5 Questions with AJ Rodriguez

Published on May 10, 2018

May is Mental Health Month, a time to shine a light on mental health and reduce stigma. AJ Rodriguez works as a peer advocate for Placer County Health and Human Services. He uses his personal history with mental health issues to connect with clients every day. He answered a few questions about his journey, from being a client of the Health360 program, which integrates physical and mental health activities, to becoming an employee.

As a reminder, Placer County residents with mental health concerns can attend one of our free walk-in screening clinics

What’s been your experience with mental illness?

My mental illness got really bad. I started getting really paranoid. I got to the point where I was really afraid to eat. I was afraid of people; I thought they were trying to harm me. I thought my dad was trying to kill me. Anybody who came into my life, I immediately thought they were part of my dad's plan to kill me. I had no friends and my roommates couldn't deal with me because I was constantly making things like booby traps in my room — just doing really weird things. I met my girlfriend online. On top of my paranoia and my mental illness I was very heavily into drugs and alcohol, so that wasn't helping anything. When she met me, she said, “I think your problem is more than drugs and alcohol. I think you're mentally ill. Let's go get a mental health evaluation.”

I was stubborn. “No, I'm not going to do that. I'm not mentally ill — no way, not me.” Finally, I got scared of myself and scared I was going to hurt somebody. I told her I needed to go to the hospital. We came down for a mental health evaluation, and they said I was sick. 

I saw therapists and they started putting me on [medication] and within a week I was a different person. I went into an intensive outpatient program for my drug and alcohol use, and I stayed there for twelve months. I [visited the Cirby Hills office in Roseville] for a year doing every single group class, anger management — anything that I could do, I did. Slowly but surely I started coming out of this, from being weird to almost being balanced. 

Now I have friends. I have a girlfriend and coworkers that like me. I never had that before. Before, everyone just wanted to be away from me. Now they gravitate toward me.

How did you get connected with Health360? 

I was in my illness and I was going to see my therapist once a week. She noticed I was isolating myself, not participating in the community and just being really stuck in my head. She said “You know, they have a Health360 program.” I started coming to some groups, doing walking groups, and began to really notice that I was coming out of my shell. I was talking to people; I was exercising. I was wanting to do more, and it got to where I was here every single day, all day long — just doing Health360.

I had felt like I was weird. I have a mental illness, and I just felt like I was kind of quirky. I couldn't really relate to people; they didn't understand me. Everyone here at Health360? We were all the same. We were working toward a goal of recovery. I developed friendships and relationships with these people.

It’s inspiring and it gives you hope. It’s something to look forward to when you have a group of people who are just like you, who are working toward getting better and getting our minds healthy. It just makes it a lot easier to do than if you were doing it on your own. I know for fact I would not be here in my position today if I did not join the Health360 program.

And how did that lead to your current job?

When I joined, I was coming so often that they asked me if I wanted to volunteer. When I started volunteering, that opened up so many more avenues for me. I actually got to run to the classes and run the groups — really just get in there and utilize my skills that I didn’t even know I had. 

I was here all the time; they started calling me a “groupie.” Some people said I should start working here. I had a criminal history from getting myself into trouble before I got well, so I didn't know if I could work here. But one day my girlfriend came into the clubhouse and she saw that they were hiring for the position. We wrote a cover letter talking about my story from start to finish, and the very next day they called me wanting to bring me in for an interview. It just went really quickly. 

How do clients respond to your recovery story? 

It's amazing how the clients really interact with me when I go into the field. They know that I've been in their shoes, and I've been in the same spot that they they were. I've been homeless, so when we talk to our homeless clients, I'm able to say “I was there. I was staying at The Gathering Inn just like you. I took the extra step and started just working hard on getting myself into recovery with my mental health. And there is light at the end of the tunnel: If you take your meds, if you put yourself in positions where you're socializing with other people and not isolating, there could be hope for you.”

They really gravitate towards what I'm saying. Sometimes they like talking to me more than they like talking to the clinicians, because they say “You get me. You understand what I'm going through.” And I do, because I was there. 

Someone helped me, and now I get to go out and help other people. I get to share my story; I get to share the resources with the clients. I get to really see, from start to finish, how they were and when they're pushing along and getting better — and then I get to see the end result. 

What would you tell someone about participating in the programs?

I would tell them I know it's scary at first, but once you come in and give it a chance you'll see that we're a big family here. We're all looking out for each other. If someone's having a bad day, we help them. We have each other's backs.

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