“I want them to know it’s possible”: a TOP Opportunities story

Nicole is a woman in her fifties, neatly dressed with a radiant smile. She currently works as a receptionist and soon will begin a public-facing job for a government agency.  

She’s also been living with mental illness for almost two decades.  

It started in the early 2000s when her great-grandmother, who had raised her like a mom, died. Nicole had tried to take care of her, but with children of her own,“I couldn’t juggle everything,” she said. “She went into a nursing home. And it broke my heart because she raised me and I felt like I should do that for her.” 

When she died, Nicole found she couldn’t cope. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and went through a very rough time. “I have been in every facet of mental illness life there is,” she explained. “I’ve walked the streets with no shoes on. I’ve been on almost every mental ward in New York City.” 

She wound up getting court-ordered treatment from our Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team, which supports people with serious mental illness to live in the community. With healthcare providers, social workers and case managers visiting multiple times a week, her situation stabilized.  

“They came to my house, they gave me my medications, they helped me deal with my finances. And they helped me with my children, getting them into services and everything.”  

She became close with the then-director of ACT, Alison Arthur. “We would eat together, and socialize, and she became a very good confidant of mine,” she recalled. “And through that, I learned that I had to really find a way to make my life better.” 

After leaving New York for a while to help raise her grandchild, she moved back determined to re-enter the workforce. She called Debby Kaplan of our TOP Opportunities (TOPOP) program, whom she had met earlier through ACT. She entered TOPOP and began working at Goddard. 

“And slowly but surely, I started piecing my life back together,” she recalled. “I became independent. I learned skills—I learned Microsoft Office, I learned Excel spreadsheets, I learned scanning. I learned copying, answering telephones, and handling situations.” 

As her confidence grew, she began working with her TOPOP Employment Specialist to apply for other jobs. Landing a position with a government agency was no cakewalk. In interviews and documentation, she had to go over the details of the last two decades.  

“I was really leery because I didn’t want my mental illness to come out. But I addressed it. I was feeling a little emotional because it was hard to dig back into my past. But I’m getting through it, and now I feel really good.” 

Nicole has a message for others learning to live and even thrive with mental illness: Invest in yourself. Take advantage of any help you can get—but never stop relying on your own abilities and ambition. 

“I want people to know that it’s possible to have mental illness and still be able to get in the mainstream of life. Whether you’ve been in a group home, whether you’ve been arrested or neglected, you can propel yourself to achieve your goals,” she said.  

“I just want them to know it is possible.” 

While Goddard Riverside believes mental health should be viewed the same way as all other kinds of health, we realize people with mental health issues unfairly face discrimination. We are not using Nicole’s last name and photo at her request.