Originally published in the RLC Newsletter, May, 2012
So, hey, most of us know that the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community is a peer-run organization for people with “lived-experience” with extreme mental or emotional states. But can I tell you all my preferred emphasis for that little elevator speech catch phrase? It is: PEOPLE. People who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. People who have experienced trauma or depression. People whose drug use has thrown them into a whirlwind of chaos, anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness and depression. People who have experience any number of life struggles. People like me and perhaps, you.
Here’s what the RLC believes: We believe that individuals who have lived experience with a psychiatric diagnosis and/or extreme states can and do recover. We believe that people are the experts of their own experience and that a great deal of wisdom is gained on the path to recovery. We believe in offering trauma-informed supports that include asking, “What happened to you,” rather than, “What’s wrong with you?” We believe that support from individuals who have “been there” can be powerful, inspirational and life-changing. We believe in everybody’s potential to achieve his or her dreams.
What comes to mind when I write this out is how inherent relationship and intimacy are to these beliefs, and how vital communication is to both. Without relationship and intimacy there is no community, there is no shared support. Without clear, honest, empathetic communication there is no, well, relationship and intimacy.
I believe that people are born with a need for intimacy and relationship that gets lost in the translation of living. I compare it to the artistic freedom most people have as children that somehow gets lost or learned out of us when the disapproval of others sets in. Young children draw from the heart, not scrutinizing their work but enjoying the process, drawing for the sake of creating and expression, art for art’s sake. We’ve all seen children reach a certain age, perhaps school age, and begin to lose that liberty as they question whether they are doing it “right”? Judgment and criticism, real or perceived, from outside or within causes children to seize up until the joy of the process is gone and with it the desire to create.
The way that we, as individuals, approach adult relationship and intimacy reveals a similar history. As children, we long to be close to our caregivers. We revel in the trust and intimate relationships that come our way. Little by little as that trust gets whittled away by hurtful experiences and/or poor parenting, we take on a new form of (mis)communication in order to protect ourselves. And though this new way may meet the needs in us that cry out the most, it can also be the first step toward unhealthy communication and loss of intimacy. In other words, let’s grant that this skill set (the distances we keep, the defensive stance we hold, the walls we had built) are/were essential to our survival. I believe, however, that there comes a point in our lives when we realize something is missing. It is then that, if we are lucky, we find ourselves in a safe place, a place like the RLC where we can take the chance of experimenting with what it means to open up, peek out, take a chance, to build relationship and intimacy.
In the years that I have been with the RLC, I have heard many incredibly intimate conversations occur within unapologetic earshot of all who were present. I have heard people speak their minds clearly and respectfully, asking difficult questions and getting answers. I have heard freely requested and accepted apologies. I have been deeply touched by what I consider to be a combination of vulnerability and boldness. I am grateful to be a part of the Recovery Learning Community because I am all about relationship, intimacy and communication, I believe this to be a safe place. Thank you for trusting me with who you are. Let’s live our lives expecting intimacy, ready to listen to one another with empathy and non-judgment. Relationship happens.
By Janice Sorensen, RLC Consultant and former Franklin County Coordinator