Lived Experience Corner
Hi, my name is Dmitriy Gutkovich. The community of people with lived experience spends hours a day contemplating and gaining mastery on a topic of particular interest to us, our own lives.
Even so, we are often discredited and neglected from any conversations on how to improve our own quality-of-life. City Voices is proud to present this corner, where real people can share their stories, insights, and feedback based on their lived experience in New York City.
What has surprised me the most about my time in the NYC mental health system has been the extent of the racial trauma I have sustained. While most non-homeless people don’t know it, race is an extremely volatile issue on the streets and has been for decades. The inner city is a hotbed of diversity, and with that comes the inevitable crossed signals, misperceptions and poor intentions.
Racial insensitivity in the system is not confined to privileged whites. Time and time again, I and people I know have been targeted by case managers, social workers and fellow clients who are black or brown. Being perceived as ‘uppity’, insufficiently ‘respectful’ or ‘having an attitude’ can result in denied services, bullying or being the target of nasty rumors that can ruin someone’s life.
Racism is universal, and racial trauma is something that everyone experiences – some more than others. Because we live in a time of thought control and political censorship, the mental health community have not been able to process racial trauma in a way that honors its complexity and universality. For this, we all have suffered.
Surviving the Streets
I wish I had been able to tell myself that supporting myself 100% was the most important thing I could do in order to survive the streets. I became homeless when I was 13 years old, after two years of repeatedly running away from home. I landed in the shelter system when I was 15, and then again for good when I was 18. I had no family, no friends, and no authority figures who gave much of a damn about me.
As I struggled to survive the streets and make a life for myself, I inevitably made serious mistakes, some life-changing. I also made some powerful enemies. Something that nobody tells you when you land on the streets is that street life tends to attract some pretty psychopathic characters. Over the course of my life, I’ve attracted terrible attention from mentally ill individuals who have spread rumors about me and attempted to break me because of my mistakes.
Unfortunately, I chose not to work towards self-forgiveness, leading to several suicide attempts. I wish I could have told myself that not only would I have to be my own best supporter, but I would often have to be my only supporter. You can’t survive the streets if you’re not your own champion – you have to put all your mental health skills to work and actively become your own best friend. People coming into this system need to know that.
My psychiatric hospital experience was surprising on various levels. It was in a locked unit in downtown Manhattan at Beth Israel Hospital. My roommate had schizophrenia and would babble on incoherently all night and spit on the wall.
You could tell that something was seriously wrong as she put her lipstick way outside the outline of her lips and used nearly a whole jar of Vaseline each night on her face. Finally, I couldn’t take the babbling and spitting and I asked to be moved to another room. Luckily, I was.
One day the nurse tried to secretly slip me a Klonopin pill. I was pissed. How dare they give me something without my knowledge! I tried it but didn’t like how I felt. That was the last time I took it.
One memorable night the janitor cleaned up urine from the couch left by a patient. He said, with disgust ‘Who are these people?’ Hearing this made my blood boil. I wanted to shout ‘We are your sisters, your brothers, your mothers, your fathers!’ But I didn’t have the guts to do so. So I remained silent. My chance for self-advocacy would have to wait until another time.
by Dmitriy Gutkovich