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Story | August 28, 2019

Recovery Month: I am a Peer Recovery Specialist


By Becky Sterling

I am a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist. If you choose to have me as a part of your prevention, treatment and recovery team, you can expect something different.

You can turn to a counselor for much needed advice based upon well studied research about what most people can expect and how that research and learning might apply to my treatment. Thank you to all the counselors out there who serve in this field because of your desire to help and to make a profound difference in people’s lives.

You can turn to a therapist for an assessment of what is wrong and informed thoughtful and sage advice on what to do to change things. I know personally the powerful healing impact of a therapist in my life. Thank you to all the therapists who contribute to other people’s well-being.

You can turn to a spiritual adviser for discovering the strength of your beliefs and the role those beliefs can play in your recovery journey. Guidance to connect with the strength outside our self has contributed to many people’s liberation from addiction illnesses. Thank you to the worship leaders who shine the light on healing divinity.

And of course, you can talk to a physician about what medication may or may not work best for your situation. Knowledgeable addition of modern medications can enhance our return to wellness. Thank you to the Psychiatrists, and physicians who offer relief.

So, as valuable as all those other treatment choices are, you can expect something different from me, since I am a Peer Recovery Specialist.

I will not assess you. I will not tell you what to do. I will not count your pills, test your pee, or plan for or about you unless you are present. I will not abandon you if you stumble or relapse because I experientially know that recovery is non-linear.

I will advocate that your perspective is considered both at a treatment level and a policy level but when it comes to you as an individual, I will not speak for you. I hold myself accountable to honor the healing power that is represented in the phrase “nothing about me without me”. In fact, I will assist you in writing a healthcare advance directive that allows your voice to be legally heard even at times when your condition interferes with your ability to represent yourself.

I will not offer you clinical services. Instead, I support your self-help efforts. You can expect that I will not tell you what to do but I will walk beside you as you discover your own personal strength. I know that I learned as much from my failures as I did from my successes. I recognize the dignity of risk. I know it is not my job to keep you safe. It is my job to stand with you as you discover how to keep yourself safe.

When you add my services to your recovery plan, you can expect that I know that you are the person in charge and that you are the expert on your own health. You can expect that I have been trained in how to honor our mutual experience. The relationship we establish will be centered around a recovery journey. We will talk about what is strong, not what is wrong. We will be transparent in setting our mutual boundaries. You will determine what we talk about, what we achieve and how we measure our progress. If you are willing to be vulnerable, I am willing to be vulnerable. If you are needing a low intensity, we will stay low. The control about what happens in our visits is in your power.

I am a Peer Recovery Specialist. It is my job to be different. If I use the language of the treatment team, I am not doing my job. If I speak of non-compliance, of diagnosis and of mandated medication I have lost the very difference that I should be bringing. Instead,  I will speak of hurdles, desires, and dreams for a better future. You can expect that I will use language that is familiar to you and I will serve as your interpreter between the “treatment world” and the “lived experience” world. I will support your voice, whether you whisper or shout. Think of an interpreter. The interpreter can only say what the individual says. Nothing more, nothing less. The interpreter needs to understand both worlds to interpret accurately.

I will tell you the ugly parts of my story so that you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I will speak of the hurtful moments and how I moved beyond the shame. It is my responsibility to tell you my story with wisdom and discretion. I will listen as you tell me the pieces of your journey that need to be said out loud. I will share at the pace and intensity you set. I will listen with unconditional high regard since I have walked that path.

I am a Peer Recovery Specialist. I will cry with you, laugh with you and share the anger that sometimes overwhelms, all the while, standing beside you as the evidence that you can find your own unique path to freedom and whole health.

I will walk with you as you reenter the community of your choice. If you tell me that you want to attend church after an absence of years, I will go with you until you find the strength to go by yourself. If you need to establish new patterns of leisure, I will go bowling until you are absorbed into a league. If you need to advocate for yourself with your landlord, I will listen and coach as you practice your talking points. I will be your sounding board as you practice what you want to say to get that new job or share with your loved one. 

If, as you reestablish your connections in the world around you, you feel the need to get physical then we will negotiate walks in the park or sessions at the gym. I will partner with you as you access the evidence-based healing power of employment, community connection and self-determined involvement in a healthy lifestyle you choose.

When disease has robbed you of your ability to experience hope, I will continue holding the hope until you are ready, and we can once again hold hope together.

I will stand next to you as the evidence that hope is real, and recovery is possible.




Becky Sterling served as the initial Director of the Office of Recovery Services with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.  While there, she served as managing Editor for the Peer Recovery Specialist training manual. She has over 14 years of leadership experience in recovery under the Mental Health Services Act, having been the founding leader of the Middle Peninsula-Northern Neck’s Consumer Operated Program that employed 16 peer specialists, had a supported employment program, and initiated a Peer Run Resource Center. 

A pivotal voice in achieving Medicaid funding for Peer Recovery Services, Ms. Sterling has served on numerous local, regional, and statewide advisory groups, including Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s recent Task Force on Mental Health Safety. She is a past President of the State’s Behavioral Health Planning Council, a past board member of VOCAL Virginia, and was one of the first four Advance Level WRAP Facilitator Trainers in Virginia.   

Ms. Sterling uses her own recovery story as she expresses her passion for helping others find their hope, voice and strength. This article is adapted from a speech she gave in 2017 and describes how a Peer Recovery Specialist adds to someone’s mental and/or addiction recovery team.

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