Living and learning together
The first time I was introduced to the word peer support I didn’t know what to think of it. All those silly images of group counseling sessions and characters on TV stumbling into AA meetings sprung to mind. Definitely not the thought of young people sat in a room sharing their deepest emotions and calling it proactive self-care or worse yet, fun. Yet 18 months on, I am sat here singing the praises of said groups. I don’t quite feel old enough to not fit into the mold of a young adult so I’ll keep typing. See I now facilitate those groups I was once very cautious about. Please don’t scroll away just yet, hear me out.
Mental health can be a scary subject tangled up in language that isn’t that friendly, and environments that are even less so. It’s really about giving us as young adults our autonomy back; something that mental health problems easily can destroy.
At the time I ventured into peer support, anxiety was the issue I had been battling. It had cast a huge shadow over my early twenties but I had muddled through with various avenues of emotional support and independent courses of action. It decided to grab hold in a different way in March 2016, turning my ruminations and nervous energy into to cycles of destructive and dark intrusive thoughts, which I could not detangle myself from however hard I tried. The fear turning to depression; a beast I was not familiar with or prepared for, and which rendered me incapable of living a normal life. Anxiety was an evil twin I had accepted and reigned in despite hating. I had gathered a tool kit of coping mechanisms to keep it in check, so that I could pass as a function young adult. For the first time I didn’t know where I was and how to move forward, old strategies weren’t working, my mood was impossibly low and any spark or enjoyment I did have placated to disinterest, sometimes feeling that there was no point in doing anything at all.
My counselor was forced to point me in the direction of other services and medication. This was the big bad to me at the time, although now Citalopram is my reformed friend; sometimes helpful, sometimes annoying as hell. For 4 years I had refused medication in favor of brute force commitment and dedication tactic. A flaw in my thinking was that if only I was smart enough I could somehow win against my emotions, and the intrusive thought cycle which I felt was stronger than me at the time. To this day I still have folder after folder of CBT materials, compiled journals and self-help strategies I had attempted to use at various times; an anthology of anxiety action scribbled across bits of paper, used in an effort to fight my mental health.
I began to mention my anecdotes of past trial and error attempts to a drop in worker at a local young peoples centre. At the time I just needed someone to help me make sense of my thoughts without any judgement or worry. See I had a lot of proactive ideas but they were failing me and I just couldn’t understand why. It felt like such a waste. Surely they could help someone, and if that was true maybe someone else could help me with the dead end I had reached. He encouraged me that my ideas and past growth might be worth something, and decided to refer me to THRU, a young person’s peer support group run by the charity Mind.
So I had an appointment amongst my other tattered bits of self help, care plans and crisis cards. You don’t know how many times I thought about not going or just cancelling, but in end I went not really having anything to lose. A Leeds mind worker named Jude just sat down and had a chat with me. It was a relief to not be assessed or looked at with concerned eyes. I instead, I was actually treated like a person and not a problem. Jude invited me to join the group. I will always be grateful for the acceptance when my self esteem was low, and for not being pressured to commit to anything long term, just to come along and see if the group was the right fit.
So I did albeit nervously. The first time I was allowed to come a little early. This helped me to settle in and get to know the facilitators. All were a similar age to me and had gone through similar experiences, but seemed to have come out the other side. That first session I was just in awe of how open people were in being honest about their feelings and personal journeys. I always struggled to be open with those who were close to me as I did not want to worry them, so this opportunity to talk seemed brilliant, if I could work up to it.
Until now, I had always hidden behind a veneer, not comfortable to express my own voice or opinions in fear of rejection or ridicule. It did take a while for me to grow in confidence and to speak my mind, but in time I started to. Slowly the weight of my emotions started to lift, due to the safety of the environment I was in and the insights I was gaining from others. This input allowed me look at my feelings and behaviours in different ways. I realised I had to stop fighting myself so hard and come to some sort of acceptance. I couldn’t beat my mind into submission (however hard I tried) and to be honest I didn’t need to – I needed to be kinder to myself.
The dynamic and environment of the group is something that is very special to me to this day. The fact that peer support is quickly able to create a space where everyone can share without judgement. It allowed me to start to find myself again, wading through my critical thoughts while feeling supported; which was something I hadn’t always had in my life.
We worked in rounds giving everyone the chance to speak, and participated in group activities that helped build mental health and confidence, self esteem and resilience. We also engaged in a support group were we were free to discuss anything that was troubling us particularly in our lives. The facilitators were no higher than any other group members, as they shared their experiences too. Seeing that even they could be fallible made sharing for me a much easier task.
It became the highlight of my week, an achievement to make it to the session. I made connections with group members and facilitators alike, and they proposed that my thoughtful responses to discussion. I could take this forward into volunteering, and found that I could actually find a way to use the issues I had faced in a positive outlet. Could I actually be of use again?
They allowed me to think that I truly could be. I can whole heartedly say that peer support has changed the way that I see not only myself but others too. I am much more aware of looking at the person coming to the groups, not just the issues they are struggling with or the treatment they are undertaking.
Reduced down, peer support is purely connecting with other people about our own fears and emotions in a time that feels so lonely. A friend to fight alongside you when are battling your inner shadows. A way to train you up and teach you that in fact aren’t alone, and maybe just maybe others who have fought the same monsters as you have something to share to help you navigate your own path.
Maybe next time, give them a chance too. I swear it’s not as scary as you think.
Written by Helen Murray
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