I Support Peer Initiatives in Vermont at Livable Wages for Mental Health Peers with “Lived Experience”
I have been hired as one of four peers under the Mental Health Transformation Grant to open a peer run drop in center for the Chittenden County Demonstration Site, with the focus being on peer delivered supported employment, targeting the underserved population of 18-34 years old. When I have shared this, often I hear “what is the education requirement?” The education/experience requirement is to be a mental health peer with “lived experience” – part of our lived experience is, in fact continuing to evolve as a peer into a peer professional position as a Certified Peer Specialist. In this I continue to share in my experience as it evolves. Part of what a peer is, is an example of one moving forward, of one, for me in particular becoming unstuck. As living example, I have opportunity to provide many peers with hope and encouragement that they can find their path, too. I have been hired to start at $32,000 with full benefits.
Early on I had to defend myself in this. Allow me to share a little of my truth. With lack of encouragement and support, when sharing my position with excitement, someone in my life stated isn’t it risky for them to be doing something like this and stated that it was making me ‘hyper’ – I contemplated on this for a long time, wondering if there was any truth in what they were suggesting. I painfully reflected back to this person in email “Today, I heard from you that it is a risk for anyone to invest in me.”
Why invest in me? Because somehow I have found my strength to invest in myself and want to pass that on to give others HOPE.
My dream was to go to Yale. I was on my way: at 19 (May 1992) I graduated from SUNY Morrisville with honors, having made Dean’s List and Presidents List. My first disabling panic attack was at age 20 (November 1993). While also at age 20 (February 1993) I dropped out of UMASS due to digestive issues ultimately resulting from the effects of facing trauma from being raped five years earlier and was soon put on psychotropic medications (June 1993). Age 21 diagnosed bipolar, over lifetime about 8 diagnoses added. In 1999 I landed on full disability having been denied once in my early 20s.
Dreams faded fast, one by one. 13 hospitalizations and in most of my records “appears older than stated age” – Diagnosed obese. I have been on “couple” of medications over the years to try to help with my mental health challenges, some include:
|1. Ambien||10. Klonopin||19. Topamax|
|2. Anafranil||11. Lamictal||20. Thorazine|
|3. Ativan||12. Lexapro||21. Trazodone|
|4. Adderall||13. Lithium||22. Trileptal|
|5. Busbar||14. Nortryptyline||23. Wellbutrin|
|6. Celexa||15. Prozac||24. Zoloft|
|7. Depakote||16. Seroquel||
|8. Effexor||17. Strattera|
|9. Geodon||18. Tegretol|
The medication prescribed to treat my mental health challenges caused acne, obesity, thyroid condition, high cholesterol, migraines. Faced homelessness May 2001 & November 2002-January 2003.
January 2006: Just six years ago, I ingested 26 pills a day (9,460/year). I weighed 212 lbs, smoked 3 packs of cigarettes a day, used 3 inhalers daily and could hardly leave my house even with the meds I was ingesting. I led a very isolated, sedentary lifestyle. I had no will; I was dying.
February 2006: Got a border collie named Winston. I had to fight with myself to keep my dog, to learn to take care of him – I could barely take care of myself. But, I loved my dog. I didn’t want to lose him. I already lost so much. Winston is my lifeline. He is an owner trained psychiatric service dog.
August 2007: First time in fourteen years off all psychotropic medications, first time since age 20. (currently do not ingest any medications or supplements daily, but have had attempted trials over the years. I am currently committed to a naturalistic approach to my personal wellness.)
July 2009: Discontinued Thyroid Medicine/Cholesterol Medicine
December 2009: Changed diet. Came to realize dietary intake was a huge mood trigger.
January 2010: Adopted the Raw Food Lifestyle – Even after six doctors told me I needed thyroid medication for the rest of my life, I ultimately cured my thyroid disorder from my 20s spite medical expertise (raw lasted 8 months straight)
Winter/Spring 2010: Rediscovered myself at a “normal” body size and weight (I had been “obese” well over a decade)
November 2011: Celebrated 9 years hospital free.
Today: Every day is fairly balanced through diet, exercise, mindfulness, yoga, keeping healthy people in my network and people who are not healthy for me at a further distance.
INNER PEACE is my lifetime goal, so long as this is in balance, really anything is possible.
Through being peer in Vermont I believe in myself, I have support and others believe in me. There is a contagious energy that has been created amongst the peers. We all feel the balance. Personally, I have a strong will that I need to be able to give back.
Why invest in me? I WANT to pay taxes! People, who could work, did and have paid taxes when I couldn’t. This gave me opportunity to rediscover myself, to learn myself and to heal so I could move forward. I want to give back, just a little.
So let me reflect to you the financial situation I am coming from.
|SSDI (PASS Funds)||$883||$10,596|
$30,348 Total from resources is cash in year received/non taxed. $32,000 salary is before taxes. My Section 8 will continue at a minimum. All other resources expect to end, including Medicare and Medicaid. And, I will pay taxes, pay for insurance premiums and pay copays for medical stuff. In my situation, ultimately less money will be put out, people will be helped and my life ultimately will have true meaning.
For me, part of evolving into the role of a peer in Vermont is to go from consuming to contributing. There are many others like me who are ready to give back if given the chance to evolve on their journey. With the peer initiatives there is contagious support and inspiration like no other place in the workforce.
Someone in my life questioned if there is a risk to hire me. Is it more of a risk to hire someone like me who has reached such a high level of recovery and who has seen more than her fair share vs. hiring a 21 year old college graduate? With all I have been though and the respect for the peer initiatives I would not be here if I thought I was a risk to anyone.
Wikipedia states, “Adults with serious mental illness (SMI) die about 25 years earlier, on average at age 51 versus 76 for Americans generally, primarily due to cardiovascular disease” I could have been a statistic. I am 39 years old and feel like I’m 30. I AM AT PEACE and I AM HAPPY! My life is just beginning and I have a lot to do!
July 31, 2007: Quit smoking
Poem by a peer
My body was hacked into little pieces during the years
that were my childhood. I had the foresight, even as an infant,
to save each severed part, place it in a box and bury it
in a field of oak trees where the earth is soft belly dirt—
moist, deep brown. By my twenties all that was left
was my head. Dying crossed my mind, but never settled in,
like an option. Instead, I went back to find the boxes.
In the beginning, it was a matter of rocking. Ear to ear,
or chin to forehead, to get enough momentum to roll.
The first box was the hardest. Not to find, but to dig up.
When I got to the field one corner of one box was just
visible above ground. I had to dig with my tongue,
move dirt with my mouth. To re-attach a piece, to force
it back to life, was like dragging each hacksaw tooth
through flesh and bone again, backwards. There are boxes
missing still, buried in places I can’t remember. But I am
resting now— my back against the tallest oak. I can see
the field spread out, the trees with their arms raised up.