While pursuing a bachelor's degree in psychology at Bradley University, Jason Langman studied mental illness in a theoretical, almost antiseptic way.
After graduating, he found jobs working as a social worker, counseling people who were so anxious and overwhelmed by life that they often felt as though they were barely treading water.
Langman, 32, never expected that he would know those feelings firsthand and eventually be diagnosed with bipolar disorder — winding up jobless and homeless, and having to apply for food stamps and Social Security benefits.
But Langman credits his path back to gainful employment and feeling "normal" to the help he received from the adult mental health program of the nonprofit Metropolitan Family Services. Now a recovery support specialist for the organization, Langman uses his remarkable story as a way to connect with and mentor people who are not as advanced in their recovery as he is.
"I've seen their world from both sides of the desk," said Langman, who grew up in Chicago but now lives in suburban Lansing. "This is a journey nobody chooses to set out on. You just feel like it's almost impossible to come back. But my job is to let people know that nothing's impossible."
Many of the people Langman mentors, whether in support groups or individually, are in the beginning stages of coming to grips with their diagnosis. Some aren't yet comfortable with taking their medications or regularly attending therapy sessions.
Others still are trying to figure out how their life got so far off course. Langman said his symptoms of bipolar disorder started to become manifest in college.
"I had such erratic behavior," he said. "People liked having me at parties because they knew I would do something crazy. But I was either the life of the party or banned from a party because I'd lashed out or become combative."
He said that when he looks back on college, he doesn't know how he managed to graduate. During his senior year, he had an internship and was working on his senior thesis while helping to care for his 9-month-old son.
"And I still made the Dean's List," said Langman, who also has a daughter. "I knew I could do these things. But I didn't feel I was worthy of accomplishing anything or that I deserved any of it."
After college, he worked as a residential counselor for juveniles with behavioral disorders. Then he transferred to a job as a foster care case manager within the same agency. He said this is where his descent began.
"There was a lot of stress with that job, tons of paperwork and bureaucracy," Langman said. "I felt like people's lives were in my hands and the pressures were too much. I knew I could do it. I had the training, and I had a knack. But I felt worthless, like I wasn't helping anyone."
After jumping from job to job and feeling he wasn't making a difference, he hit bottom. He said there were days when he didn't have the motivation to get out of the bed, eat or take a shower.
"In the summer of 2005, I was doing temp work, and my dad and stepmom came to visit me in my apartment and I just broke down," said Langman. "I was crying and laughing, absolutely hysterically, and they called an ambulance."
He landed in a partial hospitalization program where he underwent intensive therapy and eventually was diagnosed. But because he went a couple of months without making any money, he couldn't pay his rent and wound up homeless and later squatting at a family home that was empty and for sale.
"My father wasn't happy, but luckily my stepmother was the voice of reason," Langman said. "My dad is an old-school kind of guy. He didn't know what to think of mental illness. (My grandfather) would have said, 'Suck it up.' But my father was supportive."
Langman's parents joined the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and they got him connected with Metropolitan's office in the South Chicago neighborhood.
"When I first left the hospitalization program, my first thought was that I didn't want to sit around here in a circle talking about my feelings to complete strangers spewing textbook cliches like, 'You are not alone,'" he said. "Then I got here and people would express themselves and it would be my internal narrative. It was like they were reading my mind."
He said no one should feel ashamed about needing help or a support system.
"In these times, especially, people are feeling so overburdened," he said. "It's important for them to know they have a place to go and some of us have been there."