One of the most pleasant surprises of Empowerment Days was seeing Jackie McKay who was in the first peer specialist training with me nearly eight years ago. When I met her Jackie was involved in the Office of Consumer Affairs at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex. She was often exciting and fun to be around. Sometimes a little too exciting.
Her living situation was chaotic and I remember how difficult it was talking with her on the telephone with so many relatives in the house. She would be interrupted by someone else picking up the phone, not knowing or caring whether anyone else was talking. We had enjoyable time at grassroots Empowerment several years ago but it was clear she had a lot of issues and problems to solve.
We fell out of touch after it seemed she was going to live with her father and I developed a relationship with another woman. I also focused on college, earning a degree from Milwaukee Area Technical College in Human Services. Encouraged by my success, I went on to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare. Last year I decided to withdraw from the university and apply myself to improving myself as a peer specialist.
When the new supported apartment programs opened I was able to fight my way onto the schedule and secure a pay raise. Jackie’s life took a very different trajectory as she became involved with the wrong man and eventually got into trouble with the law. It was her connections to peer support that helped lead her back to safety and more positive decision making. One of her anchors to sanity was the Warmline, a consumer led organization that handles non-crisis telephone calls. She has been a peer volunteer on Warmline for six years and helped dozens of people seeking recovery.
When I arrived at Empowerment Days Sunday afternoon, Jackie was the first person I recognized. We just sat and talked and caught up with one another. I referred to her in my presentation that evening as I remembered her and Melissa Butts, who was also in my training group. Tuesday morning Jackie and I visited the staff of several state legislators, including Rep. Peggy Krusick and Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa and Sen. Tim Carpenter and G. Spencer Coggs. Clearly this was not the Jackie I had known before but a woman who proclaimed “I am the evidence that recovery works.” Truer words had never been spoken.
I think there’s a real lesson in what happened because I could have yelled at Jackie and simply pushed her away trying to get her to make the changes she needed in her life. Instead I decided she was not in a place where she could be the kind of friend that I needed. I recalled seeing her briefly at a bus stop and not wanting to have anything to do with her a few years ago. I was already involved with someone else.
My decision to go to Empowerment Days was a conscious one to become more involved in the mental health consumer movement. I wanted to lend my voice and I rediscovered my gifts during the three days. Although I began this piece by describing the changes my friend had made, I also need to acknowledge the way I had changed for the better.