Miami, FL - 2018-01-04
Justin: I’m from New Jersey originally. I came down to Miami 15 years ago. In New Jersey, I had some turmoil with family and school. I had turned to drugs and alcohol at an early age, seen a psychologist in high school, and was prescribed medication.
After high school, I was partying and hanging out with the wrong people. My brother was living in Miami and told me to come to Miami and get clean. Well, you don’t come to Miami to get clean.
I was going to the beach every day, meeting new people, but old habits die hard. I started to struggle with finding steady work and being able to keep jobs because of my addiction. My family had an intervention. They sent me to a rehab. I was hospitalized in New Jersey and then I was given medication and . . .
BW: You were sent back to Jersey?
Justin: I went there on a delusion. I bought a one-way ticket with the last bit of money I had. I thought that the mob was going to kill my family. I just started to lose it, end of the world type shit.
I would clean my trash before I threw it out because I thought somebody would take it and plant it in a crime scene or accuse me of a crime, or if I had a bag of drugs or something I would have to flush it down the toilet because I didn’t want any of my DNA on the bag. I was sure people were out to get me.
I was living an unhealthy, dishonest lifestyle. You start to think that the things you’ve done wrong are going to come back and get you. I was hanging out with drug dealers. I was doing bad stuff. I was getting into trouble.
That took a toll on my mental health. You see so much crazy stuff and you get paranoid. Am I buying from a cop? Is somebody going to set me up? Is somebody watching this? You don’t know and then when you get sicker and sicker . . . the paranoia just explodes.
I was in the hospital for like three weeks. Every day they’d ask me how I felt and I would tell them the truth and I would just stay in there longer. Finally one day they were like, how do you feel? I was like, man I feel pretty good, these meds are great. Can I go home now? They discharged me with like a month or two supply of medicine.
I was going to work every day. I felt better. I really did. I was like, I can get high again. I started smoking some pot.
The smoking wasn’t enough. I went back to cocaine and pills and mushrooms. Eventually, I got arrested in 2007. They put me up on the ninth floor. The ninth floor is the psychiatric floor that closed down. They dubbed it ‘the forgotten floor’ because they’d put the worst corrections officers up there to deal with the crazy people. There were people being beat down around the clock, people being raped in the shower. It was screams all the time. I was just like my God, what did I do to end up here?
I had a cell-mate. I’m like, what are you in for. He gets down off the top bunk and he’s been in jail so long he can’t even stand up. He’s got crust on his feet and the crust is so deep that it’s open wounds. He goes, “I stabbed my wife with a pair of scissors.” He had pictures from the file that the lawyer gave him. There it was, the butt end of a pair of scissors sticking out of this woman’s chest and he goes, “But I still love her. She’s going to take me back.”
I’m like this is what he did to his wife, what is he going to do to me?
I didn’t sleep for a lot of that time on the ninth floor. If you don’t sleep they start coming around every 15 minutes, 96 times a day, they tap on the glass, “show your face, show your face, wake up and show your face.”
The guy in the cell next to me told the guard to fuck off. He’s like, “Hey man, stop knocking on the glass, we’re trying to sleep. It became like torturous if you wanted to sleep. The guard took this guy out of the cell and beat the living crap out of him at three in the morning. I heard his flesh hitting the concrete and this man is pleading for his life, “Please God no. Please, I’m sorry. Please stop,” until . . . silence. He knocked him unconscious.
It was nuts. I was in on a misdemeanor. . .
They gave me medication, but it didn’t work ‘cause when you’re in an unstable environment it’s not going to work. That’s why jail is not the place for treatment.
I had been in Miami Beach for five years. I’m like six foot one, I weighed 130 pounds, soaking wet, delusional, dirty, stank, talking to myself, coming down off the drugs.
It used to be a good time. This was like the exact opposite of that.
So I started to go successfully to my treatment. I started to take my medication. I started to feel better. I put on some weight. Everybody told me I was mentally ill and a drug addict and to avoid jail, death, or the hospital I had to take my medicine and stop doing drugs. I listened to them very clearly.
But they didn’t say I couldn’t drink, right? So, I closed out my court case in this building on the day before my 24th birthday. I was ready to run, go party again. I couldn’t wait.
Then they asked if I would like to work here [peer support]. I said, excuse me? They were like, “How would you like to work with severely mentally ill people?” I was like, “I’ll think about it.” I called the guy I was going to go get high with and I was like man, they just offered me a county job. He goes, “Bro, they just offered you a government job.” He said, “If you get a government job you can be sweeping the floors it doesn’t matter, just get in the door.” He goes, “How much are they paying you?” It was like 12 bucks an hour.
He said, “12 bucks an hour, that’s good money, man.” I was like shit, he’s right. I called them back, and I took the job. I never used drugs again because I got that job. I stayed clean. Now it’s been ten years that I’ve worked there. I’ve helped close to 900 people get out of jail in that time.
I met a girl and got married. Steve [Judge Leifman] married my wife and I. We have a house, a six-year-old son, I’ve traveled the country sharing my story of recovery and hope, and have trained at other facilities. It’s been a great ride. I’m really thankful.
Justin was hired because of a program spearheaded by Judge Leifman, a Miami Judge who has spent much of his career diverting people with mental health issues out of the penal system and creating programs that help them find purpose and heal. Look for the interview with Judge Leifman in my upcoming book, Grey Matters - A Portrait of Mental Health in America