What is “recovery?” CHD peer specialist leader Andy Beresky explores paradigm shift

As the Director Of Recovery Supports here at CHD, I think that it’s important to acknowledge that I have a complicated relationship with the word “recovery.”  The term tends to be associated with substance usage, but there is also a robust “recovery community” when it comes to mental wellness.  That’s where things tend to get a bit complicated for me. 

In the behavioral health industry, there has been movement away from strictly a “maintenance” based system, which prioritizes “stability” and a reduction of symptoms. An emerging model goes beyond that, encouraging hope and the ability for people who have been given mental health diagnoses to fulfill their goals and dreams in life.

One of the most vital characteristics of a truly recovery-oriented model is honoring an individual’s self-determination, rather than simply their “compliance.” That’s largely where Peer Support Specialists can make a huge contribution to recovery.

The very first part of our Code of Ethics states: “The primary responsibility of Certified Peer Specialists is to help people achieve what they want most in life, their own goals, needs and wants. Certified Peer Specialists will be guided by the principles of self-determination for all.”

As peer support becomes more recognized and utilized as a means of promoting “recovery,”  it’s important to also point out that as Peer Support Specialists, we also have a duty to promote trauma-informed practices. One of the most fundamental aspects of a trauma-informed approach is to shift the conversation from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

With that in mind, one of the hallmarks of true peer support is that we make no assumptions of mental illness.

In peer support roles, when we say that we are guided by the principle of self-determination, we put our money where our mouths are. If someone does not necessarily identify with a mental health diagnosis that they have been given, we explore with them how they most feel comfortable making meaning of that all-important question: “What happened to you?”  Often times their behaviors and ways of being in this world — although they may look strange or distressing to others — make perfect sense given what they’ve experienced in life. It is our job to honor this.

Getting back to the issue of the word “recovery;” this can often pose a real conundrum.  If someone doesn’t necessarily identify with the psychiatric diagnosis that they’ve been given, they may not see the need to “recover” from anything.  Sometimes it is simply a matter of continuing to move towards their hopes, goals and dreams in life while navigating setbacks, rather than looking for something from which they need to “recover.”

It can be tricky holding these types of values dear when we are so deeply embedded in a mental health system that primarily values the medical model. One of the tools we use in peer support is reevaluating how we have come to know what we know. 

We all have a lens through which we view the world. It’s a lens that’s been constructed from our life’s experiences, our cultural backgrounds, our families, where we’ve lived and what we’ve seen.  These lenses are what allow us to make sense of the world around us.

How one person makes meaning of their experiences can be drastically different than how someone else does, as their lenses have been shaped by different life experiences.  With this in mind, it’s important that we’re able to hold multiple truths. 

How someone is making meaning of their experiences — that is their truth — even if it may mean something different to us. When we’re doing this work with integrity, it’s important to simultaneously hold both pieces, so that we’re able to honor the stories that people tell us about their lives, and also so we can start to explore more deeply with them how we can best support them.

As we reach the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, I want to highlight the importance of honoring the stories of not only the people we support here at CHD, but also those in our lives: our loved ones, our friends and families. Whether or not they identify life-altering events as things that they necessarily need to “recover” from, or simply setbacks while they journey toward creating the lives that they want.

I also want to take this time to honor the bravery and resilience of those who are able to boldly tell their stories, in their own words and with their own meanings.

Program manager for CHD’s Family Outreach of Amherst: Her business is solutions

AMHERST – As program manager for CHD’s Family Outreach of Amherst, Francine Rodriguez has embedded with families in all kinds of need, plus the school system, social service agencies of all sizes, and the immigrant wave to hit Amherst over the past two years.

People often find her by word of mouth. Her reputation is well-earned. Her business is solutions.

No matter who walks through the door, or calls her cellphone, or finds her through the large patchwork of people she has helped over the last 14 years, her goal is to help mitigate whichever corrosive effects are blocking their survival. Primarily, the reasons are generational poverty, mental health diagnoses, addiction, language barriers or trauma. Or, some combination of all of those.

“It’s the hardest thing for me to do, to say ‘I’m sorry I can’t help you.’ It’s the thing I hate most in the world,” Rodriguez says.

Clients frequently seek her help, get on their feet and perhaps return years or even a decade later to get assistance sorting out something else. It’s among her favorite parts of the job, in a way. Her client relationships tend to be lasting.

Problem-solving is her most innate talent. Even as an adolescent and then an adult, family members and friends always sought her counsel — which she delivers with a warm, dimpled smile.

“I was always just that person,” she says. “I’ve always liked to brainstorm and figure stuff out.”

On a recent morning, a woman looking for help with emergency housing appears at Rodriguez’s office near the Town Green. The tucked away, small space is welcoming — not Spartan — but efficient since each square foot is used to its full potential. The young woman doesn’t have an appointment, which Rodriguez typically discourages. But still, she does not turn her away.

The woman has spent meager funds on a local, Spanish-speaking freelance cab driver. He is among the fabric of a struggling but resourceful Latino population in Hampshire County, Rodriquez says. At first, she was suspicious of the man, sensing a scam of some sort. But, she has come to trust he charges fair prices and is often willing to translate at social service agencies, or help his fares in other ways. He also is working to make a creative but honest living, Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez and the client have a hurried conversation. She and her colleague at the small agency are possibly the only two social workers in Hampshire County who speak Spanish, she laments. That alone places them in high demand.

Rodriguez is a social worker in the truest sense of the phrase. She helps people organize their lives, she says.

New mothers need infant car seats before their babies can be discharged from hospitals. Families need food, clothing, and furniture or fuel assistance. Children have literally appeared on the agency’s doorstep, shivering, because they don’t own winter coats. Single mothers get eviction notices, some of which they can’t read. Struggling families get visits from the Department of Children and Families. Those cases are particularly difficult, Rodriguez says, because many times the parents are neither abusing nor neglecting their kids.

“Sometimes they just need a little help. They need a little support, or a hand to fix a few things in their lives,” she explains.

Rodriguez came to CHD in 2004 by way of Head Start, a federally-funded early education and health network, where she worked as afamily advocate.

She cannot estimate how many families and singles she has helped over the years. The office usually has a rolling annual caseload of hundreds. Since its budget is small, Family Outreach of Amherst relies heavily on an email list of supporters from across the Pioneer Valley. If Rodriguez and her staff cannot easily put their hands on what a family or adult client needs, they will issue a request to the list: furniture; a crib; a car seat; kids’ shoes, help paying for a child’s art lessons; or clothing for job interviews, for instance.

The response is typically swift, Rodriguez says. She estimates Program Director Laura Reichsman has built up the list to about 450 over the years.

One of Rodriguez’s longtime clients, Kiana Connor, is a mother of four who moved to Amherst 11 years ago. Connor said she had always been fiercely independent, but ran into dire trouble paying her rent about six years ago. She found Rodriguez through middle school administrators.

“At the time, I just didn’t know what to do. She helped me get caught up. Now, she’s like a second mom to me,” Connor said. “I really love her. She’s fabulous.”

Since the two met, Connor has looked to Rodriguez for help at Christmastime and occasionally help with utilities. But, Connor also attends monthly luncheons hosted by the agency and has become something of a community advocate. Connor promotes Rodriguez’s bottom-line philosophy: seek help when you need it, but learn how to help yourself and your family.

“My hope for them is that they gain the knowledge and confidence to become their own advocates,” Rodriguez says. 

Jerome Jenkins journeyed from self-isolation to peer specialist: ‘I’ve walked in their shoes.’

SPRINGFIELD – Jerome Jenkins had lived a satisfying if young life. He had friends and a supportive family, earned good grades in school, was passionate about music and had a well-paying job at Lowe’s.

That all changed when he just about cleared his 20thbirthday. He began imagining — no, believing — the television was talking to him, He perceived threats around every corner at work, forcing him to retreat to the bathroom for hours – if he even made it out of his car before being gripped by panic.

While never outgoing, he had an easy sense of humor and a quiet, retiring charm. By the time he turned 21, he barely made it out of his mother’s basement for years at a time.

There were hospitalizations and strong medications that made him feel out of sorts, in a dreamlike state.

“Luckily my mom called CHD. Once you’ve isolated yourself for a period of time … it’s hard. Outreach workers would come to my house and make sure I took my meds but mostly they treated me like a regular person,” said Jenkins, who has since been hired as a peer specialist for the agency’s widespread Adult Community Clinical Services (ACCS) program.

The program is state-funded and among the largest in the region – essentially a rebooted model encouraged and funded by the Baker administration to meld clinical services with peer specialists and recovery coaches.

A key criterion for peer specialists is to have “relevant lived experience” to help others overcome challenges they have shared. CHD’s Peer Recovery Director Andy Beresky said the lived experience component is not just a catch phrase, but is tightly tied to the 2018 state contracts awarded to community-based treatment providers and a sincere philosophy.

“Who better to know than the people who have been on the inside of these experiences?  There is a wisdom and a resilience to those who have come out on the other side. Who better to know how it is to be hospitalized? To be deprived of their liberty or go through a trauma?” Beresky asked.

Jenkins progressed from attending a “Hearing Voices” support group, to running that group to getting hired as a full-time employee two years ago.

He is now among 12 certified peer specialists linked to the Springfield office. He has a client base of about 16, though their needs ebb and flow.

“I’m not steering the ship,” Jenkins said. “I feel like I work alongside people. We are like, real-life – not really success stories –but we’ve walked in their shoes.”

Today, Jenkins has a five-year-old daughter and is in a stable relationship. He lives in his own apartment and plans to resume his college education. He is thinking of pursuing a business degree.

But most importantly, he feels more like his “old self,” before the voices drove him into his mother’s basement.

“I have to thank my mom first. She convinced me to get help by telling me she wanted ‘the old Jerome’ back,” he said. 

From sunrise to sunset, Dee Canales ushers families through turmoil toward stability

SPRINGFIELD – Diana “Dee” Canales’ workdays start shortly after sunrise, typically sitting at her desk in a small office she shares with another family case manager for CHD’s Homelessness and Housing Services.

 She pores over neatly kept notes in neatly kept notebooksthat chronicle the outlines of a tightly-managed schedule. Her days are, nonetheless, rarely predictable. As a member of the Permanent Supportive Housing team, Canales shepherds her clients through turmoil.

She is a U.S. Air Force veteran, but also a veteran of housing court, family court and emergency room visits. Her job is to help her clients — the most vulnerable to land in the state’s homelessness safety net — find a path to stability. Most have histories of substance abuse, mental health and other complex medical diagnoses, domestic violence and trauma.

For many, Canales is a welcome port in a storm she hopes to permanently quell.

On a recent morning, Canales sets out in her Jeep Wrangler to a series of home visits.

The day starts with Corinne, a longer-term client who has achieved stable housing and employment with Canales’ help. The worst is generally behind Corinne and their check-ins are more of a nuts-and-bolts nature.

“You good with your rent? All your utility bills on track?” Canales asks.

“Yeah we’re doing well,” Corinne answers, her oldest daughter puttering in the kitchen, agreeing, and making scrambled eggs.

After a very bumpy introduction to western Massachusetts on a bus eight years ago, Corinne has waded through a custody battle, a bout with substance use, and chronic poverty. Her four children are now thriving in school and at home. She has a car and a new, steady job. CHD has helped Corinne into affordable, permanent housing and acclimated her and her family into the community.

Their rapport is comfortable and familiar. Canales asks after each family member as if they are one of her own. She praises one of Corinne’s children for making “student of the month” at his grade school.

Canales wraps up, and moves on to the next visit – with a new mom, Saithe, who has a weeks-old baby and is embroiled in a bit more chaos. She has stable housing, however, and Canales talks about Saithe’s potential.

“She’s really bright and has a lot of charisma,” Canalessays. “She’s been through some serious abuse, has some schooling under her belt and is really resilient.”

Another of Canales’ roles for her clients: cheerleader.

The conversation is slightly more delicate, with Canales urging her client to resist the lure of chaos and embrace that potential. It was not long ago Saithe found herself in a shelter with her 2-year-old daughter, and pregnant. At least, now she is safe.

Hours later in the day, Canales visits CHD’s homeless shelter on Oak Street in Holyoke to meet with Marissa Torres, another family caseworker. A third client is moving from shelter to a placement in Puerto Rico. There are complicated travel plans to be made, loose ends to tie up and medical and dental care to secure for the client’s son. The process starts now.

When Canales heads back to her office on Mill Street in Springfield, she encounters a group of young men who have apparently run out of gas at the base of a hill. Wordlessly, she parks, jumps out of her car and helps them push the SUV to the peak, where they are able to coast to a nearby gas station.

They reward her with grateful grins. Canales returns their smiles and goes on about her day, which is far from over.

Canales has a regular caseload of 15 families, and is often tapped with “troubled” cases on an emergency basis. To that end, this day winds down with an unexpected call to meet another mom who has no place to go with her young children. She climbs in her Jeep, without a trace of exhaustion or frustration on her face.

“These ladies are not exhausting to me. They are overcoming great odds. They inspire me,” she says.

Youth, Revisited

At 17, Omar never thought he’d be chasing sobriety.

His high school sophomore year was heady. He began smoking weed and drinking beers. It seemed fun. It felt manageable — almost like a rite of passage. Lot of his friends were doing it. He was a standout on his suburban high school’s baseball team. A starting catcher. His mom was a teacher and his dad a roofer. He had a younger brother who idolized him.

Then, wild mood swings became an unwelcome, uncontrollable compass in his life. There were some days he felt like he was riding rainbows. Then, others when he couldn’t get out of bed. Omar began missing school on those days. They came faster and harder.

He got booted from the baseball team — his social anchor — for missing school and letting his grades slide. Adrift without the sport he believed defined him, he smoked more weed, began selling it, and experimenting with other substances. He suddenly found himself solidly in the grip of drugs and booze.

Omar sometimes disappeared from his home for days. If he thinks hard about it now, those were lost days. He couldn’t recount them hour by hour. Or, even day by day. This makes him sad and bewildered.

“I was self-medicating. I was making money. At the time it all felt like a great solution. Until it wasn’t. The summer, pretty much all of 2018, was a ‘run.’ It was rocky,” Omar said during a recent interview at CHD’s Goodwin House for adolescent boys in Chicopee.

The program is named after CHD’s President and CEO, Jim Goodwin, and opened in 2017 as a 90-day program in response to a void of residential substance abuse treatment programs for teen boys. This, despite multiple studies and statistical reports flagging adolescent boys as among the most vulnerable to substance abuse and addiction.

“This is the only residential addiction program in Western Massachusetts for boys 13 to 17. We focus on therapy and self-help. We connect them with Alcoholic and Narcotics Anonymous programs. That’s not easy to do when you’re that young,” program director Chantal Silloway said.

Outside of baseball speak, a “run” is not a good thing. It’s a phrase for a tear leading up to or amid addiction. An extended period of drug or alcohol use; a term that is emblematic of being truly out-of-control.

2018 was Omar’s run.

“I failed nearly every class I took junior year,” he said.

His family tried everything. They shipped him to a farm school in Virginia with only a few students. He was ejected for vaping and deliberately eating a poisonous flower, he said. There were hospitalizations. Substance abuse placements. Doctors. Prescriptions.

Omar’s very young reality came to a breaking point. He chose Goodwin House.

“I decided I’d stick it out here. Do something right for once,” he said. “The staff has been incredibly helpful. They’re supportive. It almost makes me afraid to think of where I would be without this program.”

He has been attending a sober high school in Springfield and will shortly go home. Sober. His choice is to attend a similar school in Eastern Massachusetts and play baseball at his alma mater. Crouched down. Waiting for the pitch. Sober.

“I never realized how smart I was sober,” Omar said. “I’ll graduate with my class, which I never saw happening a year ago.”

If you or a loved one would like to know more about CHD’s addiction recovery services, visit CHD.org