My name is Cheryl. Twenty years ago I began this journey of mental illness. In the twenty years and seven hospitalizations, I have never been connected with any outpatient program for employment or therapy. I have struggled with employment and lost many jobs because of my mental illness. For 15 years, I did have a home based business that allowed me the flexibility to work when I was feeling good and to take a break when I needed to. I could take off work for doctor or therapist appointments. But the downside was that there was no one to keep me from destroying the business when I was in crisis
Two years ago, I knew that it was time to quit the business. I had lost the dream…but the dream was being replaced with a dream to help other people who had been wounded like I was. I had worked hard in recovery for 20 years. Although not totally well, I had a dream, and I had the experience of 20 years of therapy from the ‘other side’ of the desk. I answered the newspaper ad for a peer specialist in a day rehab program. The job pre-requisites were that you had to have been severely and chronically mentally ill, yet able to work. I thought the ad was a fluke, but I answered it. I jumped through the hoops of three interviews to get the job. I work in a day rehab program with people who are just like me. I can identify with their frustration with medications, fear of hospitalizations or changing therapists or doctors. Because I work from a perspective of understanding from my heart, I am able to offer hope that recovery is possible. When new members come into the program, I help them to get acquainted and to get through the haze of ‘new experiences’. I can gently prod members who aren’t working on recovery because they know that I have done the same work that I am asking them to do. Often a person will confide in me instead of their case manager and I can help them with advocacy or help them with communication with their case manager. Because I have done the same work, I am believable. And on the other hand, the members continue to challenge me to work on my own recovery. When we have a support group, invariably someone will turn to me and ask what is going on in my life and what needs I have. Just as I know each of them well enough to quickly know when they are not doing well, they know me well enough to know when I am not feeling well. Programs that have consumer leaders are becoming known as ‘best practices’. They are empowering to the leaders and to the members as well. Consumer leaders have much to teach other staff that they have not let consumers teach them before. It does not have to be one or the other—but having consumers on staff as peer specialists gives added strength to a program and a person whom consumers can identify with and go to for advocacy. The added strength of a consumer’s caring touch makes a huge difference.
Excerpt of comments presented by Cheryl, NAMI member and consumer advocate, at the NAMI national convention, Minneapolis, MN, June 29, 2003.