Photo of a hammock with two people sitting behind it with their backs to the camera.

Peer Respites: A Vital Community Resource

Written By: J Helms, Director of Training & Advocacy

In early 2018, I was in the midst of a deep darkness and struggling significantly to move through the day-to-day experience of being alive. Pretty much everything felt like a chore: I was angry about having to brush my teeth. Getting dressed for winter and having to deal with snow made me want to scream and break things. Holding a conversation for any amount of time felt absolutely torturous. I didn’t want to feel any emotions and I didn’t want to talk about emotions, mine or anyone else’s. In short, I was mutinous about being alive and I wanted very badly to stop existing.

Back then I worked as a peer support advocate at a community mental health agency and spent the majority of my days supporting people in emotional distress. You can probably understand why my work didn’t feel restorative, energizing, or particularly possible during that time (though it had certainly felt that way before and did again after). Outside of work, I struggled to maintain my relationships with friends and family; I couldn’t keep up with communication and when I did communicate, it wasn’t authentic to my actual experience. Most importantly, I’d fallen short in my relationship with myself: I’d become so focused on trudging through the muck of each day that I’d lost myself. I saw a stranger in the mirror.

I knew that I needed to create a break from my life in order to keep living: the only way I could reconnect with myself and rebuild my resilience was to take an actual and intentional pause.

In communities across our state (and the country), when people want to take this particular kind of break or pause, there aren’t a whole lot of options. Many people who are in crisis end up in psychiatric institutions where they’re made to surrender their cellphones, their shoelaces, and, quite often, their dignity in the name of “getting better.” While some people do benefit from their experiences in psychiatric institutions, by and large psychiatric institutions don’t truly meet the diverse needs of community members in crisis. A psychiatric institution is a place to go when there’s nowhere else to go and, sometimes, a place that people are forced to go by service providers.

Community members in crisis need and deserve community resources that afford them the space to create their own pause, to build their own respite, to facilitate their own healing, growth, and transformation in self-designed ways, and to authentically connect with others. This is what I needed. To truly take a pause from the stressors in my life and reconnect with myself, it was imperative that I maintain autonomy and choice and that I receive support from people who knew what it was like to navigate darkness.

One such community resource is a peer respite. Peer respites utilize a holistic, person-centered, peer approach to supporting people who are experiencing intense emotional distress. Peer respites are homelike environments, non-institutional by design.

In Vermont, we currently have one peer respite, Alyssum. Located in the middle of the state in Rochester, Alyssum is a two-bed residential crisis respite and hospital diversion service funded by the Vermont Department of Mental Health; it’s peer run and staffed by peer support workers with lived experience. Luckily I knew about Alyssum. I reached out to them and they said they’d take me as soon as they had an opening. I was fortunate to have plenty of paid time off and an understanding supervisor who supported my decision to care for myself. Within a week, Alyssum had an opening and I took it.

I drove myself from Brattleboro (my home at the time) to Rochester on a Tuesday afternoon in late February. After completing the intake process, which was mostly just a conversation about my current despair and what I hoped to get out of my time at Alyssum, I settled into my private, cozy room, put my clothes away in the armoire, plugged in my phone charger, arranged my journal and a couple books I’d brought on the nightstand. That evening a staff person made a very tasty dinner that we ate together, and, after considering our options, we watched a movie on a comfy couch in the spacious living room. I wasn’t yet ready to talk at length about how I was feeling and no one pressed. They simply were there with me, being with me while giving me space. That night I felt more present and connected to myself than I had in a very long time.

In the 11 days that I stayed at Alyssum, I unpacked why I’d ended up needing a pause from my life, why I’d been feeling so deeply disconnected from myself and the world around me. Each staff person I connected with supported me in ways that we mutually agreed upon: someone took me to breakfast in a nearby town and made multiple delicious meals that we shared together; a couple people smashed plates and bowls with me at a quarry while we screamed into the pit together, releasing anger; one person helped me pick the font for a new tattoo (lyrics from a meaningful song); one person supported my creation of a vision board, highlighting the areas of my life where I wanted to dedicate my energy (this particular activity is, in part, how I ended up several years later becoming Director of Training & Advocacy at Pathways Vermont); one person made me a grilled cheese sandwich that I still think about sometimes (I love sandwiches); several people laughed with me, cried with me, meditated with me, hugged me, watched movies with me, and sat with me in quietude.

While at Alyssum, I also supported myself in many of the ways that I know work for me. I spent several afternoons at a local café/bookstore down the road. I wrote so much that I filled a small journal. I read. I painted in the basement. I drove to Montpelier and got a new tattoo. I cooked. I rested without interruption. I screamed and threw rocks into a river. I connected with other guests. Though I kept texting to a minimum (my own limitation for myself, not anyone else’s), I had my phone on hand to maintain connection with my community and loved ones.

I sought a respite because I’d found myself in a deep crisis of meaning. I needed space to rediscover myself, to figure out a way forward, to focus my energies on building a life that felt livable and sustainable to me. I needed to feel held and loved by others, to get reacquainted with holding and loving myself. And, most importantly, I needed to be the captain of my own ship, the designer of my own experience of rest and healing. Alyssum gave me this. Peer respites can and do give this space to our community members when they need it.

Peer respites are a vital component of our system of care and in Vermont we only have one two-bed respite – this isn’t enough to meet the diverse needs of our communities or community members in crisis. Additionally, peer respites relieve pressure on emergency departments and emergency services by diverting community members who are experiencing mental or emotional distress, considering suicide, or struggling with substance use.

Pathways Vermont is currently working to establish more peer respites across the state of Vermont, starting with a pilot of a 5-bed respite in Burlington. We believe deeply in the power of peer support and utilize this approach across our existing programming: Housing First, FACT (Forensic Assertive Community Treatment), Soteria, Vermont Support Line, and Pathways Vermont Community Center. As a statewide peer-led peer support agency, we feel that we are uniquely positioned to establish and sustain multiple peer respites. To learn more about our proposal and plans, you can review this presentation or reach out to the following Pathways Vermont staff:

Hilary Melton (she/her), Executive Director: [email protected]

Lindsay Mesa (she/her), Assistant Director: [email protected]

Maria Moore (she/her), Director of Development & Communications: [email protected]

J Helms (they/them), Director of Training & Advocacy: [email protected]

Skip Footer