From personal experience to practice
Reprinted from "Concurrent Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(1), pp. 26-27
In 1979, after a life of frustration and despair, from either chasing the dragons of addictions, or hiding from the dragons of mental illness, I was fortunate enough to come into contact with a person who helped me to leave the double revolving doors I lived in; living in the hopelessness of relapse and recovery, and with the aggravation of bouncing between addiction treatment centers and psychiatric wards. My life had become the proverbial football as I bounced from one service to another, with each disclaiming responsibility for treatment, saying that they could not help unless I first took care of the other problem.
When I became manic and overwhelmed and started drinking, the addictions counsellors and other recovery programs would claim that I was "not ready yet," had "ego problems", was "not working the program", and most often that I was suffering from "a case of the self-pities". At times I would sober up and would become depressed and anxious. The psychiatrist would claim that my problem was drug and alcohol-induced psychosis, and that all I needed to do was stay sober, and the depression and anxiety would pass. When anxiety and depression turned into mania, I would drink to achieve oblivion from the mind-rush and voices; then, the psychiatrists would, with pontifical affirmation, say that I had this drinking problem that needed to be looked after before they could help. As I said, this merry-go-round lasted until 1979 when in I found myself in desperation: either I sobered up, or I would die.
It was very fortunate for me that at that time, after being sober for a month or so in a long-term residential treatment centre, the staff noticed that I was having a difficult time reading and writing. I was sent for psychological evaluation and it was found that I had brain damage from my misuse and abuse of alcohol and drugs. I look at this occurrence as being fortunate because it brought me into contact with a psychiatrist who looked at both of my problems as one and the same. Our deal was that if I looked after staying sober by whatever means possible, she would help me to look after my mental health issues.
We established a regime of psychoeducation, where I learned to recognize the triggers and symptoms of depression and mania. This positive relationship lasted for almost nine months before the good doctor succumbed to the lure of better research facilities and funding in the States.
However, a dialectic or process of recovery had been established that allowed me to integrate services to meet my needs. As part of my spiritual, mental, intellectual, and social recovery program — which evolved primarily through pragmatism and intuition — I went to the University of Calgary and obtained a BA in Religious Studies and Applied Ethics, with a minor in Psychology. I was admitted to post graduate studies in the Religious Studies department, but my bipolar illness flared up, and I had to retire from full time studies. Nevertheless, I continued to do my classroom work on a part time basis, and managed to raise my minor in psychology to a major.
During my years at university, and for several years after, I worked as a service provider for the CMHA in Calgary as a residential supervisor, for the John Howard Society as a residential counsellor, and for the Department of Corrections in several capacities with addictions related programs, both as a full-time employee and a volunteer.
The Gemini/Phoenix programs are a synthesis, not only of my personal recovery experience, but of the works of a number of researchers and writers, both ancient and contemporary. It was like a breath of fresh air to read the works of Minkoff and to read about the Addictions Counsellor training course, developed at what was formerly known as the Addictions Research Foundation of Ontario (and now part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). Another influence was the concurrent disorder treatment approach developed at the University of Arizona, which is available for view ing on two tapes that can be borrowed from the Riverview library. There is also a wealth of relevant resources for program development and philosophy in the New Framework for Support published by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), National Office, and in the Peer Resource Manual, published by the BC Ministry of Health in 2001.
All of this experience and learning has gone into the development of the Gemini Program. Actually, two interlocking projects have evolved: the Gemini Program itself has been in operation for fourteen months; and Phoenix (Phase One) groups will have commenced by January 2004. Phoenix Phase Two groups are somewhere down the road.
The Gemini Program is an umbrella program for addiction and mental health issues. Our facilitators look after administration, education, research, and advocacy. Phoenix groups, on the other hand, are dedicated to the recovery process, and are run in partnership with addictions services. Phase One of the Phoenix program offers participants an opportunity to self-evaluate through education and discussion of addictions issues in a group setting. Phase Two of the Phoenix program is dedicated to ongoing recovery groups.
We cannot say for certain what Gemini and Phoenix will become; they are both projects that will require time and experience. Both Gemini and Phoenix are programs developed for consumers by consumers. We hope that the Phoenix projects will help us identify more consumers in the community who have not only experienced concurrent disorders, but who are coping successfully with them. Gemini and Phoenix are designed to assist in the recovery process, not to confront it—a positive development that is received enthusiastically by mental health and addictions service providers.
Gemini and Phoenix will need to recruit peer facilitators who are willing and able to give back to their community. These facilitators will eventually form a core of peer mentors, who not only have the practical personal experience of recovery from mental illness and addiction, but will also qualify academically through taking courses in addiction counselling and in facilitating recovery groups.
Both projects are integrated with other peer support services offered in the Vernon area. Each of our facilitators is familiar with all support services offered to mental health consumers, and therefore has the ability to refer clients to needed services and, when necessary, to advocate for the consumer. Our goal is to create a mentoring service that is based on both experiential and academic training.
Peer mentors are in a unique position in that they've been there and know first-hand what the frustrations and rewards are in the process of recovery. It is this pragmatic wisdom that we as consumers can share with others dealing with similar issues, and thereby begin a more positive cycle of recovery.
About the authors
Ron is the Program Coordinator of Gemini/Phoenix
Les is Facilitator for the program