Alternatives 2013 – A 500-person conference covering practically all aspects of the recovery movement; and there I was, right in the middle of it and ready to learn all that I could.  Never before had I been in a room full of so many people who wanted to talk about mental health and were unashamed to share their mental health struggles and triumphs.  It was powerful, it was moving, and it was emotionally exhausting.  Each day I attended sessions on topics such as, intentional language, childhood trauma, and rural treatment options, realizing that the more I learned, the less I knew.

In each session, we were encouraged to participate and share our own experiences.  I heard heartbreaking stories from resilient individuals who had risen above pessimistic prognoses to achieve independence, happiness, and recovery.  When I would tell the groups that I had learned about the recovery movement in January 2013, despite coming from a family with a long history of mental illness, I would receive knowing smiles and chuckles.  The conference attendees, no matter their connection to the mental health field, knew that their work, advocacy, service provision, or peer support, is nowhere near finished – there are still many individuals struggling with behavioral health issues who are not aware of the options available to them.

It was incredible seeing such a diverse group of people convene at Alternatives to share their knowledge.  I could not believe how many different opinions there were, even on subjects I thought were decidedly one-sided.  Differing views on therapy, medication, language, holistic wellness, the idea of recovery itself, made me stop and question my own thoughts – do I think the way I do because of my experiences or because of what I have been taught?  Each night, my coworker Ashley and I would act as a sounding board for each other, working to restructure our ideas and beliefs in the context of what we had learned that day.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned was realizing how harmful self-directed, disempowering language is on self-worth.  The workshop facilitators instructed us to remove the word “can’t” from our vocabulary and to replace it with “I choose not to.”  “I can’t be a writer” or “I can’t dance” turns into “I choose not to be a writer” and “I choose not to dance.”  Rephrasing the statement forces you to examine your own self-imposed limitations.  When practicing this exercise, I ask myself why I am choosing to not do a particular activity and if I would be happier if I chose to act.  It is a fun (and scary!) exercise, and has helped me to realize that I am capable of so much more than I give myself credit for.

Alternatives was an incredibly powerful experience for me: it gave me a deeper understanding of my work and my family and a deeper respect for individuals who advocate for “choice and voice” for those struggling with mental health problems.