Nineteen years ago, I would have been the last person to predict that I would be where I am today.
I had a painful childhood. My father abused alcohol; and my mother, who was blind, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. When I was 11 years old, my mother hit me because she didn’t recognize my voice. This triggered my father and he attempted suicide while I watched, helpless.
Despite these traumatic events, I had managed to keep finding my way – until September 17, 1996, when a 19-year-old Army Reserve dropout opened fire on the Penn State campus, where I was working towards a bachelor’s degree in theater arts. Using a rifle given to her by her father, the sniper killed one student and wounded another before a third student tackled her and brought her shooting spree to an end.
Although my only contact with the shooter was when the police walked her past me into the security office, that moment changed everything for me: I was thrown off course by this terrible event and its aftermath. For more than a decade afterwards, time stood still for me. I tried therapy but found it challenging, since it’s really hard to talk when you are overthinking your answers to even simple questions.
Then, nine years ago, my therapist recommended psychiatric rehabilitation and explained that it could help me get a job. Because I hadn’t been able to work in more than a decade, I needed to start slowly; so the therapist recommended social rehabilitation as a way to learn how to meet people. Even though that was still far outside of my comfort zone, I was willing to take those first few steps.
For the next six months, I was proof that you could find a way to be alone even in a roomful of people. But, slowly, I started to meet people and re-learn how to talk with them.
Gradually, I discovered that psychiatric rehabilitation wasn’t just a service to help you get a job but to help you work on improving many different areas of your life.
That was when I attended my first conference, sponsored by our local Community Support Programs. During one session, I was listening to a presenter talk about the Call for Change. Just as I was thinking, What would someone who works for the State know about what it is like to live with a mental health challenge?, she said, “When I was receiving services…” At that moment, the glass ceiling that had kept me from growing shattered into millions of pieces.
It was also when I first realized the power of stigma, especially internal stigma: the beliefs we hold that stand in our way. I was inspired by seeing someone who could be the evidence, who let me see that the world was full of endless possibilities. All I had to do was to take that first step towards those possibilities.
There came a time when the thought of employment became a little less terrifying and I decided to try working at a job that was a few hours a week, just to see what it was like after so many years.
That was when I learned about Pennsylvania’s certified peer specialist (CPS) initiative and took those first steps towards becoming a CPS. In high school and college I was fully involved in my community, helping to make things better. Becoming a CPS gave me the opportunity to once again become actively engaged. I became involved in my local and regional Community Support Programs and eventually became a co-chair of both.
In February 2009, I began working as a CPS at Paxton Street Home, a personal care home in Harrisburg. When the grant that funded my position ended, I went to Philhaven in Harrisburg to continue to provide peer support services with their mobile unit.
During that time, I learned about the Wellness Recovery Action Plan® (WRAP®). WRAP provided me with a framework to maintain my recovery no matter what challenges came my way.
I had the opportunity to attend statewide conferences organized by the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers’ Association (PMHCA) and the Pennsylvania Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (PAPRS). These conferences gave me a chance to learn more, not just to enhance my personal wellness but so that I could share that knowledge with my peers. I learned about opportunities to join the PMHCA board of directors and applied to serve on their board.
I have continued to attend conferences and trainings and to meet new people, who have encouraged me to keep learning and growing. In such a short time, they have touched my life more than I would have believed possible. They were people whom I could respect and admire and who gave me hope to see those endless possibilities in front of me.
In 2010, I joined the vibrant WRAP community of facilitators, and in 2013 I became an advanced level WRAP facilitator. Being a WRAP facilitator lets me give others something that they can use to help manage life’s challenges, and training other WRAP facilitators allows me to share WRAP with more and more people.
I began helping to plan and organize local, regional and statewide conferences, and I started working to ensure that consumers had access to scholarship opportunities so that they could attend these conferences.
I discovered skills that I never knew that I had and would have likely never discovered if it had not been for that fateful September morning. I learned that I love group facilitation as much if not more than I liked performing in front of an audience. I found out that I have a love of public policy, the legislative and advocacy processes. I realized that I love – and, more importantly, understand – regulations and licensure issues. I recognized that I love serving on boards of directors; it gives me an opportunity to make a difference in the system that has been so beneficial to my growth.
It wasn’t always easy; there were ups and downs. But even people without a diagnosis experience “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” And it has provided me with a way to bounce back from those slings and arrows, a way to build my hope, and people to support me when I need time to regain my strength.
During therapy, I was asked, “If I gave you a magic wand and you could recreate your life in any way you wanted, what would it look like?” To me, recovery means that my answer to that question would be, “I wouldn’t change a thing” – because each of those experiences, traumatic as they were, made me who I am today. They made me stronger and gave me skills that I would have never thought I would have.
If you had asked me during each of those small steps whether I would have felt a reason to celebrate, I would have probably said no. It would have been hard for me to see where those small steps would lead. But each of those steps led to my journey towards a more fulfilling life.
Nine years ago, my life could be described as small, boring, lonely, dull, unstable, uneventful, incomplete, and without direction. I now have a richer, fuller life because I have learned how to contribute to my community, working in human services, being an active participant on a number of boards and committees, and working in other community service organizations.
Nineteen years ago, if you had told me that I would walk this journey, I would have been the last person to believe it would be possible. Nine years ago, when I began this journey, I wouldn’t have had the foggiest notion where this path would lead, but I still took those first steps.
Celebrate every one of those steps, because you never know where those steps will lead. Find someone who will be the evidence for how belief inspires, how hope transforms, and how giving heals the soul. Find someone who will be the evidence for what can be achieved, how feeling connected can ground, and how there is invaluable worth in an act of faith. Find someone who will be the evidence for how an example can lead, how far encouragement can take you, and how one step begins a journey towards endless possibilities. But, most importantly, take the next step and be the evidence for someone else – because I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t found people to be that evidence for me!
Joseph Alex Martin is a certified peer specialist, advanced level WRAP facilitator, and peer-support-in-the-criminal-justice-system facilitator in South Central Pennsylvania.