Ken Dun on Meet The Peer Joy in Recovery

Embracing Joy In Recovery: It’s Possible and Okay to Have Fun

Ken Dunn, Recovery Coach and Chief Joy Facilitator | Meet The Peer

Picture of dandelion with it being blown away with smileys and hearts. Quote about joy and fun in recovery

Joy and the recovery journey aren’t usually synonymous, but if Ken Dunn, Chief Joy Facilitator has his way, that won’t be the case for much longer. With an emphasis on the importance of joy and play when pursuing a goal, learning something new, or taking on a challenge, he delivers a message of hope and inspiration. Sharing his lived experience with substance use, work, and video game addiction, Ken discusses the importance of mindfulness and acceptance. Additionally, Ken encourages everyone to design their own recovery pathway – finding what works for them and knowing that their recovery is truly theirs.

Connect with Ken:

Click here for the episode’s full transcript.

Has Ken inspired you to get outdoors? Check out 6 Free Nature-Based Activities for Improved Mental Health and Wellbeing.

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Whitney (00:48)
I’m your host, Whitney Menarcheck, and on this episode of Meet the Peer, we have Ken Dunn, Chief Joy Facilitator in North Carolina. Welcome, Ken.

Ken Dunn (00:56)
Hey Whitney, thanks for having me.

Whitney (00:59)
Thank you for joining us, Chief Joy Facilitator. That is not a title I hear very often. Can you tell me, and all of us, what exactly that entails?

Ken Dunn (01:10)
Yeah, I mean, obviously that’s a title I’ve made up for myself. What I do that’s different than what some others might do is I facilitate a lot of group activities and those group activities are often surrounding some sort of fun activity. It might be community drumming or going on a day hike or it might be playing frisbee golf or some other activity. And, you know, the primary focus of these activities is to have fun and just learn that it’s possible and okay to have fun in recovery. And so, you know, I want to really stress joy, how important joy is, and it’s really important to understand that play really makes learning a lot easier. So if we’re holding real tight to whatever it is we’re trying to learn or goals that we’re trying to accomplish, they’re just that much harder. And as soon as we introduce an element of play, everything becomes easier and it’s fun. Who doesn’t want to have some fun. So I really tried to stay focused on that.

Whitney (02:13)
I love that. I mean, I just think about how much, you know, we tend to be in a negative or stressful state. And if we can take something that’s very serious but make it enjoyable, how much more impactful and long-standing it can be.

Ken Dunn (02:27)
Absolutely. Yeah, we take a lot of things very seriously and you know, some things are very serious and we need to meet them that way. But there are a lot of things that we just kind of stay in a serious state where, where we can have fun. There’s not a reason why we, we couldn’t have fun. So let’s do it.

Whitney (02:43)
Right? And so you do groups and work with individuals. Let’s take a couple steps back. What is your journey? What led you to the place where you are now supporting others?

Ken Dunn (02:55)
Sure. Yeah, so I really struggled a lot with substance use. My primary drug was alcohol. I also spent a lot of time playing video games and I had a real serious relationship with work that took me away from my family. And it really was a place where I avoided a lot of the difficult things that were in front of me. So I had that experience. I was 46 when I decided to get into recovery.

It was at the end of a relationship and I had to really take a serious look at what was going on in my life and see that I was really doing a lot of harm to myself and harm to those people around me. I actually got sober sort of through the back door. I was doing meditation as a way to deal with some intrusive thoughts and other mental health issues. In that process…I found a Buddhist based, sorry, I was going to say 12-step, but a Buddhist based recovery program that focused on mindfulness and meditation. And I thought I was going to use that program to moderate. And it didn’t work like that for me. You know, after a period of time of thinking I was going to moderate, I eventually woke up one morning and was like, oh, I guess the reality is I actually need recovery. I can’t keep playing around with alcohol as if it’s not dangerous to my life. So after a little bit of introspection and arguing with myself and going back and forth, I eventually just decided to just throw myself into it. And that Buddhist-based program was working pretty well for me, so I really dedicated myself to that program and to just getting as much out of it as I could, doing as much healing as I could. And that was just the beginning. You know, I think for a lot of people, once we get in there and we start working programs, we realize there are a lot of other things going on. It led me to a place where I realized that, you know, alcohol, work, video games, whatever the processes or behaviors were, were really just avoidance of the underlying mental health issues that I was struggling with. You know, eventually I made my way into adult children of alcoholics and dysfunctional families and really saw, you know, the way the generational trauma that my family has endured has affected me and caused a lot of my behaviors. So I’m now seven years in recovery from alcohol, work, and video games. I actually haven’t engaged in any of those things in an unhealthy way. Since I started my journey, I’ve been working a program at ACA for three years. And along that time, I’ve also worked pretty closely with a couple of therapists and dipped my toe into some other programs as well. But that’s my current path.

Whitney (06:07)
Now, the Buddhist-based program, that’s not something that I personally have heard much about. Could you provide kind of an overview of any of the key components that may be relevant for someone to hear about?

Ken Dunn (06:24)
Sure. Yeah, there are two fairly well-known Buddhist-based recovery programs. Those are Refuge Recovery and Recovery Dharma. I currently practice with Recovery Dharma. I started my path with Refuge Recovery, and because of some reasons, I moved to Recovery Dharma. But those programs, they both bear a fair amount of similarity. They’re both based on mindfulness and meditation. And they use a…set of teachings by the Buddha which are called the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. And the Four Noble Truths is a really simple observance of life, basically, that in life there is suffering. That’s the First Noble Truth. The Second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by craving and aversion. The Third Noble Truth is that there is a path to the end of suffering. And the Fourth Noble Truth is this thing called the Eightfold Path, which is series of teachings, wise mindfulness, wise livelihood, wise effort, wise action, eight in total. And it’s really based on seeing life for what it really is, you know, seeing your patterns, your behaviors, seeing the way that we sometimes can become aversive or crave and trying to just sit with that and recognize it for what it is, you know, without trying to change accepting life on life’s terms. And for me, it’s really come down to just simply acceptance, realizing that difficult things are gonna come up in life. And some of them I have the ability to change and some I don’t. And if I can simply accept the things for what they are, then I’ll suffer a lot less because I won’t be trying to change things that I can’t change. And so it really is very liberating. Or it is very liberating for me, I should say. It’s the right…It’s the right language that suits me well.

Whitney (08:24)
It sounds liberating and I see some similarities, the 12 step, the serenity prayer and things like that. But I think that, like you said, language, it’s an approach that’s, this is the uniqueness of recovery is that there’s a different style out there for everyone and sometimes you make your own style as you go, similar to what you’re doing with your outdoors activities, fun, joy, play.

Ken Dunn (08:32)

Yeah, absolutely.

Whitney (08:54)
It sounds like you are also kind of leading a different way to look at recovery and experience it.

Ken Dunn (09:02)
Yeah, I mean, I don’t feel like I’m leading necessarily, but I’m taking some of the things that I’ve learned from others and I’m trying to put them as best as possible to use. So yeah, and just to go back to one of the things that you said, you know, I see a lot of similarity between 12-step and Buddhist recovery programs. There are a lot of people who don’t feel that way. You know, I do practice ACA, which is a 12-step based program and frankly, I don’t think that without my Buddhist teachings, without the Buddhist path, I would be able to really work a 12-step program. I needed that foundation to be able to really understand 12-step work. And that was just for me, right? The way my brain worked, it really required me to get some other teachings under my belt before I was really ready to see 12-step as being really as useful and powerful as it is, you know. So, and one of the things that I’ve learned, through my process is that everybody’s got their own path to get there, however they have to get there. I see people that come from 12-step programs and come to Buddhist-based programs later, and they’re like, oh, this is what I was missing. It was the next thing that a person needed. And for me, I kind of went the other route, and it was what was right for me. So I feel like it really sets me up to be well-suited for. A multiple pathways approach to allowing others to have their own approach for their own recovery.

Whitney (10:32)
and you are supporting others, you have your lived experience, you’re helping others with similar lived experiences, what led you to take on that type of role?

Ken Dunn (10:44)
Well, you know, I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I got a lot of benefit from the benefit. I benefited directly from the lived experience of others. You know, I got to see how others had changed their lives and how their lives were better and actually seeing others live the life they wanted to live. And it was very inspiring, you know, when you see somebody else that’s conquered or is in the process of conquering and healing and making progress and growth. Now, it’s motivating and it’s inspiring. And so, you know, I kind of was in a place where I didn’t have a lot of purpose in my life. My career, my previous career, paid the bills pretty well and it had, there was some glamor to it. However, it just didn’t feel like any purpose whatsoever. And when I found peer support, it was immediately like a light bulb went off, you know, and, um, frankly, I had recently just had a sort of spiritual awakening, and the two things kind of came together at the same time, and it was like, oh, this is what I meant to do. You know, this is where I belong.

Whitney (11:50)
That’s very powerful.

Ken Dunn (11:52)
That it is, yeah.

Whitney (11:56)
And you know, whenever you mentioned you had a previous career that was paying the bills, it reminds me that you mentioned that you’re, you haven’t, you said you haven’t engaged in playing video games or work in an unhealthy way for seven years, which is amazing. Congratulations. Those are two areas. I think video games, you know, there’s a lot more attention to that becoming something that you can have unhealthy, you know, an unhealthy relationship with work.

Ken Dunn (12:12)
Thank you.

Whitney (12:24)
we almost have a society that pushes you to have an unhealthy relationship with it. I’m curious what your thoughts are in having gone through an almost more traditional recovery pathway with a substance compared to a process, which is video games, as well as work. What was that like having those different experiences?

Ken Dunn (12:46)
Well, I’m going to answer your question the best I hear it. So at the time when I sort of hit my bottom, I was in this place where I was playing video games when I wasn’t working. And I was working when I wasn’t playing video games. And there was alcohol involved and all the video games playing. It was basically work, play video games, drink, and sleep. And that was my life.
You know, when I got into recovery and I was really doing some of this deep, uh, personal investigation, I realized, uh, pretty quickly that, you know, my life was being consumed by my work. I was spending, you know, 10, 12 hours a day, some days longer. And, you know, I was really using work as a way to avoid difficult experiences, you know, whether it was difficult relationships with my partner at the time or whether it was difficult discussions with my children or showing up at events that I didn’t necessarily want to go to. Almost no one will ever tell you that you should neglect work to go do other things, right? It’s part of our social conditioning. And for many of us, we’ve been conditioned that productivity is really valuable, that your value is tied to your productivity. And… I was right there, you know, I mean, I was very much tied into my title and how much money I was making and, you know, the prestige of my work and all of these sorts of things, how connected they were to within the community and within my workplace. And, um, you know, I came to realize that wasn’t the same as actually having real connection, you know, having a title, having wealth is not the same as having real connection with other people and really all I ever wanted was that connection with other people in the first place. The way that the title was benefiting me was that I felt like it made me more respectable and that it made me more connected, but the reality was that it was actually a setback. It prevented me from building deeper connections with people that I cared about. When I stepped away from that career and I started to really…

Whitney (14:55)

Ken Dunn (15:05)
invest myself in relationships with other people, the relationships got much better pretty quickly and they continued to get better. That’s not to say that I’m like perfect at having relationships because I’m not. I’m still a work in progress like everybody else but certainly making a lot of strides in that area of developing better relationships.

Whitney (15:25)
Thank you for sharing that. Again, I don’t think that’s an area that enough attention is put towards. I know that with COVID, work from home, work flexibilities, there was a little bit more of a movement there where the employee was taking back some of that say. But I think even if maybe you work from home a little bit more, there’s still this pressure to have the title, the impressive resume, pay, things like that to…dictate your worth. So I’m sure that your story is gonna resonate with quite a few people out there. So thank you for sharing it. And so there’s video games, there’s work, there’s alcohol. What other life experiences do you like to support people as they go through them?

Ken Dunn (16:05)

Right. Yeah, thanks for asking that question. So, you know, my own experience involved a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression. And I had a lot of dysfunctional behaviors. You know, I had mentioned that I was really struggling with relationships. So, you know, I didn’t have my own direction. I had a lot of codependent relationships, a lot of dysfunctional relationships. And so those things, I think, are areas where I can really support somebody. You know, there is the substance abuse angle or substance use angle, excuse me. Um, substance use angle. I mean, I, alcohol was my drug of choice and I certainly used it to avoid a lot of things and also to thinking that I was having fun when I really was just isolating. Um, so those are, those are a couple of areas. Um, I’m drawing a blank at the moment as to what other areas, um, I mean, there’s a lot I feel like.

Whitney (17:12)
That’s okay.

Ken Dunn (17:16)
All of the experiences that I’ve had, I see an element of mental health experience there that where my mental health wasn’t what it could have been. And so I think that’s another area where I can really provide somebody with some support.

Whitney (17:33)
That’s wonderful. And is there anything else about your style? I know that you mentioned ACA, a Buddhist-based program, some 12-step experience, you certainly do activities. Anything else about your style that would be important for someone to know?

Ken Dunn (17:49)
Sure. Well, I’m a strong believer in the fact that we all actually know deep down inside what’s best for us. And we might struggle at times to actually trust ourselves to gain access to that or to just trust whatever that wisdom is. So, like I said, I’m a strong believer in trying to set up a scenario where a person can trust in themselves and believe their own wisdom and try it out. Create a space where an individual can feel like it’s safe to try trusting themselves, try something new, build some goals and see how it goes. And if it doesn’t go well, come back and let’s talk about it and try out a new goal. So I’m really focused on agency, people having their own direction and guiding their own recovery, their own healing journey. Also, the multi-pathways approach is really important to me. I think it’s really important that each person feel like their recovery is their recovery and that they are able to find the things that match for them. And I can’t tell a person what’s right for them. They have to do it themselves. I can give them some ideas, some suggestions, here are some things to try, here are things that worked for me, things that didn’t work for me. So, kind of set up a little bit of a framework. But ultimately, individually, we all have to figure out what’s the right approach for us. So the other thing that I like to incorporate is mindfulness. It’s been a really important part of my journey. And I, you know, prior to me starting a regular meditation practice and really investigating mindfulness, I really didn’t have good access to my emotions. I really didn’t know what was going on inside me, both physically and emotionally. And… I trusted my brain entirely too much. And so, um, having gone through this practice, going through this journey, I see the value in it. That’s not to say that it’s like, gotta be an important part of every one of my peers practices, but I, but I do like to encourage a little bit of like, what does it feel like right now? You know, just pay attention to what’s going on, what’s happening inside your body and mind right now, and they can share it or not, you know, it doesn’t have to be something that we talk about, but, but just pay attention.

Whitney (20:09)
And that’s such a powerful inner tool that you can carry with you anywhere you go, kind of relating back to that person finding their pathway. Whenever you can practice some mindfulness, you can really take that control of yourself to a whole new level.

Ken Dunn (20:29)
Absolutely. Yeah, you can practice mindfulness anywhere, whether it’s in traffic in the car or at the line at the grocery store or whether you’re sitting on a cushion doing a formal meditation practice at work. It doesn’t matter. You can always practice mindfulness.

Whitney (20:44)
Wonderful. And so as we get to the end here, I wanna ask you our two kind of wrap up questions. The first is, we know stigma is rampant with substances, with processes, with everything and anything at this point. If you could say one thing to challenge stigma, whether a specific type of stigma or in general, what would you like to say?

Ken Dunn (21:09)
Well, that’s a really good question. How much time do I have?

Whitney (21:12)
Yeah, right? I know. You can have as much time as you’d like.

Ken Dunn (21:15)
Okay, well, I’ve got a prop here actually.

You know what that is, it’s an apple. What color is it?

Whitney (21:21)
Mm-hmm. Red.

Ken Dunn (21:24)
red, right? That’s what almost everybody would say. However, I cut it open. What color is it?

Whitney (21:34)
Like a yellowy white.

Ken Dunn (21:35)
Yellowy white, right? So that on the outside, that thin little bit, that’s just the skin. And when people see those of us who are either in the middle of our substance use journey or whether we’re in the middle of our mental health challenges, all they see is this, that little bit on the outside. And as they say, it’s only skin deep. So down inside there, that’s where all the juice is. That’s the important stuff. That’s where the heart of us is. And if we’re only ever looking at the outside, we’re only going to see the defenses. We’re only going to see the challenges that a person has presented. We’re not going to see what’s inside their heart. So, um, and I think this goes beyond simply a stigma regarding, uh, substance use or mental health issues, but I think it’s a pretty good analogy in this area as well. There’s a lot more than just what you see on the outside.

Whitney (22:27)
I love that was amazing. I was not prepared for a prop and that was incredible.

Ken Dunn (22:32)

Whitney (22:35)
And I’m excited to hear what you have to say for this next part too. Um, then, so there’s going to be someone who listens to this or watches it and they’re struggling, they’re in that place where they may need some support. What would you like them to hear?

Ken Dunn (22:38)

I mean, I think the most important thing for a person to hear, I think it’s kind of two parts. One is that, you know, as much as we are all unique, we’re not unique. You know, there’s this ideal of terminal sickness or terminal uniqueness. Thank you. I needed that little bit of help. Yeah, I mean, we have this common humanity, right? We’ve all got these struggles.

Whitney (23:09)
Oh, uniqueness.

Ken Dunn (23:19)
And the things that I have done are not unlike things that other people have done. So it’s not the end of the world. You know, there, there is some life to come beyond this. I think that’s a really important thing to remember. And the other thing is you don’t have to do it alone. You know, a big part of my challenge was letting people help. And once I let people help, once I let people in, things got a hell of a lot easier, really fast when I realized, Oh, I don’t have to carry this all alone. Even if it’s as simple as just sharing my thoughts and feelings with somebody else. The relief that comes along with that to be genuinely authentic to another person and to be able to allow myself to be myself was just a game changer, a life changer for me. So I hope others can embrace that as well.

Whitney (24:06)
Wonderful. Well, Ken, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to speak with me today and sharing your journey and all the work that you’re up to, as well as what I’m still, I can’t get over what an amazing response to addressing stigma.

Ken Dunn (24:26)
Thanks Whitney, it’s been really great to be here with you. Thanks for entertaining me while I play with my fruit. It’s been a good experience.

Whitney (24:33)
Anytime, anytime. Yeah. Well if you are interested in working with Ken, visit forward slash members. And on behalf of straight up care, thank you for joining us.

Ken Dunn, Recovery Coach and Chief Joy Facilitator | Meet The Peer Joy and the recovery journey aren’t usually synonymous, but if Ken Dunn, Chief Joy Facilitator has his way, that won’t be the case for much longer. With an emphasis on the importance of joy and play when pursuing a goal, learning something new, […]

Continue reading "Embracing Joy In Recovery: It’s Possible and Okay to Have Fun"
Belinda Ennis on Meet The Peer discussing Recovery

Recovery Necessities: Safe and Brave Spaces

Belinda Ennis, Peer in Training, Discusses Safe and Brave Spaces for Recovery | Meet The Peer

Belinda Ennis in a pink top appearing on Meet The Peer discussing recovery
I really love the recovery community. I can't drive it home enough. This feels like home.

Recovery comes in many forms and following various diagnoses, life experiences, and hardships.  In this episode of Meet The Peer, Belinda Ennis, a Peer In Training, shares her experiences with mental, physical, spiritual and emotional recovery. Belinda’s passion for the recovery community and the field is abundant, and you’ll have a hard time walking away without at least some desire to advocate for change. Through thoughtful comments and their lived experience, Belinda is championing necessary changes to care delivery, language, and the overall healthcare experience. 

Connect with Belinda:

Catch the full episode to be captivated by Belinda’s enthusiasm for helping others and advocating for support for all, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs.

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Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (00:00)
In the spotlight today is Belinda Ennis, a peer in training in Arkansas. Belinda's enthusiasm for the recovery community and empowering individuals is absolutely infectious. Sharing her own experiences with physical, mental, and behavioral needs, Belinda discusses everything from forced engagement and services, to the impact of language, to the need for safe and brave spaces. Stay tuned for Belinda's story and get ready to be inspired as we reduce the stigma.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (01:36)
Hello and welcome to Meet the Peer. With me today we have Belinda Ennis, a peer in training in Arkansas. Welcome Belinda.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (01:44)
Hi there. Really nice to be here on the website today. Excited to do this interview.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (01:50)
I'm so excited to talk to you and I kind of want to start by asking about a peer in training. I don't know. I'm not familiar with Arkansas. Can you tell me a little bit about the peer space in your state?

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (02:03)
Absolutely. So Arkansas is actually leading the nation when it comes to recovery success and success for the peers as well. We actually have a three tiered system where we have core peer specialist recovery support training and then it goes to advanced peer and then goes to supervisor, peer supervisor. And then from there it could go on to national peer But that's the system that we have in Arkansas. And the requirements are pretty tough whenever it comes to getting the state certification. So I have 500 hours that I need to obtain providing peer services, and that can be worker volunteer. I have 46 continued education hours I need to get. There's 25 peer supervision hours that I work on with my peer supervisor. It's a very...well networked system, something that I've noticed so far is whenever I was going through and trying to find the right supervisor for me is the conversations I had with everyone was that there is so much support through the training for all of this and obtaining your requirements. So while it sounds really daunting at first, I don't have any doubt that I'm gonna be able to make it to the next level and then the next one.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (03:20)
Well, what a great reflection of the recovery community in general is just really working to lift one another up. That's what I'm hearing.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (03:29)
Absolutely, it was really inspiring. Once I got my peer support training, I'm now certified to conduct peer services even though I'm not state certified as a peer yet. I am finding this community, like you were saying, that is vibrant and it's alive and people are interested and engaged. It's something that doesn't revolve around work, it doesn't revolve around home, it doesn't revolve around bars and third spaces that are not safe for me. I am really pleased to say that the more I come into contact with people in recovery, the more inspired I am and the more the fire gets lit under me, you know?

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (04:10)
Absolutely, I feel the same exact way and I am the one who's so lucky to get to engage in these conversations with peers and learn about them and just, you know, we really are breaking down stigma just by sharing stories. That's the best way is to put a face to the experience. And so can you give us a little insight into what your lived experience is?

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (04:37)
Sure. I have lived experience as both a minor and adult with mental and physical health concerns, including substance use disorder, spinal trauma, TMJD, chronic pain, PCOS, neurodivergence, CPTSD, self -harm, eating disorders, insomnia, OCD, major depressive order, general anxiety disorder, and borderline personality traits. since undergoing many different types of mental health treatment centers, short and long -term recovery programs. Again, as both minor and an adult, I've been through homelessness, but my life has completely changed. The tone and cadence of my day -to -day is completely different. You know, I had burned all of my bridges. My relationships with people were not good, and I could no longer relate because my world was so removed, is what it felt like, and I was alienated and isolated.The biggest catalyst for my addictive tendencies to really take off were, it was whenever my grandma passed away. She was my best friend and she was like the only like non -toxic family member, especially when it came to authority that I had encountered. And I had zero idea how to deal with my grief at all. And so, you know, there was a lot of time and pain and struggle of. I don't want to be here anymore. And people, it felt like one were leaving my life because they couldn't talk to me about these issues. So I ended up in a situation where my family gave me an ultimatum and they used some of my younger family members as emotional collateral to say, you will go through this program. You will enter this faith -based 13 -month program or you're not gonna darken our doorstep again. And you know, it's a prime example of a lot of people's story in recovery where they don't have the ability to advocate for themselves. They're in a really tough situation, their circumstances, you know, everything seems like a catch -22. If I do this, it hurts me. If I do this, it hurts someone else. So that's something that I can really relate to. And I really, I wish that there had been support for me during that time because that program was so detrimental to my physical and mental well -being. We weren't allowed to talk about our past, and that's what they called it. You would get written up. You couldn't talk to your family. For 13 of the months that I went to that program, because I did graduate, I couldn't talk to my family, and those were the only people that we were allowed to have outside contact with. So I want to bring to light some of these experiences that I've had because there are a lot of people who have actually been through it and are almost forced into the shadows because they believe the experience is so singular that no one can relate. I'm here to say I can relate. I understand what it's like to have food and sleep restricted when it's held. I understand what it's like to be in recovery and be exploited for free labor because that's what some recovery programs do. There are places that aren't doing the right thing. Not that that's where I want the focus to be, but there should be acknowledgement in my mind. You know, and there was fatigue constantly from all the work that we were doing. But what haunts me is that, you know, people in recovery are taken advantage of and abused by multiple factions, you know, around the world every day. And so I want to provide a lot of support for that, you know, and the transition back into the real world, whether or not the program or treatment that you go through is, you know, abusive and right. Or, you know what I mean? There are a lot of folks that.just need some support. And so I definitely can, I could expand on for a while how hard it was to come back to the real world and not be able to have a lot of people to relate to. And so the turnaround point for me was definitely whenever I started to self -advocate and I started to search out relationships with my primary care physician.I had to find a good therapist. It's really hard. People don't talk about how hard it is to find a good therapist, but it is. It's one step at a time. It's how I do my best to take things now. I have ways to calm down my nervous system. My therapist is the reason that I started peer work. As I told her, I wanted to be able to talk more than once a week. I was like, I just have so many things I want to say you know, things I want to process with you. And she just said to me one day, she was like, have you thought about attending online support groups? Because she knows that that escape of the remote option is very important to me. If I become uncomfortable, I want that fight or flight. And so I started attending some peer support groups and doing these things that were, you know, what I wanted to do, because I realized that even though I had been in recovery for a while, I wasn't living life the way that I wanted to. And I was still

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (09:23)
Oh yeah, right.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (09:38)
You know, even though I was on the right medication for my depression and all these other things, there's still a missing piece. And I think that was purpose and peace in my home. And so I've been working really hard on that. You know, I saw those peer support specialists whenever I was in those online support groups. And I said, I want to do that because I know that I didn't even attend that many support groups during some of those really hard times in recovery. But....They were crucial. You know, it was a turning point that could have been really bad. Yes, yes, it definitely did. You know, I can say now that, you know, I'm living my dreams every day. I've worked in many different environments now. I've gained useful experiences. I found out what I'm passionate about, which is peer work. I began to build a really cozy home and garden that I never could have imagined. I have pets and a partner and friends and, you know, it's...

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (10:10)
right, he made an impact. Mm -hmm.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (10:37)
bigger and better than I ever could have dreamed of, you know, because even during parts in recovery, I was like, I feel like I should feel better than this. But there had to be a lot of patience and like with myself and, you know, I'm at a point now where I enjoy my own company. How crazy is that, you know? So I'm so glad that I did not give up because there were so many times I would have gladly given up my life and the fact that I...

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (10:45)

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (11:06)
I have something to fight for now, really, really means everything. It feels like a privilege. I have the tools and the drive to go after what I'm passionate about, which I really love the recovery community. I can't drive it home enough. This feels like home.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (11:23)
Oh, how amazing. And thank you for sharing all that. I'm processing what you shared because there's a lot there. And do you mind me asking how old were you when your grandmother died and kind of the snowball effect started?

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (11:33)
Sure, I was 20 and turned 21 kind of in the middle of it. It was about a year of snowballing downhill for sure.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (11:53)
Yeah, okay. And you know, what I heard you say was that she was a very, it sounds like positive and supportive role, adult in your life. And to go into lose that, to have that grief process and then be told you, it sounds like you maybe manipulated into going to a certain program and.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (12:19)
Mm -hmm.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (12:21)
If you don't, you're not welcome. So you lost your primary support and you were told go or you're not welcome. That...

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (12:27)

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (12:32)
That is so heavy on the heart.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (12:35)
It is, and I mean a faith -based program where I've said I've tried this path and it doesn't work for me, please don't make me do this. It does weigh heavy and so many people I feel like there are no options and I asked for options. I want people to know that they do exist. You have them even if you feel like you're being forced.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (12:43)
Mmm and dependent on the person situation, you know, it sounds like for you, it was a lot of family force. For others, it can be legal force, you know, and it really, the person is lost. And then the success is not based off of the person becoming who they want to be, but rather whether or not they check the box that some external entity said.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (13:04)
Mm -hmm.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (13:26)
is the metric of success.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (13:29)
That's a beautiful summation of it, you know, and I've had to do a lot of separating out from how I define myself through the eyes of these authority figures and these family members. You know, it's very hard to separate. You know, it takes, this has taken time and it's still taking time. I still live in my hometown. You know, people talk about, you know, don't go back to your hometown. I would discourage saying that because you never know what you're capable of. You used to hate this place. I love it here now. It's all about environment and tone and choices, you know?

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (14:05)
and how amazing to be able to take a place and rewrite the narrative with it. That's pretty remarkable as well.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (14:13)
Yeah, it definitely rocks my socks off to put it, you know, in a unique way.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (14:16)
I love that. Yes. And so you talked a little bit about, you know, these programs that are out there, there are programs that are taking advantage. You know, unfortunately, recovery, mental health, substance use programs, many are bottom line driven. And because there are people who have external forces saying you have to do this, whether it's family or legal or what have you, some places have work that's requiring certain things. The power just taken away from the person, which makes them even more at risk of being taken advantage of.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (15:01)
Absolutely, like the exploitation can run really rampant and it's everywhere and I want to be a part of that change. I think peer work is a really important part of that change and you know, it's the striving that we have to begin a partnership with the clinical side of treatment and to open the conversation. This is a really hard uphill battle, but we are part of a civil rights movement right now We are part of destigmatization. We are part of decriminalization so that these practices can be safer and so that people aren't driven into the shadows for trying to cope with their pain because life is hard.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (15:40)
Life is hard and life happens to everyone. And what I really appreciated about how you expressed your lived experience is that you included things that others may not have necessarily thought of, right? You talked about physical health, chronic pain, and there were other lived experiences that, you know, because there's a diagnosis, sometimes we're like, nah, whatever, you know, but.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (15:43)
It does.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (16:09)
It impacts the person, it impacts their functioning, it impacts their sense of self, and those are just as hard, you know? And oftentimes those invisible illnesses are the ones that are most dismissed, chronic pain especially. You know, there's a lot of questioning, is it even valid? Are you really in pain? Have you experienced that?

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (16:18)
Absolutely. Oh yeah. Oh my gosh, you have to like prove it to people and like, that is absolutely something I've experienced and you know, don't get me wrong, there's a certain, there's a process that a lot of people with chronic pain that are also in recovery are familiar with where we almost manipulate the system without thinking of it like that at all. We are just looking for what we think is the right way to do things to soothe, to find comfort. And I have a fertility and hormone disorder. I have a jaw disorder. I've been referred for out of state surgery for no one in Arkansas will touch it. You know what I mean? There are so many people who are dealing with laundry list. And that's kind of why I gave a list of things that I've dealt with because people see all of their diagnoses and there is a judgment that comes out of society. You know, why do you talk about having all these things? You're looking for attention. I could say endless things about what I heard, you know, whenever I was trying to get help. And so like if someone is talking about these things, I guarantee you they are looking for a solution, even if it just seems like they want to talk about it. That can help people, you know, but chronic pain. Chronic pain is a driving cause I know for opioid addiction for sure.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (17:52)

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (17:58)
I know that many times I have been in some of just the worst pain of my life and I would have done just about anything to make it stop. But the tools and process that I've been able to find on my own and that I want to help other people find their unique recovery path because there is no one right way. There is no one right way it is unique to everyone.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (18:25)
Absolutely. And you said that we're going through a civil rights movement and that peers are going to be playing a central role. You've already mentioned kind of bridging over to the clinical side. What other ways do you see the role of a peer being instrumental in delivering that personalized care and changing the way that maybe the system has run for decades?

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (18:52)
I'm going to actually use this as a moment to kind of boost one of the nonprofits in Arkansas because they've set a great example and I want to follow it. And I'm actually, I'm going to start working with them this weekend. I'm very excited, but it's Northwest Arkansas Harm Reduction and it's nwaharmreduction .org. And, you know, I, I absolutely love what they do. They talk about social acceptance being,

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (19:00)
All right.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (19:21)
across the board, an unbiased thing. It is extended to everyone, no matter what you do or what you use. It does not matter because you're a person. They are the first and only program in Arkansas to have a clean needle exchange setup process. They are giving fentanyl strips. They're giving xylazine strips, which I didn't even know was a thing until recently. These things are emerging all the time. They're giving out condoms. They're giving out, you know, resources for STD panels. They have, you know, Narcan that they provide to people. So if you have someone like they have actively saved lives, you can go on their website and you can see a life was saved in Fayetteville, Arkansas, you know, from overdose this weekend. How amazing, you know, and these are really small things that all add up whenever we're talking about somebody doing this training or giving somebody Narcan.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (20:07)

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (20:18)
That one small step will save somebody's life. It's a guarantee. And so I really like what they've done to be a change agent across the board. And I want to start to do that when it comes to agency, federal, state level. I've seen examples of people just getting the language changed in inpatient settings to where it is more person centered. How much of a difference would that have made for me? And I think about how I would have felt to be in a more person -centered environment, instead of getting called a flight risk and all kinds of stuff.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (20:53)
Yeah. You know, could you actually speak to that a little bit more? What would it have been like? What was it the experience for you, the language you heard versus what you hope to have moving forward? What impact would that have?

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (20:58)
Mm -hmm. So I know that there is a lack of funding in a lot of treatment places, especially if they're state centers and things like that. And a lot of my inpatient experience for mental health intake was whenever I was a minor and it was not good. And a lot of it is due to people not being paid enough for their valuable services. I genuinely believe that. And they get run down and they get burnt out And it results in carelessness. And what I mean by that is, you know, man, I missed my phone call one night because somebody wasn't doing their shift properly and I couldn't get it made up. And those little things make all the difference in your day to day and how you feel about yourself. And, you know, when somebody puts your priorities first and they are advocating for you whenever, especially inpatient or, you know, treatment of any kind whenever there are certain restrictions on what you can do for yourself. We do want to live a self -directed life. We do want to promote self -advocacy and empowerment and finding tools and resources to better your experience. But there are times whenever there needs to be an advocate that says, hey, are we sure this person needs to be on a bunch of medication? Can I talk to them first and see what's going on? Are there underlying causes? Because I know that I was placed on over 40 different medications before I hit 18. That's insane. You know, because every time I was like, hey, this isn't working, they would reevaluate it almost monthly, sometimes weekly, and they would change and add and adjust the dosage and take things away and add and add. And, you know, I would go and look these things up and half the time, these medications aren't supposed to be getting taken together. They have interactions that can be fatal. And so I saw with my own eyes multiple times.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (22:36)
Wow. Wow.


Belinda Ennis (she/they) (23:01)
the lack of regard it felt like for following processes that were in place for a reason to protect people. And so I think it comes down to, yes, we need to give our professionals more than a living wage. We should be able to thrive, not just survive. And peer support is one thing, but I mean clinicians across the board as well. Because we can't replace each other in this scenario. Peer support can't step in for therapy. Therapy can't step in for psychiatry. And around we go.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (23:21)
Right, right.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (23:31)
you know, all of these pieces are important. We should be working together, not against each other, you know, because that does happen, sadly. It gets to be, why are you paid more than me? Because we negotiated for more, you know. Call us next time you wanna negotiate your pay. We would love to, you know, I would love to see all of us band together whenever it comes to recovery, and I don't care if that person is actively in recovery or not. If you're contributing towards the cause, You know, this is one step towards change that we can make and it all starts with the language. It really does.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (24:07)
I am just in awe at how you express that. And I hope everyone can rewind right now and listen to that again. Because yeah, the language sets the foundation. Because if we look at it from just the way that the human brain works, our language impacts our thoughts and beliefs, and those impact our actions.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (24:15)

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (24:33)
And so we can change them by changing our language and by changing our language, we can also reduce the negativity that someone who's struggling is experiencing. Yeah.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (24:37)
Yes. Yes, it's hard enough to reach out and then to have to continually re -identify yourself in a way you don't care for. I think we should be able to empower people to take control over how they're referred to. Being referred to as a peer instead of as a junkie is pretty great. There was a lot of stuff in training that to be in peer support work that I didn't realize was so there was stigma that I didn't realize in certain terminology that I've always used such as mental illness. Somebody, one of the facilitators said, mental health concerns and that reframing even helped me with how I see myself. And what he said was, I don't feel ill. I'm doing many great things for myself and for others on a daily basis. I don't feel mentally ill right now. So I don't like to call myself that. And that was huge for me to hear. I...I wanted to refer to myself as person in recovery instead of patient. Simple as that. People are going through something. They don't need to be pigeonholed on top of it all and isolated and outcast. Because that's what these labels do every time without fail. There is always somebody left out on the sidelines, period.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (26:11)
Absolutely. And that's unfortunately the case. And we need, you know, our brains, I get it, our brains naturally categorize and everything. That's how it can be. Absolutely. It used to be a survival mechanism and it still is at times, right? But we are, we're defaulting to that.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (26:25)
It can be helpful.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (26:41)
too much rather than stopping thinking and being mindful and considering? You know, we all have a history and we would want people to respect our history. Are we stopping, pausing, and respecting the potential history that the person that we may be looking at has had? Whether or not we know it, and we may never know it, but can we at least maybe look at them and say, I'm going to give, I'm going to recognize that they likely have a history, a story that I don't know.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (27:08)
Right, and I don't have a right to that, you know what I mean? And as soon as somebody entrusts me with a piece of that story, I don't use that to label them. If I have to describe them in some way that involves one of those aspects, you know, again, something from training that, so ex -con, inmate, criminal, justice -involved individual, I loved hearing that. I loved hearing these things, because I don't think about this stuff. And other people have come up with amazing ways to talk about it. So, you know, I wanna have not only a safe space, but a brave space for people to work in. They don't only feel safe to entrust themselves to others, but they feel brave. They want to be themselves.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (27:50)
I've never, yes, safe and brave, let's do that. Let's make it that way. And so clearly you have a passion for recovery, not just because of your lived experience. I mean, you have thought so much, it's clear about the impact of one person's actions on others. So it kind of is obvious why you became a peer support. And...As you reflect on the journey so far, you've referenced your trainings. What is something you'd like people to know about peer support work that maybe is either misunderstood or just not realized?

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (28:33)
We are not therapists. I'm not here to give you advice. There are many times where I wish that I just had a space to cry and to talk and to process without somebody trying to solve my problem. Because I'm going to solve it. At the end of the day, this is my problem to face. But when I'm talking about myself, at least, in regards to peer work, I need someone that they might help me explore my options or reframe what I said back to me in a way that...

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (28:46)

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (29:02)
helps me gain a better understanding of the situation I'm in. Help me mitigate the overwhelm and set small goals so that I can reach my large goals. Set a recovery plan, you know? And it's not for me to come up with anyone else's recovery plan. It's for you. It is only for your benefit. And I'm not going to, you know, I want to make sure that I have absolutely no like unconscious bias because that's something that is bled through and some of the support I've received and the clinical treatment I've received even. And specifically, I wanna talk about having secular support and support for faith transitions because the state that I live in is very religious and it's a very religious recovery community and I have a great amount of respect for that. A higher power can make the difference between someone's life and death or their quality of life versus suffering And I completely understand that, but I want there to be spaces for everyone that, you know, I'm free to talk about, you know, or speculate on what I might believe in, you know, a little bit more open and conscious that everyone's, again, everyone's recovery is different. Everyone has a different, you know, purpose for their life at the end of the day. And sometimes that purpose changes from minute to minute. And I wouldn't dream of telling someone your progress is because of my God that I believe in or whatever, because I've been told that and it doesn't line up with what I believe in. And so I just want to tell people, you can explore, you are free. You know?

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (30:39)
Right, absolutely. It comes back to that unique recovery. Everyone's is gonna look different. And we say that a lot, right? Individualized. But we don't always think about kind of the nuances of what the individualized look means. So I think that's a.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (30:51)

Absolutely. How much our unconscious bias might bleed over, you know, I still have it. Everyone does.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (31:12)
Yes, absolutely. You are so true. And we have to recognize that we're susceptible to that. We're human, that it can be there. And so that's another call from being intentional in our words and being aware and mindful, and then open to maybe someone saying, hey, really, the way when you just said that, it didn't feel great And I think that comes back to that power of the person, maybe patient, client, individual, person receiving services, to be able to feel safe, to say, I don't want that care, or that language hurts me. And just continuing, yes, yes, absolutely. So safe and brave for the workers, safe and brave for the person.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (31:55)
Right. Take that power back, you know? Yes, that man, we should make t -shirts.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (32:09)
That's a yes. So as we come to the end of what has been a great conversation and went by really fast for me, can you share, you've touched on this a little bit already with talking about language, but can you share an example of a stigma you've experienced, whether it was a word that was used or assumption that was made?

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (32:33)
The subject of trust is really difficult when it comes to recovery and the relationships, you know, it was really hard to get that back and it's hard to establish credibility. You know what I mean? I think that was one of the hardest things that I found is I have all these, you know, I'm coming out of my treatment program and I'm looking for jobs and I'm...I don't have anything on my resume really, because I've been up to no good for part of my life, you know? Not that that's how I would have put it at the time, but I try to use humor to lighten at least my own situation. I find it helps. But that aside, I really, I'm very passionate about removing the idea that somebody has to earn their relationship back. You know, there can be trust established right away. The key point is boundaries, you know, setting boundaries for yourself, respecting other people's boundaries, you know, but it was really hard to do that at first because people don't talk about doing that right out of recovery. It's almost like you owe the world something because you were out of it for part of the time. And I just don't think that's true. We were in pain. We needed help. You know, I needed help. So I just want to give that support of, you know, I trust you immediately. And it's not until you give me a reason not to, I don't want to put, you know, a qualifying statement after that. If you come into my, you know, I don't want to say care, that's not what it is. If you come to me for peer support services, I trust you. I know that you wanted to talk. There is absolutely no reason for there to be anything to interfere with that.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (33:56)

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (34:22)
You know, that rapport is crucial. It's kind of sacred, you know. We're not therapists, but the rapport can be kind of similar when it comes to the relationship. Kind of. Just want to... I do want to put a qualifying statement on that.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (34:33)
Yes, yes. No, I mean, connection in general is important, you know, and so rapport is traditionally, yes, talked about with counselors and therapeutic rapport. There is peer rapport, though. There is the need to feel connected and safe and respected. So I think that's a great little highlight there.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (34:50)

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (35:03)
But finally, for the person out there who's listening or watching, who's going through a tough time, don't talk to me right now, you talk to them. What would you like them to hear?

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (35:16)
I want you to remember on the hard days that there is hope. There are good people in the world that care about what you are going through even if you have not met them yet. They exist. You deserve a full rich life no matter what you have been through. And I don't want to say what you have done, what you have been through because again, life is hard. There is no shame in feeling like you need to talk to someone because you can't do this by yourself anymore. I want to say don't stop reaching out because it can be really hard to find the right treatment or recovery path for you, however you'd like to put that. It's hard to find the right individuals that you gel with and you connect and vibe with. Don't give up, keep reaching out. I went through a good handful of professionals that were actually more detrimental than they were beneficial to me, but I learned how to say this isn't right for me, I'm moving on. And not to focus on the overwhelm of, all that there is in the world that could go wrong. There's so much that can go right. There are solutions, there are always going to be problems, but there are always solutions and you do have them inside of you. I want to help provide support. There are many peer specialists that want to help provide support so that you can unlock who you want to be.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (36:31)
Amazing. Thank you. And Belinda, thank you for this entire conversation, for being vulnerable and opening yourself up in your story and sharing it. And thank you for your ability to take power back.

Belinda Ennis (she/they) (36:50)
Absolutely. I hope that everyone that hears this feels empowered. There's a good future for you. I'm telling you, there's good stuff just waiting.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (36:59)
What a great way to wrap it up and end on that optimism, that hope. And if you're listening and you are as energized as I am right now, that infilled with that hope and connecting with Belinda and interested in working with her, please visit straightupcare .com and you can schedule an appointment. The link is also in the show notes. So on behalf of Straight Up Care, thank you for joining us.

Belinda Ennis, Peer in Training, Discusses Safe and Brave Spaces for Recovery | Meet The Peer Recovery comes in many forms and following various diagnoses, life experiences, and hardships.  In this episode of Meet The Peer, Belinda Ennis, a Peer In Training, shares her experiences with mental, physical, spiritual and emotional recovery. Belinda’s passion for […]

Continue reading "Recovery Necessities: Safe and Brave Spaces"
Sam Mason on Meet The Peer - support for all: empathy, healing and lived experience

 Support for the Support System: Empathy, Healing, and Lived Experience

Meet The Peer: Sam Mason, Peer Support Specialist

Sharing healing trust empathy support

Support comes in many forms, but few are as profound and empathetic as the insights shared by someone who has the same lived experience. Sam Mason, a peer support specialist based in South Dakota, joins host Whitney Menarcheck on Meet The Peer to share how finding the person you can trust with your story can be an essential step on the healing journey. Sam shares her experience as the loved one of someone with substance use disorder, highlighting the necessity that those who love someone with a substance use disorder be offered support themselves. Additionally, she shares her experience surviving unhealthy relationships and how stigma can stop someone from seeking the support they need.

Connect with Sam:

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Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (00:00)
In the spotlight today is Sam Mason, a peer support specialist in South Dakota. Sam shares two perspectives, one that of the loved one of a person with substance use disorder and the other as someone who has survived unhealthy and dangerous relationships. As the loved one of someone with a substance use disorder, Sam discusses the way that we can support that person as well as others who have loved ones with a substance use disorder by doing things such as carrying Narcan. sharing her lived experience in unhealthy relationships and quite frankly dangerous relationships, Sam speaks to the lasting toll that those relationships and survival actions have on an individual and what it means to move forward. So stay tuned and get ready to be inspired as we reduce the stigma.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (02:02)
Hello and welcome to Meet the Pier. With me today is Sam Mason, a peer support specialist in South Dakota. Welcome, Sam.

Sam Mason (02:11)
Thank you.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (02:12)
Thank you so much for joining me today. As I understand, you are a relatively new peer support specialist. You finished your training maybe a month or so ago, is that correct?

Sam Mason (02:23)
Yes, it was the beginning of March that we finished training and I was able to get my certification to be a certified peer support specialist.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (02:31)
So exciting, congratulations. And I want to hear about what led you to do that, but before we get there, there’s a lot of people that don’t know what peer specialists are or what they do. In your words, how would you describe what peer support is?

Sam Mason (02:34)
Thank you.

So peer support is really somebody who’s had a shared lived experience similar to the one that you’ve had and can help offer resources and offer a safe sounding board for things that you might need to share. So that way, if you need to talk to someone, there’s someone available there to help offer guidance and education about different things that might be available to help the particular circumstance you’re in.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (03:15)
That’s great. And you mentioned lived experience, shared lived experience. That is the key component of peer services. It’s being able to talk to someone who really gets it in a different way. And so, of course, then that means you have certain lived experiences that you’re going to be offering support for. And I imagine that’s part of your journey to becoming a peer specialist. What exactly is it that led you? What lived experiences do you have that you’ll be supporting others with?

Sam Mason (03:45)
So while I was growing up, I unfortunately had some experience with abuse and that led to me feeling as if that was the norm for my life and the expectancy. So as adulthood came on and I started being involved in relationships with significant others, that was kind of the bar that I had set for myself was that it was okay for me to continue being mistreated. There was a lot of sadness and depression and some self harm involved in that journey, feeling like I was not worthy and that I didn’t really need to be anyone in existence because I wasn’t beneficial to any single person on the planet. Through those relationships, I ended up in a very serious relationship with a significant other that unfortunately… led to some substance misuse for that person. And I had to support them through that journey. He went to rehab a few times while we had a family together. And it was a very difficult journey. And when I realized that I was worth more than the little bit that I thought I was worth, I had left, which is a whole lot of baggage to pack when you’re trying to start over and you’ve lived your life a whole certain way for 35 years and I had passed some of the knowledge of the way that I felt like I should be treated on to my children and that left a lot of unpacking for them if you will so we had to really grow and flourish as a family. Upon coming to South Dakota, there was some violence that I witnessed, which also caused additional trauma and a lot of setbacks. And while moving closer to the family that I had, it opened some doors for relationships that hadn’t been there when I was younger, but it also opened the doors to some relationships that had been in existence when I was younger. So that had become. continued journey to try to work through those things. While here in South Dakota in the last 20 years, I have had a couple loved ones that have had some trouble with substance misuse that I have been able to support and help through that situation. Kind of really being a difficult spot sometimes to know where you should stand and how to best support somebody who is suffering that way. I had to make some really hard decisions during that time, but things did pan out for the better now and things are much better for them and our relationship has reformed in a way that it should. I also have had some experience with other people that we’ve become close to here in South Dakota that had some significant depression and one had an unsuccessful attempt on his life and I was able to help support him through that and be a strong rock for him while he worked through things and offer some resources and guidance. So those lived experiences that I have are something that I’m willing to share with other people because that whole moment where you say something out loud and the whole room goes quiet and you realize that you’ve said something that’s not the norm, I understand that. I get that.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (07:12)

Oh, well, thank you for sharing all that. There’s so much there that I would love to kind of discuss further. And I have to go right to that last thing you just said. So when you say something in the room and it goes quiet, because it’s not the norm or what have you. And I can’t help but think that it’s all I wonder if it’s because it’s not the norm or it’s because The norm is that we never talk about those things.

Sam Mason (07:46)
I think it’s a little bit of both, but I have really learned that when you’re ready, sometimes talking about those things help heal. And sometimes until you can talk to somebody you trust in a way that they understand, you can’t even begin to start the healing process. It’s as simple as sometimes even knowing where to start.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (08:09)
Right. And that trust, is there any insight you could share with us about the unique connection between two people and what it means to be able to talk to someone who’s been through a similar experience? What do you think? Why is that trust different?

Sam Mason (08:29)
That trust is different because they understand where you’re coming from.

My brother and I talk often, we grew up in that environment together. We grew up together. And so we understand. And sometimes when we’re talking, other people are just like, Whoa, but we get it. And it’s okay, because we validate each other for those feelings that your feelings are not invalid. How you feel is absolutely okay. And to have somebody who can say, it’s okay to feel that way. And let’s talk about that some more can be very beneficial in soul healing.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (09:07)
Absolutely. And when someone else has been through it, there’s, you know, we hope that everyone would be non -judgmental, especially any healthcare professional. I think, though, that it’s understandable that there can be some hesitance to be completely open because, but have they heard this yet? You know, whereas someone who’s been there, they’ve not only heard it, they’ve lived it, they’ve done it, they’ve been the one saying it.

Sam Mason (09:34)

I had that experience, unfortunately, with some healthcare providers of sharing information that was not understood very well. And there was some judgment there that was pretty quick. And unfortunately, I wish I would have met the people that I know now when I was ready to start talking about things, because it would have been a lot more beneficial for me to have somebody who said, Oh, wow, that really stinks. How do we work through this instead of, Oh, let me do this for you and prescribe a medication to make you forget it all because sometimes healing from trauma is not about forgetting it all. It can be for some people but not everybody.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (10:15)
Great. And I can’t help but think of how dismissive that is. Let me just write you a script for a pill to fix it. You know, this pain. I’m just gonna get my little pad out.

Sam Mason (10:28)
Yeah, because that doesn’t always do it. Sometimes it’s a lot deeper and forgiving yourself is a huge part of it.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (10:35)
Now, going back to some of the things you’ve shared, you talked about learning what you thought was the norm. You know, you learn, you grew up in a certain way, or you had certain experiences where that’s just how you thought things were. I think a lot of times people forget that when they’re interacting with an adult, that there’s a child that had you know, maybe misperceptions about things or their reality was a certain way. Can you talk about what it’s like to realize that what you thought was just how certain things were, that there could be a different way?

Sam Mason (11:25)
One very good example is I have something in my bedroom called a jump bag. And in that jump bag is all of our birth certificates, important documentation, everything in case we got to go. And that was something that was formed through traumatic relationships of knowing that the things that I needed to save would be there because there’s not pictures of my brother and I when we were little, because the things that needed to be saved weren’t where they needed to be. all my daughters have jump bags and it’s the norm in our house and we were talking about that in a group of people and somebody went that’s not normal and I had to think about that because that’s the normal that I’ve always had is you’re prepared to go if you got to go and those things sometimes can be overwhelming because for somebody else to say that’s not normal, that’s you’re packing a trauma bag. No, that’s not what it is to me. It’s proactive, but just those kinds of things that you do that become part of who you are. make a huge difference. People that have been through trauma that self -sabotage because we’re waiting for the other shoe to fall and we minds will drop it ourselves because we can control that and we can control that situation. Learning how to stop that behavior and work through that behavior and accept the good things that are in life and welcome good things can be a huge difficult task for somebody that’s not used to having good things be visible to them.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (12:47)

Right? In the control you spoke of, you know, trauma is a result of things being completely out of our control and our sense of safety being threatened, whether it’s real or perceived threat to our safety. And so as a coping skill, you naturally start taking control of what you can control because then you feel more likely to be able to survive.

You had the jump bag not only for pictures, but because you needed to be able to get out of there fast and rebuild. And so you were taking, like you said, proactive steps. Is it ideal that you have lived a life that you’ve had to have that type of jump bag and then your children had to learn to have a jump bag too? No, however, it was necessary.

Sam Mason (14:04)
and it’s just… It goes to show that when you have your own trauma, how you can pass that along without even meaning something that’s innocent of keep all your stuff together in one spot in case you got to leave right away becomes this is your life bag. Literally, as you said, a way to start over everything you need to start over is in this bag. And that was passed along inadvertently. And it hurt my feelings when I realized that maybe it was something.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (14:30)

Sam Mason (14:34)
something different than I thought it was. Have I gotten rid of the bag? No. Is it in the same place? Yes. Have I told anybody else to get rid of it? No. Do I sometimes tell people that having a jump bag is a good idea? Yep. Will I continue to do that? Probably.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (14:49)
Yeah, I mean, the reality is that there are people who should have a jump bag. We can’t, it’s not appropriate to look down on someone for having that jump bag. We need to recognize there is a reason and we need to appreciate and respect that reason.

Sam Mason (15:10)
And that’s the benefit of a peer support specialist. Having that lived experience so that they can identify and understand what you’re trying to say because they’ve been there is a huge benefit because there’s not judgment. It’s not, oh my gosh, this happened to you? It’s how do we help here? What can we do to make this better? That’s the benefit.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (15:34)
Absolutely. And you mentioned having loved ones that have had their struggles with substance use. And we don’t often think about anyone other than the individual with a substance use disorder or the addiction or mental health needs as the one who could benefit from peer services. That’s who we think of. In reality, though, the loved ones, the people who’ve been impacted as well, not only

Do they, you know, not only can they access it, but they deserve it and probably aren’t receiving the support that they may need.

Sam Mason (16:14)
And I think that’s because it’s such a stigma to say that I have a loved one that misuses substances. It’s such a stigma to say that out loud. I had a mom who was a friend that had a daughter that was having some difficulty and she carried Narcan. And because I knew this young lady, I started carrying Narcan. And…

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (16:24)

Sam Mason (16:38)
That was as a preventative because I needed her to know she wasn’t alone. It was okay. There isn’t going to be any judgment. It’s just how do we be prepared for what we need to be prepared for. And that stigma of being able to say that out loud in a safe environment of I don’t have this problem right now, but someone I love does and I don’t know how to help them is so very important in order to be able to help the person overcome whatever they’re going through.

because they need a solid support system too. So the support system needs a support system.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (17:14)
Yes, absolutely. And you think about how much energy a loved one exerts just worrying and the toll that can take on them, the likely sacrifice of self -care. And so to have someone who can call them out from a place of true understanding.

will truly help them, you know, maybe the outcome with their loved one won’t be any different. However, their ability to continue to cope, to accept, that will be impacted by that peer.

Sam Mason (17:55)
Absolutely, absolutely. And sometimes when you’re in the position of having a loved one, there’s a lot of guilt.

Somebody needs to say, you don’t have to carry that guilt. This is what it is. It’s not your decision, but how do we help support you through this? And also, a peer support specialist having resources, that’s the great thing is maybe they know something at hand that will be beneficial and help all the way around. Because if you feel good and you feel healthy and you feel supported, then you’re better able to support the people that you love as well.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (18:28)
Absolutely. And then you think about with that guilt comes the sense that I can’t put boundaries or I have to keep trying and I’m a trained professional counselor. I can talk to a client about boundaries, but I don’t know what it’s like to have maybe a child with a substance use disorder. I do have friends in recovery.

But I’ve never been in the situation where I’ve had to put that boundary as a result of their substance use. And so I’m sure coming from someone like me, you know, the degree professional, it doesn’t have the same thing. And I wouldn’t blame someone for thinking, what the hell do you know? Right?

Sam Mason (19:16)
And you know, if it’s a partner…

And you have to set those boundaries because you can’t do anything any different. Are you sacrificing somebody who helps support your family? Are you sacrificing something that’s bigger? Are your finances going to be unstable? Are you wrecking a family? You know, there’s all these things that fall into play. And if it would happen to be your child, it’s kind of the same parameters. How do you tell a child, you can’t have anything to do with me right now because I am enabling you and I’m not helping you?

The amount of guilt and hurt and feelings that you violated trust while you’re trying to create a boundary to keep yourself safe and protect your own peace can be overwhelming.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (20:04)
Right, right. And I think, you know, we hear that term enabling, don’t be an enabler, really doesn’t reflect the challenge that that is and the emotional pain that it, believe me, I think if anyone could snap their fingers and help their loved one reach a better place in their life, they would do it. They would much rather do that than enable, I say in quotes.

Um, all of those actions are out of love and it’s not easy to stop that. I’m sure. And so I can see the significant value to talk to someone who’s put those boundaries, who knows what that anxiety is probably like.

Sam Mason (20:55)
It’s a loved one. It’s someone you love and that’s conflict within itself. It can be very, very difficult and very hard and everybody’s circumstance is going to be a little bit different. And that’s something that’s beneficial to being a peer support specialist as well, because you do have that lived experience. And so it’s not so surprising when somebody says, well, this happened versus when you’re somebody who might just be coming from a clinical background. And it might seem that each situation is very similar.

when in reality you peel that onion back and it’s not similar at all.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (21:30)
No, absolutely. Oh, yes. Just my head is going with how important this is and how overlooked of a population that can be supported by peers. So I’m excited to spread awareness through, you know, what you have shared and continue showing that, you know, lived experience, whether it’s mental health addiction, whether it’s trauma or

Anything in life is a valuable asset to help others.

Sam Mason (22:06)
Absolutely, and that’s again the great thing about being a peer support specialist. You can help somebody in a way that you didn’t even know you could help them.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (22:14)
Right, right. And so as we kind of start wrapping up, I want to ask you my two final questions that I ask everyone. Can you share a stigma that you have experienced and what would you like us to know about it? That could be a word that was used, an assumption made about you.

Sam Mason (22:38)
They’re a cutter. That person is a cutter.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (22:40)
They’re a cutter.


Sam Mason (22:44)
Why would you be defined by something that you do to try to alleviate, alleviate emotional pain when you can’t figure out another way? It’s kind of like being diagnosed with something that’s not a diagnosis. If you have diabetes, you don’t just become diabetic. You know, it’s, it’s a diagnosis. It’s not who you are. It’s a portion of your life at that time, maybe for a long time.

but the real reason is finding out the background of it. So I think those kinds of self -harm behaviors create a huge stigma.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (23:25)
Absolutely. Oh, I hate. And I just think about the way the tone that’s probably used with that, the judgment and dismissive and don’t want to go near that kind of mentality.

Sam Mason (23:42)
Absolutely, absolutely of they they cut they’re a cutter. So therefore they’re gonna kill themselves eventually that’s not necessarily what it is and having an unsuccessful attempt on your own life doesn’t label you for the rest of your life either and unfortunately sometimes when people have mental health and they’re not understood it compromises the mental health even more because you feel even more alone.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (24:10)
Absolutely. Stigma can be the reason people don’t seek help because they’ve had experiences like you had whenever you were offered a prescription, like someone who may be over here being referred to by a nurse as an addict or a druggie, a cutter. That can be the reason why the next time someone needs help, they don’t ask for it because they haven’t felt supported when they have previously kind of gone down that route.

Sam Mason (24:37)
Absolutely, and hopefully we can help fix that for some people and advocate for some people so that they don’t feel that stigma when they decide they want to find some additional help or they need additional help.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (24:49)
Yes. Well, for that person who is listening or watching us have this discussion and they’re having a difficult time right now, what would you like them to hear?

Sam Mason (25:03)
they’re not alone.

even when you are in the darkest of the room, the lights can be turned back on. Sometimes it just takes the right person to walk in and open the door enough that you can see the light to find the light switch.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (25:20)
Oh, that’s a beautiful image to think about. And so, Sam, I can’t thank you enough for sharing being open and talking about so many different things about your life and what you are going to be doing to support others. So just thank you for taking the time and sharing your story.

Sam Mason (25:39)
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I appreciate your time a lot.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (25:43)
Thank you. And if you are interested in receiving peer support services from SAM, visit And you can find the link in our show notes. Thank you and have a wonderful day.

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Meet The Peer: Sam Mason, Peer Support Specialist Support comes in many forms, but few are as profound and empathetic as the insights shared by someone who has the same lived experience. Sam Mason, a peer support specialist based in South Dakota, joins host Whitney Menarcheck on Meet The Peer to share how finding the […]

Continue reading " Support for the Support System: Empathy, Healing, and Lived Experience"
Jennifer Lazarus on Reduce The Stigma - Meet The Peer discusses evolving mental health needs, resilience, advocacy and peer support.

Evolving Mental Health Needs: Resilience, Advocacy and Peer Support

Meet The Peer: Jennifer Lazarus, Certified Peer Support Specialist

Sharing her experience with mental health, Jennifer Lazarus, a certified peer support specialist in North and South Carolina, joins host Whitney Menarcheck on this episode of Reduce The Stigma – Meet The PeerJennifer brings decades of lived experience to her role as a peer support specialist and offers a unique perspective to those struggling with mental health needs. Shedding light on her journey, the essence of peer support, and the importance of advocacy in mental health care, Jennifer speaks openly with the hope of defeating stigma surrounding mental health and disabilities. 

Jennifer’s mental health challenges began in her teenage years, with her diagnoses changing as she grew into adulthood.  Living with her diagnoses of bipolar type 3 depression, generalized anxiety disorder, OCD traits, and other challenges, Jennifer reflects on her experience navigating the mental health system and the necessity that the individual be part of decision-making.

As a result of her personal experiences, Jennifer was determined to find a way to help others. First, she considered pursuing a career in psychology, but determined instead to pursue peer support. 

Her involvement with organizations like NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) allowed Jennifer to volunteer as a facilitator for support groups in San Diego, California, before relocating to South Carolina, where she continued her dedication to peer support. With over two decades of experience, Jennifer is a seasoned peer specialist.

As a peer support specialist, Jennifer defines her role as walking alongside individuals struggling with mental health challenges, offering them hope and demonstrating that recovery is possible. Drawing from her own journey, Jennifer emphasizes the importance of a collaborative approach to treatment, where individuals feel empowered to advocate for their needs and explore various recovery pathways.

One aspect of Jennifer’s story that resonates deeply is her candid discussion about addiction, particularly non-traditional addictions like shopping and sugar. She highlights the chemical nature of addiction and challenges misconceptions surrounding these behaviors, advocating for a broader understanding of addiction beyond substance use.

Throughout the interview, Jennifer underscores the significance of person-first language and the importance of destigmatizing mental health conditions and disabilities. Her commitment to advocating for inclusive language reflects her belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, regardless of their challenges.

In closing, Jennifer offers a heartfelt message of support to those grappling with their mental health, assuring them that they are not alone and encouraging them to reach out for help. Her words serve as a reminder of the power of connection and the transformative impact of peer support in the journey toward recovery.

Visit Jennifer’s website to schedule a peer support session today:


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Meet The Peer: Jennifer Lazarus, Certified Peer Support Specialist Sharing her experience with mental health, Jennifer Lazarus, a certified peer support specialist in North and South Carolina, joins host Whitney Menarcheck on this episode of Reduce The Stigma – Meet The Peer. Jennifer brings decades of lived experience to her role as a peer support specialist […]

Continue reading "Evolving Mental Health Needs: Resilience, Advocacy and Peer Support"
Reduce The Stigma - Meet the Peer. Matthew Thompson's Story. Triumph Through Struggle: A Marine's Journey to Support and Healing

Triumph Through Struggle: A Marine’s Journey to Support and Healing

Reduce The Stigma - Meet The Peer: Matthew Thompson

Sharing his story of triumph through struggle to support and healing, Matthew Thompson, a certified peer support specialist and community health worker from South Dakota, sits down with host Whitney Menarcheck on this episode of Meet The Peer to share his remarkable journey of overcoming trauma, addiction, and mental health challenges to become a beacon of hope and support for others.

Matthew’s story begins with a 28-year career as a Marine enlisted officer, including multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite his outward appearance of strength, Matthew spent years denying and suppressing the pain and trauma he experienced during his service. It wasn’t until a mental health breakdown and subsequent struggles with addiction and suicidal ideation that he confronted the truth of his own suffering.

Reflecting on his journey, Matthew compares his past behavior of denying and burying his emotions to smoking cigarettes—each instance of avoidance adding toxins to his mental and emotional well-being until he reached a breaking point. His path to recovery was fraught with challenges, including surgery, opioid dependence, and confronting deep-seated trauma. However, through therapy, counseling, and sheer determination, Matthew found the strength to turn his pain into purpose.

Now, as a peer support specialist, Matthew dedicates his life to helping others navigate their own struggles with addiction, mental health, and trauma. He emphasizes the importance of authenticity, vulnerability, and non-judgmental support in his approach to peer support. For Matthew, being able to relate to others’ experiences from a place of shared understanding is paramount in fostering trust and connection.

Throughout the interview, Matthew challenges the stigma surrounding addiction, mental illness, and recovery, emphasizing that everyone has struggles and deserves compassion and support. He acknowledges the role of personal growth and introspection in overcoming judgmental attitudes and fostering empathy towards others.

In closing, Matthew offers a message of hope and solidarity to anyone who may be struggling, reminding them that they are valued and deserving of care and support. He encourages reaching out for help and reminds listeners that they are not alone in their journey towards healing and recovery.

Matthew Thompson’s story serves as a powerful testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the transformative power of peer support. Through his own journey of struggle and triumph, Matthew has become a guiding light for others, offering compassion, understanding, and hope to those in need.

Note: The full interview may be triggering for some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.

Learn more about Matthew:

Book an appointment to receive peer support services from Matthew:

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Reduce The Stigma – Meet The Peer: Matthew Thompson Sharing his story of triumph through struggle to support and healing, Matthew Thompson, a certified peer support specialist and community health worker from South Dakota, sits down with host Whitney Menarcheck on this episode of Meet The Peer to share his remarkable journey of overcoming trauma, addiction, and mental […]

Continue reading "Triumph Through Struggle: A Marine’s Journey to Support and Healing"

Rising Strong: Addiction, Mental Health and Finding Purpose

Reduce The Stigma - Meet The Peer: Ryan Spillane

Overcoming Addiction and Finding Purpose: A Story of Hope and Recovery

We're not weak. You know what I mean? I didn't choose this. You know, I'm a smart, worthy, loving individual, and I just was lost for a very long time. And the people that I know in recovery, in all walks of recovery are doing some of the biggest things that I know anyone to do, to be honest with you, you know, they get sober and it's just like a rocket ship.

Ryan Spillane, Certified Peer Specialist shares this harrowing journey through addiction and the long road to recovery, finding purpose and hope along the way. From battling mental health issues and OCD at a young age to navigating the treacherous waters of substance use, Ryan’s story is one of resilience, hope, and ultimately, redemption.

Ryan’s journey began with struggles in childhood, marked by crippling anxiety, OCD, and the relentless torment of bullying at school. These challenges, coupled with a family environment where alcohol was a constant presence, set the stage for a tumultuous journey ahead.

As adolescence unfolded, the allure of drugs and alcohol offered a temporary reprieve from the inner turmoil. But what started as a coping mechanism quickly spiraled into a full-blown addiction. From experimenting with alcohol to descending into the depths of heroin addiction, Ryan found themselves caught in a vicious cycle of substance use, rehab stints, and brief moments of recovery.

The interview reveals the stark reality of addiction, from the initial euphoria of escape to the devastating consequences that followed. Ryan recounts the highs and lows of his journey, from moments of clarity to brushes with death. Through it all, the underlying struggle with mental health loomed large, exacerbating the challenges of recovery.

Despite numerous attempts at rehab and interventions, Ryan found himself trapped in a cycle of return to use and despair. The constant battle with suicidal thoughts and paranoid delusions painted a bleak picture of a life consumed by addiction.

But amidst the darkness, a glimmer of hope emerged. After a near-fatal suicide attempt, Ryan found himself at a crossroads, faced with a choice: to continue down the path of destruction or to embrace the possibility of recovery.

With the eventual support of the VA and a newfound determination to change, Ryan embarked on a journey of healing and self-discovery. Through therapy, support groups, and a commitment to recovery, Ryan slowly began to rebuild his life from the ground up.

The road to recovery was anything but easy, marked by setbacks and challenges at every turn. But Ryan persevered, drawing strength from the community of fellow survivors and finding solace in spirituality and self-reflection.

Today, Ryan stands tall as a beacon of hope for others struggling with addiction and mental health issues. His journey serves as a powerful reminder that recovery is possible, no matter how daunting the obstacles may seem.

As Ryan reflects on his journey, he offers words of wisdom and encouragement to those still struggling: “Life is good. I don’t have those suicidal ideations anymore. I’ve learned to cope with things in a variety of ways. There are struggles, there are mental health issues, but there’s also hope and light at the end of the tunnel.”

Work with Ryan:

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Reduce the Stigma on YouTube Podcasts

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Reduce The Stigma – Meet The Peer: Ryan Spillane We’re not weak. You know what I mean? I didn’t choose this. You know, I’m a smart, worthy, loving individual, and I just was lost for a very long time. And the people that I know in recovery, in all walks of recovery are doing some […]

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