What is Peer Support?
For the last three years or so, I’ve spent my Wednesday evenings in a small, overheated room in North London. Alongside me, sit men and women from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. What unites us is a hospital (also in North London) where we have all, at one stage, been a patient, and an unwavering commitment to recovery. This group, in which every single one of us has experienced an eating disorder of some description, is a peer support group. Everyone in it knows what it feels like to wage a war against your own mind, and to fight to reclaim yourself from illness.
Eating disorders are very hard to understand from the outside (much of the time, they are equally mystifying from the inside). While I hope The Recovery Club may provide an insight into the internal world of someone with an eating disorder, ultimately, it is a headspace that is very difficult to access unless you have experienced it. Even now, looking back at the darker moments of my illness, I find it very hard to get inside my mind at that time, and understand the impulses that drove me to such depths. An eating disorder possesses no logic outside of its own rules and compulsions, and is driven by powerful, deep-rooted forces.
As a result, eating disorders can be extremely alienating experiences. Their incomprehensibility can make it difficult for friends and family to empathise, often resulting in conflict and exasperation. Even for the person experiencing the eating disorder, it can be difficult to understand the force taking over your thoughts and behaviour. This can be frightening, and make you feel very alone.
Peer support, then, is a vital and powerful force. Fundamentally, it’s about individuals with lived experience (past or present) supporting one another, sharing experiences, and helping each other feel a little less alone.
Of course, eating disorder communities are not always positive spaces. We’ve all heard about, perhaps even participated in, pro-Ana communities or other online platforms where eating disorder behaviours are glamorised or encouraged. Eating disorders, when put together in one space, can become competitive or triggering. This is why peer support communities must be regulated. In the group I attended, we had certain sacrosanct rules: no numbers, for example, and no detailed descriptions of behaviours. The same rules apply to this virtual space. Groups have the potential to uplift and support, but they can also be counter-productive. We want to make sure this community is the good kind.
This doesn’t mean we must shy away from honest or difficult conversations. Peer support is all about is speaking openly about what we’re struggling with, which can have a powerful impact for others in the group. Sometimes seeing a behaviour or thought pattern externalised in someone else can not only make you feel less alone, but help to see the illogic or damaging nature of that behaviour. As it’s often much easier to show kindness to others than to ourselves, seeing your own patterns played out in the thoughts and behaviours of others can help you see the disrespect you are showing your own body and mind.
Fundamentally, peer support groups are motivational spaces: holding one another accountable
for each other’s actions and inspiring one another to keep going. They are spaces to listen and
to share, and to feel held and heard by people who have been there and understand.
This is what The Recovery Club is all about: connection, understanding and support - things
that feel all the more important in this time of enforced disconnection and uncertainty.
Everyone is welcome in this peer support group, and we look forward to sharing, listening and
supporting one another in recovery. We are so much stronger together.
Written by Tasha Kleeman.