How do you go from believing that your life, your being, is controlled by unspeakable childhood trauma, to being a person in recovery and an inspirer of belief to others that they too can change their lives? ITE/MH Ambassador Stephen Durant, of Erie, Pennsylvania, points to the library clerk he met while incarcerated at a Pennsylvania State Penitentiary as a person who helped him believe that he could change his story. Here he shares his journey with Spotlight On.
My greatest asset and my greatest gift to the Peer Support is my story. Once, it was a source of shame, derision, and despair; now it is my number one tool to inspire belief in others.
From the ages of four to seven, a family member molested me. After my disclosure of these incidents, the Mental Health system sold me the belief that therapy and medication were the only remedy to my confusion. As I got older, I decided that I would be bigger, stronger, and faster than that family member and any other person capable of doing harm to me. I still attended therapy, but I became physically menacing and aggressive. At 18, the military harnessed my aggression for use against all enemies “foreign and domestic;” but, my military career ended when they could no longer harness or control it. The experience added a “combat related” descriptor to PTSD and I became depressed over my discharge. I experimented with other substances in addition to the latest “fix all” medication prescribed by my therapist. I became combative to those who questioned my lifestyle and the police arrested me several times. The Criminal Justice system arbitrarily changed my medication for the safety of staff and other inmates. I spent a total of 13 years and 7 months incarcerated or on probation/parole and many of those days in some form of restraint from chairs to handcuffs to “I love me” jackets. The Judges grew weary of me and after my last offense sentenced me to the State Penitentiary.
In my weekly trips to the prison library, I checked out every book on psychology, sociology, and substance abuse looking for answers. I read about the latest research into PTSD, depression, and various medications prescribed to me over the years. One day the library clerk informed me that what I was looking for was not in any of those books. I lost my belief in therapy and medication and spent 60 days in medical segregation after refusing to take any more medication. In later visits to the library, the clerk told me how my story would end if I did not do something about it. He shared how his story ended when a judge sentenced him to life in prison. Over the course of the next 2 years, using the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and a well-read King James Bible, he and two other men instilled a belief in me that not only was recovery possible, it was within my grasp if I was willing to work for it. After the first year, the Drug and Alcohol staff selected me to work in the prison’s Therapeutic Community as a “Peer Educator.” I freely shared those parts of my story that those three men revealed. As they restored me from what I became, back to my Mother’s Son and Daughter’s Father, I restored others. I learned that the term, for what was happening, is “Peer Support.”
My greatest asset and my greatest gift to the Peer Support is my story. Once, it was a source of shame, derision, and despair; now it is my number one tool to inspire belief in others. The lifers gave me the ability to put the blank parts of other peoples’ stories into words that they can easily absorb and understand. My story redefines clinical or otherwise confusing and demeaning descriptions into terms of everyday living. It is through that understanding and redefinition that they are empowered to rise above their own circumstances. I connect with people based on our common experiences whether that would be being on the wrong medications or receiving too much of the right medications or being incarcerated or not having a voice in our everyday living. I celebrate with people and I cry with people. I walk with them and I watch them walk on their own. Sometimes their belief is readily apparent and sometimes I loan them my belief in them until they have some of their own. My intent is neither to make people better than anyone nor to make them live up to others expectations. I share the ability to be better than the person I was yesterday. I help people to define their own expectations on their own terms. That definition plants the same seeds of belief planted in me in a prison library. Teaching people to believe in themselves unconsciously gives me the permission and inspiration to continue to do the same.
I am still Stephen Durant. I am a recovering addict who experienced several traumatic events and sometimes, I get depressed about it; but, that is not who I believe I am. Today, I believe that I am the Evidence and I believe that if you are reading this, so are You.
Stephen is a Certified Peer Specialist qualified to provide Forensic Peer Support. He is an Advanced Level Facilitator of the Peer Support in the Criminal Justice System curriculum written by Drexel University in partnership with the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and OMHSAS. Stephen recently co-facilitated the state of Alaska’s first “Peer Support in the Criminal Justice System” training and the subsequent “Training of Trainers”.
Learn more about becoming an ITE/MH Ambassador and how you can celebrate and support recovery in your community.