Back to My Roots, from Whence I Came (Part 1)

When I look back at my career, it’s been a series of concentric circles. So many things I’ve done in the past have had a way of returning, usually as a result of circumstance. Or is it? With the understanding that all we have is the current moment, it’s important to recognize that where we are at any given time is the sum of our life experiences.

In 1990, after a period of drifting performing temp jobs, I decided to return to school to work towards my credential in what was defined at the time, alcoholism counseling (there was a separate track for those who wanted to work with those living with substance use conditions). I attended Erie Community College where I completed the coursework to obtain my New York State Credential in the field. I was immediately hired at the Buffalo General Hospital (BGH) Alcoholism Clinic, thanks to the recommendation of the program’s Chairperson, Rick Washousky,

My time there was both educational as well as reinforcing my own recovery from addiction. I enjoyed the work with the clients, both in individual as well as group sessions. However, in March 1995, I suffered a manic episode that resulted in me taking a three month leave of absence. When I returned in June, I found it very challenging to keep up with the demands of my position. Thanks to the very benevolent actions of my administrators, Pat Sullivan and Gary Baltz, I was re-assigned to a position in the Hospital Intervention Program, which essentially entailed following up on doctors consults in the inpatient units for alcohol screening using the CAGE Assessment, a four-question screening tool for problem drinking. If a patient answered yes to any of the questions, then they’d be referred to the clinic for further assessment.

In addition, I worked as a liaison for the Cheektowaga Drug Court for BGH. This was in the early days of the program which was created by Buffalo City Judge Robert Russell. This was an eye-opening experience, seeing those who had violated the court and subsequently being sanctioned and taken away in handcuffs.

 

But in 2008, things took a drastic shift when I was working at Daemen College, a small private institution located outside of Buffalo. I had a calling to tell my recovery story and linked with the Buffalo and Erie County Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center (WNYCPC). I even wrote a story for the Buffalo News My View (op-ed) section called, “Many living well with disability,” where I spoke out about the media’s misrepresentation of those living with mental health challenges. This was spurred by the news surrounding Britney Spears (which still goes on today). In the article, I outed myself as living with bipolar disorder, not fully realizing the fallout that could result from my pronouncement. News of the story spread quickly within the Daemen community.

I continued to pursue more self-advocacy work by creating a 10-week college prep program for the students at the WNYCPC Day Treatment Program that was I conducted twice. I was working at Daemen College at the time and even arranged for a tour of the campus for the students. I was finding my True North. I eventually connected with Horizon Health Services and began to offer a once a week class for the PROS (Personalized Recovery Oriented Services) program.

Then, in a fateful meeting with my V.P. for Enrollment Management, I had my feet held to the fire. Basically, she wanted to address my work performance, which by all accounts, I felt was meeting the expectations set forth in my job description. When she asked me to sign a performance evaluation document I was in shock. I complied and then she said, “Karl, if this isn’t your passion, you need to find out what it is.” That was all I needed. I left, went back to my office and immediately called my contact at Horizon, Michelle Jacob, and asked if there were any full-time positions in the PROS program. In another act of benevolence, they created a position and two weeks later I began working there as an Addiction Specialist.

I served in this position for 3 ½ years and then transitioned, briefly, to a Service Coordinator job at a local home health care agency. But my heart was still in the mental health realm. I had been on the Erie County Mental Health Association Board of Directors as well as having a relationship with the Executive Director of Compeer Buffalo, Michele Brown. Michele and the head of the MHA, Ken Houseknecht, created a position, Director of Community Advocacy, which primarily comprised of being Project Director for a federal Mental Health First Aid grant and heading up Mindset, the MHA’s workplace wellness program.

I held this position for four years, worked briefly for an organization called Therapy.Live and its program PrepareU, which provides mental health education to high schools, and then landed at the Community Health Center of Buffalo, where I was hired by CEO Dr. Lavonne Ansari and headed up the organization’s Mental Health First Aid federal grant program. I transitioned into consulting during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020. I had fully intended to offer in-person training before launching, however, like many others, I had to switch to virtual programs.

I was moving right along and engaged a business coach, Sabrina Kinckle, President and co-founder of Kelbree Consulting. Sabrina has served to push me outside my comfort zone to explore areas in which to expand my offerings. This led me to writing my book, Leadership Through the Lens of the 12 Steps as well as creating a Mastermind class of the same name. This has opened up many new opportunities.

Then, in December 2020, something amazing happened. I once again had a calling. A local community-based organization, CAO of WNY, posted an RFP for a program to offer mental health services to older adults. This was being funded through a C.A.R.E.S. Act grant and intended to focus on how these individuals have been impacted by COVID, primarily due to isolation. I submitted my proposal and was chosen. The beauty is that I’ve maintained my CASAC and have been able to draw upon my past experience as a clinician to serve in this role.

It was shortly thereafter in January that I decided to pursue life coaching as another means of utilizing my skills. One of the first things I did was to get my profile on two websites, Therapy for Black Men and the Boris L. Henson Foundation (which was created by actress Taraji P. Henson and which is centered on providing information and therapeutic resources for African Americans). I quickly began receiving inquiries and my coaching practice was begun. This is where things began to heat up – in a very good way. I found my ability to connect with my clients on an intuitive level was so fulfilling.

And then came the topper. Producer and director Charles Mattocks, contacted me about serving as the behavioral health provider for his docuseries, Reversed 2, which features approaches to reversing Type 2 diabetes through a ketogenic lifestyle and intermittent fasting. The series was being shot in Costa Rica. I didn’t hesitate to jump at this opportunity of a lifetime.

Before I knew it, on February 21, I was on a plane heading to San Juan, Costa Rica’s capital city for a week of production. I initially had some anxiety about how I’d do. After all, this was a reality TV series. No second takes and Charles was entrusting me with this important piece of the series. But, I knew in my heart of hearts that I was capable.

The week there was phenomenal. Long days and a need to be “on” all the time. But I loved every minute of it. And the segments in which my parts were filmed, both one-on-one with the four guests, as well as beginning and ending group sessions went quite well. I was also in other segments with other health and nutritional experts. This experience truly reinforced my faith, both in myself as well as in the God of my understanding.

In sum, these three recent means of serving others goes back to my beginnings in my 12 Step fellowship. “We keep what we have by giving it away,” is a common saying where I come from. When I’m holding the space of another, whether it be with one of the clients from the CAO program, my coaching practice, or on the set of Reversed 2, I have come to realize that I am so fortunate. I am able to be empathetic, use both my lived and professional experience, and guide others to a better place. This is, I believe, my form of ministry – what my Higher Power is asking me to do. I pray that I can continue this work and help people to become a better version of themselves and, as I like to say, “go beyond their self-perceived limitations.”

It’s interesting what can happen when we leave ourselves open to the universe and allow the magic to happen. You can do it too. A measure of faith, uncovering where your potential lies, garnering the strength to persevere and taking “healthy” risks are essential elements to find our own True North.

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Miriam Bair
Miriam Bair
7 months ago

What a blessing you are Karl, I am grateful to know you. You truly help people to heal and be better in so many ways.

Karl Shallowhorn
Karl Shallowhorn
7 months ago
Reply to  Miriam Bair

Thank you Miriam!