You may remember Fran’s story which she shared with us a couple of weeks ago for Amy’s book: “When social judgement and expectations conflict with the call to authenticity, the result is suffering.” We couldn’t agree more Fran…
Now Fran generously shares her additional transition; from Peer Experiencer, to Peer Trainer, and how being her whole Self has enabled her to model vulnerability so that others can dare to find and accept them ‘Selves’ too…
I trace my recovery journey from discovering peer support groups. Peer support was there for me when I couldn’t afford professional help, when the volunteer counsellor said she didn’t understand what words meant when I used them. In peer support I felt that I’d found my crowd, we were all crazy but I was no crazier than anyone else.
I also found a new identity as an Artist.
I began to wonder if I could model one day. What would people see if they drew my body? Would my body ever reflect who I am inside? Could I overcome my fear of being seen, or being intimate in that way?
(Illustrations from Fran’s life modelling sessions by Leonie Kervin)
I became a peer support worker. I trained, I began working with people in crisis. I began to learn more about mental health , about what it takes to become well. I started to look at my own life and wonder if I dared to admit what I wanted, if I dared to become well, if I dared to become whole. I was challenged by changing attitudes. If my friends could accept me, if my community could accept me, why couldn’t I learn to accept myself?
I did Mind’s 5 day peer support worker training around four years ago with Robyn and Paul. The storytelling was very confronting, as was the goal setting exercise. At the time it was beyond me to claim and own what I wanted in life.
I told my story straight up, first cab off the rank. I’m an anxious rather than confident person, but I know the skill to plunge in and “fake it till you make it.” I knew that if I got it done straight away then I’d only suffer one night’s sleepless anxiety about it, rather than three or four. I’d rather face the fear than face the waiting. This is a double edged strength: I don’t sit well with anxiety and uncertainty – sometimes I make things worse for myself just so I don’t have to wait in uncertainty.
I’ve told my story four or five times in these classes. Each time I have to deal with that anxiety and uncertainty – it hasn’t gotten easier. I get so disorganised when faced with my own story. I forget things. I can’t connect the dots. Pieces fall off. My life isn’t so much a journey or a narrative as a cloud of minnows: the tighter and more anxiously I grasp at it the more it darts through my fingers leaving me holding nothing but a foolish look on my face!
On the other hand my lived experience is always there. When people talk about their own feelings and experiences the fish may swim closer, then maybe I have something to share. For me peer support starts with listening. Listening to the person, listening to my own inner thoughts and feelings.
I’ve worked as a peer support worker for four years. It’s a strange paradoxical job, sometimes it hardly seems like working at all. Some of the best work I do is walking around the block with people and going to the coffee shop and listening to them talk. Get people out in the sunshine, get them talking. Catch them doing or saying something positive! Don’t underestimate the humble walking group or shared cup of tea – it can do more good than pills and doctors sometimes.
I like to practice being available. Hanging around the common areas of the residence, preparing food and having lunch with residents. For me good peer support happens in the informal moments and the little spaces between meetings, groups and psycho education sessions. I keep myself occupied and active, even if no one is around or no one turns up for a scheduled group: Let them catch me doing something positive! That’s modelling.
I try to actively practice my self care. I look after myself. I access my supports when I need them. I work on my sleep hygiene and my exercise. I share this process at community meeting. Talking about my self care and my challenges is another way I can model a recovery attitude. I share this with staff as well.
One of the most empowering things about being a peer support worker is that you have permission to say “I don’t know.” I’m not God, I’m not a doctor, there’s so much I don’t know. I don’t model perfection; I model vulnerability, enthusiasm, anxiety, curiosity about people, and hard work. I love that I can bring myself to this work.
I try to think about how things feel for people. What experience people have in the system. The things people force themselves to do or say in order to get help, why people twist themselves all out of shape. My minnows help. I try to communicate some of these feelings to other staff, to speak to the feelings of mental health. Part of our job is to support people, part is to represent people to the system. Our humanity, our vulnerability, our hope and authenticity is found at the bottom of both of these roles. Behind our selves let there be found our selves.
A key milestone in my experience was being challenged by greater community acceptance to start to find a way to accept myself. Your acceptance, your compassion matters – especially to those in your own family and community.
I hope that my story helps you to find yourself, to accept yourself and to learn to care for yourself and to find your way home. Never give up hope.