Health

Thankful for His Diagnosis

“The hardest part of my life was when I was motivated to do nothing.”

Scott Waters, 53, had hit bottom. After more than 20 years, the voices in his head took over his life. His untreated mental illness had cost him several jobs and two marriages. It almost ended his life.

He was jobless. He was hopeless.

Seven years ago, Waters walked into Exodus Recovery in Vista, a mental health assessment center funded by the County, and his life took a 180-degree turn.

Slowly, he began to rebuild and give meaning to his life. Today, Waters is happy his relationships have improved. He is thankful to have found stability, new friends and a job he loves.

Multiple diagnoses

Waters started having trouble while in elementary school in Huntington Beach.

“I felt like in and out of daydreaming,” Waters said. “I had anxiety. Everything was moving so fast.”

He was placed in a special needs class. It turned out he was dyslexic, but he quickly learned to read. Waters returned to regular classes, but the anxiety and daydreaming continued.

At age 10, he was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. ADHD is a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning.

Waters pushed through it, completed high school in Fresno and got a bachelor’s degree in health sciences from Santa Clara University.

After college, Waters started working as a paramedic in the Bay Area. But at 22, he almost got killed.

During a call to assist a child, the father lunged at him and stabbed him on the chest. The knife landed two inches from his heart. Waters lost a lot of blood and had to spend two weeks in the hospital.

He went back to work, but started to have visions. Eventually, he was diagnosed with depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I got to the point where I could not be around people. I did not want to deal with the public.”

Scott Waters

He quit his job. The visions and anxiety got to be too much.

“The siren and alarm took me to that time,” Waters said. “I always wondered ‘what’s going to happen to me next?’”

He switched careers and went into retail management. At 24, he got married. Two years later, Waters had a daughter.

The anxiety continued. Waters also started to hear voices, but faked his way through it by always trying to stay “calm and collected.”

At 30, Waters was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a chronic mental health condition characterized primarily by symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, such as mania and depression. Schizoaffective disorder can be managed effectively with medication and therapy.

Waters went on medication but was not getting therapy. The medication helped to ease the voices a bit but they continued. He would try to distract himself to make them go away. Waters would focus all his energy on work. He would read and isolate himself.

Two marriages, four suicide attempts

“The isolating did not help my marriage,” he said.

His marriage ended. Soon after, Waters got married again.

Throughout this time, Waters would go see psychiatrists, but he would lie to them.

“I did not tell the doctors how often I was not in reality,” he said.

Why did he lie?

“Stigma. The shame of telling someone the TV was talking to me,” said Waters. “I was embarrassed to tell them somebody was tapping me on the shoulder telling me to do or not do something.”

The voices also led Waters to try to end his life—four times.

“Three were pretty serious attempts. I had to go into observation,” Waters said.

After eight years, his second marriage ended and so did his retail career.

“I could not go to work. The pressure was very demanding,” he said. “I got to the point where I could not be around people. I did not want to deal with the public.”

Out of a job, Waters started a catering business. That too ended.

Wanting to help his daughter pay for college, Waters forced himself try to find work. He started working at local non-profit and soon moved to a management position.

But, once again, the pressure got to be too much. He lost his job.

Eight years ago, he moved in with his parents in Oceanside. Living at home was not easy. Waters’ parents could not understand why he could not “deal with” his problems.

He had nobody to talk to. Isolation and the voices took over his life. He felt his parents were trying to poison him. When he could get McDonald’s he thought they were out to get him. Paranoia stymied his search for work.

“I wanted to find a job, but I was petrified to fill out an application,” he said. “I felt everybody would be able to see what was going on.”

The stigma of mental illness

Mental illness affects one in five adults in any given year. The fear of being rejected and the stigma associated with mental health disorders keep some adults from getting the help they need. Stigma keeps people with mental illness from seeking and getting jobs.

“The stigma of mental illness makes job hunting even more difficult,” said Alfredo Aguirre, director of Behavioral Health Services for the County Health and Human Services Agency. “It is unfortunate that negative attitudes and beliefs toward people who have a mental health condition are common.”

Aguirre added that having a job helps to reduce the stigma of mental illness and helps to reduce people’s symptoms.

“Having something to do, like going to a job, can have a very positive impact in someone living with a mental disorder,” Aguirre said.

Without a job, Waters’ medical insurance and medication ran out. He turned to alcohol. It helped him to forget.

Tired of the voices, Waters went to Exodus Recovery for medication. After being assessed, they referred him to the North Coastal Mental Health Center, another County funded clinic for adults with severe and persistent mental illness.

Waters now had access to treatment and therapy, but he also needed a support group. He was referred to Mariposa Clubhouse, one of 14 mental health clubhouses funded by the County and run by Mental Health Systems.

Clubhouses serve as community meeting places and support settings for mental health clients, their friends and family and community members. They also help members improve their social skills and offer vocational training as part of their recovery.

“For the first time, I was in an environment where people were talking about recovery,” Waters said. “At the clubhouse, I met people who understood.”

On the road to recovery

At Mariposa, Waters felt he was coming out of the dark hole his life had become. Not only was he getting the daily support he needed, but soon he started to facilitate groups.

He no longer felt judged. He felt he could start working again. Given his culinary experience, he became a cook and, subsequently, the kitchen manager.

“Having something to do, like going to a job, can have a very positive impact in someone living with a mental disorder”

Alfredo Aguirre, Director of Behavioral Health Services

Those positions led to a part-time job as a peer specialist. He was working 25 hours per week, which left him some time to facilitate meetings at Mariposa, which serves about 35 people each day and has about 600 members.

“Everything started moving in a positive direction,” said Waters. “I gained a leap of confidence that I did not have since my 20s when everything was a struggle.”

With a bolstered sense of recovery, Waters moved into a full-time peer specialist position. He was also attending mental health conferences and taking social work trainings. Earlier this year, Waters was promoted to case manager. He now helps clubhouse members go over their needs, set goals and access resources.

“I am able to use my life experience to help and motivate others,” said Waters, who also conducts suicide prevention trainings. “My job helps me to focus really hard to distract myself from idle thoughts. It forces me to interact with people.”

Waters continues to take his medications. Being in front of groups has reduced his anxiety. The voices still appear, but he knows they will stop.

Having a stable job has helped Waters to regain control of his life. He is engaged again and recently moved in with his fiancée.

“I am thankful that I was given the right diagnosis and that I’ve accepted it,” said Waters, who will be spending Thanksgiving with his daughter, his fiancée and his parents. “I look at myself and I am thankful that I understand my illness and I know how to deal with it.”

People suffering from a mental illness can access services by calling the County’s 24-hour, multi-lingual Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240. Resources are also available at the County’s It’s Up to Us website.

José A. Álvarez is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact