I arrived at the doors of Access: Supports for Living in the summer of 2016. I didn’t want to be there. My therapist had sent me to the PROS program at Union. I remember looking over the aged brick of the building and feeling a tightness spread over my chest. People were milling about outside, enjoying the nice weather while talking and smoking, and it felt like everyone was staring at me, judging me for being there. I can still feel the knot I had in my throat as I walked into the building. I remember thinking, over and over again, that I didn’t belong there. I was fine. It was obvious that my therapist didn’t understand that I didn’t need this place. But I grew up in the mental health system, having been in therapy since I was seven. I knew that if I played my cards right and worked the system, that my doctors would see I was fine and I could begin to put this “episode” of my life behind me. I mean, sure, I had recently been released from the hospital, but it was obvious that I was fine now. I was fine.
I met with one of the counselors for the intake process. She greeted me with a kind smile and gentle voice, and that lump in my throat grew as I told her my story. Years of negative coping skills started to crack while I told this stranger my story. I gripped my hands around my elbows as I cried. I felt denial, frustration, and shame creep along the edges of my mind as I spoke. She gave me time to collect myself and gave me a tour of the PROS center. The feeling of being watched crept back over me as we walked around, and I felt myself slipping back into my mental armor. Thoughts like “this isn’t going to work,” and “I don’t belong here,” pervaded my mind. She handed me a schedule outlining the groups, suggested a few, and told me she was glad I was taking this step.
I wasn’t glad. I was resentful, arrogant, and obstinate. I missed whole weeks of the program. I didn’t take my meds regularly and I told myself that I didn’t need to be at PROS. My perspective on the program got worse once DSS found out I was in the program. It became mandatory that I attend and present proof of my attendance, creating another excuse as to why I didn’t belong. I decided to play along. I went to groups when I made it to program, and met with my new counselor. For six months I attended PROS without truly attending PROS. Yet, somewhere along the way, I started to listen in groups. I started sharing more, honestly share, in groups and in my therapy sessions.
It took me over six months to realize that I wasn’t fine. The same clarity that I had glimpsed within myself when I walked into the hospital started to take hold in my thoughts. I remember the group I was in when that realization truly hit me. I started to sob as I stuttered over my words. I let these strangers that I had judged, that I had put myself above, hold me as I finally allowed myself to begin to believe in what I was being told in the program: vulnerability is a strength, not weakness. I had finally allowed myself to become vulnerable, and allowed myself to see that I wasn’t alone.
Eighteen months later and I am an active player in this whirlwind that is mental health recovery. I learned what it means to place trust in others, to advocate for myself, and to allow myself to heal. I made friends with other PROS attendees and learned from them what healthy support looks like. I worked my program to my benefit. I rose up, and crashed, and rose up again. It was during this time that it was first suggested that I look into becoming a peer. Job positions for peers were open at Access. I was told I was a great candidate for it. That I had a proclivity towards advocacy and was uniquely qualified thanks to my life experiences. That, somewhere in my own recovery, I had begun helping others the way they helped me. That I was making a difference in the way my own peers had for me. Becoming a Peer Specialist was the next logical step.
The idea terrified me.
What if I wasn’t good at helping my peers in the way that they helped me? What did it truly mean to be a peer? Was I ready for that challenge? I took the courses on the Academy of Peers website and earned my certificate to be a Peer, but I struggled. I procrastinated. I was terrified that I was never going to be successful in any job that helped others. But my new friends and counselors pushed me. They challenged me and forced me to face the reality of my fears. So, I applied for a Peer Specialist position at Access. I interviewed, and waited, and interviewed, and continued going to PROS to help me navigate these new emotions and struggles I was facing during the process.
I was offered the job and began my new position at the end of January 2018. In the beginning, I severely struggled with finding a balance in my life. To this day, I receive supports from Access as a client. I have a case manager, and I still regularly attend PROS. When I began working I hadn’t taken the time to realize that I had to find additional hours in my week to accommodate a job. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but when I break down the hours in which I’m at PROS, balancing my mental and physical health conditions, going to appointments, all wrapped up in a struggle to perform normal day-to-day life activities that many take for granted, I was already working overtime in my life. I felt lost on a new road, and it frightened me.
I struggled with wanting to do everything and anything that was asked of me. I wanted to prove that I was a team player, and that I was worthy of the position for which I had been hired. I placed extra pressure on myself to succeed, unaware that bad habits and my mental health conditions were slowly taking over. My self-care was non-existent, and I was beginning to be crippled by my fear. I was scared to ask for what I needed personally in order to be successful professionally. I didn’t acknowledge that I was no longer my old self. The person that I had spent years working on was a new, raw person re-entering the workforce after years of bad experiences and reliance on negative coping skills. I had to learn how to advocate for myself and re-adjust the supports I needed in order to be successful. I worked hard to be kind to myself, allowing time to adjust, and to explain my needs and perspectives. I relied heavily on my therapist, counselor, and peers, as I began to reshape what it meant to be a working person.
Sometimes I think that people forget that Peers have experienced, and sometimes still experience, the same things that clients experience. Peers have received services and, like me, continue to receive services while working as a peer. Sometimes it feels that this aspect of being a Peer is forgotten or misunderstood.
Let me explain…
When I was in college, I had a classmate tell me that she didn’t believe I was depressed because I was always smiling and laughing. She listed all my accomplishments and attributes. My grades were high, I was an athlete, and I had friends and relationships. I was respected by my department heads and honored with a membership in the oldest academic fraternity in the country. Even my thesis was receiving honors and praise. How could I possibly be depressed? How could I possibly have mental health issues with all these successes?
According to my classmate and many others, I was a success story and was consistently told I was a success story. That cliché about roads paved with good intentions pops into my mind when I think back on those moments in my life. As I began my role as a Peer, the ghost of those memories started to pop up in my mind. It was a troubling déjà vu experience, being introduced again as a success story, as someone who an inspiration for others’ aspirations. Even the words “success story” left a bad taste in my mouth. I was at a loss for words trying to explain that these adjectives, although humbling and appreciated, were not the cornerstones of what it meant, for me, to be a Peer Specialist.
I felt misunderstood, and I struggled a bit because being a Peer isn’t being a success story for me. I don’t believe I am a success story. Like many, I have had tremendous successes and tremendous failures. My daily existence, while not predicated on my mental health conditions, is incredibly shaped by having them. What being a Peer means is having a story, and being willing to tell that story so that others can see that they are not alone. That they are the author, the narrator, and actors of their stories and that they can have pride and dignity no matter how much they struggle in their recoveries. That our roads and our recoveries are living, fluctuating experiences that show the world how failures can be the greatest successes, all the while the best successes can be debilitating failures. There is no definitive end to this experience and it is too big for pedestals. Yet it is still easy to disappear in the opinions of others. It’s that aspect of recovery, and of being a peer in recovery, that seems to still be an issue for many people.
It is such a human experience to bear witness to others, and allow them to bear witness to you. I think, for myself, that this is what it means to be a Peer. To open yourself up in such a way that others who struggle can see that someone else struggles, and it is okay. That life isn’t just doctor appointments, program requirements, case workers, medications, and feeling burdened by an invisible audience that isn’t always so invisible. That we are not our mental health or physical health, but people who deserve the dignity of being understood beyond those labels. It’s what I love most about being a Peer: helping others see, as I was shown, that their recoveries are not based upon perceived successes or failures. That recovery is fluid, and hard, and ongoing. That recovery, for each person, is worth being witness to and heard.
Working for Access and also receiving services here has given me such a unique perspective on my journey. I feel like I have a better understanding of how the processes that go into helping clients are designed and executed. I get to see everything that goes into a person’s recovery, and it is humbling. I find it easier to be a Peer, and explain what being a Peer is, because clients see me next to them in groups. They hear my story in a setting they can relate to, and know that I truly understand what it means to be in the same place as they are.
As a person with some severe mental health conditions as well as some physical conditions, being a Peer is hard work. Yet the joy I feel is worth everything. It’s worth the rough education in self-care and the roller coaster ride I have found myself on these last few months. It is worth the telling and re-telling of my life story the last two years. It is worth the surprised looks when I reveal that I am a Peer Specialist. To be seen and to be heard is so crucial in any recovery. I feel my experience gives me the ability to show and tell my story, so others can show and tell their own. The best part of all? This story, my story, has only just begun, and I am right where I am supposed to be.