My friend and colleague Eric Arauz died on March 24, 2018. I have been mourning and celebrating him. Since his death, I’ve written and posted photos of him everyday. I have professionally helped people with grieving for 15 years, and the best advice I offer them is to write about their dearly departed. I’ve followed my own advice and publicly shared my writing with others with the goal of helping them process Eric’s death. A few of the pieces that I have shared on Facebook were written by others, and when combined with my writing they paint a well-rounded portrait of that exceptional man. I want to provide a series of other perspectives with this collection of writings by my current seniors.
I have taught the final senior seminar (475) at the Rutgers School of Social Work since the spring of 2012. Starting in 2013, I have assigned Eric’s An American’s Resurrection to every section of that course. This photograph of my Rutgers seniors was taken on 4/11/18. Eric spoke to them on 2/28/18 (if you would like to hear the 80 minute discussion he had with the class, email me). They had just finished his book and they had no idea that I knew him or that he was coming to class. Eric and I always enjoyed watching their faces as they realized who was in the classroom with them.
The last time I saw Eric was four days before he died. He dropped of my students’ papers while I was working on my lawn (he spoke to my class while I was in Africa). We chatted very briefly, as he said he was in a rush. I did not begin to grade the papers until after he died. It took me a few weeks to get through them, as their reactions moved me and helped me celebrate Eric’s life.
I’ve distilled down the highlights of my students’ papers to share with you.
1) There is a great deal of stigma that addicts and individuals with mental disorders face, and their experiences are often not heard. Arauz is able to explain both of these dire issues in a clear way that spreads awareness on the dangerous consequences that can occur when people do not accept their conditions. He teaches readers that they should be empathetic and compassionate towards addicts and individuals with mental health issues. Therapist can play a key role in motivating these individuals to reshape their lives and seek intervention.
2) By recounting his journey with addiction and mental illness, Arauz exposes the reader to the vulnerable, and often ignored, population of veterans. Painted and masked by the brush of Uncle Same, Arauz exposes the myth of the invincibility by illustrating the struggles of veterans battling inner demons.
3) This book expresses the hells of the mental health system. Though without the maximum security VA mental hospital, his resurrection may not have been possible. The side-effects of the medication caused physical weakness, blood stained teeth, dry mouth and a loss of his sense of self.
4) A crucial difference between many of the staff members and his saviors was that the Virgils talked to Eric, asked him questions, and valued his presence even when he wasn’t able to respond.
5) Reading his story prepares future social workers and enhances traits of empathy and avoiding judgement.
6) With his own story written with conviction and honesty, he was able to give meaningful suggestions on what he believed the population of people with mental illness and those struggling with addiction genuinely need.
7) Arauz concludes for himself and the reader that personal connection is vital to a sense of self and recovery. Effective mental health treatment must incorporate, as a priority, personal relationships and a sense of community.
8) There may not have been a single chapter in the book that Eric does not talk about Bud, his mom, his sisters, or his wife.
9) Throughout the book there are many relevant themes and topics that relate directly to this course. The main themes of the book, which include years of suffering from child abuse, his battle with mental illness and addiction, and the stigma and treatment for his mental illness, resemble topics that were examined in this class.
10) Before enrolling in classes at Rutgers, Arauz’s future was uncertain. As he explains though, “…college, in general, is a great place to rebuild your life, to become self-aware…” (234). Arauz had a blank slate in front of him and took advantage of the opportunity.
These aren’t just enthusiastic readers, but burgeoning social workers who are going to be working with people that have similar diagnoses and problems as Eric. During his talk with my students, Eric said, “Without the book my story dies with me.” His experiences and teachings have touched and influenced tens of thousands and will continue to do so. I will assign Eric’s book for the rest of my teaching career and thus will ensure that his legacy and lessons thrive.