9th Annual Peer Specialists Conference in NYC

Yesterday was a great day.  I attended a peer specialist conference at the Kimmel Center at NYU, in Manhattan.  I have been to a couple of peer conferences before, so it was very nice to see familiar faces.  And to catch up with these faces too 🙂

I have to admit, that lately, I have been feeling very tired.  Working as a peer specialist is a hard job that requires a lot of patience and endurance, I’ve learned.  Our clients open up to us, and they really appreciate that we can understand them.  After working at my agency for several months, many of the clients have taken a strong liking to me.

I feel it too.  When I disclose my illness to my clients, they see that I’m for real.  When I introduce myself, I’ll say, “Hi, I’m Neesa, the peer specialist.  A peer means that I have a mental illness disability, so I know where you’re coming from.”  And just after that one sentence, I feel like the client opens up.

Being a peer is more than just saying that sentence.  It’s about being “real.”  And I think… I think my clients can sense that I’m being real.  Because no matter how “sick” we might be, I believe that most of us have a sense of intuiton that works just fine.  We can sniff fakeness just like anyone else.

Anyway… back to the conference.

It was enjoyable.  The conference opened with a slide show that showed faces of people that have been pivotal in the peer movement… that is what it seemed to me.  Some I knew, others I didn’t.  Many were people I’ve never formally met, but were faces I recognized.  Such is the New York peer specialist community.  We’re a small (-ish) gang.

Following was a talk by keynote speaker, Keris Jän Myrick.  She broke the ice by earnestly shard her story.  It amazes me how each one of us has a wealth of experiences that are both horrific and compelling.  It makes me realize that, when you have a room of several hundred of us… we’ve got material enough for at least several hundred books.  Books that people could learn from.

I then attended a workshop that discussed the new upcoming changes regarding managed care.  The presenters were Jonathan Edwards and Yumiko Ikuta.  Peer services in New York are going to become Medicaid billable.  There is a slew of information that we need to know, in order to prepare for this.  I admit, I’ll have to study my notes a few times to fully absorb the content of this presentation.

Following was… networking.  I went to the Resource room and chatted with several people, handing out my business card and so forth.  Despite all the fun I had here, I was then rewarded with the leftovers of lunch: sandwiches with mozzarella and roasted red peppers.

You have to note that I don’t eat bread, brownies, chips, and cheese (normally).  So there was very little in the box that I was willing to eat.  I succumbed to the cheese though.  The cheese was also of excellent quality, although I am not a connoisseur or even a fan these days.

After lunch, there was a unique presentation that focused on hip hop.  The idea was that hip hop, as a genre, has historically been used to help those in adverse situations voice their struggles.  And this sentiment… it is also similar to peer work.

While I am not a fan of hip hop in general, the presentation was very enlightening.  I am a classical musician myself, having studied violin and viola since early childhood.  What touched me the most, was that each presenter said that the words of each rapper struck a personal chord.  That the lyrics… they helped each person feel understood during times of pain.

After this… I was dog-ass-tired.  My overall fatigue from life was catching up to me.  Although a second workshop was certainly in order, I was too grumpy.  I feel embarrassed to say this… because I should be all chipper right?  I should be rearing to go to learn more, right?

Sometimes, things work out in ways we don’t expect.  I ran into a good friend of mine, and during that hour, we chatted at length about peer work.  She is a seasoned pro in the business, and she was giving me pointers on resources in the community, as well as workshops and webinars that I can attend.  Also… this conversation helped to alleviate my fatigue a bit as well.  Sometimes, that 1 on 1 personal touch is all it takes.  This is the crux of peer work in general.

Afterwards… reception!  I have to admit that this was long awaited.  (I feel terrible saying this…)

You see, I went to this same conference last year.  And last year, the reception was GLORIOUS.  They had exotic cauliflower, in colors of yellow and purple, and they also had these tiny squashes that were absolutely fresh and delectable.  To my horror, at the end of the reception, I saw the clean-up staff heave trays of these beautiful veggies into the garbage.

This experience… was one of the most vivid memories of mine from the year 2014.  You see, I have a very strong connection to vegetables.  They’re colorful, bright, and good for you, and incredibly fresh.

So… this year I was again on Cloud 9.  There were no little squashes this time, but the cauliflower was back, and there was this hummus that was the freshest I’ve ever had!  At the end of the reception, a nice woman gave me a big Ziploc bag and encouraged me to take stuff home.  And so I did.

It sounds like I’m a mooch here, but I really don’t think so.  It really grieves me that food is wasted.  Also, I really applaud the planning committee of this meeting to have such a great spread of food.  If only more caterers would treasure veggies… That’s another fight that’s got to be fought too.

Overall, I had a great time.  In my heart, I want to be a fighter in this fight.  Part of the fight, though, is meeting others who have the same voice as you.  I think I have a problem though… I always fight to be “different” from others.  When I hear others speak about their opinions, I always try to figure out ways to discuss, or I try to improve on what the other person said.

This sentiment… sometimes it scares me, because it makes me think that I won’t “fit in,” and that I’ll be confrontational and ruffle feathers.  And… how can I be a part of the team if I do this?

A memory sticks out for me, in response to this.  One time, I was talking to someone in casual conversation.  I was sort of turned off, because the person was speaking very loudly, and we were indoors.  I wasn’t able to get a word in.  After about twenty minutes, the person asked me about my opinion.  I said, “I don’t really know.  You’re talking about a lot of stuff, and very loudly as well.  It’s hard for me to keep track of it.”  The person questioned me further, and I said, “Well, when you are speaking loudly like this, it gives off the signal that you’re not listening.”

I was afraid that I would offend the person.  But to my surprise… I was received quite differently.  The person became quiet, and seemed to muse on what I said.  The conversation thereafter was more mutual, and even the volume had improved.

I think there is something to be said for honesty.  Sometimes, honesty hurts, in that it can be a criticism.  But if we develop the language to deliver it with compassion, we can help the other person grow.

I tread on risky waters here, if I am to compare this to peer work.  Very much, we want to affirm our clients’ experiences, and to be encouraging and non-critical.  Indeed, we are very tired of being told by “professionals” and psychiatrists and such that we will never have fulfilling lives due to our illness.

But… we shouldn’t handle each other with kid gloves either.  Each other meaning “peer-to-peers.”  Society in general strives to be “polite.”  People strive to not offend others.  But my comment to the above person… it was a criticism, but perhaps no one ever told the person this, out of “politeness.”  And that… is a disservice.

It’s like a child at school.  Asking a question that makes a teacher “uncomfortable.”  But the child asks again and again, and the teacher doesn’t answer.  What if this goes on year after year, with teacher after teacher?  The answer, which the student is 100% entitled to hear… is never given.  What happens then?

The child is stifled.

I think that’s one major problem we, the mentally ill, face.  We behave in ways that are “odd,” and we might ask questions that are “strange.”  But instead of being taken seriously, we are ignored, or pushed aside.  But… we’ve got questions too.  We deserve to have them answered.

I can write more, but I think it will be rambling at this point.  I want to just repeat that I had a good time at the conference, and I look forward to seeing the peer community again soon.

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