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Peer Support at Windhorse: A Brief History

 by David Stark

LOOKING BACK OVER SIX AND ONE-HALF YEARS as Peer Support Coordinator, I can gladly say that it has been the best job I have ever had. While my treatment as a Windhorse client provided me many valuable experiences, it was not until I began working at peer support that I found the inspiration and gusto to expand my recovery toward impassioned independence.

The beginning of the peer support program was simple and inauspicious, even humble, yet somehow infused with the robust sense of optimism that makes Windhorse irreplaceable. Following the work of Sally Clay, as the first Windhorse advocate and peer organizer, the first group to attain longterm success was a hiking group. It followed a simple formula; take a healthy activity, like hiking, add a group of willing walkers, choose a setting such as a nearby path or trail, add publicity and friendly reminders as needed, and support from a culture steeped in principles of wellness, and see what benefits can occur.

Plenty of healthy consequences did arise, physically, socially, and spiritually. Over time the formula was refined. Antioch College interns such as Phoebe Murray and later Sara Watters joined in the organizing. Destinations grew further distant, and what had begun as local hikes soon evolved into interest in regional travel, and a travel club was born. We rafted down the Deerfield River from Charlemont, explored southern Vermont and New Hampshire with help from staff members Nick Luchetti, David Downs, Phoebe Murray, and Eric Friedland. It soon became clear that clients enjoyed each other’s company, and that a sense of adventure, merriment, and spontaneous connection helped inspire people to new heights at Windhorse, in recovery, and beyond.

While the outings were vivid experiences in nature and in the broader community beyond Windhorse, they depended on good weather, careful planning, travel budgets, and excluded those less inclined to explore the out of doors. One day a client asked for more simple opportunities to socialize with others, and his request generated an indoor group that would meet weekly to explore the social landscape, and greet new minds through the words they offered. A peer social hour had come into being, requiring only snacks, chairs, and chatter. This gave rise to new acquaintances, helping to diminish the boundaries often felt between clients who predominately interacted with members of their own clinical team.

As groups arose to meet the needs, interests, and requests of clients, a “Peer Support Program” had fully emerged, and blossomed. A consciousness was developing, both among clients themselves and within the larger organization, which expressed the view that Windhorse was not simply about importing wisdom to those seeking to recover, or delineating the elusive internal dimensions of illness and struggle, but about ultimately facing the world, if not alone, then with group support, not simply paid and individualized companionship.

Clients could convene, congregate, commiserate with or congratulate each other, condemn inferior treatment experiences, or converse about the latest news stories, linking themselves first to each other, then to the larger world, thereby softening their past discomforts, straightening their stands for the future, and shifting their perceptions of themselves. Group inclusion strengthened individual identities with a type of Windhorse-informed moral support. Clients found both geographical and experiential points of similarity, both terrestrially and chronologically shared paths, as mind and body synchronized in a peer, rather than a clinical context, expanding treatment successes and conjoining community members in a linked convergence of formerly isolated, personalized realities.

A more focused attempt to enable client experiences to inform others directly was the Boston University Recovery Workshops, co-facilitated by senior clinician Mary Cape, the first of which ran for thirty weeks in 2000. The workshop oriented clients toward voicing and exploring in-depth perspectives on numerous issues in recovery, informed by personal struggles they had endured. This forum for sharing, commenting, analyzing, theorizing and even speculating on the nature, course, outcome, potential and imagined possibilities for recovery helped both minds and hearts to grow capaciously. Discussions supplemented and advanced the traditional Windhorse teachings by promoting a new type of knowledge, created by consumer discussants, not professionals, that could expand the approach by offering improvements to the intrinsic limitations of its professional constructed principles. Clients were astutely digesting and brilliantly exploring the very underpinnings and perpetual dilemmas of that elusive concept, “recovery,” guided only by their own lived experiences, abundant curiosity, and ambitious approaches to inquiry. The success of the first year led to its recurrence twice more, though in abbreviated formats.

In 2003, Windhorse offered its first Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), co-sponsored by the Department of Mental Health. Clients trained in the methods proposed by Mary Ellen Copeland to devise responses to difficult periods in recovery by observing signs of deterioration, and linking them to criteria for action. Like BU Recovery, WRAP expanded both client-led offerings and knowledge of recovery.

Meanwhile, as the organization had taken note of the potential and performance of peer support program possibilities, yet another idea had come to fruition. Jeff Fortuna, founder and then executive director, envisioned recovering clients and former clients undertaking a training course that would qualify them to work on clinical teams. The bold idea evoked both anticipation and skepticism, as it argued that clients could not only recover but could play instrumental roles in the recoveries of others. It also placed persevering clients beyond the peer support programming and squarely within the team domain, hoping that their skills and experiences would earn them inclusion in the professional setting, while inevitably exposing them to the dreaded possibility of failure. The first course, held in spring of 2001, was co-taught by Cheryl Stevens, M.D., of the Department of Mental Health office of Consumer and Ex-Patient Relations, and of the Windhorse board. Lasting twelve weeks and covering Basic Attendance, Team Participation, Self-Care, and Peer Support—it enrolled three pioneering students, graduated two, and sent one to the completion of a successful internship. The course repeated in 2003, beginning with twelve students, graduated most, and spurred four to complete internships to date. Interns who successfully complete internships may apply to work as paid peer counselors; five have assumed those duties, with two remaining at present.

Finally, a word should be said about the challenges facing peer support at Windhorse. Attendance at peer support groups has varied widely over time. As new groups come into being, older ones may disappear. Clients’ interests vary and change, as do their alliance with peer support principles and their desires to practice forms of relating that may require effort or discipline. Furthermore, as many clients choose Windhorse for the dignity and autonomy it affords them as individuals, they may not desire to congregate in peer groups. Fortunately at Windhorse, a poorly attended program or function never finds itself on the chopping block immediately. The culture recognizes that recovery takes time, and that L proclivities may meander, but that clients often value having aura Kays, Windhorse community member ✹