Intentionality and Friendship on the Path of Healing
“Thanks everyone. I had a really nice time with you guys today!” Steve’s eyes were bright, his voice high pitched and shining like a giddy child – a startling contrast to the sullen, wary visage I had encountered for the past three months of living with him as a “therapeutic housemate”. Moments later we entered the car to head home after a sunny and adventurous hike up Mt. Tom in Holyoke.
This was the happiest I had ever seen him, and over the remainder of our time together I experienced just one encore of that exuberant smile, after a kickball game organized by the same cheerful friend who had invited us on the hike.
At Windhorse Integrative Mental Health, which connected me with Steve (not his real name), this model of live-in care has been going on for decades, with mixed results. Nobody keeps hard records, but an individual who had been around the program for a while confirmed pretty standard outcomes for a mental health program: About a third of people appear to benefit, a third appear to be harmed, and a third have a roughly neutral experience.
In Steve’s case, he said that the program was harming him, and the general consensus was that his emotional health deteriorated over the course of his stay at Windhorse. In the end, someone decided to call the local a hospital after they saw the extent to which he was self-harming.
After my stint at Windhorse I went on to start and run a similar program with a friend in Northampton, with similarly mixed results.
I have stayed awake many nights wondering what worked well and what didn’t, and was eager to take space from live-in peer work after a few extremely stressful placements.
A couple weeks ago I attended a five-day training in Intentional Peer Support (IPS) in Burlington, Vermont. That training has reignited my passion for peer support and the curiosity for what helps people who have experienced extreme emotional states to survive, heal, and grow.
In the course of a fresh reflection, I see that, in my experience, the most critical factor in a course of recovery from emotional distress is the presence of friendship.
This revelation would come as no surprise to my mentors and role-models who have been doing this sort of work for many years, but somehow it has taken me off guard.
What does the presence of friendship mean? It has to do with the experience of making meaning with other people.
I am somebody who has sought out a litany of magic bullets to soothe my recurring emotional distress, including: Music, drugs (psychiatric), masturbation, exercise, nature, alcohol, drugs (illegal), herbs, shamanism, philosophy, misanthropy, sex, acupuncture, meditation, tai chi, yoga, energy healing, writing, children, intimacy, silence, prayer, food, religion.
My search for grace has spread from utter submission to the universe, to an incredible sense of power, control and pregnant intentionality. But, none of these tools or experiences were ever truly meaningful without somebody to talk to about them.
For instance, my journey exploring the effects of marijuana and psychedelics on my inner world only made sense because of the internet forum where I could share these musing with others, and the partner who generously listened to my rambling. She even helped me to make greater sense out of the detritus of my explorations.
If I had these experiences on my own, with nobody there to genuinely say “I think I understand,” I would have had no way to make sense of them. The expansiveness of the experiences would be too much to hold within one person. This is what happened to me later on with drugs, and with other means of coping, when no one was around to help make sense of what I was going through.
Psychedelics might seem like an obvious case where friendship is vital to meaning-making. And, it is one that many people find closely mirrors the process of experiencing extreme states in general.
However, friendship also plays a crucial role for me with more tame attempts toward wellness.
When I felt I had no one to connect with about my fitness goals, running seemed excruciating, I regularly injured myself, and I was haunted by inner moralizing about my health. Part of me would keep saying I needed to run every day, and another part would loudly tell the first part to fuck off. Just as I had few friends outside, my inner parts were not very friendly with one another.
Once I started reading blogs and connecting with friends who also appreciated the importance of regular exercise, I was able to construct meaningful habits based on shared hopes and clear intentions, rather than fear or confusion.
And so it seems to go with many facets of the path called recovery.
At Windhorse, my friends and I were in a situation where we could simply play and have fun with Steve in a mutual, low-pressure context like hiking or kickball, suddenly joy and connection were accessible for him in a completely different way. He opened in a way I did not witness a single time when we were at the house, or sitting around in a circle talking about how things are going.
Another time, I took a long walk away from the house with a different client while we traded stories. Later on, he told me that’s when he first started to feel like he could really trust me. He could begin to see that that I wasn’t there to put myself over him in any way, that we could actually be friends. This shared experience set the tone for many encounters to come.
When working with others, as when working with myself, I’ve tried all these different things in an attempt to force healing to happen. I have offered energy work and meditation instruction. I’ve pushed quick fixes like, “Let’s just go for a walk,” and “Maybe you should take these drugs.”
In a thorough analysis, the same crucial factors taught by IPS seems to have made all the difference: Connection, shared worldview, mutuality, and a sense of moving toward something greater.
In my work with myself, friends, and clients, I struggle to think of a step toward healing that occurred without a context of friendship to coalesce the meaning of the experience into something concrete, shared, and retrievable. Where there is not friendship I am either isolated or in conflict with those around me. Often one leads to the other, creating a cycle of distrust and difficulty when relating, unless there is somebody I can call who can be with me in a non-judgmental and support way.
Thankfully, those people have almost always been there for me in my life, or I surely would have ended up in a psychiatric hospital, a prison, or a morgue.
In my assessment, Intentional Peer Support is a wonderful training for how to build loving, empathic bonds that start with friendship, rather than problem solving, fixing, or having power over another human being.
It is a framework for understanding the journey of healing that emphasizes the irreplaceable role of true friendship, which cannot occur when somebody is isolated, or completely dis-empowered. Friendship requires giving the other person space to share and be themselves without judgment or reactivity.
It is a beautiful approach not only for relating with emotional distress, but also for all the relationships in my life.