A Certified Peer Specialist Living With PTSD
OC87 Recovery Diaries and Philadelphia public television station WHYY teamed up with first time filmmakers from area mental health and wellness organizations to create original, short films that detail journeys of recovery and transformation. We are thrilled to present the first of this year’s four projects: Open Eye Portraits: My PTSD Survival Story, by Brenda Lewis and Sheila Hall Prioleau, from RHD United Peers.
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“In the beginning, I was really scared,” Brenda said. “There’s so much I could talk about — trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse … and it’s like: ‘Are you sure?’ And the answer was: ‘Yes, say it, talk about it.’ It’s freeing.”
Brenda Lewis is an artist. Her works are filled with color and energy. She is a thoughtful woman who chooses her words, and colors, carefully. She is also in recovery from PTSD — the by-product, she says, of an unstable childhood. When she was young, she was placed in a series of foster homes that were less than healthy.
Open Eye Portraits details the role that “scribble art” plays in her recovery. This therapeutic art form starts with an emotional reaction that is literally scribbled onto a blank piece of paper. That initial scribble becomes the foundation for a piece of art. For Brenda, this art is a process that encourages creativity, self-exploration and discovery.
Sheila Hall Prioleau is the director of RHD United Peers, an organization that supports people in recovery from mental health challenges in a community inclusion program staffed by Certified Peer Specialists. A Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) is a paid staff person who is willing to self-identify as a person with a serious behavioral health disorder (mental illness, substance use disorder, or co-occurring disorder) with lived experiences.
“Watching her [Brenda] has been amazing,” Sheila said. “It hasn’t been easy, but to see her get through it, no matter what, has given me encouragement. I wanted her to be able to see what I see. If she sees it on film, she’ll know how awesome she is.”
Brenda began as a member of United Peers, gained her CPS certification and is now a WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan) facilitator. United Peers uses Certified Peer Specialists to assist persons in recovery as they work to live as independently as possible, demonstrating and modeling recovery through education and their own lived experiences. “Above all,” Sheila says, “we believe that our peers drive the bus and that we sit in the passenger seat to support, assist and encourage!”
This was certainly the case with the documentary.
With the support of professionals at WHYY, Sheila and Brenda learned filmmaking and editing so they could tell their story themselves. The first time filmmakers were in charge of shooting, editing and structuring the video.
“When I first sat down in front of the editing board, it looked like Greek,” Sheila said. “I thought, oh my gosh, what have I got myself into? The only experience I had was taking pictures on my phone! It was fun after we learned it, but it was scary.”
The documentary tells the story of Brenda’s journey of trauma and recovery – and how art continues to play a key role in that journey.
“I hope people take away that if Brenda can do it, so can I,” Sheila said. “And that I am not my diagnosis. PTSD doesn’t have to make me a victim; I can still be a survivor.”
Read Brenda Lewis’ PTSD recovery story in her own words:
What I know of my childhood, roughly of the age of six, after being separated from my mom, due to no fault of her own, she was very sick.
From six to seven, right before we got placed in the system, I thought my life was going to be so wonderful. I thought “Well, they took us from my mom, temporarily, she got better, her health got better, and they placed us with this really nice, older couple. We were with them, and this is really going to be great. Things are going to be good.”
But then after that, it got bumpy.
The darkest moments were being put in homes where people didn’t care. They just wanted the money.
Those were my darkest moments, the stuff that went on in those homes, that I thought I would never get out of.
The only diagnosis that they would give us is that we were “bad children.”
“You’re in a foster home because you’re bad, nobody wants you and we’re going to straighten you out!”
I got an official diagnosis in 2010. I felt really happy when they explained it to me. I didn’t understand the “post-traumatic” — I didn’t understand that, but it was post traumatic stress — I knew it was that. Oh yeah, I really understand that.
In 2002 and 2003 I was going through a really emotional, spiritual journey. I couldn’t really find my spiritual journey with God, my higher power. No matter what I tried, I just couldn’t see. I was very angry. I was in a very very angry place about God. And so one of my therapists decided to help me get in tune with that.
What she asked me to do was to the scribble emotions. And we basically started off just scribbling. Just scribbling and putting it on paper how I feel. It allowed me to find myself and be able to have a voice.
Like, how are you feeling today? — scribble. Just put it out. Just put it out there and someone could look at this and say, “Whoa! You was really mad!”
Now I can talk about God, I can even read my bible now. You know, I’m singing about God, I’m praising Him and just getting to have a better relationship with Him.
Yes, the artwork really saved my life. It actually saved my life.
Right now, I’m so grateful. I’m so grateful. And sometimes it’s hard for me to say how grateful I am, cause I’ll start crying. I get very emotional. My work shows how I feel about it, after we get a chance to talk about it.
United Peers helped me, supported me, and I am now a Certified Peer Specialist. I’m a supportive staff person and I’m also a resource coordinator to help other peers find resources to help them along this journey so they won’t have such a difficult time.
My journey is reaching out to individuals and services that support children that have been in the system, using my artwork to help them be able to illustrate their journey.