When I was 26, I believed that I had created the picture perfect life with a family and thriving business in Greenville, S.C. But my life took an abrupt turn when I had my first manic episodes in 2002. The disruption and turmoil led to the breakup of my marriage. I was angry and confused at how something like this could happen to an upbeat guy like me.
I worked out a simple doctor and pill treatment plan that worked for a few years. My disaster recovery business continued to grow and, at least outwardly, my life seemed to be getting back on track. Of course, I kept the delusions that I had during my manic episodes hidden.
Then in 2005 I was working on a $2.6 million storm clean up job for the city of Meridian, Miss., which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina, when my third full blown episode of mania took hold. I thought there was an entire good ol’ boy network out to get me after I had accused government officials of fraud in regards to the FEMA-backed clean up contracts.
One minute I was so high that my body and mind entered a nirvana like state with feelings of ultimate power and supreme authority, the next minute I felt so paranoid that my heart would thump out of my chest. The mania escalated to the level that I believed a police officer was trying to pull me over to murder me. I took the police on a high speed chase and was arrested for the first time in my life. A couple days later my belief was that I was waging nuclear war with China and President Bush was obeying my signals from my jail cell. I thought a microchip was planted in my lung and the evil forces of the government were trying to control my actions. I was eventually placed in the University of Alabama mental health hospital and remained there for close to a month.
My stay in jail and the mental hospital set off a chain of events that ended in financial ruin, losing contact with my children and having my house foreclosed on. I spent a third of the next three years behind bars or in a mental health hospital. I tried every medication in the book but started to rapid cycle, experiencing a manic high every six months alternating with depressions so severe I would beg God to end my life. I would experience severe delusional paranoia during the high times, and every time the police confronted me I was convinced they were there to kill me.
I was arrested six times during those three years. People would inevitably call the police because of my odd and erratic behavior during my times of psychosis . Three of those arrests turned extremely violent and included pepper spray, batons and Tasers. I never had a criminal record before my manic episodes but ended up receiving multiple misdemeanors and two felony convictions since- one for assaulting (spitting on) a jail intake officer and a second for threatening the life of a public official—both while incarcerated.
It is my belief that God used NAMI to save my life. At one of my darkest points I heard a NAMI In Your Own Voice presentation while locked up in the local Greenville County Jail. I plugged into NAMI support groups where I learned to never give up hope. I learned so much about my bipolar 1 disorder and how to deal with it beyond just medication. I started practicing cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and saw a counselor on a regular basis who worked with NAMI. NAMI started to help me remove my shame and guilt and helped me to realize that my criminal record was because of a medical problem I was dealing with and not because of bad character.
I soon learned about the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program that NAMI offers to police officers and first responders. NAMI allowed me to share my stories of police interaction and to act out scenarios as part of the 40-hour CIT class. I want people to understand the bizarre nature of psychosis. I go into detail of how your head gets to that point. I don’t want to scare people, but there are so many people who have had this happen to them and don’t want to talk about it. I explain to the officers what psychosis is and how real it is to the person in crisis. I tell them that when they don’t undermine another person’s truth they have a better chance of de-escalating the situation. I remember my paranoid delusions and through the support of my second wife and my NAMI family I have found the importance of sharing my story on an honest level. By turning my bad times around in such a way that helps save lives in my community is a form of therapy that has helped me.
Perhaps the largest turning point in my recovery story was three years ago when 30 officers applauded after my first ever presentation in a class. One of the officers who had previously arrested me was in that class and we hugged in front of everyone. Since that time I have proudly been involved with the training of over 250 officers. The biggest shame of my life has been my criminal record – now I get to take those experiences and help my community.
I have been free from severe depression and psychosis now for four years. I have been blessed with a wife who understands my struggles and works with me to change the perspectives of people about mental health. I was also honored to have received the 2011 “Recovery Member of the Year” award from NAMI South Carolina. I have found great satisfaction in speaking at NAMI education classes and furthering my involvement with mental health reform as a volunteer advocate. I have had many letters printed in newspapers and regularly call into radio talk shows to help educate the public and fight the stigma of mental illness that hinders people from receiving the help they need.
Paton Blough has provided Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training to more than 2000 police officers, correctional officers, and first responders since 2009. Having been arrested six times and undergone six psychiatric hospitalizations due to his bipolar disorder between 2004-2008, he uses his experiences to show people how to properly handle someone in crisis and as evidence that recovery is possible. Blough founded Rehinge.com, an online forum that raises awareness about mental health issues, fights stigma, and bands advocates together behind common sense legislation. In 2015, he initiated the South Carolina Mental Health Court Program Act, eventually driving the legislation all the way to the governor’s desk. Blough graduated from the Greenville, South Carolina, Mental Health Court in 2007, received the South Carolina National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Recovery Member of the Year award in 2011 and the NAMI South Carolina Sitgma Buster of the Year award in 2014, and now serves on the Greenville SC CIT Board and the South Carolina NAMI State Board. He has spoken nationally about CIT and mental health recovery to, or on behalf of, groups like the Police Executive Research Forum, the SC Police Chiefs Association, NAMI, CIT International, the South Carolina Bar Association, and the Stepping Up Initiative. In addition to public speaking, Paton is currently working on his book, further mental health reform legislation, running for Congress and building an instructional de-escalation video series.