As Val describes it, “Being brave is being authentic.”
And when it comes to those facing mental health and substance use concerns, talking about their journey can be terrifying, but Val, a peer support worker at CMHA Calgary is one who calls that vulnerability true bravery. She says it is ultimately crucial on the path to recovery.
Growing up, though, she learned a different definition of the word brave. At the age of four, she was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, a chronic illness that caused swelling an inflammation of every joint in her body.
“When I would get an injection, or get my blood drawn weekly, I was told I was a ‘brave little girl’,” explains Val “I have come to hate and resent those words because they taught me that if I don’t show my emotions, and I don’t cry, then I am rewarded. I didn’t think I was allowed to be sad, devastated, angry, and in pain.”
So she continued to be that ‘brave little girl,’ pushing aside not only the physical pain but also the mental and emotional pain that accompanied her chronic illness. At the age of 19, after 15 years of ‘being tough’ and not acknowledging the struggle, her mind “broke.”
“Literally that’s how I felt. I felt like one day I was fine, and the next day nothing changed, but everything was awful,” Val explains.
Since then, she recalls experiencing many ups and downs. When she was working as a teacher and had a purpose, she was able to function, but as soon as there was a break in her schedule, she describes “hiding.”
“I wouldn’t return phone calls, I would cancel plans, I wouldn’t show up, and I would hide from my husband,” she recalls. “It was embarrassing, but I think I was in survival mode. I don’t know what else to call it.”
During her lowest times, she describes feeling nothing, but that’s not what scared her the most.
“What scared me the most was that I didn’t give a crap. I should really be more worried that I am not feeling anything, but I am not worried. I just don’t care,” she says. “I wish that on no one. It is the most terrifying, helpless feeling to be locked inside your own head.”
She accessed a variety of different mental health supports but admits that she never fully opened up, only offering little bits of her story to get just well enough to function, but over time her health continued to decline. The low periods became longer and more frequent.
“I wanted somebody to fix me and help me, but I didn’t know how to ask for it.”
Eventually, in January of 2016, she admitted herself into the hospital. As she described it, “the cat was out of the bag.” Although this was a terrifying experience, she also describes it as freeing.
“People are so supportive, and the more I revealed it to my friends and neighbours, the more I realized how prevalent it is,” Val says. “I just want to blow the lid off of mental health.”
Now, as a Peer Support Worker at CMHA Calgary’s recently open Welcome Centre and Recovery College, she is using her experience to provide support and empower others on their own recovery journeys. A position that has greatly impacted her own journey.
“It’s changing the way we look at what we think is our greatest weakness and turning it around to make it out strength. That’s what being a peer supporter has done for me,” Val explains.
As she explains, her mental health journey will be lifelong, but being surrounded by others who have walked similar paths has made a real difference.
“I have all the education I could ever want. I have all the family support and friend support I could ever want, but I still felt alone in my recovery until I started working here. The comfort and comradery you feel [at CMHA] is unlike anything else.”
What CMHA has created is a supportive community above all else. Whether someone is looking for one-on-one peer support, to learn new skills through a Recovery College course, or just seeking genuine connection with others, CMHA Calgary’s doors are open to everyone.
All Recovery College programs at CMHA Calgary are free of charge and without waiting lists. In order to continue to ensure that no one is turned away, your support is critical, which is they’ve recently launched the Turni2We campaign.
Your donation can go a long way in helping someone feel like they belong, and that they matter. Donate today.
For those looking to connect with a peer support worker, you can come by in person, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 403-297-1402 during the Welcome Centre’s opening hours (9:00 am – 4:00 pm Monday to Friday, and Tuesday and Wednesday from 4:00 pm – 7:00 pm excluding holidays).