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Peer support: Finding hope together

By Denise Phelps

Sometimes, it takes just the right kind of support to aid in recovery. The first-hand experience and personal path another individual shares because he or she has been in a similar situation may be just what’s needed.

My name is Denise Phelps and peer support gave me hope after years of cycling through addiction. I am now a certified peer recovery support specialist for Grand Lake Mental Health Center in Vinita, where I also work with community housing and as a case manager.

At 56, I can tell you about a lifetime spent struggling with mental health issues too. It has been kind of a cool journey, having been on both sides. It has been a journey of recovery. My mother had severe mental illness in the 70s when it was less clear what needed to be done with that. She experienced a lot of in and out with hospital stays and inpatient facilities. She had four suicide attempts and the fifth was a suicide completion.

That loss at age 11 led me to seek ways to numb my pain. I started drinking and using marijuana. Despite the presence of some supportive adults and therapy visits, that sense of loss affected my life. Some years, I’d be okay but others, I wouldn’t.

I ended up using cocaine and different kinds of amphetamines, pills and heroin that eventually led me to be sentenced to prison. Prison is probably what saved my life because that’s where I met my first peer recovery support specialist.

Spending time with people who had lived similar experiences or treated others who had helped me learn to manage addiction and mental health. I had weekly sessions with a therapist who provided consistent intervention. I was diagnosed with bipolar. As I met other women with substance abuse issues who were in recovery, I began to gain coping methods that I didn’t have before.

After leaving prison, I stayed at a transitional living home with other women who supported each other through the recovery process. I later found my current role at Grand Lake and I see clients who are working through their issues each day.

When you are struggling, it is so helpful to sit across from someone and at that moment, to know that this person gets it, and think ‘you’re just like me.’ You recognize when that person says ‘Are you saying it’s possible to have some hope in my situation?’ You lock eyes and connect.

That’s where hope starts.

My own recovery is a daily thing. I have been sober more than 11 years. What that looks like has changed through the years and will continue to change. I have some accountability partners in my life that are some great women I’ve known for years. You have to stay talking about what’s going on with you. I have some excellent coping methods now and I have to open myself up to whatever I need for my wellness, whether that’s calling someone, seeing a therapist or praying.

Dealing with relapse is also something I see in my work and despite my sobriety, I recognize those feelings.

Shame and guilt around using again doesn’t discount everything you’ve done. Everybody’s journey for wellness is different. Going back to old habits does not invalidate the new ones you are learning. Social stigma around both mental illness and addiction often keep people from seeking help.

I’m a stigma fighter. People don’t necessarily choose to be involved in drug addiction. People don’t choose mental illness. It's a brain disease people can’t see; it’s not a moral failure. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean someone isn’t struggling or hurting.

As a Peer Recovery Support Specialist, the work I do is about more than just giving advice. It’s about listening too as people sort out their feelings. They have to walk and work through it, take ownership of their lives. I’m here to support that and meet people where they are. Hearing from someone else who has been there may just be what works for you too.

*Denise Phelps is a volunteer with NAMI Washington Co., a NAMI Oklahoma Affiliate.

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