My story here begins in 1983, about two years after my first diagnosis of many; I met someone involved in peer support named DH. During this time, DH is a professor at a local university, plus his roles at a county multi-faceted mental health agency. Although he was not a peer, DH was an advocate for the peer movement, so I took his card and thanked him for his encouragement and time.
From 1982 through the present year, which included my working at the bank from 1986 to 1990, my anxiety spiralled up and down like a yo-yo. I am diagnosed with social and general anxiety, plus OCD. In addition, I had feelings of extreme hopelessness, helplessness, and a major 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 was promoted, and the trainee was removed from my title. Early in 1987, I was introduced by my supervisor to JG, who had an important position with the bank. Privately, we talked about various mental issues, and he said he knew a mental health agency that was in need of 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 we discussed several months previously. In addition to his job at the bank, he informed me that he was a board member of that agency. Then, he gave me his friend’s phone number and recommended I call him. So I called him, and his secretary made an interview time that the two of us could meet.
Ironically, he was DH, the man I met back in 1983, and we had seen each other at a conference a year prior. A few weeks later, DH hired me for a volunteer position in the agency’s mental health evening clubhouse program two nights a week. Also, he informed me that groups are being led by people who have lived experience with mental health issues, like myself.
For two and a half years, I continued to volunteer there. Over time, I was given additional responsibilities and was eventually given a third night. In addition, I ran (now called facilitated) two groups (which I named client-to-client talk ). My hard work was noticed by my supervisor and DH, and in 1988, I was unofficially promoted by DH to the highest non-paid volunteer. Of course, this was a made-up title.
Doing these groups allowed me to assist others and do the same for myself (mutuality?), which later became peer support. However, there was no money in the budget to pay me except for a small stipend, once in a great while. I received invaluable lessons about running a clubhouse program and supervising people. Of course, I was doing peer specialist work.
Unfortunately for me, I had a relapse in June 1990. During that time, I was told by several people I had ‘too much on my plate’ Maybe, and I had a case of burnout or something else. Spending 40 hours at the bank and three nights at the clubhouse, my step-father died that month. These issues overwhelmed me and became too much for me to handle. My anxieties and my OCDs were elevated 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, I was put on short-term disability, and about six months later, I was eventually placed on 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 regularly see my therapist weekly, my psychiatrist monthly, and more if needed. However, my anxieties remained. In addition, I wrote about my recovery and different mental health topics.
From 1990–1992, 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 is best for me and what I should do to make myself feel better. Although not led by a peer specialist, it seemed like members tried to help each other with their own life and experiences. Support groups, possibly here?
These groups were helping some, or I was more receptive to what they suggested. Then, one day, I remembered someone mentioning during a group therapy meeting that being here is my choice, and finally, it was my decision to make.
In some fashion, I muddled through those days, not that I ploughed through my ordeal without a series of groups run by many professionals telling me things I did not want to hear or accept.
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 where I developed answers, I found it hard to formulate proper questions. 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 1 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 10 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 had been there and done that.
In 1996, my hours increased to 15, and 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 was offered 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 goals of my own, my work focus was to assist the consumers in each of the goals.
Furthermore, I submitted several articles for my department’s Newsletter, where I wrote mostly about hope using a variety of song lyrics. Ever since, I have been writing on mental health concerns from a peer perspective, and 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 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 depended on where the funding stream was coming from.
Over time, I was put 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 2003–2006.
Also, I was a peer representative in my county’s single point of access, where we figured out where consumers would be placed in different mental health housing. More responsibilities were added to me; sometime in 2010, I was promoted to 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 15 months of her life. After grieving, I worked for a second agency from 2016–2019 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 continue to be involved as a peer support specialist because it became my career and my life’s work. And as we can tell, I am still writing.