Timothy spends his days going into places that other organizations can’t. He visits people with mental health conditions held in jails and other institutions across the state, giving our clients hope and a voice.
As a colleague said: “It is amazing to see how people considered the most dangerous in the state will only talk to him and with such respect and admiration – it is truly something to watch.”
Q: Where are you from originally?
I’m a third-generation resident of St. Johns. My father and grandfather worked in the shipyards below the bluff, while my grandmother tended bar at a tavern serving dock workers.
My mother’s parents lived and worked a little further to the northwest — out on Sauvie Island — where they ran a dairy farm for an absent owner.
I’ll never forget the pride my father showed introducing me, his college-going son, to his coworkers when I would surprise him at lunchtime.
Q: Can you describe what your role involves?
I explore the concerns that are brought to us by people held in state or county institutions. I meet with clients, and listen to their concerns and questions.
Because of our powerful monitoring authority, for us, there aren’t any closed doors.
Because it varies so much day to day, it’s easier to think in terms of a typical “week.”
Every week, I’ll spend a day or more in meetings or simply being “present” at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem where many of our clients reside.
MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn is another regular landmark in my week.
On any given day, you may find me in the occasional courtroom or emergency department. But, the best parts of my week are spent sitting on the floors of isolation cells learning about the lives of my friends.
Q: What would most people be surprised to learn about the experiences and trajectory of people with severe mental health conditions in Oregon?
I often say that our mental health state is like the cholesterol in our bloodstream: We all have it. What differs is the degree to which it creates challenges in our daily lives. Sometimes, some of us can’t regulate it without help. Some people may be better able to outpace and cope with their traumas or to disguise and compensate the more fragile parts of themselves.
Some might benefit from the supportive presence and care of family and friends in times of crisis, or the good fortune of healthy genes. Some people are extremely fortunate to have had low-stress early childhoods and few catastrophic events in their lives.
At the same time, many members of our community who lack those advantages are only one mental health crisis away from being pushed out onto the margins of society.
Q: Some people might think that you have a challenging job.
For me, this role is the culmination of my personal and professional experiences. It reflects the way in which hardship and struggle create opportunity and strength.
I’ve experienced the transition from exceptionally gifted able-bodiedness, to an adapted life where I must take into account the needs of a prosthetic leg that sometimes resists what I want to do.
I’ve stared down the demon of opioid dependency. I have deep respect for those in midst of the struggle. Other than learning to walk again, it was the hardest thing I’ve had to do.
Having the opportunity every day to look into the eyes of my peers and offer them hope and support gives meaning to my personal journey.
Q: What’s the one thing that you wish everyone knew about your work?
For people who experience a mental health crisis, in the moments when they, or someone they love, feels the most lost and the most powerless, they’re not alone.
If someone is in an institution that feels like a confusing maze, they’re not alone. We can help them advocate for their rights.
That’s when I’m at my best. I will sit down with you, offer you an ear, a voice, and hope that today’s reality can change.
Q: A colleague of yours said that when you talk about the youth at McLaren, you emote “profound compassion” and empathy underlies your fight for justice. How could more of us evince that same degree compassion that defines you?
Compassion comes from imagination and empathy: Can I imagine what it feels like to be you, to be in your circumstances?
We all have the capacity for compassion. We can all identify moments of personal change and struggle in our own lives that provide a touchstone for the experiences shared with us.
We have to recognize the essential shared personhood of the people we encounter, no matter the circumstances under which we encounter them. I choose to always start there, and build on that core of what we have in common.