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The power of peer support: a conversation with Sara Goodman

Posted Oct 16 2011 11:48am

I talked last night with my friend Sara Goodman about the power of peer support. Sara has been a past contributor to this blog and many have profited from her wisdom and passion (for those who have never read her writing one of her posts is reposted below).

We talked some about her experiences in the Howie the Harp program where she had been a leader for 5 years. We also talked about the program she leads now. We talked about shared ideas and experiences. But mainly we talked about miracles.

We talked about the miracle of community. We talked about people who are diagnosed as being unable to manage their own lives can connect, enrich and grow in the context of supportive relationships in a community that cares for them, values them, and holds them accountable.

Sara talked about forensic peer specialists. It is an idea not found in Tennessee as far as I know and listening to her I sure wished it was. We hear so much how the problems of the mentally ill in the jails is so unsolvable. She talked about the people she helped to train as peer specialists, many who had been in jail for 10-20 years, and who were now going back into the toughest jails in New York and trying to help others labeled as severely mentally ill to begin a journey of recovery. She talked about people given up as little more than wreckage that had taught her that miracles were within each of us.

It was a great night for me. I count Sara’s friendship a treasure in my life. I hope you will take a minute and read the post below. It will be time well spent.



In this day and age, with the world in the condition that it is in both spiritually and physically, it is hard to be optimistic.  And for those of us who struggle with depression and mood swings and the like, that is not a good thing at all.

I am not a conspiracy theorist.  I am a truth nut.  In order for me to fire on all pistons, I need to know the who, what, when, where and why of things.  I can’t help that.  That’s the way I was born.

For most of my youth, that nature caused me a tremendous amount of grief, pain and sorrow.  I was raised in a fundamentally Jewish household where questions were not only not answered; the asker was chastised and physically attacked for asking.  I was not born into this household; I was adopted at 5.5 months old after being psychologically forced out of my birth mom’s arms.  My ethnic/cultural background is German Catholic.  Nature vs. nurture – being Jewish is just not in my jeans… errrr genes.

I shut down at the ripe old age of 7.  The straw that broke the camel’s back was my best friend dying and losing my rights of imagining her family was the one I should have been born into.  I had spent as many of my hours as I could basking in the warmth of her family’s nurturing bosom and now, once again, I was wrenched from loving acceptance and forced back into a shape that simply did not suit me.  I was brought to the psychological gurus and earned my first diagnosis.  This, by the way, was in 1958.

So I reacted.  I developed a case of anger that brought my blood pressure up by the time I was a young teen.  I found comfort in sugar and carbs that made me pack on the pounds.  By the time I was 16, I weighed in at 165 lbs.  And my biggest tormentor was my mom – she’d pinch my tire and tell me I was fat.

My school grades reflected my torment.  Having scored the highest IQ in this school’s recorded history when I enrolled, I stymied my teachers.  They didn’t quite connect the dots between the belt buckle welts on my face and my weight and my lack of scholastic achievement.

And my lack of conformity in the realm of physical appearance and academic success caused another beating.  And the beat went on and on and on.

I was morose, angry to the point of putting my fists through walls; I destroyed my vocal cords with all my yelled protest on the way I was being treated.

Needless to say, optimism could not flourish in this distorted mental space.

OK, this piece is meant to be autobiographical with a point but not an autobiography so I will fast forward.

After years of stuffing my face, anesthetizing my pain with drugs and alcohol, rebelling against religion and feeling deeply unsuccessful as a person, I learned that there were folks out there who believed that people who have struggled with their mental balance could inch their way forward, out of the muck and into the light.  I learned that there were people who would hold a candle for me as I crawled my way through the sewage tunnel that was my life; that there were people out there who knew my pain and would not poke at me for my shortcoming and instead celebrate my strengths and appreciate my way of stringing together words to create visuals when the English language failed to provide me with the tools to share my angst.

I began to inch my way forward.  I learned early into my recovery journey that while my past may not have been my fault, I was responsible for my future.  I took on the challenge of my self.  I figured out that by separating the word myself into two words, I had a place to start.  I needed to learn to manage my self.  Self was the little kid who’d rarely gotten hugged, who was dismissed as disruptive, who was abandoned by her mom.  Self was that little kid who’d never gotten raised and nurtured and now I took responsibility of raising my self.

I learned about Mary Ellen Copeland’s Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP – and applied it to my life.  I began to see little shifts in my attitudes as the plan gave me a structure through which to work.  I learned to recognize the signs that I was headed for trouble.  I created a Wellness Toolkit for real.  I painted up a small burlap bag with the words Wellness Tools, I affixed spangles and sparkles and bows and filled my bag with distractions for those moments when depression and despair threatened to overwhelm me.  I included a bottle of bubbles, crayons and a sketch pad, a CD I’d prepared to help me regulate the pace in which my blood flowed through my veins, a small mirror to remind me to look myself in the eye and remind myself that I will be alright, that this too shall pass.  I included a chamomile tea bag to remind myself to calm down.  I added a chocolate covered spoon for when life got too bitter.  I had a brass sun to remind myself that the sun would shine again.  I put in a crossword puzzle book, a couple of pencils and a sharpener.  I carried this bag around me with at all times so that I could stave off the slide down the slippery slope to increased self-destruction.

Each time I was successful in fending off the gloom monsters, I patted myself on the back and that was an amazing feeling of accomplishment for me.  I was not used to being successful at any of my endeavors – at least the ones that my parents/employers/teachers held dear.

I learned about “the dignity of risk and the right to failure.”  I learned that it was ok to make mistakes because that is how we learn.  I learned to take risks rather than hiding under my bed, hands over my head, waiting to be beaten.  I learned to be gentle on myself.  I learned not to take my past with me into my future.  I learned that the only purpose the past can really serve is to guide my future.  I learned to live my life from this day forward.  I learned to channel my anger into productive energy.  I learned to sort out my emotions and how to deal with them when they were too strong to be productive.  I learned how to be resilient in the face of disappointment.  I learned to live objectively instead of subjectively.  I learned to not take life personally.  I learned that I was putty in the hands of the creator and the creator was me.  I learned that I could learn.

I began to inch forward with increased speed and dexterity.  I could now look behind me, at my more recent past, and see that I had achieved the goals I set for myself in many arenas of life.  No longer is my immediate past strewn with rubble and debris.  Now I can rest comfortably in the garden of my own creation.

Today, I am the mistress of my domain.  I have money in the bank, a solid credit rating and the beginnings of a life of my own design and desire. I am gainfully employed in the human services field. I have gained the respect of my peers and colleagues. I have developed a reputation for honesty, integrity and capability.

I am self-optimistic.

May the Universe bless each and everyone reading this piece with the fortitude and courage to keep inching forward into each new day with self-optimism.

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