Peter Rossmeissl first experienced psychosis — difficulty recognizing what is real and what is not real — as a graduate student in microbiology in 1995 at UW-Madison, where he got a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in 1987.
After spending time in jail and at Mendota Mental Health Institute, Rossmeissl ended up in transitional housing. In 2010, he discovered Yahara House, a clubhouse that helps adults who have mental illness recover.
Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, he takes four medications that help him live with the condition.
Since December, Rossmeissl, 51, has worked as a peer support specialist at Journey Health Wellness Recovery, with a program called Promoting Recovery from Onset of Psychosis, or PROPs. It is for people between age 15 and 25 who are experiencing early symptoms of psychosis.
What is it like to experience psychosis?
It’s hallucinations and delusions. Have you seen the movie, “A Beautiful Mind?” John Forbes Nash is talking to someone, and someone else (who is imaginary) comes up and talks to them. He asks, “Do you see this person?” That’s what it’s like. You can’t tell the difference between reality and what’s false. I still have delusions, but I’ve learned to recognize them, and I can push them down.
Has it been hard to work while having psychosis and mental illness?
When I was depressed a couple of years ago, it was very difficult. I would go to work for three or four hours and then go home and go back to sleep. With the psychosis, I have a good support network now. If I feel symptoms coming on, I talk to my psychiatrist immediately, and we adjust my medication. It usually arrests it. I spend as much time as I can at Yahara House. Having people that you trust around you makes a huge difference.
What was it like to be in transitional housing?
It was pretty terrifying. I was one step away from living on the streets. The threat was there all the time. I wasn’t exactly a model employee, so getting work was really difficult. You feel yourself shrinking. It’s like someone is slowly flipping light switches off. I never imagined I would ever be able to own property. You’re hoping you can get your own apartment, if that.
How are you helping people through your job at Journey?
Insight into one’s illness is really important for recovery. It allows you to take medication and put up with the side effects. You have to experiment a little bit to get the right medications. A lot of people get frustrated by that process. I let people see that there’s hope. I tell them my story. They can talk to someone who has been there.
What do people misunderstand most about mental illness?
We’re not all looking to harm someone. We’re not all recluses. We need human interaction. We need to feel like we’re a part of the flow of society. If you can provide an opportunity by giving someone a job or inviting them into your church or inviting them into your home, and treating them like a friend, those are really important things to do. People living with mental illness want all of those things.
Tell me about the condo you are buying.
It’s on the west side of Madison. It’s a two-bedroom, one bath. It’s going to allow me to have a dog, which I’m excited about. It’s nice to be able to build up equity. One thing you don’t have if you’ve been unemployed or underemployed for a long time is a retirement plan. This will allow me to save for that.
— Interview by David Wahlberg