thing, because there were four things you couldn’t do at this facility: no sex, no drugs, no alcohol and no fighting. I’d been ready to break one of those rules, which made me a target.

I have my treatment notes from my time at the facility: in later years, I started requesting my records from all the places and professionals I interacted with back then, in order understand what had been done to me. My notes suggest that my various therapists were confused, because I didn’t fit the bipolar diagnosis. But never once did anyone ask whether this could have been due to the drugs. No-one but me: about three weeks after I’d arrived, I said I wanted to try getting off the medications, but my request was refused.

After I’d been there about three months, a close friend of mine, who had got there a couple of days after me, attempted suicide. There were actually four people who took their lives while I was there. It would have been five, but luckily I knew the signs and was able to intervene. I stopped her, and they took her to a secure unit nearby. That was when I told the nurses to start my discharge papers.

In order to be discharged, I had to attend one more of those awful groups and tell everyone I was leaving. There were about 100 people in the room, including medical professionals, all telling me how stupid I was, and how I was putting my future on the line. I honestly think that if I hadn’t managed to prevent my friend’s suicide attempt a few days earlier, I wouldn’t have been strong enough to get through it. But I did, and left on New Year’s Eve 2009.

I reached out to a higher power, and asked God for help. And there was no reply.

I spent the first night sleeping on a friend’s floor and drove to New York City the next day. I was on the way to small town outside Sedona, Arizona to live with my grandparents, because they were the only people who would take me in. My parents were very disappointed that I left the long term care facility, and the only person that offered me a place to stay was my grandmother.

I spent New Year’s Day with a friend in New York, and then set off for my grandparents’ home. Not five minutes into the drive, a cab crashed into the side of my car, bending a wheel inwards. But I had to get out to Arizona, so I continued my journey across the entire continent of the United States in a car with three wheels. It was really terrible decision. It was 2 January, blizzard conditions, and as I was driving through the hills of Pennsylvania, the car ended up in a ditch. I popped a tire, and narrowly avoided multiple other accidents. I eventually gave up at a small town in the middle of nowhere.

I consider that night to be my rock bottom. I pulled into a dirty truck stop motel, and after walking to the gas station across the street to get a pop tart for dinner, sat down on the carpet. I was completely alone, and had no-one to call. So I did the thing we all do in those moments: I reached out to a higher power, and asked God for help. And there was no reply.

There were a lot of tears and asking myself whether I had a reason to go on. And then finally I said to myself, if I’m going to get better, I’m going to have to take my recovery seriously. And I’ve got to do it alone, because no one is coming to save me.

I was on so many medications I couldn’t have just stopped: the combined withdrawal would have killed me.

The next day, I rented another car and drove home to Cincinnati, where I boarded a plane to Arizona to begin a step-down detox. For some substances you can go cold-turkey, but for others, you will die if you stop suddenly. I was on so many medications – five or six – I couldn’t have just stopped, because the combined withdrawal would have killed me.

I reluctantly began seeing a therapist – my grandmother insisted – who also wanted me to stay on the medications because of the risks of the step-down detox. But I was committed, and said I would only keep seeing her if she advised me on how to get off them safely. So I’d see her every couple of weeks, to ensure I was doing things at the right pace. Instead of taking a whole pill I’d take four-fifths, then three-fifths a few days later, and so on, carry on like this until there was nothing left.

Most of this time I spent laying on my grandparents’ guestroom bed. I was in such a terrible state physically and mentally, I really couldn’t do much: I tried getting a job, but it was miserable. The highlight of my day was getting off my bed to sit on the couch with my grandmother to watch the Ellen DeGeneres show on TV.

Three months later, in March 2010, I finally managed to get off all the medications. It was the first time in 13 years that I’d been on no medication. That was when I began rebuilding my life.

I wanted to try living again, but I jumped in too quickly. I moved to a bigger town nearby to live alone, and immediately started sinking: I had no friends, and knew nobody. After about a month, I realised I couldn’t do it. Fortunately for me, an old fraternity brother’s parents had just opened a coffee shop, and but his mum had been diagnosed with cancer. So we came to an arrangement where I would help out at the café in return for staying with my friend at his apartment.

By the autumn, I was doing better. I moved back in with my parents in Cincinnati and enrolled in community college there. It was chance to show myself I could be a good student, and I started making new friends and reconnecting with old ones. After a year at community college, I moved in with some friends and went back to university, where I ended up getting a Bachelor’s degree in psychology.

I was working harder than I’d ever done before in my life 

I graduated in 2012, but had no idea what I wanted to do. I’d been in recovery for nearly three years, was single and jobless, but feeling pretty stable, so I decided to follow my dream of becoming a writer. I moved to New York to live with one of my brothers, and had a really interesting time. I was working harder than I’d ever done before in my life – I had three writing jobs, and was working two regular jobs to keep the roof over my head. It taught me a lot – it showed me that I was back and could do it. But after about eight months, I realised that while I loved writing and living in New York, I didn’t love it enough to commit to the amount of work it would have taken me to succeed as a writer.

But I was ok. I was healing physically and mentally, and began to thrive. By 2015, I was doing really well, and a friend invited me to tell my story at an event he runs in Cincinnati. At first, I said there was no way in Hell that was going to happen: the stigma around mental health and substance misuse is very real, and I was sure I’d be outcast. But when I told my dad this, he lowered the paper he was reading, looked me in the eye, and said, “Fear is never a good reason to not do something”. Then he went back to his paper like he didn’t know he’d just blown my world apart. I agreed to do the talk.

after I finished, a crush of people gathered around to congratulate me

There were about 150 people in the room, many of whom knew me, and I’d warned them that I was going to share things about myself that most of them didn’t know. They knew I had disappeared for a few years, but not why. I was sure I was going to be dismissed, but after I finished, a crush of people gathered around to congratulate me. The next week, the host of a TED event got in touch, inviting me to take part in a salon event, and within two weeks I‘d told my story for the second time. And the ball just kept rolling.

The TED event was one of my favourites. After I got off stage, the kitchen manager invited me back to the kitchen: every person working there was in recovery, and had heard my talk. To say that tears were shed is an understatement – it was a really beautiful moment.

Now, five years later, telling my story has become my life. I love doing it, because of the conversations it starts. I gave a speech to a huge audience about a year ago, and afterwards someone came up to me and told me they had a son they hadn’t spoken to in over a year. He was living on the street somewhere, and was over-medicated as a kid, and they had felt horribly guilty about it – but my story had showed them there was a chance of reconciliation. That’s why I do it: creating change, tearing down the stigma, and showing people that it’s ok to be vulnerable. Vulnerability begets vulnerability – when you are open and honest, and show it’s ok to fail and struggle, it creates space for people to forgive themselves or others. It’s not easy: it took me five years to be able to talk about it, and five years later I’m still growing, still learning. But it makes a world of difference.

My advice to anyone struggling is to reach out. It sound easy, but when in you’re in that place it can be the hardest thing in the world. At my lowest points, I thought I had nobody – but that friend I called when I made my suicide attempt, while I feel horrible about what I put her through, I’ll never stop being thankful to, because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. There is always someone who will listen.

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