By Lakeesha Dumas from Portland, Oregon
This article is part of a GAINS Center spotlight series on peer support specialists working in criminal justice settings.
My journey to recovery started almost 7 years ago. I had been in jails and institutions in a few states. I was in a dark place of desperation with no hope. Many days I wished that I wouldn’t wake up. The drinking and drugs were not enough to calm the voices in my head. They were the only coping skill I knew, and had gained as a child.
One day, I was in the parking lot of a Recovery Club in Portland, Oregon. I received an invite to a retreat that I wasn’t sure I wanted to attend because I couldn’t stop using and it was a clean and sober event. This woman approached me, ignoring how bad I looked and asked me if I needed a ride to the retreat. I shrugged my shoulders and nodded. She didn’t ask me a thousand questions; she just knew that place I was in. She got me something to eat and bought me a belt and a pack of cigarettes, so I wouldn’t have to ask anyone for them and feel more shameful than I already did. That woman had been through some stuff, but she didn’t look like it. That gave me hope. She and I had many similarities, and she had come out on the other side.
The reason I do the work I do today is because someone did it for me. I don’t just work with people one-on one. I’m at the tables with decision makers and program managers to make sure that voice of the voiceless are included at all levels of planning. There are many barriers for folks who have criminal justice involvement and struggle with mental health challenges and substance use disorders. I work to make sure that we are eliminating the barriers so that someone can recover and be successful—whatever that may look like to the individual.
There are many places we are still trying to integrate peer support within the criminal justice system. With more education on the value of lived-experience and the personal stories of how peers changed a person’s path, we are making headway. The journey continues.