A painful and beautiful gift from Angel

Breaking the rescue habit. Last night one of my fiercest teachers showed back up in my life after a lengthy absence. Without her, I would not be ready to offer healthy peer support. She holds the record as the last person I tried to rescue and she effectively broke me of the habit. I will call her Angel because she needs a beautiful name that offers anonymity. She will know exactly why I picked this one.

Those of us who have been traumatized tend to be magnetized to other wounded hearts. But rescuing is a suspect impulse, carrying a taint of toxicity and inequality, holding people at a distance. I was on my way to getting this, but Angel drove the message all the way home. Painfully.

“If you have come here to help me,” Australian indigenous artist and leader Lilla Watson is famous for saying, “you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” There is no question my liberation is bound up with Angel’s.

I note that we are not in a formal peer relationship. I had never heard of peer support when I met her, but it is in large part because of her that I found this calling. She is my peer.

The “b” word. The reasons Angel and I have been out of touch for nearly a year are complicated on one hand and simple on another. In my mind, the main reason is something essential to safe and effective peer support – authentic boundaries. Good boundaries set the stage for honoring personhood, respecting triggers, having yes mean yes and no mean no.

I won’t tell you the details of Angel’s story because it belongs to her, but I can tell you some of the general circumstances that she freely shares with others, and the qualities I most admire about her. She has been in the community mental health system for over 20 years, but has not lost her voice or her will. She persists in seeking help, although her needs have not been met. She’s been saddled with multiple diagnoses, but refused to be broken by labels. She’s endured multiple hospitalizations and powerful psychiatric drugs, but declined to stay on anti-psychotic meds because she doesn’t want to lose her essential integrity.

Angel wants the freedom to think her thoughts and feel her feelings even when they are torturous. This makes her a hero to me.

“I choose to GET BACK UP NOW,” she wrote me in a note last night after we saw each other. Angel has done that repeatedly. Her spirit is the most amazing force I’ve ever witnessed. Knowing the details I do about the traumas she’s endured brings me to my knees in humble wonder.

Back to the “b” word. Nearly a year ago, our relationship was in crisis. Instead of seeing me as her ally, Angel suspected me of being an enemy and plotting against her. We were on a whiplash-inducing emotional rollercoaster. One day we’d be fine and the next she’d be furious at me without explanation. For a long time, I tried to be patient and persistent, but I finally realized my error. In seeking to practice tolerance, I was bulldozing my own needs.

Fertile ground. This is where the ground can get really fertile if you have the willingness to grab a metaphorical garden fork and dig in your own soil. I finally realized that the inexplicable inconsistency of Angel’s feelings and behavior toward me functioned as a trigger for my own childhood trauma. I needed to back off. This was my rationale: if I’m not respecting myself and my needs for safety and security, I am not respecting the relationship. Instead of trying to fix you, I need to stay home and fix me.

Drawing a line was a painful and complicated choice. I articulated my feelings and needs and made a request. My side of the story is that Angel distanced herself because she could not meet my request. Nearly a year has gone by with only a couple of brief and remote contacts. But she never left my heart.

A deeper anchor. In our highest and best moments together over the last 3+ years, Angel and I experienced an uncanny level of mutual understanding. Sometime during the first year of building our bond, we traveled to a deep, shared place in our souls. She asked me to anchor there. “No matter what I say or do, or how I treat you, I want you to always remember that I love you no matter what,” Angel told me fiercely that day. “Please don’t forget that.”

And I haven’t. Even when I had to set a boundary that kept us apart, I never forgot. I kept our anchor in place. That, I believe, is the sustaining grace that allowed us to see each other last night for the first time in many months and go straight from distance and silence to a warm and welcoming embrace. In that hug I felt my tender heart healing.

My self-respect was my gift to the relationship. Me getting out from behind the wheel of the rescue wagon allows us the potential for a different relationship now, one in which we are each driving our own recovery and traveling together when it works for us. A gift that I think Angel and I are each in a position to offer now is to give our bond a chance for renegotiation and redefinition.

Thank you, Angel. I love you. Ultimately, what you taught me is not that I shouldn’t be a rescuer, but that I can’t. Healing myself is my best shot at healing the world.

I could still see and hear the water running behind frozen Potrero Falls in northern New Mexico. It looked just like an angel to me.

I could still see and hear the water running behind frozen Potrero Falls in northern New Mexico. It looked just like an angel to me.

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Exploring what matters

The reluctant blogger. I have been writing about matters of head, heart and spirit for 45 years, since I first started copying my poems and feelings into a little spiral notebook in about 1970 in Nampa, Idaho.

ML 1970, age 11Me as an early explorer

I stood on the shore at the millennium and watched as the first wave of blogs began hitting the digital beach. I sensed it wasn’t time for me, although I did not suffer from a lack of something to say. I knew I had to have a compelling purpose and a rousing theme, something that would keep me engaged over the long haul. Something with meaning, heart and heat.

Now that meaning has arrived, and in the most compelling of costumes: a calling.

Certified for being myself. One of my non-conformist claims to fame is that I have managed to make it to age 56 with no earthly credentials. I dropped out of college. I managed to sidestep degrees and certifications. Then one day last autumn I heard about an intriguing training for anyone who related to “a lived experience of psychological distress.” 

I cried when I introduced myself to the rest of the class on the first day of peer support training. I couldn’t believe that there was finally a credential that would certify me for being myself, for living through my experience of loss, delayed grief and trauma, and for eventually coming out on the other side feeling like a whole person who had a meaningful life – in other words, for managing to reinvent myself repeatedly.

Suddenly a whole spectrum of possibilities emerged, the most significant being that I might use my own experiences to inspire others and that I might actually get paid for that.

Peer support movement. A big part of what grabbed me about peer support is that it’s part of a social justice movement that aims to put power back in the hands of persons who’ve gotten lost in the mental health system, stigmatized by a diagnosis, medicated into numbness, disabled by a sense of futility and hopelessness, or any other form of power and identity loss.

Our culture is quick to try to “normalize” individuals who don’t fit into the prevailing paradigm, especially if their sensitivity, intelligence, and creativity conspire to launch them into any kind of prolonged or public distress. Asking for help can sometimes turn out to be a dangerous choice in the long run. The list of labels in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders keeps getting longer and there is almost certainly one or more to fit most of us, along with medications to prescribe.

Peer support attracts me because it represents a sane alternative to mainstream insanity. It recognizes each of us as sovereign and valuable, the directors of our own future. And it trains and encourages survivors like me to offer my own recovery as an inspiration. It validates that we are the experts on our own experience – the experience of being a human who has lived through trauma.

Who among us has not suffered? At present, this type of peer specialist support is only offered through community mental health centers, where it is billable through Medicaid. That means that: (1) there’s an immediate challenge to the ideals of the peer support model, which strives to step away from diagnosis, clinical language, paperwork and the rest of the mental health system, getting people back into community; and (2) it’s only available to a limited population.

I applied for such a position at our local community mental health center last fall and never heard a peep from Human Resources. Not one word. Not that I wanted to try to work in the system, trying to walk between worlds. I really didn’t.

Recently one of my trainers issued me the kind of challenge I love. He suggested I figure out how to offer this through a private practice, outside the system, right smack in the middle of the community where it belongs.

“More people need this,” he said. “Who among us has not suffered?”

So here I am, introducing you to my blog and my dream for a new livelihood.

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Let’s travel together on a journey to explore what matters, express why we care and imagine how we can grow. Along the way I’ll be telling you some of the stories of how I got here, in hopes they will inspire you on your own path toward wholeness.