Peer support, made me “normal”

 Peer support, made me “normal” 

“I think we need to look at sending you for inpatient care.” The little statement that felt like the end. It felt like complete failure, at life, as a wife, a mother, an employee and basically as a human. I had spent years living with an eating disorder, a functioning anorexic, how was it possible that I needed to go to the psych ward? I couldn’t help but feel they were wrong; after all, I got my kids to school on time, worked full time, I ran half marathons, I was fine! It wasn’t until my husband spoke out “You’re going!” that I conceded defeat. 

Within weeks, I was alone, surrounded by crazy people, in an inpatient eating disorder hospital in York. Hopeless and broken. It was then I realised, I was just like them. Was I crazy? By societies standards, I guess so! But in there, I was “normal”. They weren’t crazy, they were poorly and hurting. They were people just like anyone else.

My first few weeks were spent, eating, crying, eating, sleeping, eating and eating some more. It felt like I’d been locked in an all you can eat buffet on Groundhog Day. I hated every moment, not just being made to eat but the talking! Talking about my feelings, or lack of, talking about my past, talking about why I walked 3 steps more than I was allowed or why I i was upset because someone got less cucumber on their salad than I did! Up until now I had lived a secretive, private life. 

"No one understood how or why I did what I did or what I was going through. Until now".

I was suddenly amongst people who got it! They got the pain and the heartache! They understood my frustrations and urges and more importantly they were living it with me. They became my life line and my source of support. I was fortunate to have been sent to a unit that highly valued peer support alongside the amazing staff that were there. We were encouraged to help each other, advise each other but we did so much more.

There’s something that you get from peers that you don’t get from professional support. It’s an honesty, both good and bad that allows you to grow. I was told a million times by the encouraging support staff that I would be ok if I ate the chocolate brownie with ice cream, despite the knot in my stomach that warned me not to. But when someone sat next to you who survived the mammoth portion of brownie the week before reaches out to tell you it will all be ok, you can’t ignore them, after all they were still breathing! 

My peers showed me ways of getting through my admission, some were useful, clinically taught skills that helped to ease my anxiety, tried and tested by them, others were just twisted warped humour that only peers could get away with. We tried the best we could to keep each other’s spirits up, blasting out “the only way is up!” In the corridor as we stood ghostly waiting for our turn on the scales. What was a day we dreaded, became a challenge to find the most inappropriate soundtrack and provide some laughter. We threw birthday parties for girls who’s family couldn’t visit, we would play games to pass the time, we were just there for each other. We knew we couldn’t fix each other, we didn’t need to, we just had to be there. 

We were from all walks of life, all edges of the uk, black, white young and old, the strangest group of people you could ever meet. All with complex histories of trauma, grief, discrimination, mental illness, a motley crew of difference. We didn’t always get on! In fact we clashed a lot in such a pressure cooker of emotions, but when it came down to the wire every single person was there. 

Peer support is usually honest and raw. It’s coming from a lived experience knowing how hard life can be. I had never spoken to anyone else with an eating disorder or ptsd. I didn’t know what was normal or what was happening a lot of the time. I thought I was losing my mind. 

Listening to other girls who were going through what I was helped me to heal. I began to accept my situation and stop blaming myself. I had spent a life time telling myself I was broken and damaged and that I wasn’t good enough. I was ashamed of myself. When I looked at those around me I began to notice that I didn’t view them the same way I viewed myself. I saw their strength to survive and their resilience against all odds. I began to believe in myself a little more as others told me how brave I was and how much I was helping them.

"I didn’t feel judged, I was accepted despite my problems".

When I had flashbacks and struggled to ground back to reality, someone gave me ideas on what might help next time, when I wanted to go home, they told me they had felt the same and were glad they had stayed. When my weight increased, someone reassured me eventually it would stop going up, because theirs had done and that life was good because of it. As time went on I myself began to support others too. I could tell the new intake that it would be worth it if they stuck it out. I spoke honestly about feeling suicidal to others who were suffering about how glad I was that I didn’t go through with it when I was at my darkest point and what they could do to ease the pain. I’ve since learnt that some of the things I said have saved someone’s life. That makes me proud to share my struggles.

I spent a long 10 months in hospital away from my husband, kids, family and friends and I missed them everyday but the thought of coming home and losing both the professional and peer support was daunting. I didn’t want to go back to being isolated!  With shortages in local services I had To face the struggle of adapting to having no psychologist, dietician and support workers at hand. It was hard but I had learnt a lot and was managing quite well fitting back into life and thankfully the peer support didn’t just evaporate.The blips happened and when I struggled I reached out to those I knew would understand, My girls, my peers! They were quick to remind me of how far I’d come and happy to tell me when I was going the wrong direction. Since coming home they’ve kept me going, we’ve laughed and cried despite being miles apart, because we understand. 

"I never imagined that I would find support and care amongst peers, The “crazy” people who I met on the “psych” ward, but I am so glad I did. It changed my life". 

I try now to be more open about my struggles and have been contacted by people I haven’t seen for years for advice on how to access support or what to do in a panic attack. I always try to help. I’m glad people ask me. If you have been through anything, anxiety, eating disorder, depression, ptsd or any other mental illness reach out to others. You will find a comfort and understanding, advice, skills and empathy, maybe even laughter, twisted humour and acceptance. 

Peer support has helped to save my life and I will treasure my girls, my peers forever.

 

By Lindsey Thompson