The Sweet Spot for Peer Support
Many of us have experienced some traumatic event in our lives when a friend, close relation, spiritual leader or therapist has been very helpful. With their help, we’re often able to bounce back from life’s many traumatic events. That’s the essence of resilience. However, for those living with mental illness, sometimes it’s not that simple. Often, they need someone who has been there, which is where peer supports come in. Let me tell you my story to illustrate.
There is a saying I later learned: seduced by the illness. I could actually see myself being magnificent in my defeat.
At one point in my life, I considered myself a proud warrior. An officer in the world’s finest navy. The first in my family to complete college. I had a promising career, loving wife and beautiful daughters.
I don’t recall at what point I stopped enjoying life. I do recall that sometime in my late 20s I began feeling anxious about most things, which gave way to an ever-increasing degree of forlornness and restlessness. By the time I was separated from the Navy, I felt on the verge of losing it all – including my sanity.
Then I did lose everything. Something inside of me had fundamentally changed by the time I was officially diagnosed; the only remnants of my past glorious life were a set of dress blues preserved by a loving mom. Here is where my story could have ended had I not been extracted from this place, lifted out as if by helicopter, by an insightful judge who thought me worthy of another chance at life.
Preparing for Change
Even given the chance of treatment (versus incarceration), I had not made a commitment to see my life getting better. Treatment was boring, and I didn’t like taking my “crazy pills.” As I sat alone on the bench outside the men’s dormitory, I pondered my fate: jail wouldn’t be that bad. At least I could escape from treatment. I had made friends out in the world, some old acquaintances from high school, and new ones, exotic and exciting.
There is a saying I later learned: seduced by the illness. I could actually see myself being magnificent in my defeat. My stepfather’s words, “You’ll never amount to nothing” were wrong. I would be something: a good bad example.
The Difference that Made the Difference
“How would you like to feel the sun on your face again?”
The words she spoke caught me by surprise; I had been lost in my own day-mare.
“How would you like to once again appreciate the mere beauty of that butterfly over there?”
Her words were not only startling, they were chilling. Before I could ask, the facility nurse answered my unspoken question.
“Because you and I are a lot alike. I, too suffer from the same illness. You have a life ahead of you, Clarence, and it’s not more jails and places like this.”
She spoke so boldly and so assuredly.
“If you would give me just a little more of your time, I promise you I can show you a future much different.”
Where Believable Hope Begins
On a recent trip to Washington, I asked Carlo DiClemente, PhD, a visionary in addiction and health behavior change, if he could tell me at which stage of change peers could be most effective. To which he responded, “Contemplation, but you knew that, right?” Yes, I did. If only all peers were as skillful, subtle and engaging as that nurse had been with me. She somehow knew I was ready. She possessed a level of recovery she trusted and in which I could trust.
Competency is more than the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to perform; it is the capacity of a person to understand a situation, draw from his/her own trajectory and to act accordingly.
Peers have much to offer those on a personal quest for recovery because they have been there. The power in peer support isn’t the training; it is the lived experienced. Competency is more than the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to perform; it is the capacity of a person to understand a situation, draw from his/her own trajectory and to act accordingly. As in any aspect of life that is difficult – lifestyles, habits, beliefs or self-image – change can be a daunting task, sometimes seeming impossible.
Change involves a process. And that’s where peers come in. The good ones seem to instinctively know there are two parts to any change process: what to do and when a person is ready to do it. When we become confident in our recovery and others can trust in that, we are truly on a pathway out. We are then at the stage that represents the sweet spot for peer support.
Clarence Jordan is the author of “Peers Supporting Recovery: How it Works” in the June 4, 2012 issue of Mental Health Weekly.
If you or someone you know is interested in beginning the recovery process or learning more about peer support the resources below provide a helpful starting point.