Interview by Matt Mague/CMWN intern

Tony Orlando and Dawn reminded us to Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole’ Oak Tree as Joe Don Baker was Walking Tall.  The Miami Dolphins completed the first perfect football season, while the designated hitter came to baseball.  It was then – in 1973, when Neil came to Colorado from Long Island, New York.

Entering junior high at the time, Neil was a happy go lucky kid with dreams of architectural design.  Those plans soon met the grounding of real life however, as so many of us find in tumultuous adolescent years.  By 1976, the now Gateway High School student found himself struggling with depression.  Difficulty making friends and establishing relationships soon led to familiar techniques of self-medication.  Alcohol and marijuana took a toll on young Neil.  So much that by the time he graduated from Cherry Creek High School in 1980, a clinical diagnosis of type one bipolar depression accompanied the achievement.  With these concerns now present, getting away to Western State College in Gunnison made sense.  His older brother was already a pre-med student there, and so Neil went to study industrial design.

It was a short-lived escape however, as Neil found once again, there is no escaping from oneself.  High risk behaviors like drinking and driving soon led to institutional care and the passage of Neil’s eighteenth birthday from a Bethesda Hospital bed.  Over the next year, Neil devoted himself to the engagement of his own wellness and discovered his talents for assisting others in similar efforts.  Empowered by this talent and supported by an effective medication regimen, he went to Colorado State University to study both theater and psychology.  Six years, two majors, one divorce, and a bout with pneumonia later, Neil graduated from CSU with a degree in sociology and an emphasis in psychology.  He moved back to Denver and quickly found himself employed at the very same residential facility that had helped him years before.

This may seem like the end of Neil’s story.  But to meet the man is to know this as yet another new beginning.  He remarried, wrote three novels, raised and sent a daughter off to college, and went back to college himself for graphic design and CAD certificates.  He joined a DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) support group and began working as a peer support specialist.  After serving briefly as the executive director of Community Connections, Neil worked in several capacities at the Rainbow Center in Thornton.  For over eight years, jobs such as: resource coordinator, assistant director, and WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan) facilitator all benefitted directly from his lived experience.  Now on his eighth personal WRAP, Neil is pleased to describe an almost complete lack of symptoms as well as nine years of sobriety.

It has been, in Neil’s own words, “a long journey.”  He credits regular exercise, sleep, nutrition, and spirituality with the achievement of balance in his life nowadays.  He has good personal relationships with family, and has regained his sense of humor.  His work as a peer navigator at Denver Public Library’s central branch is personally fulfilling and focuses on normalizing the individual struggles of people experiencing homelessness and / or mental health concerns.  Neil teaches the importance of affirmative psychology because as he says, “I know people are capable.”  He advises us to take every opportunity to educate ourselves and to enjoy the process of doing so.  He cautions that there will always be setbacks, but not giving up and not losing one’s sense of humor are essential to that very process.

Neil states that, “I thank God for the USA and the opportunity to become well.”  He emphasizes the importance of each day, and the opportunities to help each other by way of our own lived experiences.  Helping is truly an opportunity, and in so doing we continually learn not only about each other, but about ourselves.  It’s a natural rhythm of life that Neil appears to have mastered in his belief that, “Recovery is not only possible, it’s inevitable.”

Read more about Neil’s journey in You Can Recover! by iNAPS founder, Steve Harrington.

Peer Specialist Spolight: Neil’s Story
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Amanda Kearney-Smith

I founded the Network as the Executive Director in 2011 and, before that, I was a program director at Mental Health Colorado. My educational background is in Developmental Psychology, but living with bipolar disorder has drawn me to this work. I'm most passionate about protecting the civil rights and dignity of others. In my free time, I love reading, practicing yoga, and spending time with my family here and in Illinois.

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