Date Published: October 19, 2021
A ballet dancer's life spirals out of control—to addiction, homelessness, and prison. But with the help of somebody who's walked the road before, Dino is finding his way home.
Iris Bowen, LMSW, is a social worker at the Coming Home Program at Mount Sinai Morningside, which provides re-entry support to people returning from incarceration. The program is part of the Mount Sinai Institute for Advanced Medicine.
Dino Rivera is a patient in the program. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Since 2006, the Coming Home Program has worked to improve the physical and mental health and emotional and social well-being of men and women during their transition from prison or jail to the community. Supportive counseling is offered individually and in groups, and case management is provided by formerly incarcerated staff who truly understand the challenges of coming home. In addition, the Coming Home Program team trains all medical providers, clinicians, and staff at the Institute for Advanced Medicine (IAM) to ensure that formerly incarcerated patients receive their health care in a safe and welcoming environment. For more information about the Coming Home Program, email ComingHome@mountsinai.org.
From the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, this is Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle.
Iris Bowen 00:05
When I first met Dino, he was a mess. He had just come off of Rikers Island, his hair was long. And I'm like, how can I help him? What can I do for him?
Iris Bowen is a social worker at Mount Sinai. She helps formerly incarcerated people re-enter society.
Iris Bowen 00:24
You know, you want to help, but I mean there's not much you can do when somebody's addicted but give them support. You know, you can't be with them in the streets 24/7. I wasn't sure if he was gonna make it. That's always my wish that the person is gonna get off the drugs and get off the street and be clean. But sometimes it doesn't work that way.
Iris has been doing this work for over 20 years. She's had thousands of people come through her office needing help. Many have been through the unimaginable. Some have done terrible things. But all of them, she says, deserve a shot at a better life, even if it seems like a long shot. In this regard, Dino Rivera was no different.
Dino Rivera 01:13
Okay, well, I'll just say my name is Dino Rivera, and I want to invite you to my story.
Dino's story could begin at any number of places. The first high. The first theft. The first trip to Rikers island, New York City's notorious jail complex. But to me it begins with a photograph. It's a young man in a dance studio. He's about a foot off the ground, his body forming the perfect copy of Jesus on the cross—arms wide, legs together. And he's looking off into the distance, as if into a future that I'm sure he thought was going to be much different than it turned out to be.
Dino Rivera 01:52
I struggled with addiction, which led to incarceration because in order to buy drugs and to buy alcohol, I started to steal, you know, I was committing crimes. So I, you know, I was in and out of jail for about a good 15, 16 years
On this episode of the podcast, a snapshot from the rocky road to resilience. It's a story about change—how change happens under difficult circumstances, how fragile it can be, and why we sometimes fail to change even when we really, really want to. Dino remembers the first time he met Iris in 2014.
Dino Rivera 02:31
When I met Iris, it was so nice because I mean, I was down and out, you know, I, I was still living in the shelter and when I saw her and she was, she just smiled. She was so warm. And so, like, compassionate, you know, like she really, she was asking me about my experience. She wanted to get to know me. And so I told her everything. So it was just you felt, like, uh, there was, there was like no judgements, you know?
Dino said that something that was special about you and that he felt immediately, even in that first meeting, was that you didn't judge him.
Iris Bowen 03:10
Right. It's so important for people to feel like they're not being judged and that, you know, I'm not going to say, oh, you shouldn't do this and that's not right. And oh, you should, you know, that was wrong. Because people won't open up to that. People are not going to be open to being judged and you know, nah. So, you know, I see people as they are, when they come in, when they walk in this door, I'm not judging you, you know, what do you want to do with your life? How are we going to go about doing it? I don't really care about your past because that's gone. You can't go back and change that. So I want to know what we're going to do today. Where are we going to start today?
I'm wondering whether you have to get yourself into that head space sometimes because it's so natural, right, we judge involuntarily. Does that happen to you? And if so, how do you overcome that and enter a place of non-judgment?
Iris Bowen 04:13
I used to be judgmental. And especially with people that didn't get their education, I would say, oh, they were inside for 20 years. How come they didn't get an education? You know, and how could anybody in America not have an education? So I used to, you know, be judgmental in that area. But guess what? I learned a lot about why people had not gotten their education by listening to the people. And one day this guy, he was in his 50s, and I was talking to him, and he wanted to go back and get his GED. And I'm asking him what happened. Why didn't you—Well, the guy, his mother was an addict, and he was left with taking care of his little sister at like five or six years old. He didn't have time to go to school or, you know, nobody cared if he went to school or not. I'm like, how can I judge somebody like that? You know? And so that really changed me—that circumstances happen, things happen, and there's no need for judgment.
Are you comfortable talking about your own experience with incarceration?
Iris Bowen 05:40
Yes. Yes, I am. Yes.
I'm wondering how that factors in here. How does that inform your work?
Iris Bowen 05:49
It informs my work a great deal because I know what it's like to be incarcerated. I know what the road—I knew before I got incarcerated, I could see my life spiraling. Yep, I could see it. Because I was in an abusive relationship and I knew I shouldn't have been there. And he was teaching me how to sell drugs and how to carry weapons. I knew nothing about that when I was a teenager growing up. Until I met him, you know, I didn't even know what marijuana looked like, cocaine. But he was an older guy and he showed me everything. Yep. And my mother would tell me, oh, he's too old for you, he's too experienced. But, you know, I didn't want to listen. And so, you know, being incarcerated and being around especially other women that were incarcerated, I would say 95 percent of women were in abusive relationships. And they, most of the time, were there for a man that they loved and they did whatever for. Being in that environment helps me to do this work because I know how lost people are, I know how hurt, how abused. And men as well. Very heartbreaking. And then we wonder, how is this person supposed to survive with all the anger and all the pain? Yep. They're not going to unless there's another avenue, unless we show them another avenue, like a way out of the pain.
What is the way out of the pain?
Iris Bowen 07:45
Acknowledging that they were hurt, you know, they've been through some pain. Because they've gone to, they've gone to foster care, let's say they went to foster care, from foster care they were mistreated, sent to the group home, mistreated. And the next stop was jail, mistreated. But nobody ever asked them what happened. You know, why are you acting like this? Where is that pain coming from? Nobody ever asked their story. Yep. And I think just acknowledging their pain, somebody not just saying, oh, you're a bad person. You did this, or you did that. Somebody listening to what happened to them as well.
I imagine for many people you're the first person to ask that question.
Iris Bowen 08:36
Yes, and they tell me that. They tell me, and I say, you know, the whole time that you were in prison, did anybody ask you what happened? And they'll tell me, no, nobody cared. Nobody cared to ask them what happened in your life. Because, Jon, I think there's a road that we travel, and then something happens in that road somewhere, and we either go to the left or to the right. Some people can get past that pain or whatever and continue on that road. Some people cannot, and they either go left or right—prison, drugs—but they're not gonna continue on that road until that is resolved. And I think my job in this whole scheme of things is to resolve what's going on, how we can get, go, move forward. Which way are we going now? Are we gonna get back on that road and get ahead? Or are we gonna still keep going in the other direction?
You talked about the fork in the road. And it reminds me of something Dino said. He told me a story about the last time that he was arrested. And he says he was in the police car, and he said to the cops—
Dino Rivera 10:01
It's over. I told them. I was in the back seat. I was in handcuffs. I said, you're not gonna see me ever, ever again. It's over. You're never going to arrest me again. I'm not going to get arrested anymore. I'm not, you know, I'm changing everything. So, you know, it's over, you know, you're going to have to find another collar. It's not going to be me. I'm not going to make your job easier anymore. You know, because I mean, in a way, you know, like I was, I was talking about this to my therapist the other day, you know, and I, I started to feel like I was a coworker. You know, they were very—no, no I'm serious. They were so comfortable by having me in the patrol car every, you know, twice, three times a year. And I told them, and that last ride, uh, 2014, I told them, you're never gonna see me again. You're never going to arrest me again. So, you know, just enjoy it while it lasts. This is it.
This is it. This is the last time. It's like something in him clicked. It's almost like he started down a different path by himself. And that moment is so mysterious to me. Like, I don't understand how that change happens in a person. And I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on that.
Iris Bowen 11:20
I think the change happens when they've been given an option. And yeah, you could go back, you know, go back to drugs. And yeah, you could go back to what you were doing, but you have been given options now. You know that you don't have to do that. You don't have to live like that. A lot of times people don't think they have options, but once you're given an option and you know that you don't have to go that way, I think people change, or they want to change. They desire to change. And it probably clicked—he didn't want to live like that. Well, he did tell me he didn't want to, you know, live like that anymore. Being on the street and looking for drugs. It became more of a hassle than something that felt good or felt nice.
Dino Rivera 12:18
I remember I told her once that, that I felt invisible. I remember that. I said, you know Iris—because I would be in the streets for three or four days and, uh, you know, just getting high and hallucinating and, you know, just lack of sleep and all of that. And I started to feel invisible because, I mean, I remember just like, you know, like usually even though you could be in the middle of Times Square, and there's thousands of people walking by. And even though you may not know these people and, and you know, and, but there's still sort of like a humanity about it, right? There's a feeling that, you know, that you're surrounded by people, and that you happen to be one of these people. And so, like, even though you don't know them personally, they don't know you, there's a connection. There's something, you know. But I remember I shared this story with her. I told her, I said, I just felt totally invisible, like I was dead. Because people were looking right through me. That's how I felt. Like I wasn't making a connection. It was like, I felt, I felt, I guess that's how it feels when you're homeless. I mean, I'll admit, when I walk by some people that are living on the streets, you know, sleeping on cardboard boxes and things like that, I kind of look through them. I don't acknowledge them, you know, and things like that. But when I started to feel like, you know, somebody sleeping on a cardboard box, it was so, you know, it was like an awakening, you know?
What do you think to yourself when you walk by somebody in the street?
Iris Bowen 14:18
Oh, it hurts. It breaks my heart. It breaks my heart, Jon. Sometimes I want to cry. But the shelters are not the greatest either. Yep. So, you know, what's the solution? I always think of what's the solution? What can we do?
Do you give people money when they ask for it in the street?
Iris Bowen 14:48
I do sometimes. It depends. I do. My boyfriend used to say, oh, don't open that pocketbook. I would go from one to the next. He would be like, don't open that purse, don't open that pocketbook. I'm like, oh, just give me a dollar. Just this time, it's always just this time. But it's always a lot of times.
What does it depend on?
Iris Bowen 15:19
It depends on the look. Like, I can kind of get the sense of, it's like a, I can't explain it it's like a sense that, yeah, he needs, he does need. And there's some people that don't look like they need. They look like they just hustling. And I can kind of, like, who's real, and I may be wrong. But I have that sense of like, who may need, and who's just hustling.
Iris helped Dino get out of the shelter and into his own apartment. And Dino threw himself into his recovery with the zeal of a former ballet dancer, attending therapy sessions through the Coming Home Program at Mount Sinai Morningside. What motivates you to be so diligent about everything?
Dino Rivera 16:13
There's a lot of things, I'm sure. But because we're talking about Iris and we're talking about the program, their support. To me, they're my family. They give me strength and confidence. And if I'm having a problem, if I'm struggling, because there were times, you know, before I got sober, before 2017, that I was, you know, I kept relapsing. And they were there for the whole thing. They saw me relapse. They even explained to me how, they told me that—I was so upset. I remember it was the first time I ever had so much clean time. I must've been sober about eight months. And I was so happy about it, you know, and then one day I, you know, I just walked right into a relapse. I started to use and I lost all my clean time. I went back to zero. And I was so depressed and so upset and so embarrassed. And when I told them about that, they said, well, no, no, no, wait a minute. That's okay! That's part of the recovery. It's the relapse. I mean that's just part of the process of getting clean. And so just those words, that really changed everything for me.
Iris Bowen 17:42
Right. Because he was feeling really bad that, you know, he didn't want to face the group members. He didn't want to come to group, and I'm like, stop. And I usually say, stop beating yourself up. You know, it happened. Let's move on, you know? Because it is part of the process. And that was, I don't know how many years ago, but it's been a while. And he has not picked up. And it was part of his process of growth and change. You know, sometimes you have to go through some stuff. Yep. It's easier to be that addict than to change. It's easier to do what you know than to do the change. It's so much easier just to continue the way you've been going, you know, getting high, running in the streets. And you have to be tired of doing that.
Would you say that's the most important factor that determines whether a person succeeds in getting clean or not?
Iris Bowen 18:54
Yes. Themselves. It has to be—they have to want it themselves. I could want it all—I could, you know, forever want people to be clean and, you know, not use drugs, but they have to want that piece for themselves. They have to want it. I want it. I definitely want it for them. But they have to want it. Yep. And I'm so fearful of getting that phone call. That—and I have gotten them. They're like, are you sitting down? And I'm like, no, why? What happened? Oh, this one died. You know, he had a bad hit of fentanyl that killed him. And I'm like, oh my God. I've gotten several of them phone calls. And that's my worst nightmare to get that phone call. I'm so afraid of that phone call. And I was afraid of that phone call with Dino at one time. I'm like, oh my God, I hope, you know, he gets it together. And he did. He did. But I'm so fearful of that phone call. Like a mother's worst nightmare, to get that phone call. He's gone. OD’d. Yep. Horrifying. And I've cried just like that's my own family or, you know, how many times I cried because you think you could save them. And it's totally up to them. And sometimes I've had guys that got clean, they were doing fine. And a friend or somebody might've said, even a family member, you know, just one time. And that was the last time. You should see my desk, Jon. I have pictures of most of my guys that are gone, that OD'd. I have quite a few pictures of my guys. And I talk to them sometimes because we were close. A lot of times we were close, they would come and talk to me, sit with me and, you know, tell me their life stories. You know, we had grown close, and they just could not let go of that drug. So there's always, um, you know, that, that chance that they might go back and then they might get clean. So, yep.
You said you talk to them sometimes.
Iris Bowen 21:59
Yeah, I do. I talk to their pictures, and I look at them and I'm like, you know, where did you go? What, you know, what happened? Yep. There's one guy, he did 33 years in prison. He came home. He didn't know how to bank. He didn't know how—he didn't know basically how to use the computer. He didn't know anything, really, after 33 years in prison. He grew up in an Irish family and he said his mother was an alcoholic, his father was abusive. And so he got in trouble, did a lot of time in prison, came home in his 50s and was like a stranger in society. And so I would try to teach him about banking and about how to get credit. And when he passed, we were in the midst of trying to do his resume. So I still have his paperwork, you know, his resume. And I look at it every now and then. But he was a beloved guy. We loved him. And Dino knows him. As a matter of fact, Dino knows him. And we would have groups and we would sit together. We would do, like, we would have group games, puzzles—Dino, him, and myself would group up together. Yep. And then he was gone.
Do the pictures ever talk back?
Iris Bowen 23:37
I don't know if they talk back, but I, you know, talk to them and, yep. I don't know if they've ever talked back. Yeah. I just talk to them and say like, what happened? You know, you were doing, you were doing good! It's so heartbreaking. And I feel like we as a society are failing people. We are failing, I feel like we're not attentive to those that are in so much need, or maybe there's just so much need that some people slip through the cracks and, you know. There's so much need.
Dino Rivera 24:24
When you start using and you know you have this sickness of addiction and everything, and you've been arrested so many times and you know, you're on the street and, uh, people are hiding from you, people are ducking you and things like that because nobody wants, you know, because usually you see people you know and you start asking them for money or whatever it is. But anyway, like, uh, once you're sort of caught in that spiral, you start to feel like that's it, you know, it's over. You know, like I'm gonna die this way. And, um, that kind of thinking, it's progressive, right. You know, you start to not really care about anything because you feel like that, you know, that you had an opportunity, you had a chance in life and you threw it away. And you're aware of that. And it's easy to start to, you know, to just completely like let go and just continue to, you know, to fall. But when you're around people, when you meet some new people that can kind of encourage you that you can change. Because I think in a sense most addicts, in fact 99.999 percent of addicts, want to change. I mean, this is the way I see it. No one wants to be sick like that. You know, like just addicted and just doing anything to just keep getting high and you know, being homeless and all these—nobody wants that. And so, but you know in a lot of ways, when you look around, you feel like, you know, if you're on the street and you're seeing people going about their business, going to their jobs, going to the movies, going out to dinner, you know, you see these people doing these things, you know, and in a way you feel like, well, I guess they've moved on. They made the right choices in life and they're moving on with their lives, you know? And, uh, and I'm just stuck here. But at the same time there's like a little voice in your head that's like, well, wait a minute. I'm, uh, I'm still a human being, you know? I mean, I'm a person. You know, I may not be in good shape, but I'm just like everyone else. But in a way it's very difficult to believe it because of your reality. But to find people that, you know, like Iris and the program that, you know, that can help you believe in yourself, that you can change it. You know? I mean, my life has completely changed. I mean, I have a bank account. I have a credit card. I mean, I'm doing things today that I never thought that I was, you know, that I was worthy of. You know, I never thought I would ever have a credit card, or even a bank account, you know? And this comes out of the program.
Iris Bowen 27:31
People want to be treated like human beings, like they're not so different or they're not strange because, you know, they were incarcerated or they committed a crime. They're not strange. They're just another human being to me. You're just like me. And I'll tell them, sometimes they'll look at me like, oh, I don't like counselors, or I don't like social workers. And I'm like, why, what? Oh, because they think you're better. And, oh, well, that's not me. I don't think I'm better because I'm not. I'm human just like you. And then they want to marry me, Jon. They're like, oh, do you have a husband? I'm like, uh, no, but I have a lot of grandkids. I'm like, I got a lot of grandkids that I gotta deal with. You don't want to deal with that. Yep. Yeah. So, yeah. And you know, they learn to trust me because I treat them like human beings. Like, you're not different. You're not strange. You know, what do you need? You need your ID? You need public assistance? What do you need? Let's get to that point.
How do you stay optimistic? How do you stay positive? Given all the things that you encounter?
Iris Bowen 28:55
Sometimes it's hard. Sometimes it's very hard. But I tried to remain hopeful and just hope that things will get better. Otherwise I'll be in the nuthouse. Otherwise I'll be in the nuthouse. So, you know, I try to stay out the nuthouse and, you know, remain positive. And I have a lot of people that have gone through some trials and they're better now, like Dino, like my Dino.
How would you compare him today, the Dino that you know today, to the one you first met?
Iris Bowen 29:36
The one that I first met, I was afraid that something was going to happen to him. Now, I feel like he's on the right path. He's doing well. And I feel like he's gonna be well. And if he's not, if he relapses or whatever, then we start all over again. Yep. Pick yourself up, stop beating yourself up, stop judging yourself. Let's try it again. And I tell a lot of guys, listen, don't stress me out. You're gonna stress me out if you don't find someplace to go, get off the street, or, you know, you're gonna stress me out, I'm gonna be stressed out. And their like, for real? I'm like, yeah. A lot of them, I'll tell them, you're gonna stress me out. Try to, you know, go into a shelter or get off the street at least for a couple of days, see how it works out. Because I'm not gonna sleep at night. And they look at me like I'm crazy, but they believe me. And it's the truth.
It motivates them.
Iris Bowen 30:52
Yeah, it does. It motivates them. Yes, it does. Because at least they know somebody cares. In this huge world, somebody cares.
What would you hope that people listening to this story take away from it?
Dino Rivera 31:10
Change. That change is possible. You know, the little voice in your head that keeps telling you about, well, maybe things, can things be different? Absolutely. You know, even when you're down, you know, when you feel like, you know, like there's, that there are no second chances, really. You know, when you start to really believe that, you know, that you made mistakes and that these mistakes—that you're gonna die with them. You're not gonna correct them. Things will not change. When you start to believe that it's just part of, you know, feeling, it's part of the depression, it's part of the sickness. You know what I usually do is show before and after pictures. I have them, you know, like I have a couple of pictures, I have some mugshots that I managed to get my hands on. And, uh, when I was really raggedy and homeless and, you know, and all of that, and using, when I was still under the influence. And then I have, you know, today's pictures. And, you know, and I put them all together. Kind of like a montage or whatever. And I see transformation. Just looking, you know, a lot of people say seeing is believing. And, you know, like, and I was hoping to do that with my story, you know, so that you can see that it is possible.
You know, um, so I'll be interviewing Iris soon. And one thing—what would you like to say to Iris?
Dino Rivera 32:50
Thank you! God bless you. Thank you so much, Iris. I love you.
Iris Bowen 33:06
Keep your head up, Dino! And you know I'm always here for you. Yep. Keep your head up.
Thanks again, Dino and Iris, and to the whole team at the Coming Home Program at Mount Sinai Morningside for making this episode possible and for the incredible work that you do every single day. Road to Resilience is a production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. It's made by me, Jon Earle, Nicci Cheatham, and Emma Stoneham. Our Executive Producer is Lucia Lee. From all of us, as always, thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.