Unexpected Turns: Wes' Story
Andrea Szyper worked with Project HOME in the 1990s. She does occasional volunteer writing for this blog.
“When I am posing I have time to think.”
Wes, an occasional artists' model (just one of his art-related endeavors), is a man who is finally at peace with his own thoughts.
But that hard-won serenity comes with the scars earned in his battles with depression, addiction, incarceration, and failure. Now a resident of our Francis House of Peace (FHOP) residence, Wes recently reflected on his past struggles and how they led him to a new life.
He grew up in Phoenixville and was raised in a family with a strong work ethic. But fighting back against stereotypes and preconceptions wore on him; depression—coupled with his denial of the condition—led him toward alcohol and away from help. Wes' deepening depression and reliance on alcohol while in college badly undercut his academic performance.
“I didn’t want to get out of bed,” he said. “I only wanted to drink.”
He convinced his mother that college was a bad fit rather than admit he had a problem. "Back then, mental health had a big stigma attached to it.”
When Wes dropped out in his sophomore year he worked to find a good job if only to maintain the illusion of control. He would eventually be hired as a power plant operator.
In the ensuing nine years, he married, had a son, and worked hard to keep his life together, even as the pressures of work and family weakened his resolve.
“I couldn’t handle things,” he said. He continued to struggle with alcohol and drug use, which cost him his job. Thus began a string of jobs that he held for periods of two or more years at a time, but with struggles that ultimately lead to his losing or leaving them.
“Getting myself to work and back was all I could handle. It took all my energy. I would just exist," he said. "Drink. Get myself to work. Drink. It took everything I had to do that.”
In the course of his struggles, his marriage dissolved.
Wes was a bright and promising worker, though, and some of his employers worked to accommodate him with second chances and plans for rehab and intervention. Pride, said Wes, led him to resist those opportunities.
His personal and professional failures led to a suicide attempt. Fortunately, it was on a day he was supposed to see his son, so when he did not show up for their date, he was found and rushed to the hospital.
“It saved my life,” he said.
But Wes refused to follow up on any of the plans for therapy upon release. Instead, he went back to the job hunt. Now homeless, he was relegated to couch surfing and sleeping in his car.
“I worked hard not to have that label, though the evidence was piling up,” he said.
During this time Wes also accumulated a number of DUIs but had avoided serious consequences until he met a tough judge in Berks County who looked at his long record and made a decision.
“He looked at me and said 'this stops here.’” Wes was sentenced to one to five years in prison.
While there, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and attended church services. “I requested a one-on-one meeting with the church chaplain. I asked ‘Am I redeemable?’ He said ‘You’re not a bad person trying to be good. You are a sick person trying to get better.’”
That was a turning point, and a year later, Wes was released, a changed person. “I found the right medications,” he said. And as he reclaimed his life he describes one door opening to another, an upward spiral of kindness.
“One good person led to another,” he said, describing AA mentors, social workers, doctors, and lawyers who helped him find his way, claim benefits, and reclaim his life.
That’s when Project HOME entered his life. Wes had been staying in transitional housing for two years, long enough to see people leave and return. He knew it was time to seek permanent housing. His application to FHOP was approved and Wes has lived there for the last two years.
“In AA we learned about the values of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness,” he says. That value was put to the test when a new challenge came up: His life coach at FHOP suggested he join Project HOME’s Social Enterprise program’s candle-making workshop. “But I did candle making, and I liked it,” he says.
When Project HOME staff encouraged him to take art classes, he hesitated but tried it and was surprised to discover his talent. He draws in charcoal and his work has hung in group art shows. He now leads candle-making workshops.
And yet, even as his days were filling with AA meetings, work supporting others in recovery, a role on the advisory council, and speaking engagements in local schools, Wes continued to be bothered by his lack of a conventional job.
It was on a day out with Project HOME founder Sister Mary Scullion that his guilt came to a head. She had driven him to a speaking engagement at Gwynedd Mercy Academy and afterward, they stopped for a cheesesteak.
“I told Sister Mary I felt guilty for not working,” he said. “She said ‘I don’t want to hear you say that! You’ll know when you are ready.’ She has no idea how much her words helped me that day.”
Wes now feels support from everyone he encounters. “At Project HOME they look at the whole person and give you such full support,” he said.
Wes has a good relationship with his brother and sister and a closeness with his son, whose wedding he attended in California last fall. He spends time with his elderly father too.
“What I love about Project HOME is they are not just healing people, they are healing families,” he said.
Wes’ journey continues to unfold in new and exciting ways that include modeling for artists, public speaking, and even a little acting. Recent advocacy work even led to a meeting with Senator Bob Casey.
“I just wake up today with hopeful eyes and curiosity with where this will take me,” he said. “I’m loving it.”