Recovery is a Two-Way Street for Peer Support

Two years ago, my life was turned upside down.  I had just been discharged from the hospital from my fourth suicide attempt within a year.  My wife informed me that we needed to separate, meaning I had to move out of the house we had bought together a few years before.  I lost my job – and little did I know, a career in software engineering that spanned 17 years.  I had to rebuild my life all over again, bit by bit.  A tough challenge for anyone, but in the mix, I was dealing with borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Oh, and did I mention I’m a transgender woman?

I tried my hand at a number of part-time, contract jobs.  I repaired cell phones, repaired cash registers in major retail chains, ran networking and A/V cabling in offices and stores, and even delivered food and prescription medications.  While it brought in some money, the jobs were unfulfilling and I was still reliant on my parents for money to cover my bills.  All the while, I was applying for and interviewing for jobs as a software engineer with no luck.  I slipped back into deep depression, but somehow always avoided another hospitalization.

At some point along my journey, I came across information about the North Carolina Certified Peer Support Specialist (PSS) program.  I read how people in recovery from mental illness could take training in order to help others battling with their own demons.  I became intrigued at first and started talking to my therapist about it.  One thing that surfaced was the deep connections I made with the people I was in the hospital with.  If you’ve ever been in the hospital, you already know that they can help you sort out your medications and teach you coping skills.  But after you’re discharged, it can really feel like you’re on your own.

My therapist was really great at giving me advice, coping skills, and helping me process my emotions.  But they couldn’t help me with the daily things like looking for a job, selecting healthy foods in the grocery store, or helping me overcome social anxiety out in the community.  I could listen to their advice all day long, but applying it to the practicalities of life was the missing part of my recovery.  This is where a peer support specialist can help, that is, if you can find one.  Most PSSs were connected to programs and resources that I was simply ineligible for.

This only gave me greater resolve in helping others.  I became a trained group facilitator for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) in my local community.  And I continued to work, picking up whatever I could find along the way.  One day, I read an email from one of the local transgender groups that stated the AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) was having an LGBT conference and wanted to have a transgender speaker.  I immediately contacted them, not knowing what kind of profound impact this would have on me.  I was asked for a biography and mentioned that I was hoping to become a peer support specialist (and privately mentioned I didn’t have the money to do it right now, but was working on it).

Then one day, out of the blue, I received an email from the conference director that they wanted to pay for my PSS training.  I broke down in tears of joy and gratitude!  I couldn’t believe it, here was my opportunity.  A few weeks later, I took my week-long training and sent in my certification two days after completion.  Now came the “fun” part of finding employment as a PSS.  It took about two months, but I was made an offer on the spot and accepted it.

Initially, I had trouble starting off.  While I have plenty of experience with my own diagnoses, supporting people with other diagnoses was challenging.  I had to read up on them, both from a clinical standpoint and personal experiences.  Initially, I reached in my own personal bag of coping skills and offered them up to my clients.  But when those weren’t working, I had to learn – and master – other skills that I could then teach.  I also had to learn to set boundaries with myself and my clients.  It’s easier to build rapport with clients when you can self-disclose, but not everything should be disclosed, nor should it all come at once.

Setting an emotional boundary with myself is critical.  I care about the wellbeing of my clients, but I cannot take on their pain as my own.  I’m still healing from my own pain.  I also had to learn to become more social and a little less introverted.  I couldn’t take my clients out into the community if I too was afraid to do things myself.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection.  I’ve come to realize that in some sense, I’m a hypocrite.  Who am I to teach mindfulness, self-soothing, and other coping skills when I don’t do it myself?  Who am I to talk someone down from suicide when I’ve been there so many times myself?  Why can’t I take my own advice?  I’ve come to realize that my job is as much therapeutic for myself as it is my clients.  We are peers – we can learn from and be examples for each other.

By the nature of being a PSS means I’m in recovery – not necessarily fully recovered.  At times, I still get mood swings, get depressed, and am anxious in social situations.  But the frequency and intensity is much lower than it was two years ago.  Yes, I still give credit to my therapist and to the medications I’m on, but even my therapist agrees that working with clients is part of my recovery story.  I truly believe that peer support works for those on both side of the table and I hope that more people sign up for PSS services.

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