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Illustration by Brittany England

I wake up at around 10 in the morning, groggy and tired. The psychiatric medication I take at night always makes me feel this way. It’s incredibly sedating, but it also makes me hungry. So I usually end up overeating too close to bedtime, and the food in my belly weighs me to sleep for 10 to 12 hours.

Once I get myself out of bed, I sit down to breakfast and check in on the mental health support group I run on Facebook. My role in this group is essentially the same as my job as a peer specialist: I use my lived experience with mental illness to help and mentor others with similar struggles.

Members of the Facebook group come from all across the United States, and some even work as peer specialists themselves. Our online talks are centered on cutting to the core of the mental illness experience. Shame is left at the door, and we come as we are.

As the group mediator, I often post questions or thoughts to kick-start discussions. Today I write:

I hate this notion of “subconscious.” I struggle with, like, something forcing me into situations and mindsets that I don’t want for myself. Then this “force” says “You can’t have freedom and success unless you believe what I say and make my opinions your own.” I hate hate it. How do I get rid of “the force”?

Over the next hour, people write back, offering encouragement and wisdom. I always appreciate the insights I get from the group, and knowing they’re listening inspires me to share instead of keeping my fears to myself.

In “real life,” stigma is ever-present, and many of us go online specifically to retreat from that oppression. Thus, my Facebook group has also become a way for affected people to process and address mental health discrimination.

I glance at the time and realize it’s already after 11 a.m. Shoveling the rest of my Greek yogurt into my mouth, I shut my laptop and hustle into my room to get dressed. I’ve got to be at the office for my peer specialist job by 12 p.m.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, I would take an Uber to save time commuting. Nowadays, my mother is working from home, so she drives me there.

I run down my stairs and hop into her car a little out of breath. “Hi sweetie,” she says as I clip my seat belt.

A few minutes later, we arrive to my office. “See you at 8!” I say over my shoulder.

My job is to work with case managers to help people with mental illness disabilities learn skills and become more independent. I used to do this by visiting people at their homes and going on errands with them, but now I spend the majority of my workday calling them instead.

The purpose of the calls is simple: to talk to them and see if they’re OK. I’ve known most of our people for at least a year, and some I’ve known for more than 5 years. I’ve forged supportive working relationships with them, offering unconditional regard and encouragement.

The first call I make is to a woman I’ll call Mary.

“I’m OK, just sitting and drawing my cartoons,” she says. “Once this virus is over, we’re gonna go to the karaoke club again, and I’m gonna sing ‘Eat It’ by Weird Al Yankovic. And then we’re gonna sing ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight?’ by the great Elton John.”

A big part of peer relationships is the elimination of power imbalances. Typically in mental healthcare, the clinician is the expert who offers a service to the patient. But with peers, there is mutuality with give and take.

“I know, I miss our karaoke trips too. I’m looking forward to when we go back,” I respond. “So, how are you feeling with COVID-19? Are you scared at all?”

“Not really. Just staying at home.”

I’m floored by how many of my people are not freaking out. In fact, many of the people I work with seem calmer and more grounded than those I know who don’t have any mental illness disability or diagnosis.

Others, though, are more worried. Like the next person, whom I’ll call Frank.

“Oh my God, I’m so nervous about this coronavirus,” he says. “I’m cleaning my apartment nonstop. I cannot have dirt in here. My roommate and I, we got up at like 4:30 a.m. to get to the grocery store at 6 a.m., because we don’t want to have to stand in line forever. I have a bad back and the phlebitis in my legs, ugh.”

“Yeah. It’s good you’re getting groceries, though,” I say.

“So, how’s your mother doing?” he asks.

“She’s good. She’s been working from home, so she has more time to do arts and crafts.”

Frank has never met my mom, but after knowing one another for more than 5 years, we’ve talked a lot about our families. He’s got the same fierce love for his mother that I do for mine.

“Aw, that’s nice. Tell her I say hi,” says Frank.

We hang up, and I check my list for the next person I need to call, Terrence.

“Neesa, I just want to say thank you for doing what you do. I know you got your master’s, and you are going to make a great social worker,” he says.

For 2 years, I worked full-time while going to school in the evenings, somehow finding time to write academic papers. When I think about this accomplishment, I’m kind of stunned.

Twelve years ago, I was studying classical music performance on the viola for graduate school when I developed schizophrenia. I dropped out and could never get restarted.

After cycling in and out of hospitals for a few years, I went on disability, prepared to never work again. At times, I believed I was the reincarnation of Beethoven and the Antichrist incarnate. I had tactile hallucinations where I felt like my head was being squeezed. I believed I was a dark and twisted person, unable to make friends because I was innately evil.

It took years to find the right combination of medications. Once that was determined, I slowly improved and learned ways to exercise self-care.

At 8 p.m. my mom picks me up from my office and drops my back at my apartment.

I check up on my Facebook group as I eat dinner, reading conversations between members to make sure everyone is OK. I’m amazed that although each person has their own dynamic worldview, mutual sharing seems to edify us all.

This Facebook community has become my lifeline, where I share and learn from others. And my peer specialist job helps me remain mindful of my own mental health. I can never forget where I once was, because negligence can land me right back there in a second.

I take my nightly medication and wait for it to kick in, still engrossed in reading Facebook posts. A nagging thought in my head tells me to eat, but tonight I’m too tired to leave my bed.

As I drift off to sleep, I know I’ve found my calling as a mental health professional and that my mental sufferings were not in vain. As the medicine kicks in, my worries fade and I plunge into a dreamless sleep.

Neesa Sunar is a mental health peer specialist and recent social work school graduate from Queens, New York. She is also a singer/songwriter with guitar, and a classically-trained violinist and violist.