Kitty, a peer recovery mentor, was interviewed on her experiences for the EPIC blog.
What were some of your experiences that led you to become a peer recovery mentor?
“Well, I am a recovering addict. I was in an accident when I was a small child, and I was put on opiates. […] I was on medication all through my childhood, and then I started to abuse drugs. I raised a couple kids – and so they were almost adults – and then I kind of lost the ability to function lost control over what I was doing. [I] got involved with CPS, and I really struggled for a while with CPS, with trying to stay sober.
Then I met a caseworker that had all the belief in the world in me, and things kind of changed. […] She knew [that] START was coming and all this stuff. She was like […], ‘you can do this’ and look how far you’ve come’. She was very encouraging and […] pushed me to, I guess, do better and be better. So when the opportunity came up to actually work with the same people that had taken my child, and the same people that had faith in me that I would turn around, and to help people that are going through that, and to make it not so scary, I jumped on it.”
So it sounds like it made a giant difference to have that support person in your life and one that was part of the system as well.
“Absolutely, and she’s actually my contact person at Children’s Services. She’s like my supervisor that I report to at Children’s Services.”
How many individuals or couples are you working with right now?
“I have seven moms, and then a mom and a dad.”
How often do you see them?
“I see them at least once a week. It depends on what’s going on if it’s more than that. I have a couple moms [clients] that are very early in recovery that I see twice a week. Most of them I see once a week, and then I talk to a couple times a week whether it’s text or on the phone.”
At which point do you switch from going multiple times a week to once a week?
“It depends on the person and where they’re at. I can have a mom I’m seeing once a week and then go to the point where I see her one week […] and she can be doing [well], and then something can happen, whether it’s a relapse or something in life, to where we backtrack a little bit. [I see her more] to [help] keep her sober and doing [well] so she has that support. A lot of moms I work with don’t have any other sober support.
I think that for years we’ve known that in order to be in recovery, you have to not just get rid of the drugs, […] but everything […] you’re hanging around. It’s not just the drugs that you’re addicted to, it’s [the] lifestyle, it’s friends. We ask people to get rid of everybody but then we don’t replace them with anybody. Does that make sense? So that’s […] where I come in so that they do have sober support. […] Usually, the families that I’m working with don’t have a lot of support, good, healthy, loving support. So it’s not even just me, the caseworker also steps in as that support, as that encourager, for lack of a better term.”
How would you describe being a peer recovery mentor to someone who had no idea what it was?
“Well, every time I get a new client, I have to do this.”, Kitty laughed. “What I tell them is that you [the client] have a caseworker, or CPS, and the caseworker’s job is to worry about the children and what’s going on with the children. Well, a peer mentor’s job is to worry about mom and what’s going with mom or dad. Also, my job is to hold your hand through those meetings […] and court hearings you’re going to, so they so scary. You know what to expect, and to remind you that a baby step is still a step. I think, especially in early recovery, people expect leaps and bounds and all we can do is tiptoe. But we’re still getting there. I think my job is to help them remember that. That we’re all human, we all need help at some point in time.”
What has been the most rewarding part of being a peer mentor?
“Honestly the most rewarding part and this is going to sound horrible, is when somebody [a client] calls me and says, ‘I was going to use and I thought about what you said’ or ‘I was going to use and I didn’t want to tell you and […] tell the caseworker that I had used’. ‘I remember you telling me this story, or whatever, and that popped in my head’. That’s the most rewarding when it works. When I see them going forward, and when I see them changing. I have a mom, right now, that’s been struggling for four months, [she’s] been struggling and struggling. We’ve just turned that corner. Every time I talk to her, every time I see her, she just looks different. She sounds different. It’s amazing. I know that in my life I’ve done a lot of things that weren’t great, but this is something that’s great. It’s changing people, and it’s changing kids’ lives, adult’s lives. I mean, it’s giving parents their children back. It’s giving grandma and grandpa their daughter back as well. It’s giving kids their moms back and their dads back. It’s just an amazing program.”
It really changes a community.
“It really does. I remember for the first time, there was a family and mom was still using but dad wasn’t. Children’s Services didn’t remove the kids. They decided that dad could be protective over the children, and the kids could stay home and safe. That was like an amazing thing to me, because we didn’t use to do that. We used to be if they [CPS] thought you were using, you couldn’t even see your children, let alone have them in your house. So, that difference is an amazing one to me.”
What has been the most challenging part of being a mentor?
“The most challenging [thing] I’ve [been] through so far was the time I was working with somebody and the children were removed. It was horrible. It touched home because my child had been removed, and honestly, I cried. I cried with the caseworker that day, afterward and beforehand. But it was the right thing to do, but it just didn’t feel good. Yeah, that was a challenge when the kids can’t stay home.”
Has there ever been a moment that’s surprised you through your time as a mentor?
Yeah, [that previous] moment, when the kid couldn’t stay home. I was in shock […]. When I first started [working at] Children’s Services, I expected the caseworkers to have an opinion [of me] […]. It is the same agency that I lost my child to, it’s the same agency I got my child back from. They say [you have] 12 out of 22 months to get your kid back and it took me 24. […] I came down to the very wire to get my daughter back. Not all of that was my fault, […] because I think a lot of mistakes were made at the beginning. So, I expected them [Children’s Services] to have an opinion of me. What I found was that they absolutely didn’t. They treated me just like another coworker […].
When we go to training for START, a lot of the [peer mentors] don’t work with the same agencies they lost their children to or got their children back from. I can’t imagine working for a different county. When I say something to one of the caseworkers, they listen to me. They don’t just take my opinion into consideration, they trust my word.”
It seems like it really is a team effort too.
“It absolutely is. We went to a training, and they were talking about how the caseworker and the peer mentor is a like marriage. It really is, it truly is like a marriage. We don’t always agree, because at the end of the day the caseworker is worried about the kids and I’m worried about mom and dad. So we don’t always agree on things, and we don’t always want the same thing. But we’re always respectful to each other, and we’re friends, and we care about each other.
I’ve also noticed people are scared of CPS, but that’s changing here in Fairfield County. It’s changing because parents are noticing that the caseworkers aren’t just caseworkers. That they’re people. And that no, maybe they’ve [the caseworkers] not been there, but they’re working with recovering addicts, so they have some idea of where I’m [parent] coming from. [The caseworkers] have to care a bit more than they [parents] once thought they did.”
Previous peer recovery mentors have said that it can be a two-way street. That their recovery is also strengthened when working with parents. Do you find this to be true?
“Well yeah, absolutely. So recovery […] is just like a job. You have to pay attention. You have to protect yourself. […] In recovery, we say ‘we only have today’. You don’t know what tomorrow brings. Yesterday has passed, we only have today. I live by that statement. But a lot of times as the days pile up and the months and the years pile up, we forget what it’s like to be an addict and we forget what it’s like to be in active addiction. Because of that, we slip back in and they relapse, and they have those issues. But working every day with people who are in active addiction, you don’t forget that. You don’t forget what it’s like to miss your children or to be scared that you’re going to lose your children because you’re with these people going through this every single day. […] It makes my recovery strong.”
For individuals who would like to be peer recovery mentors, what advice would you give them? What would you have liked to have known before you started?
“I’ve had caseworkers and people talking to me about it very early on, so I think I knew a lot more than [other] peer recovery specialists coming into it. But it’s a life changer. I would say jump both feet in. It’s a life-changing event. I am making a difference in my own community, and in the community that maybe I wasn’t the best to begin with. I would say go for it.
I just think it’s a great opportunity to have. I love what I do. For the skeptics that say ‘we’ve given them [the clients] 2, 3, 10 chances…’, how many changes are too many if the last one saves a life?”