After addiction and prison, Trenton man now a mentor inspiring others

Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton is pleased to honor Robert Brooks of Trenton with our Client Achievement Award.

Poverty and circumstance turned Robert Brooks into a law-breaker at the tender age of 9. With an absentee father, an abusive, mentally ill mother, and three younger brothers, Robert Brooks remembers all too well the desperation that drove him to steal food to feed his family and the shame that made him shoplift clothes to end the derision of classmates. As a teenager and young man, selling drugs seemed the only reliable way to keep money in his pockets. His downward spiral deepened when he sampled the drugs and became addicted.

It didn’t take long for the law to catch up to him. For decades, Robert cycled from prison to the streets, and back again. By 2015, he was 50 years old – and locked up again.

“One of the corrections officers asked me what I was doing there. I couldn’t answer that question,” Robert said. “I was always winding up in prison and not really knowing why.”

Therapy helped him find answers. He talked about his traumatic childhood in counseling, where he was soon diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The diagnosis was an epiphany – and a springboard to long-term recovery. When he told a therapist that he wanted to help others avoid his troubled path, she implored him to first help himself.

Writing as therapy

That involved reaching out to Catholic Charities, where he began his addiction recovery and continued counseling through the Partial Care Program. The intensive outpatient program offers addiction treatment, mental health services, and added benefits like employment and housing assistance.

An explosive encounter on a Trenton street in 2017 was also a turning point. A man threatened him with a baseball bat.

“Instead of reacting, I was proactive – I didn’t do anything. I walked away – and it was a long walk, too,” said Robert, who decided to de-stress when he got home from the encounter by writing. 

He didn’t stop writing for three days. Before then, Robert was an avid reader of self-help books. But that week, he found that chronicling his own turbulent life proved to be the best self-help. The result was a book he self-published called “Psychology of a Thug: Demystify,” a raw retelling of everything he’s survived, from being molested and shot twice to becoming a teenage father and trying to take his own life by overdosing.

“I got sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Robert said.

A model for others

In 2018, he became a peer mental health advocate at Catholic Charities’ Early Intervention Support Services (EISS), a walk-up mental health program in Mercer County for people who need immediate mental health help.

Robert knows his past struggles offer lessons and inspiration for others on his same journey. Indeed, he goes by the nickname “the Thug Doctor,” and works to destigmatize mental illness in hopes of inspiring people, particularly in underserved urban areas, to get help. He also has lobbied lawmakers for more funding for mental health and affordable housing – you can see him in action at a Congressional reception in July 2018 below.

That was partly what drove Danica Rivello, director of Outpatient and Crisis Services (pictured, right), to hire Robert two years ago.

“Robert has been a huge asset to EISS, as he is able to meet the client where they are at, empathize with their experiences, and share with clients that anything is within arm’s reach with the right mindset,” Rivello said. “Robert is team player and always willing to help his colleagues – no task is too big or too small for him. Robert also brings to the position his sense of humor, which is very necessary in a crisis-driven program. He’s able to bring calm to challenging situations.” 

Many more steps

Robert now attends Camden County Community College, where he’s close to becoming a certified alcohol and drug counselor. Once he has an associate’s degree in hand, he plans to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work, with an eye on becoming a clinician. The road to recovery isn’t easy: Robert’s brother died shortly after he published his book, and lost his grandson to gang violence in Trenton in 2019.

“I contemplated giving up both times, but I know my brother and my grandson wouldn’t want me to do that,” Robert said. “So I powered through.”

Recovery, he added, is an ongoing journey with the destination always still ahead.

“I’m not where I want to be, but where I’m supposed to be,” he said, explaining: “I recognize I came a long way. But I remain humble. I’m careful because I want to remain on the positive path that I’m on and I don’t want to get sidetracked. School is just another step on my journey. Hopefully there will be many more steps.”

Celebrate with us!

Robert will be honored at Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton’s Guardian Angel Benefit of Hope this Wednesday (September 30th). Comedian and actor Joe Piscopo will host this virtual fundraiser and celebration of our supporters. It’s free to tune in! Register today here.

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For more information about Early Intervention Support Services, contact Danica Rivello, director of Outpatient and Crisis Services, at (609) 256-4200. For information about or to support the Guardian Angel Benefit of Hope, contact Events Coordinator Barbara Yuson at byuson@cctrenton.org or Dana DiFilippo, Catholic Charities communications, at ddifilippo@cctrenton.org or (215) 756-6277 (cell).

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