Monday, May 29, 2017

The Overlooked Ingredient in Recovery

So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13

There is much to be said for the role of spirituality in recovery. In fact, in my humble opinion, there is much to be said for the connection between oneself and a Higher Power. There are many recovery programs, in both the addiction world as well as in that of mental health, that espouse these beliefs.

One of the core elements in recovery is hope. Without hope, one can become lost in the downward spiral of self-loathing and despair that can be both overwhelming and potentially lethal. I know this feeling all too well. When I was seemingly trapped in the revolving door of hospitalizations and substance abuse, I thought there was no way out. I remember praying for relief.

I was eventually able to translate this hope into faith, the next step on the spiritual journey of recovery. I believed that somehow, some way, I could get better. This, however, didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took some years until I formally took the steps to begin an addiction recovery program. This required a series of actions to manifest the change I wanted to see in my life.

I had to modify my life in a way that promoted my mental and emotional health. So I continued in therapy, developed a routine of taking medication as prescribed, and changing the people, places and things in my life that were a part of my addictive lifestyle.

I slowly began to see a change. I no longer craved the substances that enslaved me for years. I also developed a number of healthy relationships through my fellowship that helped me to understand what it means to have friends and, for the first time, be completely comfortable with being who I was, and not pretending to be who I was not just to fit in

This is where love comes in. As much as I believe that hope and faith are essential elements in recovery, the spiritual principle of love is so often overlooked, and perhaps even forgotten.

It is through recovery that I have encountered love in its many forms. I have been loved unconditionally by my friends in the fellowship. One of the first instances of this experience in my life was in March of 1989. I had just over one year clean and I experienced a manic episode. I attribute this to the stabilization process I underwent in early recovery where my mental and emotional state was “re-calibrating” itself.

It was at this time that I was hospitalized in the Erie County Medical Center psychiatric unit. This wasn’t my first time there. But it was different. One particular memory stands out. One evening, my friends from the fellowship came to visit me and we had a meeting in the day room. It was quite a powerful moment. My friend Susan even cried. I will never forget that. It was this expression of love that helped me through this critical time in my life. It was also something that would be played out in other parts of my life to this day.

My late parents gave me more love than I sometimes think I deserved, especially considering the hell I put them through during my active addiction. But they never gave up on me. I know, in my heart, that if it wasn’t for the love that they provided, I could easily have ended up in a very unfortunate situation. My parents, despite all I brought on them showed me more love than I could ever repay.

I’ve also experienced the kind of unconditional love that comes from having a life partner. My wife Suzy has been there for me from the first day we met 25 years ago. It was her love that has sustained me through a major manic episode in 1998 as well as through many ups and downs over the last 2 ½ decades.

And then there is the love of many others: extended family, friends, co-workers, and even those who I have yet to meet. To me, it is this love that is the underlying theme in my recovery story. When I look back at my nearly 55 years on this big blue ball, I’ve come to realize that love is truly the tie that binds. And if we do not have love then we have nothing.

If you are in recovery of any kind I encourage you to find someone (or something) you love. For some, relationships can be an especially painful area. Love is reciprocal. To get it we have to give it. Like that wonderful song by Lennon and McCartney says, “All we need is love.”

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Glimmer of Hope: The Future of Mental Health Advocacy

“I want to do what you do.”

That was the beginning of the conversation I had this past week with a young woman I know. She is just completing her first year in college and is exploring future career opportunities. I was quite excited to have this opportunity to provide suggestions on how she might become a mental health advocate. I also told her that she doesn’t have to wait. I recommended that she find out if her college has an Active Minds chapter. Active Minds is a college-based mental health organization that advocates on behalf of students who live with mental health concerns. I told her that if her school didn’t have a chapter then she could even pursue starting one herself.

She said that she is considering a change of major to Social Work. I affirmed that this could be a good move considering that having a combination of both professional and lived experience is a great combination and can be a very powerful means of delivering a strong message around mental health.

I also emphasized the importance of self-care. This can be an overlooked piece of what it means to be an advocate. It is vital that one ensure that s/he is taking care of their own mental and emotional wellbeing in order to do the work that needs to be done, especially if one is in it for the long haul.

Another thing that brightened my outlook for the future of the advocacy work so many of us are engaged in was the opportunity I had to present a webinar on the topic oftransition-age youth resources for the New York State Transition SupportPartners hosted by the organization Parent Network of Western New York. This organization works with parents and educators around supporting youth with mental and emotional challenges. I was emboldened by the fact that there is such an organization that can be a part of the backbone of the future of mental health advocacy. By educating these supporters, our youth will be better able to achieve their goals and find their own voice.

One of the resources I referenced in the webinar was Youth Power, a New York State peer-based organization for young people who are actively seeking change. This group is doing amazing work and is a model for transition-age peer groups across the U.S. and the world.

The final event I participated in was the Youth Mental Health Awareness Dinner sponsored by the Families'Child Advocacy Network, the Family Help Center: YEL & Youth Movement Groups, and the Mental Health Association of Erie County’s Child & Family SupportProgram. The dinner was peer driven and began with a fun mental health quiz powered by Kahoot, a new educational app. This activity allowed many of the 300 attendees to compete for prizes and was incredibly engaging. I was amazed at how quiet the group got during the game. I followed by delivering a brief presentation on the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition, a group of 15 community partners that are working together to create a multi-platform program that will raise awareness about mental health in our area.

The evening also included a well-produced video on youth advocacy by two peers from the Youth Empowerment Leadership (YEL) group, a youth “speak out” that allowed several of the youth in attendance to share some of the work they had done earlier in the day including posters that were created as well as personal stories. This was very impactful in that speaking in front of 300 people can be very challenging and I was very impressed that these young people were courageous enough to do so, most for the very first time.

The evening concluded with a very passionate and creative interpretive dance by one of the members from YEL. This young man has some definite skills. He was lip synching a Michael Jackson song and it appeared that he was feeling every bit of the emotion that the tune conveyed.

There is also a cadre of youth peers who work at the Mental Health Association who serve as peer mentors. These young people work in a variety of capacities: in local psychiatric emergency rooms as well as at local organizations that serve youth living with mental health challenges. These youth are the future leaders of the burgeoning peer movement and are a force to be reckoned with.

As someone who is passionate about the topic of mental health awareness and wellbeing, as well as that of public policy, I can see that while there is much work to be done, the future is brighter due to the efforts of the many youth peers who are not afraid to let their voices be heard. With the advent of the internet, and especially social media, we are seeing a quantum leap of activity around peer advocacy. And our youth are a big part of this movement. And this is what excites me so much about the future to come.
photo credit Youth Power NY

Sunday, May 7, 2017

13 Reasons Why - A Spiritual Response

I'm going to begin incorporating videos into my blog posts. This is the first in the series.

The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has helped to raise awareness about teen suicide however there has been concern raised by mental health professionals and educators. This video explores this topic as well as a spiritual response to this issue.

Disclaimer: This video explores the topic of suicide and may not be suitable for those who may be vulnerable.

Be well