Good to be alive: Henry's story

Not long ago I received a telephone call from Verelda Wilson, MSW, a longtime clinician at CMHC. Would I be willing to interview one of her clients, Henry, for the CMHC newsletter?

“I want him to tell his story,” she said in her soothing, don’t-take-no-for-an answer voice. “He has come such a long way.”

Some weeks later, wearing jeans, sneakers, and a hooded sweatshirt, Henry came to my office with Verelda. During our conversation, this man who’d once been too shy to ride the city bus gradually found his voice, drawing my attention to the turning points of his life and demonstrating his impressive strength and resilience.


A lifelong resident of New Haven, Henry never attended high school. During his teen years, he became more and more unhappy and eventually started using drugs—first, marijuana and alcohol; later, cocaine and alcohol. He eventually stopped using cocaine, he says, “because it was expensive.” Around 1991, he tried heroin for the first time.

“I could do a bag of dope for twenty dollars and I’d be high for eight hours,” he recalls. “I had a physical job lifting boxes at a meat warehouse…but when I did dope, I doubled my output of working.”

After twice being arrested for drugs, Henry decided to go to a detoxification facility.  At first he told his fellow patients he was just there for heroin; he still planned to “smoke pot and drink.”

“Then all of a sudden I had an awakening,” he remembers. “I heard a voice. It said, you have to stop doing everything.”

…and Depression

That was eighteen years ago, and since then, he’s been clean. Yet Henry’s troubles didn’t stop. Today, he realizes that by using drugs he was self-medicating for depression.

Without the drugs, his depression left untreated, he slowly spiraled downward. At work, he swallowed his anger and didn’t express himself to a point that became debilitating. He decided to quit his job at the warehouse and, once his money ran out, he’d commit suicide.

He hadn’t communicated with his two brothers and three sisters for years. But as he got closer to fulfilling his plan, he says, “I realized I couldn’t commit suicide because of them. I was thinking about what it would be like for them….I called my sister because, you know, I have great brothers and sisters who help me out no matter what.”

Henry’s sister drove immediately down to see him. She suggested that he get help. He went to CMHC.

The Road to Recovery

That was in 2008. It took Henry and his clinical team almost a year to find the right depression medication. During the transition period—not long after he’d started working with Verelda Wilson—he tried to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of medication. He saved his own life by telling his sister to call 911.

He woke up a few days later in the hospital. Since that day, and throughout the years following, Verelda has helped Henry pursue the kind of recovery he wants for himself. Today, he comfortably rides the bus around town, plays music, and is willing to tell his story.

He credits Verelda, along with recovery specialist Molly Malone, with helping him discover his capacity for doing difficult things.

“Verelda would tell me, ‘You can’t say you can’t do something if you don’t try it,’” he explains.

Advice for Others

I ask Henry what he’d like to say to others who might be struggling with addictions and depression.

“I always go back to the drugs,” he answers. “You have to stop. You have to really, really want to.”

“It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been clean,” he observes. “The only one that matters is the one right now…If you say you’re going to use drugs one more time, you’re setting yourself up for another time, which means you didn’t really quit.”

And, he believes, for those drug users with depression—or those who wonder if they have depression—pursuing mental health treatment is just as important as staying off drugs.

“It’s important to get treatment with medication. It’s hard to say, but I think if I’d gotten treated for depression when I was around 15 years old, my life would’ve been different.”

Family History

In fact, Henry’s mother had depression. Many years ago, she’d tried to get Henry to come to CMHC. She had participated in a study at CMHC about the genetics of depression; Henry and his brother had been interviewed as part of that study.

“She was a very sensitive, nice person. I think she was the only person who knew what I was going through. But I couldn’t face people to explain how I felt.”

Good to be Alive

Times have changed, and today, Henry—a self-taught musician—is working on drumming again. He performed last November in the CMHC Talent Show. He stores his drums in the CMHC chaplain’s office, setting them up in the auditorium for regular practice sessions. His goal is to reach a higher level of musicianship through practice.

“I love sunshine and trees,” he says, “but mainly, music.” Despite his shyness, he points out, “I’ve never had a problem playing music in front of people.”

“It’s good to be alive,” Henry reflects. “There’s something about being alive that…” For a moment, he trails off.

“It’s meant to be,” he concludes. “It’s no accident.”

This story by Lucile Bruce, CMHC Communications Specialist, was written in collaboration with Henry.

This article was submitted by Shane Seger on July 19, 2013.