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Recovery Wisdom: Strengths (Part One)

This is the first article in a series titled Recovery Wisdom. I attempt to learn from the wisdom of Peerstar’s senior peer support specialists. In this interview, I spoke with Erik Wisker, a CPS and supervisor, working out of Bedford County. He’s been with Peerstar for a tremendous 12 years! This interview is a lot longer than planned, so it’ll be a three-parter. In this interview, we explore how to help our peers, as well as ourselves by identifying strengths. I hope you learn from it, and enjoy it as much as I did.

N: You're a smart guy, who was diagnosed with ADHD, I suspect you struggled in school. How'd you come to recognize your strengths? E: My parents were both educators… once I was ready to be a scholar, and learn, it had to be on my own time.

N: You know sometimes I think that's just part of how it works. I mean for me, it had to not only be in my own time, but my own way. I found that I couldn't learn quite the same way other people do. Nevertheless, how has recognizing your own strengths, helped you maintain your own recovery, so as not to let the job get to you, so you can provide quality peer support?

E: I think the first part was me being able to identify what my strengths were, and who is Erik Whisker moving forward. What would make me qualified to assist anyone, or people in general, who are diagnosed with several mental health diagnoses? And I really think this came from my time working in law enforcement where I developed some critical skills with communication overall. As well as working to be present, and confident in my abilities to observe safety, understand my environment, and just talk to people as people. I'm no authority figure, but working on assertiveness, to tell someone else what rights are while respecting their rights as well. Of course that would go hand in hand with respect, to establishing a credibility level, you know… rapport with people, and it takes time to do that. So, I think trying to be authentic and genuine with the first impression, talking to people, introducing myself, and telling them about peer support for any newcomer receiving peer support services, that all had a hand in it. So, just being confident and committed to the cause, believing in who I am, and the work I'm doing working to refine and revise these skills. I wouldn't claim to be an expert on any of that, but my very extraordinary experiences, I would say with communications via basic etiquette phone communications in a busy office to hostage negotiation skills, these are situations that may not be for the faint of heart. But working to learn different skills to be an active listener at best, has really allowed me to reach my 12-year anniversary with Peerstar. It's not something I take lightly. I’m not expecting a ribbon or a medal, but there is that sense of personal accomplishment, and self-fulfillment that you reach, that is something I've been reflecting on and trying to reward myself for.

N: You just said a lot, what to focus on… you mentioned rewarding yourself, can you say more about the importance of rewarding yourself? E: Well, in fact, rewarding yourself is language contained in our Appendix D (a guide of suggested peer support activities), because whatever your vision for recovery is, you have to reward yourself. Whatever the reward may look like, it may look different for everybody, maybe you make yourself a nice meal, or you celebrate with your family, sit back take a mental health day and reflect, wow 12 years, now what, what's the next 1 to3-year plan? You have to reward yourself and that's a critical aspect of keeping ourselves well in general, again, whatever that looks like for people.

N: It seems to me that rewarding yourself is a way of valuing yourself, and valuing where you are at in your journey, valuing your achievements…

So, why do you think this topic of recognizing a person's strengths is important, from your experience especially? E: Sure, I feel that helping peers identify their strengths is critical. How often do we say “I'm a failure, I'm no good at this", or "There is nothing special about me”, well that's not true. We can easily let life, in general, put us down, our glass may be half empty, and you're in a downward spiral, you know, there are so many different components of life; financial, legal, familial, children, marriage, relationships, money, housing. You think, "Wow, I've got a lot going on right now." Well ok, let's focus on what does work for you, and depending on where we are meeting at, I'm an observant individual. I'm listening to them talk, practicing active listening skills. I want them to know I'm listening. Then in turn I'm asking open-ended questions to learn more about them, and then as they talk, I can find information to fill in, make sure that information is correct, but especially if you are meeting them within their own sanctuary, their own environment…we see what they are interested in, maybe crafts, or whatnot, it's never our position to judge or criticize. For example, I was working with this one peer, he was talking about this other person, I asked, you mean your brother, and he said, "No, my partner". Ok, so I understand you're with the LGBTQ+ community. It wasn't something I had a lot of experience with, "Ok this is good, this is something I can work with". And then I ask more questions to understand how this individual thinks. I'm gonna look at it a different way, I worked with a lady, and she was obsessed with apples, I said I challenge you to make some apple pies, and I can taste test them. That sparked some conversation, so just try to think creatively, and relax that way.

N: You really built off of her interests well. E: Yeah, it's creative thinking, like wow you like apples. I don't remember if she ever made the pies, but I'm glad I asked, because while we are working on goals, if the individual decides to make apple pies, the house is going to smell great, they are developing that skill, we are developing trust and rapport, what more could you ask for.

Okay dear reader, time to cut this interview, and you’ll get the rest in future installments. I’ll provide you with my reflection on what we discussed up to this point. Some details I leave out of this first reflection, as I feel those elements come together better when you read the rest. Identifying Strengths and Identity

Near the beginning of this interview, Erik says something that caught my attention. Paraphrasing his words, he stated first I found my strengths, and part of that was knowing who I was going forward. He then goes on to ask himself, what would make me qualified to help someone with a severe mental health diagnosis?

We could look at this as three different things: strengths, sense of identity, and qualifications. Knowing who you are is important because it brings some level of confidence in yourself. So, in a way knowing who you are is a very fundamental kind of strength to have which can build up to all kinds of other things like a sense of direction in life, the ability to be comfortable in your own skin, or independence just to name a few.

Building from a sense of self to confidence reminds me of something I do with my peers when they can only list one strength like surviving. I might ask “What does it take to be a survivor?” If they answer with “Well, I don’t know I just kept going.” I then ask, “Was it hard to keep going?” “Yes.” Reflecting on their answer, I’ll validate their strength, “So, what I hear you saying is that you persevered through difficult times, right? “Yeah, I guess so!” From there I’ll ask, “What kind of struggles did you have?” Maybe they say they dealt with negative thinking, toxic people, or poverty. Again, I validate my peer, “Wow that’s a lot. You did it, you got through all that, that’s amazing! Tell me, how’d you deal with the negative thinking?” If they answer with something like, “Oh, I’d distract myself with funny videos.” I continue validating, “Wow, I can relate, sometimes I do the same thing, laughter is very helpful. How’d you know that would help?” Sometimes they can’t answer all these questions, but I get creative. Maybe sometimes they didn’t cope in the most efficient ways, but still, they coped. I’m not here to focus on the negatives, so I look at what they did right. After all, they must have done quite a few things right to have gotten to this point. To find those things I have to, as Erik pointed out, observe, practice active listening, and I have to be creative. In my mind it's about identifying inner reservoirs that have nourished this person up to this point, so they can then more consciously and more effectively nourish themselves leading to greater independence, and empowerment.

I imagine that while Erik is asking himself who am I, he’s going through a similar reflective process. In fact, during this interview, he focuses on the importance of reflection in identifying the strengths of his peers. When working with our peers, we can turn this mirror inward to see ourselves more clearly. Erik also mentions his qualifications, I think in peer support, especially when we’re new, we can doubt our qualifications. Yeah, we engage in awesome training, but I think in this line of work we encounter a lot of challenging situations. Nothing can really prepare us for every situation. I think sometimes it can be easy to doubt our abilities. We have to remind ourselves of our training and continually take on more pieces of training. The super important part of our occupation is to remember the powerful qualifications of our own recovery journey. Using the process of reflection can allow us to more deeply understand the lessons we’ve learned and are continually learning in our own lives.

Observation, Presence, and Holding a Space

Throughout this interview, Erik talks about knowing your environment to be safe and recognizing things in that environment that give us clues to help us get to know our peers. I think this is not only observant but very resourceful and creative. Sometimes looking around their house the clues might be obvious, like his example of the lady with the apples. Other times it might not be so clear. Maybe the person experiences hoarding, so creative thinking might come into play. He mentions relaxing, presumably since when we are relaxed, we can observe peers more clearly, think more clearly, and so on. Still, if you're in a dangerous place or an unclean place, you might need to get out and have a change of pace. So, you’ve got to read your situation, and your peer, and know your own triggers. It's hard to be fully present if we aren’t relaxed. That tension or discomfort is likely part of you not wanting to be there. I think this is why it's good to focus on their strength and never criticize. If we are focused on criticism we likely won't be fully comfortable in their presence, as we won't like our peers as much. Of course, we don’t have to like our peers, but that’s where remembering our responsibility as professionals comes into play. I think if we really are empathizing, relating, and validating, then we will likely, at least to a degree, like our peers. We may even see aspects of ourselves in them. I think this is part of how peer support can be healing for the CPS as well as the peer; while we validate our peers, we can also be validating ourselves through the mirror of empathy.

In Conclusion In peer support, we are not game show hosts with a lie to sell to keep our audience enthralled. Shakespeare said, “all the world is a stage”. I think there is an element of truth in this quote, but it's also a bit cynical. I think we choose to make the world a stage, but we can also choose to carve out spaces of authenticity. Within those spaces of authentic human interaction, we can provide the kind of genuineness that heals ourselves, and those we support.

To do this, we have to create an environment of unconditional positive regard. We do our best to provide unconditional support and acceptance of our peers, no matter what that person says or does. A lot of times in life our peers get caught up in the games people play. We don’t want to participate in those games because we want to provide an opportunity for them to see what healthy interaction entails. To do this, we have to help them identify their strengths and empower them, which is to help them find who they genuinely are. We as peer support have to come into our peer’s lives already believing that they have strengths, believing in our ability to find and validate those strengths.

Lastly, a question which we’ll explore in future installments; "how is it possible, without even meeting your peer, to already know that they must have not just some strengths, but plenty of strengths?"

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