Hold on, now—are we at the Oscars?
As I walk with Bridgett Williamson through the hallways of Connecticut Mental Health Center, she reminds me of a glamorous movie star on that famous Hollywood red carpet.
Every few feet, someone stops to say hello. This is her fan club, comprised of staff and clients alike. She knows them all and talks with each one. Like a star full of chemical energy, she launches a chain reaction. Next thing I know, people are laughing, smiling, high-fiving across the space. She rejoices at their presence.
Presence, for Williamson, is not something to be taken for granted. She is a lifelong New Havener whose multiple traumatic losses of siblings and parents led to her experiences of PTSD and substance use. Years ago, after seeking treatment for her substance use disorder, Williamson stopped using and “hid at home” for a year and a half until she became confident about resisting drugs. Then, she recalls, “I went to the street to try to save people but found out that I couldn’t. They didn’t want to stop.”
Eventually, she stopped trying to save others and started to find work. She heard about a “peer support” training, in which she could become a mentor for people in recovery. She completed the program and began working at Fellowship Place with CREST, a structured day program for people with mental illness referred from the criminal justice system. From there, she went to the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health (PRCH) as a Recovery Support Specialist.
Today, Williamson is a core team member of PRCH's Citizens Community Collaborative and director of the Citizens Project, a multi-part class for formerly incarcerated adults with mental health histories. She also serves as co-liaison to the advisory board of the City of New Haven's COMPASS response team (Compassionate Allies Serving Our Streets), a program she helped shape from the beginning. She relishes her opportunities to advocate and support others on their journeys.
Recognizing her mental health
When she first arrived at PRCH, even after her powerful personal experiences and training to be a peer support professional, she says she still did not recognize her own mental health challenges.
“It took Dr. Bellamy to help me see that I had mental health,” she says of her mentor Chyrell Bellamy, PhD, professor of psychiatry and director of PRCH who specializes in peer support. Bellamy, notes Williamson, waited for over a year for her to make her own discovery.
“If she hadn’t done it like that, I probably wouldn’t have acknowledged it,” Williamson reflects. “The relationship I had with her made me feel comfortable. I felt warmth toward her, that she did not judge me. Mental health in my community was stigmatized.”
She continues, “Everything I was talking about was mental health, but I kept saying, ‘I don’t have mental health.’ Dr. Bellamy didn’t try to push it. She didn’t bang me on the head to say, you have it. Through our relationship, I came to the conclusion.”
She adds, with her signature straight talk on reality, “Anyone who does cocaine and heroin for fourteen straight years, has to have mental health” going on.
Fantasy vs. Reality
The movies are an apt metaphor for Williamson’s insight that in life generally, and mental health recovery specifically, there’s a difference between fantasy and reality.
“When someone comes up to me in the hallway and says, ‘Hey Bridgett, how are you? Do you know the sky is green?’ I just look at them and say, ‘Really?’” she explains. “We might see different things. But when you’re building a relationship, after a while, maybe the person will start figuring things out. Eventually, they will say, ‘Hey Bridgett, I didn’t realize that the sky is not green, but blue.’”
The same goes for clinical staff: Williamson doesn’t want them “making movies” in their minds. She observes that mental health professionals are prone to lapsing into their own preconceived ideas about people from the community—particularly, for white providers, about their Black and Brown clients.
She says one way to stay focused on reality is literally to walk—into the neighborhood places, such as food stores, funeral homes, and community centers—where their clients live. Only then will healthcare professionals begin to understand the “real deal” of the lives of the people they serve.
Over time, she believes, providers can even build relationships inside communities, forging a kind of strength of weak ties that helps bind people together, even when they live in disparate places.
Williamson says it’s time well spent: understanding community makes practitioners more effective and better positions them to participate in solid therapeutic relationships.
“I never tell people, don’t see your clinician, don’t take your meds,” she adds. But in recovery, “the footwork is being done by the individual, not the clinician.”
Love for her community
New Haven is a place Bridgett Williamson loves. She was born here and grew up in the Dixwell neighborhood, where she brought up her three sons. She was a basketball star at Wilbur Cross High School and might have gone far with the game—like her beloved brother, the late great NBA star John Williamson.
For the last several years she has helped to educate Yale Psychiatry Department residents about New Haven. Her neighborhood tours have become a staple of their training. On these walks, she talks about her life experiences and helps trainees get to know the place. She emphasizes neighborhood history, culture, and assets. She focuses on traumatic losses, past and present, including of people, the built environment, the social fabric of community. She challenges trainees to go deeper and inspires people in recovery with her example.
Some neighborhoods have seen a lot of change over the past five decades, Williamson says, and she has lived through it all—the increasing disparities, persistent violence, gentrification, and the recent diversification of the Dixwell area where she lives, with white families and refugees from around the world becoming new neighbors in this historically Black neighborhood.
“A lot of people are losing their loved ones” in New Haven, she notes, due to many causes including fentanyl, overdoses, COVID, and gun violence. She continues to witness the losses. “People are struggling. They are self-medicating. People are having a very hard time.”
Sometimes her feet get tired. Still, she keeps walking, and walks everywhere.
Self-care while caring for others
“From a woman’s point of view,” she says, “because we are caregivers, it comes natural to us to care for others. But when we don’t care for ourselves, we sacrifice.”
“I always put my needs to the side, thinking it’s not about me. But at the end of the day, I have to take care of me, because unless I do, I will not be effective in working with someone else.”
“I think that’s paramount importance to the work we do,” she continues. “If I can walk the walk, and talk the talk for others, it’s paramount that I do it for myself. That’s one of the biggest things we can do in this field” of mental health services.
She acknowledges it’s not always easy to care for herself first. It’s something she is working on. But when it comes to others, her commitment is steadfast.
“It makes beautiful harmony when you put the other person first. You put the ball in their court,” she explains, “because I can’t want it more than they do. It’s important that as we rise and climb, we bring others with us.”
Wherever she goes—down hallways and sidewalks, inside and outside her Citizenship classroom, on and off the court—Williamson shines her light. Many have seen it.
Sometimes, when you forget your own inner star, it takes just one person to help you find it.
“Dr. Bellamy gave me a shot when nobody else did,” she says. “She believed in me and saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. She gave a path for me to be able to move forward. She gave me a little hope. I will always be indebted.”
In our conversation, Bridgett Williamson recognized the Inpatient Unit and the Substance Abuse Treatment Unit (SATU), both services of Connecticut Mental Health Center, where she received treatment.