Back in 2003, I wasn’t Gabe Howard, mental health speaker, writer, and activist. I was a very sick man sitting in an emergency room with untreated bipolar disorder. A woman I was dating at the time had brought me there because I had told her that I planned to kill myself.
It would be years before I would truly grasp what it means to live with bipolar disorder, before I would hear the word “stigma,” learn the ins and outs of the mental health system, and become an advocate. In that moment in 2003, I was just a depressed, delusional, suicidal man sitting in a hospital with no understanding of what was happening.
Accidental peer support
Even before I heard the term “peer support,” I’d been unknowingly using it for years. The woman who had brought me to the hospital was, by all accounts, my personal peer supporter. She lives with depression, so she understood treatment options. She helped guide me in those early days.
When I met with doctors and social workers, she helped me set up the appointments and explained to me what was going to happen. The first year I spent managing bipolar disorder, I understood very little. I was sick, scared, and confused, and having someone I trusted to guide me was incredibly beneficial.
Purposeful peer support
Eventually, when I started doing advocacy work and volunteering, I officially learned about peer support. It was then that I realized the extent to which I had been leaning on those around me to advance in my recovery.
In those years, I had been going to classes and support groups led by people living with mental illness. I was also reading first-hand accounts of my peers’ journeys online. I would talk to peers and get helpful advice about services in my area. All told, these resources were an incredibly helpful part of my journey.
Peer support isn’t a complicated concept. Since that frightening day in the hospital in 2003, I have found support group among my peers. Find someone who has gone through what you are going through and utilize their knowledge, support, and experience to make your recovery easier. There’s no need to blaze a trail on your own; not when so many people have walked the path before you.