Here at PEERS we take wellness to a whole new level from having community WRAP groups to offering mindfulness trainings. But sometimes we, the staff, forget that we also need to take care of ourselves.
Our Executive Director, Lisa Smusz, came up with the idea of having a staff health challenge. Everyone had to pick a challenge to enhance his or her personal wellness, many chose to loose weight. However, I was ignoring the most important part of my wellness-- my connection to my fiancé.
During the years of working long hours and going to school, he was patiently waiting for me to realize that he too wanted to spend time with me. So, I took this health challenge as an opportunity to work on my relationship. After four months, I caught myself feeling much more excited about life and wanting to do more things. We even picked up on our wedding planning, that we found extremely frustrating in the past. At the end of the challenge, my fiancé came home to my big surprise that I had planned a few hours before--I bought us a trip to Hawaii. He was excited but shocked that we had only one day to pack.
For the first time I didn’t travel with my laptop. I left my phone behind during the trip as much as possible while I was out enjoying life. My wellness was at life’s peak. I was more than ever in love with my fiancé of 7 years. I swam with sea turtles and was among the most laid back people in the world. I even got a small tan. Just as our trip came to an end I was excited to come home and pack for our next exciting trip to Las Vegas (NO, not to get married although we did joke about it). We landed from Hawaii at 10pm and were on the road by midnight with our great friends. Out of respect to the rule that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, I will not share what happened.
A few weeks later, still in the spirit of wellness, we decided to kick away the idea of a grand wedding and planned a small, backyard wedding in three days. Since I had already ordered my dress for the big wedding, I tried it on asked him how I looked in it. He responded “You look…wait I am not suppose to see you in that dress. It’s bad luck.” That’s how I got to go shopping for a new dress for my new life.
I kept my wedding plans quiet and posted a picture of our wedding on Facebook the next day. I could not have asked for a more perfect day: only our immediate family attended, Afghan and Mexican homemade food, decorations by our siblings, and no expectations to impress or entertain. I was stress free and ready to live a new life when suddenly, a few weeks later, I had great news for our families. We are going to be welcoming a new addition to our family.
I sometimes wonder, if I had not participated in this challenge how would my life look? To be honest I don’t know and we will never know. What I do know is that this challenge reminded me of who I truly was and it took me back to my personal beliefs for living with unpredictability, fearlessness, and my newest addition with love.
We all need a break sometimes. We all need some time to see something different, relax and regroup. That’s why I think vacationing is vital to our wellness. I know it’s vital to mine. This year my PEERS co-workers have traveled to various places like Jamaica, Mexico, Europe, Hawaii, Canada and Southern California. I just returned from a traditional girlfriend get together in Vegas. What I noticed about everyone who returned from their various trips is that they looked refreshed. The re-boost of energy gave their skin a new glow.
When I was unemployed for nearly 3 years and living in LA, I had to give up flying to new destinations because I couldn’t afford it. Vacationing can be expensive. I really needed a vacation because the stress from being unemployed was getting to me. But I was able to cut some corners, get some R&R while saving money. Even though I am working now, I still have to keep my budget tight when I travel. Here are a few ideas that have helped me relax and get away mentally.
Visit a Friend Who Lives Not Too Close, Not Too Far
I’m a city girl. However, sometimes I need a break from the hustle and bustle. When I was unemployed in Southern California, a weekend getaway was visiting a friend who lived 1 hour from me in a slower-paced town. I was able to drive to visit her which saved me a lot of money. And I didn’t have to pay for a hotel because I stayed with. I paid for food and gas. Luckily my friend was extremely understanding and planned for us to do things that were inexpensive. I was only an hour away but it felt far enough to me.
Vacation At Home
The word “staycation” has been a buzz word during the recession. How often have you gone to places with out-of-town guests for the first time? Explore your city. Go on tourists websites for your city (I love Tripadvisor.com) and find new places to see and things to do. Maybe even stay in a hotel while exploring these place just to get away from home. Or, stay home, unplug your devices and seek out new, local surroundings.
I went fishing a few weeks ago. I couldn’t believe how close I lived to a lake that I had never been too. My family and I used to go fishing every year when I was a kid. And I missed it so much. I went with a meetup.com group and that was one of the most relaxing things I did all summer.
Travel Off-Peak Season
While I can afford to travel more now that I’m working, I still have to keep my spending in check. Although I didn’t get any travel in during the summer, I’m hitting the road in the early fall. Why fall? Well it’s much cheaper. And early fall is a good time of year because it’s still warm in many places. With kids back in school, there’s less congestion at airports and tourist hot spots. The downside to traveling in fall if you have a family is that your children would have to miss school. But if you’re single, or the nest is empty, try fall. Late spring can be a good time as well because right on cusp of summer and the weather is starting to heat up.
If you can’t afford to get away for a few days, try a day trip. I did a day trip to Napa once. I joined a group who were doing a day trip for $25. I knew that since this trip was going to be short, I needed to be fully present so I could get a lot of R&R out of it. I rode on the bus and took in the changing scenery. I took time to experience the wine country’s fresh air and lush vineyards. Of course the wine tasting made me really relaxed.
Project Your Destination
And if you can’t afford a day trip, clean your home and ask a family friend to take care of the kids. Get your favorite takeout so you don’t have to cook, and treat yourself to a nice bubble bath. Read a book, magazine or website about the place you want to travel to in the future. Cut out the images and paste them on a sheet of paper. Hang it up or place it for your eyes only. Make that trip of a lifetime a goal. Then take a nap, dream away and enjoy the peace and quiet.
Where have you traveled to recently and how did it affect your wellness?
Campus Mental Health Project is a partnership between PEERS and California State University, East Bay (CSUEB) to bring mental health awareness to their students. We work closely with the Community Counseling Center in participating at various school events to bring mental health awareness. So far we have tabled at the university’s Health Fair and the Tunnel of Oppression. In October, we’ll be tabling at the big back-to-school event, Al fresco.
Another way we have gotten the word out about mental health awareness was by holding our own events on campus, such as our Movie Night. There we shared the documentary Shine, a PEERS-produced documentary focusing on Transitional Age Youth or TAY (youth ages 16-24) recovering from mental health challenges born from trauma. This was a good way to show students that mental health can affect anyone, regardless of age, and that it’s okay to talk about it.
We began a Peer Mentoring program for students experiencing stress or other challenges who needed one-on-one support. Some of our student mentors were also of college age but didn’t attend CSUEB. Others attended different colleges. This was done in case mentees didn’t want someone on campus knowing their personal life. The Peer Mentoring program provided a great alternative to the on- campus health center, which closes at 5pm each day. And realistically, no one knows when a difficult time may occur. Although this program didn’t take off the way we expected, the participants were very thankful that they could speak to someone who had gone through their own challenges and could relate to them without judgment.
We’ve also established a resource with CSUEB that helps students who have mental health concerns and prefer to stay anonymous. It’s called The Better Life Bay Area Project. The online resource is a great way to receive anonymous and confidential support via the web. Graduate students from CSUEB’s Marriage and Family Therapy program interact with students who need help online. The website also includes fun lifestyle topics from sex and relationships to where they can go to buy furniture.
Along with our Peer Mentoring program and The Better life Bay Area website, we have also introduced Wellness Recovery Action Planning or WRAP. WRAP is a structured system to monitor uncomfortable, distressing feelings and behaviors. Through planned responses and internal reflection, students learn how to reduce, modify or eliminate them during group WRAP meetings. My co-facilitator and I shared with the students that this is not just for people experiencing mental health. It is also a tool that can be used to enhance any aspect of your life, such as, school, dealing with stress at home and so much more. I also had the privilege of seeing the students who participated in this group go on to become Certified WRAP Facilitators
As I go through life growing and maturing, I realize that being present in the moment to learn and grow has really supported me in making amazing choices. When I can be conscious and present, I can see the patterns in my life in different seasons. It’s only been in recent years that I have noticed that I have different degrees of wellness in different seasons. I want to share a little of those insights with you.
Fall is the most beautiful season for me. There is change in everything around me and I see it, experience it, and love it. When I make changes in my life I cannot always see it, experience it, or love it. In the fall season however, I do see experience and love the changes I make.
In the past 10 years I have come to be more attentive to my seasons of life.
In the fall, when things are changing around me, I also get to experience the rich happiness that is just waiting to explode inside. I feel full of energy when things change. The outside changes around me trigger me to be more conscious in noticing changes in my life. Some of the outside triggers are: football season, my son going back to school and playing high school football, the beautiful weather that happens on the coast this time of year, the openness of the forest, the color of the sky, the clarity of the ocean, and the balance of warm and cool from morning to night. The list goes on indefinitely.
I notice the way I feel and my thoughts and reactions to people, places and things around me. Fall is so amazing for me. I have come to realize that fall is when I am at my best conscious state. Because it’s the time of year to let go of all the things I picked up during the summer. Those are things that were beautiful and I thought might be useful, only to realize that it’s not something I can incorporate yet. So instead of holding on I let go of those things. I keep the things I can see and feel that I have taken on. Those things become perennials.
Winter is when I take all of the changes that happened during the fall season into account. I reflect on each change and rest while nature washes and cleanses the earth. Since I am not out and about a lot this time of the year, I tend to my houses. These are both my physical house and my BJ house (the house is a metaphor for my wellness level around physical, emotional, mental and spiritual self. It's part of my balancing my life). During winter I seem to be quiet. I tend to be okay with staying at home. I have less energy to spend needing something. I set goals and prepare my house for the holidays and I cook more home meals. I tend to my relationships by calling my supports or inviting them over to share a meal or two, and I de-clutter my house. Of course there are countless other things that happen during the winter but these are just a few.
Spring is a time when I get to share what I have gathered from fall and integrated in winter, with those in the community. I get to articulate and tell stories about the changes I have made in my life. This is the time when I do lots of journaling out loud to my closest friends and relatives. It's also the time when growth happens, and everything blossoms. Not only do I feel it, I see it all around me. I set goals and plant those goals in my day-to-day consciousness. I walk towards and tend to every moment along with the growth of the goals I planted.
Summer is a time to see and feel the beauty of all that I am. I learn from the experience of what I manifested in the fall, cultivated in the winter, nurtured and cared for in the spring, to its beauty and abundance during the summer. Summer is also the time to fill up on new and exciting opportunities to deeply grow and expand my knowledge. I take in what I can, but at times too much. Summer is the time to feed on the energy of life, while everything and everyone is moving and hustling to enjoy the outdoors and be frivolous in every moment. This is the time to be cautious not to take on everything because it feels good. It’s a time to notice that I cannot take in all the beauty but only what sustains me.
I love the seasons in my life. I love that there is a seasonal process to change in my life and I notice it. I become freer of the clutter of my consciousness as I learn to love the process of life through seasonal change.
Mother. Poet. Writer. Internal Idealist. External Realist. Activist. Advocate. I started out this work as a Transition Age Youth (TAY), looking to find peers who could relate to me and also support me in my desire to be a functioning, well human being. When I first came to PEERS, I had just become a mother and a Wellness Recovery Action Plan certified facilitator. I wanted to be more fulfilling in my role as a leader. I worked my way into a part-time position at PEERS, which later became a full time position as the Lead Transition Age Youth Coordinator for the Transition Age Youth Initiative (TAYi). This is a program designated for TAY coming out of the mental health, foster care, and/or juvenile justice systems and ready to create their own solutions to wellness and recovery.
TAYi provides opportunities for youth and young adults between the ages of 16-24 to participate in groups and activities geared toward developing social, life, and work skills, using a peer-to-peer led approach. We offer Movie Nights and Slams, trainings, ongoing WRAP groups, and empowerment activities to the greater community. The TAYi also provides housing and employment resources when available, has a workstation with computers for TAY to use, and is in partnership with the TAY advocacy committee out of the Pool of Consumer Champions (POCC), TAY Movement.
I specifically serve as the liaison between the TAY members and the TAY leadership team, and coordinate the logistics behind presentations, workshops, social groups, and trainings. I facilitate Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) groups using the Youth WRAP books co-created by the TAYi and Mary Ellen Copeland, as well as speak publicly on behalf of the TAY and Mental Health community about my experiences and journey to wellness and recovery. My goal for work is the same for life: to create, to impact, to support, and to inspire change. The TAYi, its members, and the surrounding community of PEERS and our partners, are all catalysts for change.
The year is 1998 and I'm sporting bright green Keds and OshKosh B'gosh overalls. I use terms like, "sike" and phrases like, "I know you are, but what am I?" I'm young enough to unabashedly love the Disney Channel, but old enough to find my mother's existence embarrassing. And everyday after school I rush home to watch, "The Famous Jett Jackson." I'm not examining the significance of the fact that Lee Thompson Young is an African-American star of a Disney Channel Television show and not a sidekick like most brown faces on cable TV. I don't analyze the impact that Young has by being a positive role model or the show being a vehicle for meaningful conversations about race and class. At 13, I'm more interested in Young's honey brown eyes and confirming that our astrological signs are compatible. He's an Aquarius and I'm a Leo. Not looking great, but there's still hope. When you are young anything is possible. Life is just unfolding and there are so many possibilities.
The year is 2013 and I'm sporting a dress with leggings and a scarf (very Goodwill chic). I use words like, "transparent" and "mindful." I'm young enough to still get carded, but old enough to spot a heart breaker. It's been a couple of weeks since Lee Thompson Young committed suicide. Over the years, I would look him up, my old crush returning, but with more of an appreciation of his body of work. The absence of positive, strong African-American men portrayed on television is still very prevalent. The last thing I would expect is that my childhood crush would commit suicide. From the outside, Young seemed like he was on the path to true fame. Never frequenting TMZ or tabloids, from afar he portrayed a gentleman. And while our astrological signs might not have been compatible, I shared in his pain of feeling that the only choice I had was to end my own life. For years, I suffered in silence because I was told to "pray it away" or to “pull myself up, by myself, by my bootstraps.” I never felt validated for my feelings of depression and I often felt ashamed and wondered why I couldn’t be strong like everyone else.
Since I started sharing my story of surviving a suicide attempt, I have heard similar stories from brown faces like mine. I started realizing that it wasn’t that I was the only black person suffering from depression; it was that my community just wasn’t talking about it. The more I shared, the more I heard and learned about others who looked like me and had similar experiences of trauma.
I wonder if I hadn’t finally started talking and more importantly hearing the real stories from my community what might have happened. I know that I survived to open this painful dialogue, and provide some healing. My heart breaks for Young, because he left like my hometown hero.
So Lee Thompson Young, I'm sorry you suffered in silence. I'm thankful for the work you’ve done. I’m also hopeful that your death will be the catalyst of change in the African-American community in regards to mental health. However, I'm saddened by the cost. And of course the 13-year-old girl in me will always remember those striking honey brown eyes.
I always say that great cities are often located near a body of water. Whether it’s Venice constructed on a lagoon, or the cities near the Great lakes; these bodies of water are used for business and leisure while shaping the identity of the city. Here in Oakland we have Lake Merritt. The 4-mile stretch tidal lagoon is located east of downtown and surrounded by parks, businesses, and city neighborhoods. On any given day one can find joggers, people relaxing, and a plethora of different species of birds claiming the lake as home.
I live just a stone’s throw away from the lake, and I also use it for recreation and pleasure. So when I had the opportunity to spend the 5th of July volunteering to clean the lake, I was ecstatic. I headed up to the boathouse in the morning for orientation. I was joined by two different mothers and their daughters (also Oakland residents) who wanted to help with the beautification of Lake Merritt. After the volunteer briefing, we headed straight for the Lake with our gloves on and nets in hand.
I dragged the long steel pole with the net on the end collecting soda bottles, trash bags, cigarette butts, and just about any artificial object that was in the water. The weather was pleasant. The sun was not too stifling and there was a bit of a breeze to cool us down. I talked with my fellow volunteers about where I worked and growing up in the East Bay. We traded stories and shared a laugh or two. Joggers and people with their dogs would pass by and salute us. We finished the day and headed back for the boathouse when a lady passed by slowly and said, “Thank you for spending your Friday cleaning up.” It was a simple compliment, but we took it with much fulfillment. Lake Merritt may not be enormous, but it is one of the things that make Oakland a great city.
From very early on my parents instilled in me the value of giving back to those in need. As a kid, my family and I would cook and deliver food to local homeless shelters or donate gifts for families at Christmas. When I graduated college, I followed in the family tradition of joining AmeriCorps and served the community of Rochester, New York for a year. When I was a teacher a few years ago, I took my students to volunteer at a local food bank, clean the water at Lake Merritt, and spend time with seniors who suffer from Alzheimer’s at an adult day care.
Lately I’ve had the lousy excuse of not having enough time to volunteer. Like I said, a lousy excuse. However, when PEERS offered me the opportunity to take a day to give back to my community, I jumped at the chance. Prompted by cleaning out my house (and having several bags of goods to give away), I decided to have a drive for goods to donate. I ended up packing my car to the brim with kitchen items, bedding, shoes, clothes, books, knickknacks, and so much more. I drove all of the items to the Salvation Army in Oakland.
Although donating goods isn’t going to change the world, this simple act of volunteering reminded me about the value of being part of something greater than myself. I now have the goal and drive to continue to serve my community more often and in more meaningful ways. And, as my family is growing, I hope to instill in my children the value of giving back.
The day following the 4th of July fell on a Friday this year. For those PEERS staff not taking vacation that day, we had the choice of working or doing community service. I chose the latter. My original plan was to do beach cleanup. I figured shores would be littered with all kinds of stuff after the holiday. But I didn’t have anyone to clean with me and I’m a people person.
Then I remembered how sometimes I post positive messages on my Facebook and Twitter pages. Often people will tell me that whatever I posted was an uplifting message they needed to hear. Why not do this offline for my community service?
I went old school with this project. I rummaged through some boxes for blank greeting cards. Then I got my glue stick, tape and scissors. I typed up four affirmations on my computer:
1. I am beautiful and unique.
2. I deserve love, joy and peace of mind.
3. I will live life to the fullest and dance like no one is watching!
4. I will Shine On!
I printed out the affirmations and glued them onto the cards. Then I loaded up my PEERS tote bag with my affirmations and hit the streets of my neighborhood. You know when someone says, “Hi, excuse me…” chances are they’re asking for something. So I told people really fast, “Hi, I’m just giving away kindness today.” When I gave them the card, their eyes lit up. Everyone thanked me. Many of them said, “I needed to hear this today.”
I gave cards to one family and the father thanked me for taking the time to make the cards. It felt nice to hand out little blessings to people. I want to do this again, but next time in East Oakland. I grew up in East Oakland. The news media focuses on the high crime and violence of the area. But there are a lot of hard working, good people in East Oakland. And they deserve kindness too, free of charge.
The card on the left is how the front of the affirmations looked. The card on the right
is an example of the affirmations I wrote to inspire people in the community.
One of the recipients of my affirmations.
Friday, July 5, 2013, the day after our nation’s Independence holiday, was a day of peaceful existence for me. Less than 12 hours prior, my neighborhood was all lit up with fireworks, deafening sounds and the smell of explosives filled the air. I found myself in need of tranquility, a quiet place where I could relax my mind, a calming place where my thoughts were not racing or anxious. And let’s not forget that I had to do some volunteer community work today to satisfy my job requirement (smile). Which brings me to the Peace & Wellness Garden at the Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in the Fruitvale District. I chose to spend the day doing maintenance on the garden. But in actuality, I did a lot of maintenance on my inner-self.
It gave me a warm and gratifying feeling to know that I had been a contributing factor to the development of this garden. While being there in the moment, absorbing the feelings of peace and wellness, the sense of connection, the beauty of cultivation and transformation; I was experiencing the purpose of the garden. As I contemplated all the chaotic sights and sounds of our nation’s Independence Day the night before, I couldn’t help but smile inwardly at the feelings of peace that I experienced while watering the earth and the little plants that are just starting to take root. I glowed with the expectation of the surrounding beauty of this Peace & Wellness Garden. I think that like most living things, with attention and loving care you can expect something beautiful.
While spending the day in the garden I found the tranquility, that quiet place to relax my mind, that calming place where I found myself not anxious for anything; that place where I experienced peace and wellness.