Jeff Irving does not like the terms “client” or “consumer.” At a recent Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) meeting he was part of a panel asked to provide feedback on SAMHSA’s Co-Occurring Disorders Initiative project. He was brought to the table as an advocate. When Jeff shared his dislike of these terms he was asked what he would like to be called. “I would like to be called a person,” said Jeff. Jeff is a musician, a creative thinker, and a man who is dedicated to helping other people find a strengths-based journey in recovery.
Currently, Jeff is a Peer Support Specialist and serves on the board of the Co-Occurring Collaborative Serving Maine. He is president of his local Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Jeff participates in speaking engagements around the country to advocate for people who experience mental illness and substance use. He is trained in the Pathways to Recovery curriculum, a guide that promotes recovery, goal setting, self assessment, self discovery, and planning.
Jeff shares that the day his recovery started was the day that another man in a Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance peer support group helped to shift his perspective from one of illness and deficits to one of strengths. “I was in a peer support group and someone said, ‘I am glad that I experience bipolar disorder.’ He started talking about his creative abilities. He explained that he wouldn’t trade the way he thinks for anything.”
At that point, after five hospitalizations, Jeffrey was feeling doomed by his diagnosis. It struck him that he was also a creative and energetic person with much to offer the world. “I started thinking of myself as a person first, as a musician who has played and recorded for over forty years rather than as a diagnosis,” says Jeff. My friends call me the idea man when it comes to writing new songs. I know that I have unique musical intuition,” says Jeff.
Prior to this experience, Jeff describes five hospitalizations for depression. The message he received was that there was something wrong with him. “It seemed like the entire treatment focus was on my diagnosis, my illness, my weaknesses, my deficits. There was no focus on my strengths and abilities, and I lost track of them. It thrust me into a world that was unfamiliar. The message was, ‘we know what is wrong with you. If you adhere to our treatment plan, we will figure it out,’ explains Jeff.
He sees his repeated hospitalizations as events that created a dependency on treatment, rather than recovery, and the perception that he was ill. “I started thinking that somewhere, somebody would have the magic keys to make me well, to fix my world. Somebody is going to have the answers. All this time I was relying on others to do my work,” says Jeff. Today he focuses on his strengths. He shares his own recovery story with others and what he does to overcome the challenges he faces.
Peer Support groups have become another family for Jeff. “Here are the people who know what I am talking about when I mention a deep, dark depression, or mania, or hypo mania. They are not telling me what to do. They are sharing with me what they do to succeed and I can take it or leave it,” says Jeff.
Jeff has taken a similar approach with his recovery from substance use. He is now 22 years sober. He does not buy into the concept that he has a disease. Many years ago, he had a substance use counselor that told him he had to quit playing in his band because the drugs and alcohol were going to kill him. But Jeff’s perspective was that if he could go play with the band and not drink, he could be free to go anywhere.
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