I’d heard about Jierum Duarte long before I met him. For a while, he and former board member Stephanie Rhoades were volunteering to cut hair at Brother Francis shelter. Then I learned he was the one who started this year’s giving tree, by spontaneously putting a new pair of gloves he’d received up on the tree one day. Spending an hour speaking with him was one of the highlights of my January.

“I was more scared than anything.”

Jierum is an artist: leather-tooling, abstract painting, graphic arts design.  Even his shaved head is a canvas, covered in intricate tattoos, which he now often covers with a hat.  For much of his life, Jierum has experienced paranoia, racing thoughts, anxiety, suicidal thoughts – and for years, he self-medicated with illegal drugs, leading to gang involvement and jail time.  “Media teaches to be scared of people with mental illness.  But I was more scared than anything. I got the tattoos to look scary, so people wouldn’t mess with me.”

Stable and Sober

Jierum has now been out of jail and sober for 3 years, with no parole violations.  For him, staying stable takes a combination of medication, regular therapy, the support of therapy groups and their other members, and a strong community mentor.  And that mentor was key.  “A regular person who didn’t know me wanted to help me.  And that made me want to help me too.”

It took him 20 years to accept that medication works, if you let it do its job, and he’s had to fight community and family stigma, and his own personal beliefs, to get there. He used to think needing medication and group support made him weak. Now he accepts that he may always need therapy, to help with his racing thoughts and substance cravings. Learning about the effects of trauma on his brain has helped him understand himself better.  Groups provide positive reinforcement from peers, and he now considers attending weekly group sessions as kind of like a job, where the goal is stay stable, sober and moving forward.

Moving forward

Now that he is stable, Jierum is working to better himself and his life (his words).  He’s working with the Rise vocational team and applied for a micro-enterprise grant to develop his leather-tooling business.

leather-tooled wallets
Leather-tooled wallets made by Jierum Duarte

He participated in a Disability Awareness Art show at Denali Graphics and Frame and has been invited to continue to sell his artwork there.  And he’s exploring work as a peer support specialist, using everything he’s learned in his life to help others.

— by Jessica Cochran