Michael Tyler Ramos: Helping Philly cope

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Hello from Brewerytown, where I’ve been sequestered at home. I’m lucky that there’s an Aldi’s that’s fairly well stocked around the corner from me. I live on a block where I know most of my neighbors, and we check in with each other regularly. One of my neighbors who works in the restaurant industry just dropped off a huge bag of fruits and vegetables at my door, and another neighbor did some spring cleaning and put a box of nail polishes out front with all colors of the rainbow for people to take (using gloves). My family members are all safe and taken care of, and I’ve been able to continue this column since all I need to do is email it to our amazing editor, Jess. And fortunately, though I’m a very public person — most of you have seen me out and about — at heart, I’m an extroverted introvert. Being alone for long stretches of time is fine for me. But, I realize that for many people, this time has been a real struggle. Many people have lost income, and there is so much uncertainty about what will happen next and when we’ll be able to see loved ones. So I decided to reach out to someone in the mental health field, Michael Tyler Ramos, founder and CEO of MTR Therapy.

I thought LGBTQAII, etc. was a lot, but you have even more letters after your name. What do they all stand for?

I have an MSW, Masters in Social Work from New York University. My LCSW means I’m licensed as a clinical social worker in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and the CAADC is Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor, and I’m also a certified EMDR therapist — that’s Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and I’ve been trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy.

Dang! Where did you grow up?

I’m originally from New York City — born and raised in Spanish Harlem, right near a big sign at 116th Street that said, “La Marqueta.” It was this famous, big market underneath the train tracks.

Tell me a little about yourself.

I’m a product of the ’80s. I’m an openly gay, Puerto Rican therapist. I have two brothers and one sister. I’m third in the pecking order, and though my sister is seven years older than me, we’re very close. 

What did the folks do?

My mom was a small business owner. When she came from Puerto Rico, she only had a fifth-grade education, but she and her siblings — I took my mom’s last name, so it’s the Ramos side of the family — all got together and invested in several bodegas and corner delis, so my mom had a couple of stores when we were growing up. My parents divorced when I was 5 years old, so she had to run the business on her own while raising four kids by herself.

What’s a fun story about your mom?

I look just like her, and we have a lot of the same traits, so there are a lot of old stories. But now, I think she’s finally reached a point where she can slow down and start to enjoy life, so she’ll do things like announcing, “I’ve decided I want to have a drink today, so I’m not going to take my meds!” Also, we play dominoes, and she’s a fierce competitor! When we were planning for my wedding last fall, one of my friends came over, and we were playing, and my friend was hiding some of his pieces. My mom glared at him and said, “Where I’m from, people get beat up for that kind of thing. You may not make it back home.” We just laughed, but she was dead serious!

She sounds amazing. 

Yeah, growing up, she worked so much she wasn’t home a lot. She worked 12-15 hours a day, so my sister became a caretaker for my younger brother and me. We all became very close as a result. One thing special was that my mom made dinner for us every day. She might not have been there to eat it with us, but she made sure we had her cooking every day, and she always made arrangements for us to be able to do things. We were big baseball fans, so she would buy tickets and have an aunt or uncle take us. Or she’d send us on vacations with family members even when she couldn’t come.

Nice, so what did you want to be when you grew up?

I had no idea. Where I came from, not many people completed high school, nevermind college. A lot of my friends growing up are no longer here because they were victims of turf wars and gun violence or drugs. But I knew college was going to be my way out, so I just winged it. I didn’t know how to even apply to college because no one in my family or neighborhood that I knew had ever done it. I managed to get into a state university in New York, but after two years, I moved back to the city. I was just coming out and wanted to have a chance to explore that. I got a job by day and became a club kid at night. I don’t regret it, but it was a rough time. I lost my job right before 9/11 and was unemployed for about seven months after. But the upside was that I started volunteering at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and soon became a program administrator. Something clicked as I tried to figure out why people do certain things, what drives us to certain behaviors. What does the coming out process look like for some people, and how do people cope when it’s a traumatizing experience? I found myself more and more intrigued by mental health, and that’s when I knew what I wanted to do. I went back to school and studied social work.

What was your coming out experience?

I was one of those who had a traumatic experience. I was outed by an uncle, and my mom took it pretty hard. We were estranged for some time after that. I didn’t speak to or see anyone in my family for about a year. It was really hard. Fortunately, I was already living independently and had a job and side hustles (like any good New Yorker) and was okay from that aspect, but it was very lonely trying to figure out my sexuality while all this was going on. It didn’t help that going out as a young Latinx man, you’d constantly get objectified in very unhealthy ways by older men. You’d think someone really cared about you when their objective was solely to get in your pants. There was also a lot of unwanted touching and grabbing that was very uncomfortable. That was repeatedly my experience until I met two guys, Jose and Jonathan, who showed me real friendship. They’re both still in my life 20+ years later.

What were the best and worst aspects of being a club kid?

The best was the music. I’m Puerto Rican, and we love to dance. I still do. Put on a good beat, and you’ll see my shoulders start to shake and my ass soon to follow! At places like the Limelight, the Sound Factory, and the Roxy, the energy was incredible. The downside was the use of drugs, and as I mentioned, the objectifying and unwanted attention. They also had sex rooms in a lot of the clubs. I was trying to get comfortable with my own body and sexuality, and that was a little too much for me to handle. I wasn’t judging, but I was afraid, and there was a lot of pressure to participate. Being on my own, I didn’t have anyone to guide me through it or even to talk to about my feelings. There was no coming out manual for us.

How did you end up in Philly?

I was getting tired of New York, so when I finished grad school, I moved to Bucks County because it allowed me to still work in New York but got me a step closer to moving to Philadelphia. After a while, I met someone from Philly, quit my job and moved here. I had a hard time finding a job that matched what I was doing and making in New York, so I decided to open up my own practice. That was in 2015, and here I am, after five years. I have a great team, and we’re going strong. We’re even starting a nonprofit this year. This is where my mother comes back into focus. She was a small business owner, and back then, I never understood the relationship that my mom had with the community. I was her translator so I saw first hand what she did. If people didn’t have the money to pay for food, she would help them out or give them credit. She always was there to help people. She still lives there because of the obligation she feels to the community. Part of my mission for MTR is to increase access to high-quality health mental health services for everyone.

Mental health is often for those who can afford high out-of-pocket rates, and those who can’t, have very limited options. I try to structure the practice so that we can be available for those who need it most and may not have access otherwise. I am part of several communities that are often left out or marginalized. It’s hard to find a truly bilingual Spanish speaking clinician or any clinicians who are of color. It’s part of the nonprofit model we’re starting called Get LYT (Live Your Truth). My goal is to make space, not only for the patients but also to support clinicians who are of color or LGBTQ. Right now, we have over 200 active patients, and about 60% are LGBTQ identified, and we have a lot of staff who are members of the LGBTQ community, the African-American community, the Latinx community.

What are most people coming in for?

I’d say about 80% are here doing trauma work — looking to overcome trauma from sexual assault or the trauma of coming out, physical assault, etc. We’ve seen a lot of trans and nonbinary folks coming for help navigating a society that’s not always welcoming. We try to figure out what that looks like from the trauma perspective. People think of trauma as being people with PTSD coming home from war, but we have to start thinking of it also as part of finding your identity. The things people of color and LGBTQ people often go through symptomatically mirror the PTSD symptoms of a combat veteran.  

I just read about a young woman who took her life after being subjected to conversion therapy. 

Yes, we work with members of the community to help people process their experiences, and often that includes the damage from conversion therapy or simply negative experiences with other providers. 

Speaking of negative experiences, we’re in the middle of COVID-19 mayhem. What do you recommend to help allay fear?

The first thing I’d suggest would be to start to filter your social media and regular media consumption. There’s a lot of misinformation which can exacerbate any fears you might have. Limit yourself with the news. Check it in the morning, at noon and the evening, and remove notifications from your phone and computer. The knee-jerk reaction any time it buzzes is to open it up to see what’s happening, so turn it off from the start. Try to stay away from total Netflix immersion. If you normally work from 9-5, get up and do something constructive or creative. If you use technology, use it to connect with people. Instead of texting, use a method of video communication so you can see the person you’re speaking with. I’ve participated in virtual happy hours and brunch meets with friends.

Yes, I’ve done both.

That’s great. We need to acknowledge that this is something new, and because it’s new, there’s a baseline of fear. Acknowledge it, name it if you can, tell yourself, “I’m feeling scared or restless, or s–tty.” Recognize and accept what’s going on. If you just ignore it, at some point, denial is going to lose its warranty, and the reality will hit harder. 

What do you do if you’re stuck with someone who is getting on your last nerve? 

Communication is key, but also try to find a way to get some personal space. If there’s real estate in the house where you can be by yourself, a spare room or whatever, use that. If that’s not an option, try taking a walk by yourself, but again, as hard as it is for us to sometimes communicate, even with our partners, this is a time to dig deep, amplify it, keep those lines open and honest. But be sure not to personalize those moments when our partners or housemates are not feeling themselves or are getting annoyed or irritable. We are going to have a long way to go with this, so try to really take a moment and reflect rather than retaliate or clap back. And that’s not just at home. We’re going to have to do that when we venture out to the store as time goes on and patience wears thin.

Good advice, so what was your most unusual job?

I was a package sorter at UPS when I was 19.

What music or song are you embarrassed to admit that you like?

My guilty pleasure is Taylor Swift — “I knew you were trouble when I met you!” I love that song.

Fun fact about you?

I love baseball, and I’ve traveled the country visiting ballparks. I only have four stadiums left to visit.

That’s cool. Ever play?

I played little league baseball and junior varsity basketball.

You mentioned a wedding. Tell me something about your hubby?

He’s amazing. We’ve been together for five years and got married last November. He’s a scientist and is very close to his family. They’re from Poland, and he speaks fluent Polish. I’m a believer that none of us gets to where we are on our own, so he’s one of the reasons I’m able to do what I do and is part of the success of the practice. He supports everything I do, and every year we just get better and better.

Motto?

“When a door doesn’t open, knock it down or build one yourself.” I learned not to take no for an answer, and that’s how I’ve been able to open my own practice.