When I think back on my trajectory of struggles and peaks, beginning at age 16, it resembles a stock market graph, spanned over decades. Up, down, up, down, down, down, up. Taken from a more expansive viewpoint, it's always gaining and growing.
Recently speaking with a woman who's also in her thirties, we agreed that we would never want to relive our twenties again. My mind had its own sharpness back then that could cut me, unbidden. I had running, dancing, and writing but I also had plenty of unhealthy thoughts cycling through my mind, along with lots of beer to light them up.
I felt altogether separate from any community that would have me. Groucho Marx's poignant words expressed it perfectly, "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member." The absolute (no, not the vodka for you lushes out there!) breaking point was my partner's suicide in 2014. It's an odd thing when people tell you that everything will be ok. It sounds sick and cliché. Because in a very real way, I was not for quite awhile. I wandered through LPL not long after its expansion, eyes open but with no discernible feelings.
Bit by painstaking gritty bit, I reached down to grasp my roots (any roots really) of my life to find my way back to myself. There were therapists, precious support groups, and bins of empty beer bottles (it was an anesthetic for grief, though I wouldn't necessarily recommend it as a long-term solution) I insisted on recycling...and importantly, a handful of stalwart, beautiful, and unmoving friends and family.
I made it outside the tunnel, whole again, perhaps more whole than I'd ever been because this time it was by choice.
The people who had the deepest and most abiding effect on my shattered center were good listeners, conscious of the weight in words, and accepting of where I was, even if the horizon looked bleak. They were also incredibly non-judgmental.
When I think of Peer Support, I think of a breakdown in barriers, and of the division that can happen when we're afraid of seeing another's pain, of letting it in. As Peer Support Specialists, we may not always have the perfect words but we care and try always to be present.
Our weekly training emphasizes meeting someone exactly and as precisely as possible, where they are. This means trying our best to understand, to validate that human experience can be more than prickly for everyone, to hold the seed of hope for someone who feels in danger of losing theirs, and to hold with the roundest and most tender of respects, a person's desires and goals.
If someone wants to keep it light and easy with us, getting themselves out of their apartment when the winter slog makes it too easy to hole up, we're here. Or if someone wants to talk about addiction (theirs or a loved one's), or grief, or work frustrations, or anger generally, or chronic pain, or whatever it is, we're here.
I'm so grateful to be able to be present for a community that held me (whether I was aware of it or not) for so many years. I gladly and with a great deal of warmth am ready to listen.
-Theresa Bird is a Peer Support Specialist at Lawrence Public Library.