Disclaimer: Strong Language Used
Seeing people before you’re supposed to meet with them has always fascinated me. They are in their element. Sure, they’re waiting for you too, but they’re there first. They choose the table, they choose what’s on the table – it’s their space. People make space their own quickly, and even faster at a university. A table opens up at Gander, it gets filled within minutes. A parking space opens, it gets filled faster than it was vacated.
I met Christopher Mendes, (most people know him as Chris, or the guy with a full tattoo sleeve,) 27-year-old psychology and sociology double major. This was not the first time we had been acquaintances, in fact, I can remember the first time I heard Chris’s deep, raspy voice in freshman year sociology. It seemed that each semester I would somehow run into Chris again.
Seated in a grey long-sleeved t-shirt, short enough to expose the black Apple Watch on his right wrist, I interrupted Chris in doing some reading for the class that we have together. “It’s interesting, for a class that is called Western Culture, we sure do read a lot of European books.” I knew I was in for a good conversation.
So it’s your senior year, do you know what you’re going to do come May?
Mendes: Come May, uh, so I’m applying to SLU right now and I will be submitting my application for graduate school in their MSW (Master of Social Work) program by the end of this week. And I guess after May I’ll be working a lot this summer and head down to Orlando for a week with the girlfriend.
What do you do for work?
Mendes: Right now I work as a mental health technician for CenterPointe Hospital –
Wow! How’d you get plugged in with that?
CM: Actually through (Dr.) Wideman’s Social Work class, well, it was an introduction type class where we went around to different places where different social workers and therapists work. We surveyed what they do – we did that for two hours every Friday morning. I walked into CenterPointe and they mentioned they were hiring so I just kind of snagged it up.
What all do you do for them?
CM: As a mental health technician, I work mostly with the acute or some patients who are going through… understanding their diagnosis. So there’s some sort of behavioral disorder – these patients range from drug // alcohol addictions, to patients with schizophrenia, bipolar. The patients I primarily work with are patients who either don’t take their medicine or who are just coming into their diagnosis and don’t know how to handle it, so they’re pretty extreme on their way of handling it. The ‘detoxers’ that we work with are people who are just coming off of heroin highs and alcohol withdrawal. My job is to make sure they’re safe during treatment. We have groups and I get to talk to them about goal setting and the importance of it. When we got upon discharge, we prep them to get back into the real world and set up their social workers and whatnot.
Seems like it would be pretty rewarding.
It is pretty rewarding.
In my line of learning about psychology, and more specifically social work, it was a really clear indication that it wasn’t for me because I would see things in the textbook (like photos and stories) and it would just absolutely break my heart. How are you able to establish the boundary between being at CenterPointe and be fully invested there, yet be able to leave that stuff there and not let it affect your day-to-day life?
So I’ve spent a lot of time, I mean, I was in the military for five years, and I did a lot of time away from home. The tours in Afghanistan majorly prepped me for wanting to seek something bigger than myself and do a job that maybe not everyone would be able to do – Its one of those things that that feeling of helping someone else takes away the bag, you know?
As long as I can leave work knowing I’ve done something good today. If I’ve gotten to one person then today was a good day. Working at CenterPointe there are days where it does get rough… (um) Anytime that we have to restrain somebody because they’re physically hurting themselves or are in danger of hurting somebody else, or one of our staff members that’s always a rough day and we hate doing that. And days like those sometimes people leave work thinking ‘God did I fail at work today?’ The answer is no. Leaving your job each day knowing that you did something to help somebody else definitely helps with the emotional baggage.
I definitely do want to talk about the military thing later.
In the news currently, mental health is a huge thing.
And to my understanding, which is very little, I think there are a lot of lies in the way that the media portrays mental health and I don’t think people fully understand it. I think it takes someone, such as yourself, who is around it every day –
Well that’s because I think its become subtle.
What do you mean?
We subtly talk about mental illness and mental health – we throw around little jokes here and there and we tend to not take it as seriously. And I guess to the average every day person who may not have to deal with any mental health issues, it kind of separates themselves from what’s going on. They don’t have to worry about it because it’s a subtle issue to them, because we do subtly bring it up in television, we subtly bring it up in movies and it’s a big issue and it does affect a lot of people and when we do subtly kind of blow it off it – it does leave a path of errors in the way that people think about schizophrenia or bipolar or depression or anxiety and people tend to not take it so seriously. So much so that if one of your friends came up to you and said ‘hey I get super depressed all the time’ and someone who maybe doesn’t deal with mental illness all the time or may not have had any interaction with it in their life could possibly just see that and think ‘oh they’re depressed and they’ll get over it’.
Yeah, I see that.
And you know, that’s not always the case. So I think the more we interact with it and the more we can bring awareness to it, then we may not talk so subtly about it and maybe it can be something that we’re all comfortable talking about and its not this big error anymore.
How do you see, not that you have to have the answer, but what do you see the solution to having people interact with it more often or have people have more knowledge?
(phew) That’s tough. I think it comes down to ignorance, so people talk about – and let me get clear, I don’t mean ignorance in a bad way or a negative way, but people just tend to not know. If someone were to brush off one of their friends with depression or anxiety, they may not be doing it because they’re a mean person, they may just be ignorant to the total concept of anxiety and depression because they may have had friends or even parents that have just said ‘hey you’re anxious, you’ll get over it’. They don’t know the magnitude that depression or anxiety can have on someone’s life. The solution to that is simply to educate people; Instead of putting these stereotypes in television or in movies, I think that becomes an issue with someone. You can look at any horror movie; I mean look at how any any person with mental illness is portrayed – that’s an issue. The way people talk about it in the news: As soon as we have a – um – something bad happens in society or someone does something we’re automatically trying to find something that’s wrong with them or what mental health they’re in –
Like a diagnosis.
Yeah, exactly. And what that does is – well, this person went on a big massacre and he just so happened to be manic and bipolar – oh, this person is bipolar and manic and wants to kill a whole bunch of people, this must mean that every single person that has these disorders and that’s not the case. And I think that comes down to pure ignorance. People just not knowing.
Do you feel your time at Maryville has prepared you for taking on –
Oh of course. Prior to Maryville I was completely ignorant to… this. I was completely ignorant to psychology in a sense. I was one of those people where I didn’t see it as an issue. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, prior to coming to Maryville, it wasn’t something I really looked into or study at all. You start seeing the magnitude of how detrimental things like PTSD and anxiety disorders and depressive disorders can kind of have on someone’s life and through all this education we’ve gotten through the psych program has been wonderful.
Tell me a little bit about your military experience – what was the path you took to get there? What did you do? As much as you want to get into.
I wasn’t one of those people in eighth grade that knew that I wanted to join the military – I didn’t even know that I wanted to join the military until two weeks before I left the military.
I actually told my mom, I had made a joke a month earlier that I was going into the military and everyone was like ‘yeah right’, and even I said ‘yeah right’, I was not that kind of person at all. Things kind of fell through with college and I was like ‘I don’t want to be that guy sitting on my butt at my buddy’s house’ and wind up doing bad things, especially living in South City, St. Louis – I didn’t want to stay in that environment and, uh, you know, not go to school. Who knows what –
You didn’t want to get into the shit.
Yeah exactly, you know, sitting on my buddy’s couch drinking every night of the week wasn’t really my gig. So, I walked into the recruiter’s office and talked to him. Two weeks later I was on a bus down to the Fort. Best decision I ever made – I loved it. I grew a lot as a person and by the time I got out of the military I – I knew the military was right for me, but I knew the military wasn’t right for me to continue on with it. But I did need to increase my education. When I was in the military I didn’t really have a lot of time to develop my education so as soon as I got out I knew I needed to get a college education.
Do you feel like, um, it was five years, yeah?
So taking those five years, do you feel that it better prepared you for going to school?
It opens up your, especially here at Maryville, the thing that I’ve come to learn about Maryville is that it is a very free-thinking university. I have met some the most intellectual people I have ever met in my life at Maryville between teachers and students, having my military side I can bring my perspective into conversation and I think that can be very beneficial for a lot of people. That’s not a side that a lot of people see. I’ve been a full-time student at Maryville for four years now and in that time I’ve had a lot of interaction with a lot of teachers, a lot of students and, yea, it definitely prepared me for coming here and helping me make my mark.
You were over in Afghanistan, yeah?
Yes, two tours.
What is that even like?
Culture-shock. Huge culture shock. I love Afghanistan. I think you’ll meet a lot of people that will have their differences, and don’t get me wrong, I was in a really bad part of Afghanistan my first tour, but even in that sense, you can get a grasp of their true culture was there. There wasn’t people that hated us. It was people that, obviously, didn’t like fighting going on in their country. If we had fighting here in America, people wouldn’t like it either.
People may like it in the sense that they understand that we would have to fight to get our country back but these people in Afghanistan definitely wanted the best in their country and you could tell in their culture. I loved Afghanistan, absolutely beautiful. We had the war aspect to it, and that’s not a pretty thing at all, but that’s…. that’s… that’s just war I guess. Its not a pretty thing at all. But emotionally it helped me grow, as a person it helped me grow. When I first went to Afghanistan at 18 years old, for sure there was this ethnocentric mindset where you go to a new country that’s definitely not like America at all. I’ve been to England, Europe, and a lot of those countries have very similar values to the United States. You go to the Middle East, it’s a lot different and people fall into this mindset of ‘why are they doing things like this?’ or ‘can we talk to them like this?’ and it took a little bit to get culturalized and be able to realize that this is the way they are and then be able to work with them because at the end of the day, we’re in their country. So not only did it help me emotionally, but it helped me come into Maryville as a more mature, more culturally diverse person.
How’d you find Maryville?
I found Maryville my senior year of high school. Me and a couple of my buddies went to different schools and we came here. When I was 18, it was like a six-to-one ratio from girls to guys. (laughs) And at 18 years old you’re like this is awesome. But when I was 18 years old, I couldn’t really afford to do anything outside of community college. So when I was 23 and out of the military I started applying to a bunch of different universities and Maryville was the best.
So, big tattoo.
Yeah, I have an entire sleeve.
What’s it mean to you? What’s the story? I’ve wondered for a few years…
(chuckles) Secret of the tattoo man. So, I was on my first deployment and I thought ‘damn I really want a tattoo.’ When I got back from Afghanistan and I was like ‘what do I want to get a tattoo of?’ and I realized I loved beta fish, so I got some beta fish. People always try to find deeper meanings like ‘oh it’s a Japanese fighting fish’, to be honest I just really like fish. I think it looks cool. I had about five different artists that worked on my sleeve, three guys from Colorado and two guys from here. Just kind of pieced together with, stuff, um, the Philippians 4:13 verse on my arm is probably the only tattoo, besides the Buddha on my leg, well that was the last text message I got before I deployed so I thought that was sentimental to have on my arm. It just kind of pieced it all together, there’s no huge story to it.
No I get that. I think in our age, well, tattoos are kind of controversial at the moment across the board. In our parents’ generation, tattoos were viewed as very, like, no.
Now its in this revolutionary stage where everyone wants to get a tattoo and everyone wants to have some super deep meaning. I’m a huge believer in, like, you can get a tattoo because you think it looks awesome, I think it looks sick. Mine that I have, yes there’s a meaning, and if I never shared that meaning, I think it looks cool enough that I don’t feel the need to explain it to everyone. I think yours looks awesome.
Well thanks man. I got it cut off at my sleeve because I realize that it’s a generational idea, tattoos. Yes, there are 60 year olds with tattoos but its not as profound as it is now. So I knew I probably shouldn’t get it below my wrist so I can cover it up if I’m wearing a suit and even now wearing a long sleeve. I understood that retrospect and its funny, whenever I do wear a long sleeve or something nice and I sit down with people to meet and talk. Midway through the conversation I’ll pull my sleeve up or whatever and people get so shocked that I have a full sleeve. I was working my first job after the military as a waiter at Buffalo Wild Wings. I had an older woman grab me by the arm, she was probably 50 or 60 years old and goes, that’s going to get me in trouble; saying ‘older woman’ about a 50 or 60-year-old.
Damnit. Cut that out. (laughs) Anyways she grabs me by the arm and goes ‘you do know that because you got this tattoo you’re not going to be able to get a job, you’re not going to be able to do this and that.’ So I looked at her and very kindly said ‘Ma’am, so after my first deployment to Afghanistan –’and she was shocked, saying ‘I’m so sorry for judging you, bless you. Have a great day.’ So I was like take that! (laughs). Yeah its pretty cool, I enjoy tattoos. It’s a big conversation starter.
I want to ask you about the girlfriend. How did you guys meet? I met her my sophomore year and she’s very sweet.
Oh she’s incredible. She’s an amazing woman. She’s very devoted to what she wants to do. From the day I met her, she was talking about speech pathology and that’s kind of carried her all the way through. She’s very devoted to helping people and she wants to be able to get there and it shows through everything she does, the kind of woman she is. I mean, how many girls can you say ‘ok we’re going to sit at the house watching Netflix shows’ and the very next day you’ll be out in the woods hunting. That doesn’t happen. I definitely hit the jackpot with her. I actually met her in stats class.
Yeah I know (laughs). With Dr. Nadler, actually. She sat right behind me… shows you how much I paid attention in that class. It’s been wonderful. We’re coming up on a year here.
How does she make you better?
In every possible aspect. She makes me smile more, she makes me enjoy life more. Right now we’ve traveled to 47 Missouri State Parks. That’s been our goal, in the next year visit all that State Parks and historic sites in Missouri. We’ve done a lot of traveling. We’re actually planning a trip right now in February to see the Snow Geese migration. But yeah, she makes me better in every possible way.
What does 2017 have in store for Chris Mendes?
For me? Whew… Graduate, thank God. As much as I love Maryville, I am ready. I am tired of being the 27-year old undergraduate (laughs).
(laughs) I get it.
Especially like sitting in class that one day man, and our teacher was like ‘oh Chris you’re coming up on 30 aren’t you?’ and everyone was shocked and heavily exhaled. Anytime anyone heavily exhales about your age, you know you’re in the wrong spot (laughs). It’s a ride. I’ve always been the older guy. From the first day I’ve always been the one with all the tattoos. I’ve always been a standout at Maryville. You know, being the 27-year old graduate is fine. I’ll graduate, I’ll be working a lot. There’s a solid chance I’ll be going to Disney this summer.
Have you ever been?
Oh God no. That’s like… So I’m a huge Star Wars nerd, huge. I have an entire loft at my house dedicated to Star Wars. Like even the curtain holders are light sabers. Morgan’s family is going down so we’re going and staying on a lake and I think Disney is in the mix for that. They’re supposed to be finished with the Star Wars exhibit… I can’t even describe the shock and awe I’m going to be in.
Let me ask you this. You’re 27 now. In 10 years time you’ll be 37. If there was no limiting factors, time, money, education, where you are geographically, if there were nothing binding you, what would it look like?
Married. Living on a farm with two kids and adopting another. I’d be working as an administrator for Veteran’s Affairs. I’ve kind of seen in the past the runaround that the VA gives to veterans and it is my end goal to be there and be someone that sets policies and changes policies to help people. Happy family, great job, not having any financial problems and helping out society anyway I can. I think that’s – everybody has their own meaning to life and I think that the meaning of life is leaving behind a legacy of your own. So if I can shape society in a way that’s beneficial in the future, that’s awesome.
What would you say is your legacy?
Throw this one in there, this is great. The last two years we’ve worked with, the first year we worked with Goodwill, last year we worked with the Adoption Care Coalition of St. Louis – sorry, someone is calling me, give me two seconds.
You worked with Goodwill your first year…
Oh yeah, we worked with them with donating clothes at the end of the spring semester and that’s the legacy I want to leave behind for POLSE; continue putting on tis clothing drive at the end of the spring semester of the stuff that we grow out of throughout the year. Then we give them to kids who can actually use them. The Adoption Care Coalition of St. Louis has a great store, its called Refresh and clothes are incredibly cheap and they donate and give out so many clothes to foster kids throughout St. Louis. Even after I’m gone I’d still like to help. Last spring, we got, like, 20-25 70-gallon bags full of clothes that we donated. I think with all these new freshman, we could top that this year. Legacy in life? As of this moment, I don’t think we do enough to care for other people. So I try to always lookout for and care for others. I want to be able to push everything aside and be able to care for people. Boom, Chris Mendes legacy.
(laughs) My last thing is, so here’s my thought. In all of my time, I’m almost 22, I talk to people pretty frequently. And I firmly believe that everyone has a story and everyone has things that they hold really dear to themselves. And oftentimes, people don’t get asked the right questions. You know, everyone has something to say, but rarely do they get prompted. So my last question is: is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you wish I did?
I don’t know man, we got pretty much everything covered. Maybe what’s kind of prompted me into going into psychology? I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I came to Maryville, I was undecided my first year. Talking with everyone from Dr. Wideman to Dr. Bausman to Professor Brandt – talking to everyone I just saw that I wanted to continue on that path of being part of something bigger than myself. Which is why I want to go into social work. Right now, I think my life is absolutely perfect. To other people looking in, they may not think that because everyone has their own definition of perfect. But that’s my goal, to help people get into their idea of perfection. Everyone deserves a great life and each time I can help people get there, that’s a job well done.