My story here begins in 1983. Two years after my first diagnosis, I met someone involved in peer support named DH. During this time, DH was a local university professor. He also wore a hat at a local county Mental Health Agency. He was not a Peer, but DH was an advocate for the Peer Movement. With this said, I took his card, thanking him for his encouragement and time.
From 1982 through the present year, my anxiety spiraled. Like a yo-yo, my anxiety levels went up and down. I am diagnosed with social and general anxiety (GAD) and OCD. In addition, I have feelings of extreme hopelessness, helplessness, and a significant degree of worthlessness. Most importantly, I never thought of suicide.
In 1986, I began working for a bank as a Loan Processor Trainee. Within a year, I got a promotion. “Trainee” was then removed from my title. Early in 1987, I met JG, who had an important position with the bank. Privately, we talked about various mental issues. He said he knew a mental health agency that needed volunteers and part-time employees. Over the next few years, we saw each other periodically.
Later in 1987, JG told me about a friend who worked for the agency. In addition to his job at the bank, JG was a board member of the agency. After giving me his friend’s phone number and recommending that I call him. The secretary eventually set up an interview time for us all to meet.
EARLY VERSIONS OF PEER SUPPORT
A few weeks later, DH hired me for a volunteer position in the agency’s mental health evening clubhouse program two nights a week. In the clubhouse, groups are made of and led by people like myself who have “lived experience” with mental health issues.
For two and a half years, I continued to volunteer. Over time, I was given additional responsibilities and given the third night. In addition, I ran (now called facilitated) two groups (which I named client-to-client talk ). My supervisor and DH noticed my hard work, and in 1988, I got unofficially promoted by DH to Highest Non-paid Volunteer. Of course, this was a made-up title.
Leading these groups allowed me to assist others and do the same for myself (mutuality or mutual peer support). The chemistry in these groups would later influence what I studied as peer support and holding space for my peers.
Sadly, there was no money in the budget. There certainly wasn’t enough to pay me—only a tiny stipend and not very often. I learned invaluable lessons at the clubhouse. Working in a clubhouse program and supervising people takes practice, and I certainly got plenty of experience volunteering.
Unfortunately for me, I had a relapse in June 1990. Several people told me I had “too much on my plate” during that time. Maybe, I had a case of burnout or something else. Spending forty hours at the bank, three nights at the clubhouse, and during that month, my step-father died. These issues overwhelmed me and became too much for me to handle. My anxieties and my OCDs ‘persisted almost every day.
Initially, at the suggestion of DH, I took some personal time from both of my positions. He and I agreed that giving me some time to recover, reflect on my current situation and figure out what to do next would be in my best interest. After three months, I was not getting any better and could not return. Then, the agency put me on short-term disability, and about six months later, I eventually began collecting SSDI and SSI.
Furthermore, during the breaks of not working, I became actively involved in a slew of Mental Health programs such as day treatment, DBT, CBT, anxiety reduction, and stress management. Plus, I continued to see my therapist weekly, my psychiatrist monthly regularly, and more if needed. However, my anxieties remained. In addition, I wrote about my recovery and different mental health topics.
From 1990 until 1992, I did not want to meet others who were doing well and living their life of prosperity. Naturally, I only met others like me, and I tried taking everything daily, attempting to prevail while existing through my misery. Somehow, I survived by attending groups led by mostly competent workers who always told me what to do, what was best for me, and what I should do to make myself feel better. It seemed like, although not led by a Peer Specialist, members tried to help each other with their own life and experiences.
These groups were helping some, or I was more receptive to what they suggested. One day, I remembered someone mentioning during a group therapy meeting that being here was my choice, and finally, I decided to make it. In some fashion, I muddled through those days, not that I plowed through my ordeal without a series of groups run by many professionals telling me things I did not want to hear, accept or what I wanted.
TREATMENT AND HEALING
By mid-1993, with the help of my psychiatrist and therapist, I was slowly progressing both physically and mentally. Now, I wanted more for myself than I did at the bank. On the other hand, assisting others seemed rewarding, and maybe I could pursue this for myself. Questions went through my head, but I did not have the answers, and I found formulating good questions difficult to develop responses. Having OCD was very beneficial for me, as I was dogmatic about exploring what employment was out there in the Human Services Field. For months, I did not give up or give in to my possibility to lead a better life.
Early the following year, I bumped into and talked with DH again. DH informed me that the Department of Mental Health (DMH) was looking for several candidates to fill positions in some of their departments. In October 1994, I became an Assistant Case Manager in the local area office. Within a few months, I discovered that an affiliate agency had Peer Specialists working with them. They came to every Case Management office to facilitate a few monthly groups on requested topics. One day, I felt it was time to ask around and get some information.
Peer Support changed my life. In the October of 1994, I worked only ten hours weekly. I attended a couple of their peer groups and found new meaning through Peer Support and what a Peer Specialist does. For the first time, I was a participant in a group facilitated by someone who lived through the experience. In 1996, my hours increased to 15. I was responsible for two groups a month during work hours. Good news, in 1997, I was promoted to assistant Case Manager II, working between 17 and 22 hours weekly. When I often met with the consumers, it felt like I was aiding them in their recovery. Perhaps, early Peer Specialist thinking. By February 1998, I accepted a full-time Assistant Case Manager III position with salary and benefits.
Over the next several years, I had several “ongoings” where I saw my consumers weekly or as needed and assisted them in attaining their goals. Although I had my purposes, my work focus was to help the consumers in each destination. Furthermore, I submitted several articles for my department’s Newsletter, where I wrote mostly about HOPE using a variety of song lyrics. I have been writing on mental health concerns from a peer perspective. Hmm, my role sounds like Peer Support and what Peer Specialists do. Yeah, it did! At least, I thought so.
At the turn of the 21st Century, I was learning more and more about Peer Support and what it is to be an effective Peer Specialist. In 2002, I assisted in the merger process between the Assistant Case Management Program and the existing Peer Specialist Program. Using my talents, I advised Assistant Case Managers and Peer Specialists on how to get along with each other, despite the differences in salaries and everyone’s training. Simply put, wages depend on where the funding stream originates.
ADVOCACY AND SELF DETERMINATION
Over time, I sat on different committees to further the growth of Mental Health. A couple of examples are, I was Nassau County, Co-Chair for two years for the “Walk for Mental Health” from 2003 to 2006.
Also, I was a Peer Representative in my county’s Single Point of Access, where we determined the Mental Health Housing of different consumers. Sometime in 2010, I was promoted. My new title was Senior Peer Specialist.
In March of 2014, I stopped working for that mental health agency and helped my significant other to be comfortable in the last fifteen months of her life. After grieving, I worked for a second agency from 2016 to 2019 as a Peer Specialist, but I had to leave for various physical health concerns. In 2017, I studied hard and became a New York State Certified Peer Specialist. Since then, I have continued to be a Peer Support Specialist because it has become my career and life’s work. And as we can tell, I am still writing.
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