For North Potomac resident Matthew Ratz, struggling with mental illness is as much a personal journey as a professional one. Last September, the 34 year old became executive director of On Our Own of Prince George’s County, a health and wellness center that helps substance abusers and others with cognitive health problems, people he calls “members.”
Ratz himself has cyclothymia, a type of bipolar disorder that causes a frequent change in moods. His is a former learning specialist at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington.
What kinds of issues do you typically see?
A lot of people here are dealing with multiple diagnoses. Some people are dealing with homelessness, unemployment, substance use recovery. Some members are counting single-digit days of sobriety. A lot of these members live in group homes or assisted living. When you’re indigent and you lack resources, and you’re dealing with something like schizophrenia or Bipolar I, or depression or anxiety, and your only option is to go to the emergency room and get a seven-day prescription, many members turn to self-medicating.
We need to be cognizant of the fact that people are dealing with a lot of heavy stuff, and more and more the resources just aren’t there. For some members, when it’s cold they call an ambulance, because they can get three meals and a warm bed. I had three police officers here this week because one of the members was expressing suicidal ideation and I had to call 911. It’s devastating, but the goal is to connect them with resources and positivity and support.
What goes on here every day?
I’m a one-man team. I open the doors. I plan the programs. We do meditation. We do a poetry workshop. We have a program called In the Studio that my predecessor started, because we have two members that like to rap. And every couple of weeks we produce an original rap song. Everything we do here isn’t focused on the illness. It’s focused on wellness and recovery. What can we do to make ourselves feel well? What can we create? What can we invent?
How does having cyclothymia affect you day to day?
What happens to me is that I get low. If happiness is a scale of one to 10, I’ll get to about a four. I have to be careful with an elevated mood. If I’m too busy or too frantic, I find I talk too fast. I can’t necessarily control my spending in the moment, so I don’t carry cash on me. My wife is very sensitive to it, so she’ll say, “You need to call your doctor.” If it’s been three or four days and I’ve been depressed and moody, that will often be followed by a spike.
How do you deal with that?
There’s no cure for it. You have to have a management strategy, so it’s medication plus therapy and creative outlets.
Has your illness shaped your experiences in the workplace?
What I like about being here at On Our Own is that in previous professional experiences, the employer’s expectation is that you come in, and you deliver at this level ad infinitum, or constantly. There was no recognition that “I’ve busted my butt for three weeks and now I need to take a break.”
I understand you do a lot of local theater in your spare time. Do you find that the arts are a good escape from stress?
The opportunity to put on a different person’s clothing for a while and imagine their background and look through their eyes isn’t playing pretend, as much as a vicarious experience. I played Bert in “Mary Poppins.” And Bert is so optimistic and loves everybody and believes in the honesty of humankind. That was a nice character to occupy for a couple of performances and rehearsals because it was so different from my day to day.
And you write poems as well?
A lot of my poems come from life. When I was dealing with my mental health issues, I wrote a lot about overcoming struggles. I wrote one called “Brain Stem” that uses a lot of garden imagery. It talks about the oasis of the mind and the bramble and the thorns. Then on the flip side, the forget-me-nots and chrysanthemums.
Do you incorporate this creative side of you into your work at On Our Own?
We have a collection of members’ poems, and I have a friend coming in who is a haiku artist, and he’s going to work with us on sharpening the language. And we’re going to prepare these poems for publication.
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