I’ve been doing this mental health peer advocacy gig for coming up on six years now. It’s over a half-decade of a lot of learning, learning, and even more learning. It’s taken a lot of understanding, understanding, and even more understanding. And it’s been a lot of talking, talking, and even more talking.
Learning, understanding, and talking. Amongst all this learning, understanding, and talking, inevitably realization and wisdom evolved, and the culmination of this fully-realized evolved wisdom can be distilled down to a simple phrase:
This isn’t some new concept in the human condition. Copernicus adopted an off-center view of the universe, Luther was fed up indulging the whims of the Vatican, and Paine had a lot of common sense to share. If my collating imagination is accurate, each of these guys had the eureka moment of “Dude, it’s going to be way too much effort to fix this broken system. I’ll just start over from scratch.”
“Revolution” is the strong word for it. “Path of least resistance” is the better way of putting it. That’s what I’m starting to understand. Established, time-tested organizations and programs are excellent for consistency and reliability, although they are horrible for community responsiveness and innovation. This understanding has bearing. Hang tight.
Since 2010, I’ve donated my volunteer hours for a great number of projects, issues, and programs. These include Creating Community Solutions, DBSA Albuquerque, MHRAC, NAMI Albuquerque, Breaking The Silence, Stand Up For Mental Health, APD CIT, and Minds Interrupted, as a representative sample of my community involvement. Peer recruitment, community promotion, project development, and program support is how I volunteered my time, and this is because the causes I mindfully select I believe will help make the lives of my peers and their families better.
It’s that straightforward, it’s that simple. The commonality? I like to give of myself and my time to helping our community understand mental health issues and what’s it’s like to have a mental health diagnosis, particularly from the peer perspective. It’s all about education and understanding. I’ve been doing this since late 2010, and I’m all the better for it, and I feel I’ve made a worthwhile contribution to our community in this time.
Obviously, I love the education part of peer advocacy. One of my favorite programs I supported with my time for a number of years is NAMI’s peer signature program “In Our Own Voice.” I’ve given this program at NAMI Family To Family classes, the Albuquerque Police Department, and NAMI Albuquerque Education Night. My favorite IOOV gig, though, was going inpatient at Kamp Kaseman to share my story with the peers receiving treatment following a crisis. Heck, I’m a 12 time veteran Kamper myself.
Reaching out to peers directly, telling my stories dealing with bipolar, and hopefully sharing with my peers the insight I’ve learned through my recovery journey made sense to me. IOOV gave me the opportunity to reach out to my peers in Kamp Kaseman, and my innate talent of sharing and connecting with peers through my life experiences was the perfect fit for IOOV. IOOV was a good investment of my talent and time.
It took a while for the realization and wisdom to develop while volunteering for In Our Own Voice, and this eureka moment for me came with a simple email exchange with my fellow board members at NAMI Albuquerque. My eureka moment came after sharing a Disney-esque, heart-warming experience after a particularly joyful IOOV presentation at Kamp Kaseman. After scouring the POP3 archives, I’ve found this email thread with my NAMI Albuquerque colleagues, and I’d like to share this with you.
Subject: IOOV success story
Date: Fri, 30 Jan 2015 09:24:09 -0700
From: Steve Bringe DBSA
To: NAMI Albuquerque Board
On Jan 30, 2015, at 9:25 AM, Steve Bringe DBSA
At Monday’s Connection group, a young man new to the group was in attendance. Why was he there? Because I had a chance to talk with him after my IOOV presentation at Kaseman a couple of weeks back, and he said he was going to join our group as soon as he was discharged. Well… he did!
When he came in, I didn’t want to say “hi” to him straight off because I didn’t want the group to know I met him at Kaseman. Not every peer is comfortable talking about inpatient treatment, even amongst peers. I didn’t have to worry about that. The young man kept thanking me all through group, stating I had inspired him and gave him hope that significant recovery was possible (he shared he liked my high-energy presentation style, and that got him excited about coming to Connection), and that he wouldn’t have been at group had it not been for In Our Own Voice at Kamp Kaseman. It was very flattering and heartwarming, and this is exactly why I love NAMI so much, and why I love volunteering with NAMI.
Further, this young man is now taking part in WRAP on Sunday afternoons.
Even further, the young man’s father attended Tuesday’s family support group,. Why? Because after Connection the previous night I spent time talking to the father about other NAMI programs, and shared there was a family support group the next night. Now, I believe his father is also signed up for Family To Family.
This is how NAMI directly touches the community, and I firmly believe In Our Own Voice and NAMI’s peers do our organization proud! I am so proud of the work we do!
President, DBSA Albuquerque
Chair, NAMI Albuquerque Peer Action Team
Subject: Re: IOOV success story
Date: Fri, 30 Jan 2015 09:42:09 -0700
From: Mary tabor
To: Steve Bringe DBSA
…..and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work Steve, we help each other and give credit to the organization for the structure underpinning the work. When we make the mistake of taking credit personally we are in error. Thank you for sending this along, it’s gratifying to hear. Mary T.
Eureka. The pride I felt in the In Our Own Voice program was very much because I was proud of the hard work I’d done since 1999, and more specifically since 2012, to empower myself, to be strong again, and to give myself a Second Chance at happiness and success. I’ve always been an excellent speaker, I’ve always enjoyed providing education, and I’ve always taken pride in my passion and my ability to share this passion with others. Bipolar stole this from me. My hard work and belief in myself won it back.
I actively promoted In Our Own Voice because I believe in the opportunity for self-empowerment IOOV offers peers, and because volunteering for In Our Own Voice was a huge part of the empowerment, strength, and internal pride of the Second Chance I gave to myself. Volunteering to present for IOOV took courage in myself that I hadn’t had for years, a courage muted and repressed by the ravages of bipolar.
To be told that my pride in self was an error, that it was the program that made the connection with this young man at Kaseman and not me having the strength and courage to share my story so openly with my peers… this was that eureka moment. How could I with any sense of honor or sincerity invite other peers to volunteer for a program that didn’t trust in peers empowering themselves? This is crucial in a peer’s recovery and wellness. How could I with any sense of honesty or integrity promote a program where the very nature and structure of the training and organization is given primacy over peers willing to share of themselves with our community?
This email exchange within the NAMI Albuquerque board brought to the fore an itch that I’d been trying to scratch for at least a year. There were so many executive boards I’d been invited to, there were so many causes seeking endorsement, there were so many projects needing recruitment, there were so many opportunities for my involvement… but did any of these truly reflect my core values and personal passion? And what was at the core of my passion?
My initial disappointment with our affiliate’s management of IOOV caused a great amount of internal conflict, and it sparked a great amount of reflection of my place in the community, and more poignantly, this inspired an expedition in self-discovery I most likely would have never taken. It gave me the chance to explore why I volunteered as a peer advocate and what I hoped to gain from my advocacy.
So that brings me full circle to today and how my eureka moment has affected my life over the last year and a half, and how this has influenced the purpose and direction of my peer advocacy since then. What I’ve come to understand is programs like In Our Own Voice provide a much needed structure and accountability for very specific purposes that require very specific consistency and very specific reliability. Where programs like IOOV fall short, though, is that the importance of this consistency and reliability is given more attention than the true value of the program, and that is peers personally empowering themselves and generously giving of themselves to our community.
While programs like In Our Own Voice do have the capacity to be refashioned in a way that celebrates the peer and is most useful to the community, it is an established education program in a long-standing organization, so the resultant rigidity makes responsiveness to the community and peers a metaparaquasi-sisyphusian effort… and my available volunteer hours are limited, and my peer advocacy has value. It comes down to this:
I’m a solutions kind of guy. And I’m a path of least resistance kind of guy. And I’m an efficiency kind of guy. And what I’ve learned through coming on six years of peer advocacy is that as a peer I must take the initiative and responsibility to be the change our community needs. While I love programs like In Our Own Voice, and I love reaching out to the community and my peers, it’s become increasingly relevant that my time is best spent creating the education programs and peer empowerment opportunities that answer to the passion of peers and needs of the community first, and only then the education program itself.
The work I’ve done with programs like NAMI’s In Our Own Voice program I’m exceptionally proud of and I’ll always be honored and grateful of the opportunities volunteering for IOOV gave me. How can I repay this gratitude in a way that also honors the hard work I’ve put in for my Second Chance? By moving forward with my peers exploring, developing, and creating the education programs and opportunities our peers need and our communities deserve.
I’d like to share something my friend Felicia said to me at this time in my recovery journey. I was uncertain what I wanted to do with my peer advocacy time, and I shared with her my struggle with supporting my NAMI affiliate and trying to rework the peer signature programs for our community, or do I develop new “niche” peer education programs from the ideas I was batting about. She said just this:
I’ve lucked out. I haven’t had to say “sorry” yet. Thanks, Felicia!
STC articles coming soon to a theater near you:
– Laugh It Off (finally)
– You Can’t Always See It
– Milestones in My Recovery Journey
– Peers & Parents Unite!
– How to Train Your Dragon (working title)