Beacon Peer’s Hard-Fought Lesson: Heal Thyself
Many Beacon locations employ peers, people with lived experience of mental illness or substance use disorder, to empower the individuals we serve to live their lives to the fullest potential. We might help them to navigate the health care system, or to define their own paths to recovery. Throughout my 28 years working in the field of wellness and recovery, I was good at my job. But, in all that time, I never realized my clients were healing themselves.
And the greatest lesson Nick taught me was that we do not have the power to heal others; we can only work on healing ourselves.
This is the kind of perspective I will be sharing at the this year’s Beacon Peer Conference October 11-12 in Atlanta, GA, where Peer Support Specialists who work directly with individuals in recovery will learn from industry leaders in the field, and share our lessons learned. I have a whole lifetime of lessons to share taught to me by my son.
A son to love and care for
When I gave birth to Nick, 14 weeks premature and weighing 1.5 pounds, I hunkered down on my familiar strategy of “helping” – with every fiber of my being dedicated to making him healthy and strong. Even when I later learned he had autism, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, and a host of behavioral and physical issues, I was convinced my primary goal must be to heal him as best I could.
My journey with Nick was sustained through my love of education. I began my career at the renowned Pressley Ridge Day School. Founded on the philosophy of re-educating emotionally disturbed children, the school promotes a strengths-based and holistic approach to recovery. Among other positions, I managed its foster care program for severely disturbed children, while earning a master’s degree in education.
Given my extensive background in education, my first instinct has always been to consider what my students can teach me. And the greatest lesson Nick taught me was that we do not have the power to heal others; we can only work on healing ourselves.
This lesson was driven home when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, diabetes, and depression. The stress of arranging for Nick’s 24-hour care, my studies, full-time work, and these health challenges soon became overwhelming. I saw no way out.
A son who taught me to teach myself
But slowly through my life with Nick and my work, I learned to refocus my caretaking skills…on me. I didn’t feel strong, but by applying self-care, therapy, and medication, I slowly began to recover. What I learned from that period is that resiliency is a skill that can be learned. And that it must be self-taught.
That insight has enhanced my professional life as I help people to build their own resiliency. In 2004, I joined Beacon’s Value Behavioral Health of Pennsylvania (VBH-PA), eventually becoming the organization’s Prevention, Education and Outreach (PE&O) Manager. Today, I lead a team of four PE&O Coordinators who help our company support members and their families. From planning three large educational events a year to joining our members’ side-by-side at community meetings and events, we demonstrate resiliency and believe that recovery is possible and achievable for everyone. Indeed, we are ambassadors of hope.
What I learned from that period is that resiliency is a skill that can be learned. And that it must be self-taught.
To that end, I have developed many programs for VBH-PA, including Transition Age Advisory Group, aimed at supporting young people in their often difficult transition to adulthood, and developing the Healthy Living, Healthy Choices program in Greene County, where nearly 17 percent of the population live below the poverty level.
My son remains my ongoing reminder that our greatest teachers are the ones we help. He has taught me patience, strength, and optimism; and he inspires me with his love for life. He has taught me so much more than I have taught him.