How a Peer Support Training Program Transformed My Life
Peers Understand Where You Are Coming From
I always had this feeling that I was not good enough, despite putting my all into school, gymnastics, running, and art. In fact, I felt I must be bad and needed to be punished. That’s when I started hurting myself.
In retrospect, I excelled at sports, was on the honor roll and received special awards at graduation. Somehow, I was never satisfied with my accomplishments. I graduated high school hiding everything. But the summer leading up to college was when things started falling apart. Whatever was “my fault” led to self-harm and inner-pain. I made it to college, but only for a short while. Soon after heading off on my own, I was sent to the hospital and that was the end of that. So began my life as a patient.
I entered a program that was supposed to help me, yet I was isolated, medicated and told that everything I was doing was wrong. This worsened my condition. “I’m bad, I deserve to be punished” was my motto.
I went through one hospitalization after another, until the day I was told I needed 24-hour supervision and was sent to Pilgrim State Psychiatric Hospital. I felt I would never be ‘normal’ again.
After months of one-to-one supervision, medication and everything else that came with being hospitalized, I decided to shut up, comply and act like a ‘good patient’ in order to be released. I was let out and sent to a group home. A few months later, after a suicide attempt, I was back at Pilgrim Hospital by court order.
At Pilgrim, I was often forced to take medication to make me more docile. If I didn’t comply, I was restrained in the seclusion room and given a shot to “calm me down.” I was always on one-to-one and experienced anxiety attacks every time I was naked or needed to use the toilet in front of the stranger assigned to me, so I avoided showers and bathrooms at all costs. Their most degrading and memorable solution were laxatives.
When they felt the medications weren’t working, I was told I needed electroshock treatment (ECT), and that, since I was too young to make decisions about my treatment, they made the decision for me. I was 21-years-old.
The ECT caused brain damage. I developed epilepsy and still have learning and memory problems. Along with the loss of some painful memories went the loss of recalling a great deal of the wonderful people, things and experiences throughout my life. Was it worth it? While at Pilgrim State, I witnessed forced treatment, neglect and confinement. After my two-year stay, I went back to a group home, day treatment and more meds than you can count on your hands and feet.
I resigned myself to the fact that I was a full-time psychiatric patient. I cut and burned my body until there was only scar tissue. I overdosed and ingested anything toxic, hoping it would be the end. I planned and attempted suicide on multiple occasions. Like clockwork, I would be in and out of the hospital every few months. I felt alone. I was dependent upon medication, couldn’t hold a job and had trouble in school. I had a terrible self-image. Then came the stigma. I was no longer Emily. I was an illness: major depressive disorder, bipolar, schizoaffective. Whatever they labeled me, I became.
My metamorphosis began while I was interviewing to get into a class that trained peer supporters. I anticipated not being accepted into the class and began perfecting my suicide and how I would be presented at my funeral. My doctor was worried about me and sent me to the hospital as a suicide risk. I was there for two weeks and while I was there, found out that I was accepted into the class. I was discharged from the hospital and the next day started my class.
My new friendships, relationships and experiences all began to matter to me. The real Emily buried beneath the darkness began to emerge. I was breaking out of my shell, playing music, singing, dancing and socializing. I learned so much sitting in a small room all day with peers who understood where I was coming from. They helped and inspired me. I discovered that I was not alone. If I chose to, I could use my experiences to help others, which I did and have continued to do. Everything I went through was not a waste of time—it was precious knowledge I could pass on to someone like the old Emily, who thinks she's a bad person, who thinks she can’t do something, who needs a voice.
The world works in strange and mysterious ways. I went through hell so I could appreciate the wonderful things I have now and all that I’ve worked for. These days I’m a peer supporter, an advocate and a member of society, not the system. I’m living with my wonderful boyfriend, have a job, volunteer, and am an independent woman doing things on my own. I’m finally unstuck and still moving forward. Recovery is a bumpy road with many potholes, but it’s much better than being stuck in the ditch I thought I’d never climb out of.
Pullout: “I’m finally unstuck and still moving forward. Recovery is a bumpy road with many potholes, but it’s much better than being stuck in the ditch I thought I’d never climb out of.”