For program coordinator Heather Riemer, PEERS offered a way to stay grounded

By Heather Riemer

My name is Heather Haunani. I just want to say a little bit about who I am and why I do what I do, as far as work goes. I have always been a little different. Scared of the world. Kind of flakey and dreamy. I grew up in a family of all females. My dad left when I was young and my mom raised 4 girls. I was born and raised in Hawaii, which was really nice. Unfortunately, I didn’t really fit in, but I tried my best.

My mom was quite strange and we as a family had a hard time. Being the awkward child that I was, I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I loved to escape by reading books. Still, I wanted to leave home as soon as I could. I got my chance and moved out when I was 15. Unfortunately, I ended up in an unhealthy situation. But that is how you learn, through trial and error. Anyway, this situation leads to me getting involved with a lot of negative behaviors. My fragile grasp on reality slipped away. By the time I turned 18 I was a total mess.

I was first hospitalized when I was 19, with many more hospitalizations following over time. I was sad and confused without any solutions in sight. Over the next couple of years, I attended college, got married, and gave birth to 3 beautiful children. I was fairly happy with occasional bouts of depression, voices, and anxiety. My 3 kids were/are the joy of my life. They are all young adults now, one with a child of his own now. Quite a while ago, after a few years of marriage, my husband suddenly passed away. I was already on shaky ground and this event affected me harshly. It was a tipping point.

I fell quickly into a deep hole of mental darkness. I had had a lot of problems over the years with my mental health. Episodes that put me in the hospital time and again. But there was nothing I could do that made things better at this point. I spiraled out of control and lost everything, including a place to call home. I was completely homeless and went in and out of the hospital. At one point, I ended up in jail and then prison. I went through some hard times. 

Finally, it came to the place where I was going to continue to go down unless I turned things around. I landed in a shelter, which was really helpful but wasn’t enough. So, I went to a transitional place that was for people with mental health challenges. I found it very helpful to be around others who had also had a difficult time in the past. There was something comforting about it. 

I worked at a couple of odd jobs for a year or so and eventually reunited with my kids. It was tough. I moved into my own apartment. My youngest daughter, the only one who was not 18 yet, moved back in. We are very close now. 

At that time I learned about PEERS through someone at the transitional house and decided to attend one of their events. That showed me that there are people working hard to recover from their mental health problems who are succeeding. I was very impressed at the time. I had just quit smoking cigarettes. And PEERS had a tobacco program. So I took training about how to be a facilitator for the tobacco program and began doing presentations for PEERS. I also took the WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan) facilitator training and went to the Bestnow! Peer specialist training. It was a whirlwind of constant training.

I worked with The Special Messages project after that in Oakland, which is now a part of PEERS. It was really a good experience because I am a person who experiences voices and visions as well. I learned a lot working with people who have special messages, and to this day I continue to work on the Special Messages project. It really means a lot to me. 

Working for PEERS has been a saving grace. It has helped me to find solid ground. Helping others who going through things and finding a pathway out has been so beneficial for me, and hopefully for others. All the people who work at PEERS have special gifts and over the years I made some good friends. Working with others has kept me strong.

The programs that I work in are exceptional. WRAP and Special Messages have a good place in my heart. I constantly amazed by the wonderful work I see going on in the other programs such as the Transitional Age Youth, Lift Every Voice and Speak, ECC, and others. There is something for everyone at PEERS, young and old. If I did not work there I would definitely come as a participant. We’re  funded by the county, so our weekly groups are free and open to the public. We welcome all people with whatever challenges they may have. I promise you will find a place at PEERS. 

I have worked at this agency for almost 7 years, in one form or another. Do you think my restless spirit would have stuck around if it wasn’t a nice place to be? Join us in one of our programs sometime soon. It changed my life; it could change yours.