by Katherine Ponte, Founder, ForLikeMinds
Stigma says things will only get worse, that you'll never get better, have a job, a family, or happiness. But it doesn’t need to be this way. With peer and family support, the right health care providers, and allies, you can reach recovery. After a 15-year struggle with severe bipolar I disorder with psychosis, it happened to me.
It started with peer support, which renewed my hope.
Peer support works. There is strong evidence that it works. And it is just plain common sense that it should help. But peer support is too often an underappreciated and underutilized resource. Mutual peer support offers what other relationships typically cannot because peers share similar experiences and relatable perspectives. We can inspire hope and help guide each other. We model recovery and can motivate each other towards it. This type of bond increases the empathy we feel towards each other. We are there for each other, for small and big victories, setbacks and disappointments. It’s reciprocal. We receive and give help; care and are cared for; empower and self-empower; and learn and teach coping strategies, self-care approaches, and insights. Together we make each other stronger and better prepared for the challenges we face each and every day, even once we reach recovery.
Recovery is not a destination. There is no cure for serious mental illness, it is a journey we’ll be on for the rest of our lives, and we need peer support to sustain and help guide us.
The mere knowledge that I had peers pulled me out of isolation and withdrawal. Once I connected, interacting with peers made me get out of the house. I had lost many friends during the times I was most ill due to a lack of understanding, empathy, and compassion. Peers offered me friendship when I was without. They made me feel wanted and needed. With peers I found myself in a stigma- and discrimination-free environment.
My mental illness was and is a small part of me, but when I was highly symptomatic I let it define me. I found others that felt like me, and together we began to realize that we were so much more than our mental illness. We are just like everyone else living with extraordinary challenges, but not so unlike others living with other serious chronic conditions. In each other, we found ourselves by finding others. We can bring out the best in each other. We are not afraid to be who we are, mental illness and all. We don’t have to pretend to be well. We don’t have to be afraid that we’ll lose those friendships and relationships because of our mental illness. We are within and part of a community of empathy and compassion. This is stigma’s kryptonite.
Having hope in place, you want stability, to work harder to achieve it. Stability can allow us to dream again of the life goals we thought we had lost to our mental illness, that which we never thought would again be possible. Mental illness takes away our hope that those dreams might come true, but it doesn’t take away our need, our desire to dream and pursue our dreams.
But too many people get stuck in a stability that targets mere symptom control and nothing more. They don’t allow themselves to dream. Their view of the possible stops at stability. Having exposure to enough peers can show the true reaches of possibility. Symptom control is not enough. We want and need recovery. Symptom control did not make me want to get up out of bed in the morning. I was happy to be stable, but so much more is possible. But it requires work. It requires self-determination – to take ownership of your illness and outcomes.
I demanded and insisted that life goals be the target of my treatment, and shared decision-making was my treatment model of choice. I did not stop until I found a doctor willing to treat me as I deserved to be treated. I knew that I needed one willing to believe that I could and should achieve my dreams, even with my mental illness. My mental illness might have influenced my dreams, but that doesn’t mean my dreams had to be less ambitious. Each of us must have our own life goals, which must be of our own choosing, to truly achieve fulfillment in life.
I was blessed to have peer-inspired hope, loving family support, and exceptional medical care to reach recovery. The right combination allowed me to reach recovery in just three short years. After fifteen long years without hope, five severe manic episodes, psychosis, suicidal depression, three involuntary hospitalizations, an arrest, I’ve now been relatively symptom free for three years. My recovery journey will continue to evolve for the rest of my life, but it's on a really good, hopeful path, one I can build on.
Now, I have much improved family relationships, I have a job that I love helping others just like me. So many people with mental illness want to return to the old life, before they got sick, their former selves. I don't want to. I have never been happier in my life. Having mental illness you gain a deeper appreciation of what life should be all about having lost it and now regained it. Mental illness may take a lot away from us, but the struggle can ultimately help bring us closer to understanding the meaning of our lives.
People always ask me how I got here. It’s within all of us. We just need a “little” help bringing it out. That “little” help is often peer support. We all deserve and are worthy of recovery. We have to help each other to achieve it. We have to work together to achieve it as a community. That “little” help can have enormous outcomes. It’s the power of hope unlocking the need to dream again.
That’s what peer support is all about. My hope started and continues to be inspired by my peers, and that’s what it can do for so many people living with mental illness. I hope all people with mental illness can experience what I did, because this community needs more recovery. The hardest part about peer support is sometimes finding our peers.
Fountain House is an exemplary model of a community of peers, which has benefited so many and could benefit so many more. The world needs a “little more” Fountain House in how society treats people with mental illness. I hope it continues to inspire Clubhouses around the world. Because us peers have a lot of hope to share and we need each other.
Katherine is a mental health advocate, writer, and entrepreneur. She is a lawyer and has an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Katherine is also a New York Certified Peer Specialist-Provisional and Certified Psychiatric Rehabilitation Practitioner. After struggling with severe bipolar I disorder with psychosis for over fifteen years, she created ForLikeMinds.com, an online mental health peer support community for people living with or supporting someone with mental illness to connect with other people like them.