Mental Health Association of Northwestern PA

Certified Peer Specialist Graduation Ceremony 2009

Keynote Address
by Kate Bender

I've been a Peer Specialist for a couple of years now and I've worn many hats. The one thing that hasn't changed, is me being ready to tell my recovery story whenever/wherever. Over time my story has evolved from - all about war and devastation to positive anticipation of what is next in my journey. Your story will evolve to as you work to maintain wellness for yourself. Working with other peers is good but only if you are working just as hard on your own wellness on a daily basis. Working with other peers is good but only if you have balanced your personal life with equal amounts of recreation, family, friends and work. Working with other peers is good but only if you can say you love yourself as much as the people you serve.

Your story is your main tool for promoting wellness. When you know how vital your story can be, you take care to nurture it. Yes, you have times that are better than others, but it is how you end up after the storm that makes your story vital to others. Your story is about the struggle and breakthroughs and struggle again and breakthroughs again.

There is no more powerful a change agent than to tell how you coped with symptoms or loss or disappointment. To be sitting in front of a person who is telling you they don't want to live - then you saying "I've been there," - and then you telling them how you made it through,- is powerful. "Nothing compares with experience - in knowing how things work." In working with peers, it is the mutual lived experience that makes the connection and it is the modeling of recovery that brings the hope. Just by virtue of the fact that you work on your own wellness and exhibit wellness, you are changing perceptions about the possibilities for the future for fellow peers.

In telling your story publically, it can also make a bridge between what people think mental illness is and what it actually is. And in that motion of putting yourself out there, there is placed a face and a heart and thoughts to what was once an object of fear and concern. People hearing your story identify the same longings and struggles they have. The shared humanity comes to the fore and fear and concern about mental illnesses gives way to caring and empathy. Your story breaks myths for society and at once inspires hope for peers.

You may have up and downs but it is not about being perfect. Your value is there long before you ever do anything. And then you add value and purpose to your life by sharing yourself through your story and how you serve. You become responsive to - but not responsible for - other peers. Your story shows other peers the path you took but it is for them to write their own story.

William Carlos Williams said, Their story, yours and mine it's what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.

Barry Lopez said, If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.

I wish you all the best and please don't hesitate to call upon me for help in any way. There are many people in this community who care deeply about your story and how it plays out.

Kate Bender