Editor’s note: This is a memorial blog for Deron S. Drumm, Executive Director of Advocacy Unlimited and founder of the Toivo wellness center, who passed away on April 4, 2019 from a sudden illness. Deron wrote for Mad in America, and at one time was also an associate editor on our staff. Readers who knew Deron and would like to honor his life and work are invited to share their remembrances in the comment section at the bottom of the post (no other types of comments will be approved for this post).
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I wrote this piece with the hope of getting the opportunity to say a word of remembrance and farewell for Deron Drumm at the service in his memory on Sunday, April 14th. Deron was an essential part of my growth and learning about the history of the mental health system.
The day of the service provided beautiful weather and many gathered to make it a day of remembrance that we won’t forget. There were touching stories from his family and loved ones. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was sung along with an Irish lullabye. Hilary Bryant, who worked closely with Deron at Toivo, led the service with a kindness meditation and then she spoke of her beautiful experience of mentorship and friendship with Deron over the years. On the Advocacy Unlimited and Toivo Facebook pages, the service could be viewed by all who wished to experience the farewell celebration in memory of a man fueled by a vision, mission and passion for hope, healing and connection.
The service continued with his family members, sister, nephews, aunt, daughter, old friends and then his mother speaking of the struggles, strengths, passion and resilience that Deron embodied and gave back. Deron’s mom Karen Kangas has been a force to reckon with in the mental health system and has played many roles including being instrumental in getting most of the mental institutions shut down in Connecticut. Karen took the opportunity to introduce the now DMHAS Commissioner, Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon, and former DMHAS Commissioner Pat Rehmer, now head of Hartford Health. Ken Blatt, who has walked side by side with Deron for the success of Toivo, spoke beautifully about their first meeting that started with a handshake and, moving forward, always hugs. Brian Luke Seaward, who flew in from Colorado and was a spiritual teacher and mentor to Deron, read a poem that I am very familiar with, one that speaks about not crying because he is not in the grave, his spirit has gone on. Two women who are state police officers that Deron worked with and trained also got to share how they appreciated the work that he was doing with them.
What I most connected with in that moment was the pain that Deron felt and fought, within himself and for others. He fought for marginalized people to be seen and heard, but he knew from his understanding of power and privilege and from growing up in a system where some are oppressed that it is not the easiest thing. He fought to let go of preconceived notions and judgments of people who did not create the system of oppression but are doing their best to live in it.
Deron understood titles and the power and privilege afforded by them. I was taught as a young child that if I wanted to be seen, heard and get respect I would need to become a teacher, doctor or lawyer. Deron did have a very successful law career but it came to an end. He shared about the pain that it cost him but he also shared with us that “Love is the greatest healer, and pain is the greatest teacher.” He was part of the “Big Community.” People fear people that don’t have the same background or color as them living in “their neighborhood,” but Deron wasn’t looking at connection that way. It was about connection within self, with others and with nature that brings peace within, it is not about area codes.
I saw more clearly in that moment, saying farewell to Deron, the depths of the passion for his vision and mission for human rights and justice. He knew the inside of the mind that was taught about inferiority verses superiority because of poverty, addiction, the color of a person’s skin or their mental health vulnerability in a system of oppression. He knew of the stories that Dr. Joy DeGruy shares in her work on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS), with pictures of a child with white skin looking up and grimacing at a person with black skin getting lynched after slavery was abolished. He understood the effects that slavery had on all of us having this human experience. He worked hard to have peace within and to share it with others to have the same.
Deron was very proud of and yet humble about the work that he did with police officers and with children. He worked to help people let go of their prejudices and see the spirit having the human experience in front of them because they recognize the spirit within themselves first — having that connection to themselves, they could have it with others and understand that we are not separate from nature, we are in it together.
Posting on Facebook about his work with the Hartford Police Department, Deron wrote: “Training new recruits today — their first week in the academy. Such a great time to share emotional self-regulation techniques. Deep bow to HPD leadership for understanding the importance of mind-body practices. Also, for allowing me to share some of my experiences with emotional distress and addiction.” This is the work that was important to him. If you are wearing a uniform and you are connected to yourself, others and nature, then all the shame from the past history of what humans have done to each other, shame that turns into fear and anger and then looks like hate, is something you would be aware of and understand where the thought that turns into emotions comes from. With that kind of awareness, we wouldn’t see so much violence from people in uniform, or the other horrific acts of violation of humanity we regularly see on television, or the easy acceptance of war as we study it in schools and celebrate bombs bursting in air. We would then get the opportunity to treat each other how we want to be treated.
I can hear the conversations with Deron now and understand his passion — he really wanted people to find peace within and let go of shame and blame and build a better world for everyone, so that we can start where we are and move forward with awareness of each other. The work he was doing is extremely important for us all and I’m praying that all the people he trained will continue to remember him, use what they learned and train others.
I first met Deron while taking the accelerated Recovery Support Specialist (RSS) training. It was a week of sitting at a big round table and we shared our stories with vulnerability and hope for the possibility for change. I was required to take the training because I had started working in a peer support role at a behavioral health clinic and needed to be state certified, and Advocacy Unlimited does the RSS certification for the state. I remember that soon afterward I received an invite from AU to participate in a march at the state capitol. I did not go. Some time later when I learned more about the mission and vision that Deron had for AU I apologized to him for not attending the march. I told him the reason I did not attend was because I had spent many years getting mental health services and had often spoken up for people to ‘stop the stigma’ and get their diagnoses in mental health services like I had done. I told him that I did not know my own voice at the time, and would not speak up for anything again until I knew myself and understood what I was speaking up for. He looked at me curiously and a feeling of understanding began to develop between us.
Deron shared his story so openly, with such passion and vulnerability that it allowed me to let go of the judgement that he couldn’t suffer in this life because his human experience was being a white man from privilege. When I get curious it makes me question what I had previously known to be true. I learned that to truly find respect it takes not judging people from preconceived ideas but getting to know a person one on one. That this man from a different economic status and color of skin telling his story could validate the pain that I felt helped to bring motivation into the work I was doing as a person who had used mental health services and was moving away from it.
After he and Linda Lentini trained me to be certified as RSS, I got a new perspective on what my peer support work at the clinic was about — which wasn’t well received by the clinic’s psychiatrist, psychologist and social workers. So I called Deron, and he and Linda drove over an hour to spend the morning at the clinic with me to educate the staff about what peer support is. Deron would sometimes recall how the people in those roles looked at their phones and tried to ignore what he was educating them about. But that is who he was, he would make that extra journey to show up for you.
Deron made connection look easy with his smile, warm hugs and listening without judgment, and I took it for granted. I met others in peer support work and assumed they would have the same principle in giving support no matter the color of my skin, poverty level, education status, or having used mental health services. But I was wrong — all the bias and prejudices exist because we are simply having a human experience and not everyone has done the inner work, the soul work, that Deron worked hard to continue doing for himself. The frustration to be seen, heard and respected doing peer support work in the mental health system encouraged me to share my story titled “I Am Not Your Mental Patient.” I am glad I got to share the first five-page essay with Deron and he gave me feedback and encouragement.
As I worked on learning about myself and gaining awareness I noticed that Deron was always giving and one day I said to him, “I never ask how you’re doing. How are you?” And so, we started on a new path in seeing each other with mutuality and respect. Some people like to rule with fear because they themselves are living in fear, but with Deron I was able to be open with him and not fear him. I’ve met a few people who are comfortable in their skin like that, they know the injustice that has happened in the world and is still happening and they are not trying to add to it, instead doing work to help themselves and others have their best life experiences.
It was with that desire that Deron started Toivo. He had learned about holistic health and healing and he wanted to give back. He felt that money should not be the reason why you can’t do yoga, get acupuncture, get a massage or have a space where you can be vulnerable, create, share, learn, grow and be innovative. The day before his farewell service, I got a massage at the Karuna Conference and my shoulder that had been hurting me for days, where I couldn’t lift up my arm without pain, felt better the next day and I had no issues getting dressed that morning.
Because of Deron’s vision I got to meet people in person that I otherwise might have seen lying on my couch watching television. After I began working with Deron at AU, I was happy to move into the advocacy and education role but at the same time I was scared. I had so much creativity and innovation that I wanted to share, but coming from a background of abuse and violation in childhood I had become protective of myself. Then I remembered what AU had looked like from the outside. Deron hired people who were individuals with their unique perspectives and passion and he gave them all the space to do their own work toward the values, mission and vision of the organization. I realized that I was now on the team and I let my guard down. I took what I had been learning in life, from reading, workshops, and my personal journey of taking risks and failing and learning, and I put it all into the Compassionate Activism training I was developing, with the goal of finding a way for people to listen to each other and bridge differences rather than screaming past each other.
When he shared how proud of me he was and what a great job I was doing developing the training, I truly felt a part of the team. We were set to facilitate the first Compassionate Activism training together on Thursday, April 11th. I did not get that opportunity. I’ve learned from Deron in many trainings that he facilitated and we took a few trainings together but I regret that I didn’t get to work side by side with him in the physical presence. But I know he was with me in spirit.
Our comradery was about the two us having a passion for writing and how to get the work done. He bought me a copy of Hope (Sacred Activism) by Andrew Harvey, and told me about The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and Writing from the Heart by Nancy Slonim Aronie. Deron was following his heart’s passion for creating and teaching. We would talk about Brené Brown, Don Miguel Ruiz, Gabor Mate, and lots of other soul work. We knew how to organize and do the detailed work but our spirits were outdoors. Deron spent a lot of time outdoors. He also absolutely loved Qigong and tea on Saturdays at Toivo.
There is no doubt that this was an unexpected loss that has been felt by many people. I remember clearly the stories that he shared with many of us, and many of us have had the same experience of learning the ‘mental illness’ language way too early and letting it go to reframe one’s human experience could be quite a lifelong battle. As Deron’s mind and body did the hard-lifting work his spirit grew and soared and he shared with others. Like a rocket ship taking off that does all the heavy work and then breaks off, leaving the heavy part behind before going off into space, so Deron’s spirit lifted off, soaring to higher heights. His work here is done and he has gone back home. We are all walking home together and Deron walked alongside us, encouraging, supporting, inspiring, motivating and challenging us to be our best selves.
He was a beautiful spirit who spent his time here on earth to learn the lessons to accomplish the task that needed to be shared with all he came in contact with. He kept the faith, he did the work, and many hearts, minds, bodies and souls have been reached. Deron looked people in the eyes and his embrace was beautiful — you don’t let that kind of presence go so easily. You know he is back in the stillness and stillness speaks. So let him speak to your heart space and continue to do this work for human rights and dignity for all people no matter economic status, gender, or color of skin. For the possibility for us all to live in a truly inclusive society where everyone has the opportunity to be free, to be vulnerable without labels, with the ability to move forward and live a beautiful, fruitful life. Deron knew the truth, “None but ourselves can free our minds” (Bob Marley).
Thank you, Deron, for your sacrifice and dedication in all that you did for all of us. And thank you to Mad in America for providing the space for people who knew him to express our appreciation.