In My Own Words: Russell

—by Russell Lawrence Cummins

My name is Russell Lawrence Cummins. I was born on November 9, 1959 in Rotterdam, a city in the Netherlands.

My mother is Dutch and my father was a Green Beret Commando in the US Navy who unfortunately died when I was three-months old due to a fatal car crash. Let’s say that, most of my life, I have been a clever wild one. When I was nine-years old, a teacher wrote in my school report that I was and would remain an autodidact.

Sent away & sailing

My widowed mother sent me to a child home when I was six, so I grew up in the Dutch forest and rode a Shetland pony for six months through the forest when I was seven-years old. When I was 12, I asked my mother if I could come back to Rotterdam, and I attended high school there. I was also given a choice, and I preferred to go to summer sailing school instead of going to Spain. I got a small sailing boat when I was 13. When I was 15, I decided that I was able to teach sailing to others and went (somewhat blindly) to the school that had taught me to sail. I applied for and got the instructor’s job. It became a summer every boy of 15 should have.

Wild weekends

After that summer, I really became kind of wild, started to dance at weekend nights and smoked reefer and drank, which I funded with an after-school cleaning job. I had discovered the charms of girls and school didn’t seem all that important anymore, so I had to redo the next year in school. My mother then tried to tighten the reins, and I revolted. In short, I dropped out of school when I was 18 without a diploma and left home.

I did do a test at the government employment agency and the result was that I had the capacity to attend any university in technical, social, and other educations, but I lacked the proper schooling and discipline to do this.

Bartending & brain salad

So then I thought over what to do with my life. Science fiction always had my interest, but becoming an astronaut was out of reach. I thought the next last frontier is the human mind, so I explored my own, still in a very wild way, I must say, aided with drugs, dancing, and thinking. I dug deep into my subconscious. In those years, I worked as a bartender and later as a chef.

Quantum mechanics drew my attention, although I never could grasp the math. The implications were more interesting, and, slowly, I started to lose my grip on reality. Once, I prepared a salad and asked the waitress to tell the guest it was a blueprint of the brain. This was in a symbolic language, of course, only I could understand.

I dug deeper and deeper into my subconscious and sensed total chaos, even at the bottom, which I explained as the Big Bang experience. My blessing and curse was that somehow I could explain everything I experienced, but in the process, I drifted further and further away from what is commonly known as reality. I could connect dots that, as I now know, are not truly connected—as in random observations that I combined with a meaning only I understood. All this while trying to fix the broken cosmos.

On the electrical tower

I also got pretty paranoid in the process, so I packed a duffel bag full of books and left. It was winter, and I ended up at night high up in an electricity mast. While climbing up there, my hands almost got stuck to the metal because of the freezing cold, but I had to overcome the eagle in me. Hallucinating up there, I finally threw away my sleeping bag and climbed down and went back to Rotterdam with bleeding feet. I walked into a hospital and asked if it was the department of first aid for mental accidents. Within an hour, I was admitted to a psychiatric ward in Delft, another town. The psychiatrist diagnosed me at first as suffering from a Vietnam Syndrome [post-traumatic stress disorder]: let’s say it was a jungle in my mind. But I wasn’t finished yet with my mission.

Medication, marijuana & emotional life

After three months, I got back to my room, and all I could do was sit in a chair and drool. I was extremely overweight and almost literally couldn’t lift a finger.  To myself, I explained that I had broken my mind and that medication had put it in plaster, hence, [the feeling of] being also mentally immobilized.

All my emotions were suppressed and my creativity was gone, so I started to smoke marijuana again to have at least the illusion of an emotional life, and let’s be frank, reality wasn’t at all that attractive. After a few months, I started working again in the kitchen where I worked before and slowly reintegrated. As the medication slowly got lessened, I got my physical and mental faculties back, returned to wild dancing, and combined that always with smoking pot.

The internal jungle

After two and a half years, my psychiatrist suggested (because I had recovered so well) that I should try stopping medication, so I did. And then, in a period of three months, due to my lifestyle, the psychosis slowly reappeared. As I recall, there was a point of no return in which I experienced an awareness: either to get help or go back into my personal jungle. I chose the latter, because I wasn’t finished yet.

Finally, this resulted in a court order where I was admitted under law to a closed ward for six months. But I wouldn’t be stopped under force to do what, in my own perception, I was free to do. This also involved smoking pot, which resulted in me escaping several times: smoking a joint, being picked up, then staying inside until the next time I could escape. This was 1987, and [treatment for] dual disorders was not on the Dutch map, yet, so to speak.

Bad advice

After six months, I was released. The psychiatrist who treated me suggested that if I was ever confused on the streets, heroin could calm me down. As self-medication, this outraged me. Years later, that opportunity arose in London, though I declined the offered smack, knowing that I already had enough problems.

Then my personal cycle repeated itself. I recovered, started working again as a chef, and after two-and-a-half years, a psychiatrist suggested I could stop medication. Since my reality still wasn’t all that attractive, I chose to dive back into my internal jungle.

Traveling preacher

This time I left better prepared. I traveled light, disguised as a tourist, and was a manic, screaming preacher for two years in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and London. In that period, I was three times self-admitted out of sheer fatigue. The third time, I sat through the treatment of almost a year, after I had fully lived out and through my psychosis. This personal mission had cost me 10 years of my life. I had seen 10 different psychiatric hospitals, and, in the process, I had burned down my reputation in Rotterdam. At the ward where I was staying, somebody offered me a room in Haarlem, which I took, carrying with me the promise to myself never to stop medication again. The diagnosis I took with me was paranoid schizophrenia. Now I know this to be true, because I was longer than six months psychotic and the medication worked in bringing down the symptoms.

Trust in humanity

In Haarlem, I got myself into a home where the caretakers also lived, a kind of a commune called the Rosenstock Hussey House. Having been totally expelled from society, friends, and family for two years, I somehow found my trust in humanity again. After two years there, I found a summer job as the chef at a Dutch skydiving school, located in the south of France. I worked there for five summers and made 120 free-falls and got my worldwide license to jump, all on medication. Once, I jumped stoned, but that was a one-time thing, not to be advised. During that time, I also did an invention and patent application for a locking element and parachute assembly for skydiving, among others. If you are interested and you Google my full name, it will pop up on your screen:

Commitment to fatherhood

I got into a relationship, and she got pregnant, and my beautiful daughter was born. She’s now 15-years old, and although the relationship [with her mother] ended, I made two promises to myself: my daughter would never see me psychotic, and I would stick around Haarlem to really be her father. For this, I let go of my plan to spend my summers in the south of France and the winters on the jumping fields of Florida, USA. Although I have never been there because of unfinished business.

Eight years ago, I met my wife (she now also works for GGZ inGeest, so we are kind of colleagues). We married almost three years ago, and we have a one-and-a-half-year-old son. I have worked for about 27 years in kitchens and have prepared one-million-plus meals, most of the time on medication. In the 1990s, I also worked as a catering manager at a police precinct, so my homeless years didn’t weigh against that. I got through that without a conviction in the Netherlands, although I did get a three-day conviction in London for carrying concealed weapons (knives), but that was probably not enough for Interpol.

Peer specialist for ACT team

Five years ago, my wife told me there was a vacancy for a peer specialist (a.k.a., expert by experience) at the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team in Amsterdam.  I applied and got the job for 16 hours per week. This was not enough, so I took a second job working in a restaurant in Amsterdam, but after six months, it became clear to me that this was not workable [because of a scheduling conflict]. Then a vacancy [job opportunity] came by at a housing project in Amsterdam, where I ran the kitchen. Most inhabitants there have a dual-disorder diagnosis. There, I also earned my kitchen-teacher’s diploma. After another year, I saw the vacancy for my present job in my hometown, Haarlem, for the ACT+ team.  The working title was "ACT for difficult people" (standing for the inclusion of clients with a personality disorder, varying from borderline to antisocial and problems in multiple fields), but that title seemed a bit too much a hindering stigma. As it worked out, we are working with a caseload of people that is challenging to say the least: many are called "triple trouble," as in having personality disorders and other psychiatric and substance abuse issues, too.

Experience counts

I have been working here for more than three years now, and it is the best, most challenging, and most rewarding (although not directly in cash) job I have ever had.

We peer specialists are, in one way, pioneers for a new profession, although street-corner [outreach] workers in the early eighties did something similar—most easily described as "it takes one to know one." (Or “it takes a smuggler to catch a smuggler.") As a peer expert, I try to build bridges between the ACT team and sometimes very reluctant clients, and I represent the client’s point of view in important decisions made in the team.

In short (some of you might have heard this one before), taking into account the cost of being more than six years admitted and housed and the cost of medication and self-medication (I have struggled with tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, alcohol, and gambling addictions), I dare to state that I have the most expensive education for this job among my team members. And to qualify for this job didn’t come easy and certainly not cheap.

I am open to questions.