Often a peer or a family member would call and make an appointment. The call to me at NAMI was often a call of last resort. The peer had seen a counselor and/or a psychiatrist. These sessions had not resulted in what the peer and family was hoping for. It seemed there was no real help.
Meeting with a peer for the first time there was immediate acceptance. I made it clear that I wasn’t a counselor and that I wasn’t there to judge. I didn’t take notes. I just listened. I told them that I have bipolar disorder and fought my demons for years. I was just someone who has some shared experiences.
Then I started to listen. I listened intently and encouragingly. And as I did, folks would open up and tell their stories. Many times they were telling their whole story the first time. Never before had someone with a mental illness who had the tools to listen and to help, and who had shared experiences been there to listen.
More than once I had a suicidal person come in on their own or at the request of a friend or loved one. I would simply say, “Tell me what’s going on.” From there they talked. Knowing they were talking to someone with shared experiences, they talked about the hard things. They talked about taking their own life.
One person, I will call him Fred, came into the office. We introduced ourselves briefly and he said he was told I could help him. It quickly became obvious that he was terribly depressed and suicidal. I asked him if he was thinking of taking his life. He said yes. Then I asked him if he had a plan. He did. And finally I asked if he had the means. He did.
I told him he needed to go to the hospital and asked if he was ready. He said he was. I asked if he had a ride and he did. I called ahead to the hospital and let them know he was coming. I told Fred what to expect. I helped Fred find the words to use to describe what was happening.
Fred was in the psych unit for two weeks. When he was released he came to me and told me I saved his life. He said that his plan was to go home after seeing me and end his life. The moment we met was his lowest point. My training and experience as a peer support specialist was exactly what he needed.
A trained peer support specialist knows that the meeting, the conversation, is not about them. And as we listen, folks tell us things that they have never told their counselor or psychiatrist for fear of being judged.
The relief washes over them and they visibly relax. They talk more comfortably about hard times and embarrassing things. They talk about things they are guilty about. As they talk about their lives with bipolar, discrimination, mistakes and sometimes abuse, the weight lifts off them.
Living with the anxiety, guilt and fear of bipolar disorder we often suffer in silence. We are lucky if we have the chance to talk to one other person with bipolar disorder about shared experiences without feeling judged.
Peer support gives us that opportunity. It makes a huge difference to know we have been heard and understood. Most important is to know that we are not alone. Here is someone else who lives with bipolar and they are making it. Sometimes that is just what it takes to make it through the day.
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