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Without question, all of us involved with the mental health system, treatment, peer advocacy, and those with a vested interest in the health and wellness of our friends use language to talk about, explain, articulate, or just commensurate about subjects involving mental health, health, and the world-at-large. As previously talked about in this blog, I am a lover of language. More accurately, I pride myself on the language I often use to talk about and disseminate information with about mental health. In clinical practice, I indeed think about the words I use to talk about mental health issues. In peer work, I try to connect with others meaningfully by aligning my language with my colleagues and relate with them by through common use of wording and examples. While I never believed in using buzzwords, or the word-of-the day, I do believe that the words we choose to relate with others have a powerful impact on how others perceive our meaning and intentions with them.
I am reminded of a particular afternoon in which my housing case manager performed a home visit. To give a little background, I called my housing worker to complain about a volatile neighbor situation. The super and my worker spoke to each other and my super filled the worker in on my history in the apartment. When my worker arrived today she said: “I’m going to do a walk through” and went about peering around my place. My problem is that instead of trying to resolve the issue with advocacy my worker went looking for problems. The bigger issue I have is she made up a term, “i.e walkthrough” to justify her behavior and take a second look at the status of my apartment. I felt like a prisoner having his or her cell searched. I had no idea my apartment was in the agencies new division of corrections and psychiatric rehabilitation. Indeed, there was no trust between my worker and I, and certainly no respect or belief in own reporting when I talked about my recent health progress and general status of things in my life.
I am also reminded of two days ago when I made a similar mistake that like my housing person had done with me. I had seen a particular friend in quite sometime. This friend and I do check-in’s with one another and generally, report to one another our status (e.g. mental health and otherwise) over the phone. Since both this friend and I have been generally healthy since we’ve been friends, there have been very little negative reporting besides some brief medical illnesses (i.e. common colds) and so forth. My point is, the system we put in place to check-in with each other had never been tested for a real problem or user issue. From time to time, I would go-ahead and stop by her home if there was loss of contact for weeks or I felt she needed my support. However, two days ago, I made the golden mistake in peer support, and trust between friends. My friend said very clearly that she was fine. Something in my gut said otherwise though, and given my history, and illness, in which I may report that everything is A-O-Kay, but I am in-fact in-crisis and do not realize it, I always tell my friends to go ahead and visit, call the police, do whatever they need to do to get me connected to services possible. The mistake I made is that everyone is different, and we all have different needs and have different expectations on how to we want to be treated in a crisis. My friend wasn’t in crisis though, and the only thing that told me to check on her was a gut feeling that I couldn’t even justify in meaningful language.
Indeed, I went ahead and told this friend: ” I am going to eye-ball you and check-in with you at your house”. Wait a minute? Pause, Max. What is eye-balling? Did I just pull the same crap my housing manager did with the term walk-through. My friend said: “what’s eye-ball?”. Now both my friend and I have been in mental health treatment for years and know what I was trying to say. But the fact that I choose this particular word instead of something more respectful, and descriptive, and accurate was extremely upsetting to my friend who said to me: “this is what the system does…”. I was so blown away by that statement that I needed days to reflect. In my own haste, passion, love, and clumsy approach I behaved in the same manner the system did to my friend for decades. I had become someone I never wanted to be in a split second it had seemed to my friend that my entire ethics had shifted. When I met up with this friend again, I apologized, and we joked around, but the seriousness of this boundary transgression is visibly clear to both of us, and I suspect we are going to be more mindful of how our language and behavior is perceived by one-another in the context of our making sure our motives and intentions are congruent with our word choice and actions.
Years ago I made a similar mistake and shared the lived experience of another worker on a team I was serving. I figured, I am so vocal about my experience and history, and a timely conversation presented itself, I wanted to share the experience of a colleague whom I thought my client and peer would benefit from. I was totally wrong. My lived experience is something that I own but I do not have ownership over the experiences of other people. Evidently, this was a clinical error too, as my client I shared a colleagues story with was also on my team and we all shared the same clients. It so happened that this client and peer used this information to act-out and throw a barrier up in his own treatment. The information was also used to manipulate the team, split, and cause a whole lot of borderline problems. Indeed, I broke the golden rule amongst peers and alas, felt the fallout among my team professionally and between myself and my peer. This whole affair reminded me of the mistake I made a few days ago. By going ahead and invalidating the experience and respect of my friend by not listening to her when she said, “I’m okay”, and not respecting the lived experience of my colleague, I minimized their power to be themselves and who they were without fear of transgression. Ultimately, by putting my narrative ahead of, or in front of this person’s needs as an in individual, I exercised power over this person albeit my intentions as a friend and peer.
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