When asked if he likes Fountain House, Taj explains, “I do. And I have to,” he smiles. “If I mess up again, I’m going back to prison for 15 years. I came here from the Manhattan Mental Health Court.” Manhattan Mental Health Court (MMHC) is an alternative to incarceration that began in 2011 for non-violent offenders living with mental illness. Taj has two previous violent felonies, but caught a big break on his third offense, thanks to MMHC. He has struggled with anger-issues, substance abuse and mental illness since childhood. “They claim I have mental illness. They say I have schizophrenia, bipolar, Asperger’s…I guess I’m all messed up,” he says.
Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Taj recalls being a “mama’s boy.” Despite her own battles with schizophrenia and alcoholism, his mom was protective and engaged in his life. Tragically, she passed away when he was 13 and things unraveled.
“My older sister took care of me, but I was basically on my own. I started using drugs and drinking every day, all day, like non-stop. I went to a therapist and he gave me medicine that made me tired and gain weight. Kids made fun of me and teased me in school.” Taj’s temper flared in High School, culminating in an incident in which he pulled a knife on a bully and was expelled.
Anger-issues continued to plague Taj as an adult. “I went to Riker’s Island at 25 for assault. I was going to do seven and a half to 15 years, but got five years’ probation and was mandated to a program at The Fortune Society.”
Five years ago, Taj found Fountain House. “I saw something different here. The people were hospitable. There was so much to do. In other programs all you did was group, group, group. You sat around all day talking about your problems. Fountain House helped me accomplish real things, like getting a job and being a productive member of society.” Taj has worked at numerous transitional employment jobs, including Jack Rabbit, Fountain House’s social enterprise initiative. He most enjoys the work he has done in Horticulture and hopes to become a carpenter one day. “My worker referred me to a trade program that I’m going to check out.”
Taj admits he still struggles with his temper. “I get angry and I might yell, but I don’t let it escalate anymore. Fountain House helps me with my temperament. I come every day, even on the weekends. There’s so much to do here. When I get involved in the projects here, I can maneuver things in my life. I get more in tuned with people who care about me. I have real friends here. Growing up, I had what I called “associates,” but I never had friends. Today there are people at FH who I know will help me.”
“At one time I didn’t know where my life was going. If it wasn’t for this program I’d be in prison.”
Besides getting a job and maybe even completing his college degree, Taj’s biggest goal is to reconnect with his 14 year old son. When the child was only 3 years old, Taj’s wife learned about his mental illness. She left and took their son with her. “We used to live together like a happy family… until she found out and couldn’t take it.”
Taj sees his boy occasionally, but wants to establish a closer relationship. He knows it will come with time. “I’m going to call him tonight to see how his day at school went.”