By Tamra Oman, Human Resources Program Coordinator and Recovery Support Specialist, Wisconsin Resource Center

Tamra Oman, Human Resources Program Coordinator and Recovery Support Specialist at the Wisconsin Resource Center, shared her reflections on her participation in the Peer Support in Criminal Justice Settings Curriculum Development Workshop. In this Workshop, attendees were tasked with developing components of core competencies for peer support in criminal justice settings.

Tamra Oman headshot

Tamra Oman

An opportunity of a lifetime came to fruition for me, a once lost, broken, beaten, and hopeless gal from Wisconsin, in a small conference room on a cold, snowy winter day in January 2018 in Albany, New York. Who knew this could or would be my life?! I sure couldn’t see it beyond the wreckage of my past; where some of the terror had been bestowed upon me (years of trauma), and also created by me (traumatizing others). I now know the meaning of “hurt people, hurt people”. A lesson I came to in a prison cell that took my breath away—the deep truth that I had become everything I abhorred—I had become the person who inadvertently caused the same kind of pain I had experienced. That brought me to my knees.

On January 29, I boarded a plane following a lingering bout of the flu. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to travel. I had a trip planned to go on a cruise to the Caribbean with my mother, but when I received this call, I knew in my soul this is where I was meant to be. After sharing the news with my partner, I called my mom (the most constant, caring person I have had in my life) crying tears of gratitude to let her know about this incredible opportunity and that this trip we had been planning for a year was likely going to have to be rescheduled (80 degrees and the sun or cold New York?). This time of year is difficult for my mom and I, and all the other family and friends who loved my only brother, my mother’s only son. He took his own life in the winter of 2000. During this time, we try to make sure to spend quality time together, making this decision even more profound.

This wasn’t just any old invitation, it wasn’t just an invitation to something cool, it was a calling, a spiritual opportunity that I had been working for, hoping for, being pruned for, and dreaming about for 2 decades. I wasn’t sure what “it” would look like but I knew I was preparing for, or being prepared for, this opportunity for a long, long time. And then fear set in, would I fit in? Would I be good enough? Am I qualified? Can I do the task justice? Am I really being invited to participate in something so incredible that could help pave a road of hope, healing, compassion, soul accountability, purpose, and love that might reach folks that have been highly judged, labeled, defined, or marginalized?

I am not dismissing the things, I, or others, did to get here; rather I am trying to say most of us didn’t arrive here by accident, defiance, or simply just poor choices.  It was likely a multitude of things, including trauma. For me, I didn’t have the kind of healthy skills necessary to cope or develop “pro-social” responses to the life I was experiencing in and around me. Despite all that, with the help of a few adults in my life, faith, and eventually what we would come to define as peer support today, I have been blessed to take the experiences I thought were the worst things in my life to learn, grow and heal, turning them into a platform to offer hope, support, and compassion for others struggling. The things I thought were a hopeless cycle have become my greatest asset to love others. I believe it is my social responsibility to reach out to offer whatever I can to make this world the one I wish I had as a child. The truth is I believe deeply that we are in this together and we need each other more now than ever.

This is precisely why I believe peer support has been the missing piece between the idea of wellness and the application of wellness. It is the bridge between what I hoped was possible and into the truth of what is possible! I am living it and there tens of thousands of us living it and giving it back! Traditional medical models deemed the doctors, therapists, and other professionals the “experts”—they can be an incredible resource if we choose we can develop a partnership—however, they weren’t walking in my shoes, and they were trying to assist me from a position of education rather than personal experience and application. All the information in the world is not helpful if it isn’t applied, and what was missing for me in the 15 treatments I had been in and the mental health facilities I was in, was the example of how it actually works—not just telling me that it does but showing me. People who were living it could give me concrete examples of what they did, how they did it, and introduce me to others doing it so I could find what would work for me. What works for me might not work for someone else, but it is evidence that recovery is possible. Over the years, we have come to realize there are many paths to recovery and it is a personal journey. When it is personal and not a one-size-fits-all approach, people become much more invested in it. There is a huge difference between compliance and engagement. We have used the term compliance far too long. If I am only compliant, I will always need an external motivator (treatment, corrections, monitoring, etc.).  If I am engaged and applying the recovery principles that work for me, I am now living the life folks suggested I should.

Despite my fears, I took a deep breath and walked into a room of 20 beautiful, brilliant, resilient, passionate, and thoughtful committed citizens from around the country. I knew that we came here for a purpose and knew that we came here to do what we could to change the world. We may not have known each other’s names yet, but I knew our souls were connected in a way that words cannot describe. I want to be clear that I am not seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, rather through a lens of hope and belief that we can and do change if given the support, structure, information, and grit to take a deep journey to find our own truth. In my opinion, you have to get honest with yourself if you want to actually make a change. You have to identify where you are and, in some ways, how you got here. Then you have to do something about it if you want a different outcome. Most of us can’t do it alone or we would have already done it, hence, the power of peer support. There is incredible power in walking alongside someone who is trying to find their way out of an often very dark place, with someone who knows where you are coming from and who has traveled out of darkness and into the light. Everyone in that room has done that. In that room, there was so much talent, humility, knowledge, experience, willingness, and power.

We came together from various cities in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Washington DC, Georgia, Tennessee, Minnesota, Maryland, California, Florida, Alaska, and, of course, Wisconsin. A few of the places people traveled from were sunny and warm—tell me this group of peers isn’t committed. Who would exchange sunny and 75 degrees for snowy, windy, and cold unless there is something purposeful and powerful in it?! When was the last time you saw a room full of justice-involved folks working alongside a former prosecutor, agency directors, public health administrators, directors of operation, chief operating officers, project assistants, and training managers? These people came together to labor over details, work tirelessly for 2 days straight, and develop a curriculum created and vetted by “content experts” or persons who have lived it. We worked together, created, and challenged ourselves, each other, and the old ideas to create something that may accomplish what hasn’t been seen yet—a national justice-involved peer specialist “specialty” curriculum. A curriculum that will be representative of content experts from around the country. We came from many different roads to join in a collective space and laid all we had and knew on the table. We came to give anyone interested in this path an opportunity, so that others may not have to go as many dark or difficult places we had to and so that future peer specialists could be a part of possibly breaking the cycle of personal and generational incarceration, unwanted mental health commitments, addiction, and trauma. We came to do what we could to offer love and hope to those who are looking for path to wellness and recovery.

I am still unpacking the impact it has had on me. It was beautiful, hopeful, challenging, and inspiring! This work is difficult and rewarding on many levels. There is a type of soul exchange a person has to make to continue to go into the darkness repeatedly, to be open to it, and to be vulnerable. People can still lose their battles trying to survive or taking risks in learning how to live. You still have to see the suffering and sometimes lay to rest people you have gotten to know and care for. I needed this time together. I needed to connect with people who know where I have been, where I am, how hard it can be, and how incredible it can be. What an honor it is when someone who may have never shared something with another human being shares with you…what a beautiful, amazing, powerful mess this journey can be. I wouldn’t change it for the world—and because of our time together I am even more  inspired to make more positive changes in my life, to  get back up and do it again with more integrity, love, and commitment—all that I can muster on any given day. I will remember that in every corner of our country there are folks who not only know where I have been but are giving every day to create the kind of world that is more compassionate, kind, and healthy so that others won’t have to go where we have been to find themselves! The message will be you matter and you are invited to become who you were created to be! Thank you to all who made this possible, to those who have pioneered and paved the road before us, and those who will come after us. We are with you and you are not alone!!