From Fighting Fires to Fighting for Others

Each year, through our Awards of Excellence program, we honor select individuals who are using their strengths to help peers on their road to recovery. We are proud to recognize Jeff Avery, a peer support specialist for Johnson County Mental Health Center in Kansas, with the Peer of the Year Award for his invaluable contributions and leadership. We sat down with Jeff to discuss his experiences.

On being recognized for his work as a peer support specialist:

“When I stopped being a firefighter after 27 years of service, I was lost. I had value fighting fires. But when that ended, I didn’t have any direction. I was lost in purpose. I’ve always wanted to make a difference in someone’s life, but that was gone. Being a peer specialist was a rewarding path forward for me. Winning this award reinforces the fact that I can still be helpful. It validates that I’m doing a good job by building relationships with people who are in the middle of it.”

On watching people succeed despite their obstacles:

“People are in different places. I just had someone who completed all of the conditions of probation. She was in and out of incarceration, had been a nurse at one point, dealt with substance abuse issues … all of the things that took her to places where she made a lot of poor decisions. During probation, she relapsed and went to jail for three days. At this point, she was finally ready to take suggestions. She attended outpatient drug treatment, met all the terms and was released. And in the past six months, she found a job she likes, is looking for her own apartment, and I just took her to get her driver’s license after seven years of not having one. She’s making incredible growth!”

On the perks of being a peer support specialist:

“It’s amazing. I get to watch people gain the hope that they, too, can recover and lead a life of worth. The people I work with have multiple felonies in their background and, often, substance abuse issues. They don’t know how they’re going to manage their re-entry back into the community. They face challenges with finding a job, having reliable transportation … it can all be very overwhelming, and they have a lot of anxiety. Being able to support them and share from personal experiences means a lot.”

On his own journey with mental illness and addiction:

“When I was battling substance abuse issues, that had a big effect on my family. I was also dealing with anxiety, PTSD and depression; this was around mid-May in 2015. It got to the point where I was on my way to kill myself, and I got into a car accident. I was at peace with the decision I had made, and I was mad that night as I was being brought in by the police, you know? The pain wasn’t going to stop. It took an involuntary commitment to a state hospital, intensive outpatient programs, medicine, therapy and a lot of work on my part to move forward. I committed to 12-step programs, got real with myself and had conversations with people who wanted to help me.”

On the advice that helped him march toward a healthier future:

“When I was in a 30-day treatment facility, there was this old man, a volunteer. He would ride in on his motorcycle, carrying his guitar, and he would tell us it can get better. He said, ‘Don’t leave here without a plan. You walk out without a plan, and you’ll go right back to the same environment, only without any tools, and the chances of success aren’t great.’ He told us that four quarters are better than 100 pennies … to have four people you can count on, be honest and vulnerable with, and ask for help. He told us to find those four quarters and use them; let them help you – they want to help you – but you have to ask. I could only find two. He told me, ‘You have two fifty-cent pieces! That’s still money in your pocket!’”

On looking back at the past four years:

“It’s been a journey of self-awareness. I get as much from the people I work with as they get from me. I’ve been where they are – trying to make heads or tails of life, being frustrated with relationships not going your way, feeling hopeless. I see the pain and tiredness in their eyes, and it reminds me that I need to keep doing what I’m doing to keep getting what I’m getting. It’s a huge payback when I see people make progress, when one little thing goes their way, and it means so much to them. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I have found my purpose.”

On how he’s doing today and what the future holds:

“I’ve seen two of my daughters have grandchildren, I went on a family vacation with them, I’ve walked my daughter down the aisle last year … I’m building these relationships now when I couldn’t at one point in time. Before, I felt like I was rowing a boat, trying not to head toward the falls. My boat was leaking and filling up with water. I was so exhausted. I just wanted to put my oars down. But I had a few people slide in and take over for me, until I was ready to get back in and row with them. Today, they’re shouting words of encouragement from the bank, watching me go. I have so much gratitude.”

Guest Author

Nicholas Addison Thomas Director of Content Marketing, National Council for Mental Wellbeing