My Mental Health Career Prior to UMD

Before I was hired at UMD, I had 10 different jobs and internships, from 1975 to 1988. I worked in 3 psychiatric hospitals (Springfield State Hospital in Sykesville, Chestnut Lodge in Rockville and Montgomery General Hospital in Olney); Great Oaks, a State residential facility for people with intellectual disabilities – although in those days it was referred to as “mentally retarded”. Great Oaks was on the grounds of what is now Riderwood, where my parents lived for 10 years before they passed on. I worked in an after school program for what was then called juvenile delinquents; I spent a year doing a graduate internship at a Community Mental Health Center in South Baltimore (Carruthers), where I learned a lot about alcoholism, working with unemployed stevedores (dock workers), and another internship working with Dale Masi at the Federal HHS Employee Assistance Program in DC. I also spent 4 years as a counselor at a residential treatment program for 14-18-year-old court committed adolescents, Karma House in Rockville, where I lived with them for 24 hour shifts, probably the best training for learning how to be real or you would pay the price. I also spent 4 years running the EAP for Sheppard Pratt Hospital and contracted our services to companies all over the country. My first job out of graduate school was in Trinidad and Tobago, but more on that later. I will tell a few stories from a few of these jobs, starting with the first job I ever had in the field, working with a 16 year old Down‘s Syndrome young man, by the name of Joe.

I heard about Joe from a professor at the Montgomery College Mental Health Associate program, in which I was enrolled at the time, by far the best education of all three schools I attended. Joe’s mom needed someone to spend 4-5 hours with him on Saturdays to give her a break, as Joe was a bundle of energy and a bit of a handful. We used to go bowling, shoot hoops, go to the movies, hikes, etc. Joe was a character, had a mind of his own and cursed like a sailor. He used to call my house and when my Dad answered he would ask to speak with “Fatso Shithead,” his loving nickname for me. I always knew it was Joe because my Dad would start laughing hysterically. Even though Joe had a mind of his own, he was fairly obedient when we were together. Except for those times when he was up to trouble. This is a story about one of those times.

I had taken Joe downtown to the Air and Space Museum, his favorite Saturday excursion. It was quite a treat. The place was packed. I always gave him a little room so he could feel independent, even though I was careful to never let him out of my sight. At one point when he was about 10’ away from me, he got “that look,” the one I had seen before, which meant “I am about to get into some serious trouble here and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.” He took off. And with about 30 people between us, I lost him. Yes, I lost him. I stayed reasonably calm as I knew he would be in the museum somewhere.

Two hours later, after involving the museum security, and no Joe anywhere, I finally decided it was time to call his Mom with the horrible news that I had lost her son in a major metropolitan city. Remember, this was 1976, so no cell phones, just pay phones. When she answered and knew it was me, the first thing out of her mouth was: “Oh Tom, you poor thing, are you okay?” What the….???

It turned out that Joe had left the museum, crossed the street and waltzed into the Hirshhorn Museum next door and started walking up and down the halls until a security guard approached him and asked for his name and phone number and the guard promptly called his Mom to let her know that they had him and he was safe. She had known for a full two hours that he was okay while I was furiously trying to find him and doing everything I could not to call and upset her. I picked him up from the Hirshhorn and he greeted me with a smile on his face and said “Hey Buddy, how are ya?” like nothing had happened. We drove home in silence. In hindsight I believe that may have been my first slow-rolling, two-hour panic attack.

Joe’s family was amazing. I grew to love all of them. I worked with Joe for a few more years and every time I tried to quit, his Dad kept paying me more money. On my last attempt he said “just tell me how much it will take to keep you.” It is the only time an employer has ever said that to me and the only time where I had to say: “There is no amount. It’s time for me to move on.”

I often think of Joe and his family, 45 years later, with great fondness.