• Neil Dunford

Once upon a time in the East of London...An everyday tale of disenchantment and how to step out

Once upon a time there was... a person. That person had an experience- a life experience that changed how they lived. In time, that person met another person who had a similar life experience and so they called themselves Peers. Whilst these two newly identified Peers were getting to know each other, there were people going through similar experiences- they were Peers too. In time, many of these Peers got to know each other one way or another. Usually through their routines, which were similar, and also by being introduced to each other through other Peers.

After this had gone on a while, Peer Networks started to emerge. Peers were connected to other Peers and so on and so forth, and it came to pass that the people in those Peer Networks found it useful to pass information along the Network. Information that could be helpful to others connected by the network. Occasionally, and sometimes more often than not- information was passed through networks that was untrue, sometimes it was inaccurate and sometimes, and this is sad, the information was twisted and it made Peers angry. The Peer networks carried on in this way, because this is the nature of things and it certainly was not all bad.

As the Peer Networks continued to grow, develop and subide, Peer Groups started to emerge. These groups took various forms- some were user led, whilst others were led by people who were paid get the Peers together. These Peer Groups gave themselves names and they met regularly to talk about the things that were important to them, the things that were wrong and that needed to be put right. These peer Groups were a source of comfort and many Peers found this was a wonderful way to stop their loneliness; it also gave themselves something to do when they were feeling down. Throughout the Peer networks, Peer Groups came and Peers Groups went. Sometimes Peers fell out with each other and argued, sometimes the Peers consoled each other and rallied round in times of crisis. Sometimes in these Peer groups people blamed someone for something they were unhappy with and it was down to the others in the group to take sides. Whilst it was not always plain sailing, it was by no means all bad.

Whilst these groups ebbed and flowed, something interesting was happening in the Peer networks. It seemed as if some of the Peer Groups were organising themselves in such a way that was causing the Peer Networks to have a central point of contact. The people who liked to use long words to make themselves look clever said that decentralised Networks were becoming centralised through a governing forces. What this really meant was that Peer Networks were operating around a centre of activity- the people who wanted to sound clever called these centres of activities Hubs.

Now for someone who was just stepping into a new life experience, and therefore stepping into new relationships with new people who were now considered their Peers, none of this mattered stuff mattered.

What these new Peers wanted was answers to questions, meaningful conversations and for somebody to explain exactly was going on. It all seemed so confusing, and the last thing on their minds was that they were now Peers! Nor were they particularly aware of these obscure social structures that lay just beneath the surface of their experiences. In fact, it was often the case that when these new Peers started to become part of the Peer Networks that surrounded them, they felt overwhelmed. Yet despite how often time harrowing these new associated experiences were, it was undeniable that these Peer Networks Peer Groups had something massively useful to offer.

It was exactly because certain life experiences could get difficult that some groups within the Peer networks called themselves Peer Support Groups. Peers then started hearing words like ‘safe place’. The Peer Support Groups were Safe Places to talk about their feelings, to share things about their experiences that they could get advice on. Words like confidentiality and grounds rules were spoken about, and those Peers who wanted support were expected to abide by these rules. However, in the now dazzling array of Peer related phenomena, it was becoming apparent that people, ot just Peers, but also Professionals and Practitioners were mixing up how they were using the terms. It wasn’t that any body was doing it on purpose, very often Peer Groups called themselves Peer Support Groups or Peer Networks called themselves Peer Support Networks because that is what the people who led them wanted them to be. The fact that very often little support came out of them was almost beside the point.

And so it turned out that not only the ‘life experience’ someone was going through could at times be extremely challenging, it also became apparent that being one of these so called Peers could be really hard too. But the problem was, if you decided not to participate as a Peer, then you didn’t get to know or relate to other people going through similar experiences. This made things lonely, but not only that, you didn’t hear about things that could be of helpful. What’s more, it seems the professionals and practitioners tasked to support you as you lived through your experiences, didn’t know everything themselves either- often they would give wrong information and you might miss out on something that could otherwise have helped. Sometimes, they just didn’t tell you anything at all and on those bad days it felt like they were trying to mislead the Peers. Yes, on those bad days it did feel like this.

So, it seems the life of a Peer was a necessary evil… yes, you would have to get involved in the internal politics of a community- a community that was talking at cross purposes, a community that were sometimes promoting or talking about things that were based on rumour and make believe. The worst thing though, was when Peers actually talked about things that were true, not the true things that were good and wholesome and positive, but those true things that made everything seem hopeless, that made everything feel so bleak that you ended up not trusting anyone. Those were the scary conversations and those seemed to be the conversations you couldn’t get away from.

Years passed, and things continued like this- there were good times and bad times. Social Movements came and went, acronyms flourished and society continued to bring forth Peers who operated in one way another, all trying their best with what they had been given. Things weren’t easy - but that was never the deal was it? Who ever said things were supposed to be easy. As laws changed, it almost seemed like institutions and statutory bodies were changing to accommodate some of the things the Peers had been saying. New regulations were brought in, guidelines were introduced and it seemed that perhaps there was an alternative to the Peer maze that only seemed to getting worse with Online Social Media, messaging services and smart phones.

With some of the new laws that were being passed, it felt that Peers were being given a chance to talk about their life experiences in a new way, with different people who wanted to listen; with people who could make changes for the better and improve the circumstances relative to the life experiences the Peers were going through. So Peers started to going to meetings, which were called names like Forums and Boards. In addition to words like confidentiality, ground rules, and safe places Peers now started to hear words like Coproduction and Strategy.

Of course, the Peer groups and Peer Networks still existed, were still going on, and not everyone wanted to go to Board meetings and set up Forums in their local area. Many Peers wanted to simply have the opportunity to go for a coffee and have a chat with someone to whom they didn’t have to explain why their had been quite so challenging. Many Peers liked the places and spaces where they could exchange information and learn about techniques and methods that could support them in their life experiences. Some Peers within some of the groups liked to campaign, lobby and be activists. All these things were important to Peers and all had their place within the Peer networks that ran through the community.

But then something quite unexpected happened and it is at this point that the more sensitive people in the audience may want to sit down. Some of the Peers who were getting involved with this exciting new work around ‘Coproduction’ started to talk about it like it was a Peer Support group. Some of the Peers who wanted to participate in the Coproduction Boards wanted to use it as an opportunity to campaign for their rights. In short, something disappointing started happening time and again. The opportunity to work together with Professionals and Practitioners, in order to develop services that would enhance the circumstances of those who were having similar experiences, was being confused with all the other types of Peer oriented activity that sat one on top of the other within the Community.

And there is something else to be said about this which the audience may find disquieting. The Professionals within the statutory organisations who were tasked to work in the spirit of Coproduction often did not understand what they were supposed to be doing either. Many professionals when involved in Forum and Board Meetings often mistook this as an opportunity to ‘engage’ the community, to ‘consult’ with the community or to simply show up in order to tick that particular box of their job description. It would seem that within all of this Peer activity, there is a profound sense of uncertainty, often confusion, and occasional bewilderment.

And so here we are, at the beginning of a new day and when all is said and done things aren’t so bad. There are things that work well and things that don’t work so well. There are things that are a source of joy and things that challenge us. Sometimes, those things that challenge us are a source of joy too. All things added up there is a lot to be happy about, a lot to celebrate. What I would like to suggest dear reader, is that the bridges that are still to be crossed, and the challenges that are still to be met are done so with a spirit of optimism and a spring in our step.

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