Stella Oh, a student at UNCG who also attends Wellness Academy classes, embarked on an oral history project last summer. She began interviewing peers and staff members at the Association, asking questions about their recovery and what they’ve learned along the way. The following interview with David Cray, peer support specialist and Wellness Academy teacher, is the first in Stella’s Recovery Journeys project.
Describe yourself in a few words.
Creative. Sometimes a little shy. Confident in some ways.
What does recovery mean to you?
For me, it’s the process of dealing with symptoms—hopefully avoiding them, if possible—and overcoming mental illness.
You are a peer support specialist. What is that like?
I learn a lot from being a peer support specialist, especially about how people deal with problems. I like the interaction: It’s fun to feel like I’m helping someone—to see a person who has not been doing so well leave happier.
How has creativity played a role in your life?
It’s been a big part of my life. I went to school for music, and I’m also a writer. Even before I knew much about recovery, I was using music as an outlet and a way to get through problems. I also compose poetry, and I’ve written a book on mental illness that I’m trying to get published.
Tell me more about your book.
It talks a bit about my own story and the things that have helped me recover.
Who is your support system?
My mom and my wife are really supportive, and I have support at work—everybody helps each other here.
What gives you hope?
Well, my spiritual walk. I have a strong belief in God—feeling that God wants to love and help me has given me hope. Seeing other people go through struggles and remain positive gives me a lot of hope.
How do you think the media can better portray people with mental health challenges?
It would be neat if the media talked about how mental illness has actually brought good things into people’s lives. It can be hard thing to accept, but it can also help us grow and learn.
What advice do you have for peers?
Make your recovery a very active, intentional thing. We have to focus on our dreams, because if we give up on them, we’re not going to have a whole lot of hope. Dreams are what make a difference in your life. Also, find a way to get support through groups and social activities; avoid isolation because that can cause a lot of problems.
Speaking of dreams, do you have any for your future?
I’d like to have my book published as well as some books of poetry. I’m in the process of recording a classical guitar album at a studio in High Point. It’s almost done, but the finishing touches are taking a while. I’d like to get that album produced and out there. And I’d like to keep growing in my recovery journey.
Is there a specific crisis moment that you recovered from?
I went through a period when I was involved in things I’m not proud of—drug use, stuff like that. I struggled for a long time. A big part of the problem was my denial: not wanting to believe that something as simple as a substance could be a problem. When I finally got a grip, my spiritual walk began. I quit smoking cigarettes too, which is probably one of the best things I’ve ever done. I didn’t really have a lot of success with quitting until I began learning about God and recovery and got involved in support. I became active in the community too, which gave me a lot more confidence. I volunteered for a while at the Salvation Army. It’s not something I expected to enjoy because I had this negative image of homeless people. When I got there, I started to appreciate everyone’s humanness and the fact that they’re just trying to get through hard situations, and they deserve a good life as much as anyone else. I started feeling compassion toward people that had mental illness and had struggled with the same things as I had. I got involved in Celebrate Recovery, a Christian recovery group along the same line as AA and NA. I played in the band there for five years and that was a lot of fun; being social and finding healthier people to be around was helpful.
What mental health terminology do you think is best?
To me, the issue is not so much the words we use but how we use them. If someone says “mentally ill” with a tone like it’s a terrible thing—then it sounds negative. I try to be sensitive to the individual rather than to the words themselves because I think that’s what makes the difference.
Do you have anything else to add?
I’ve gotten involved in nutrition and exercise, and that’s been really powerful for me. I’m doing a lot of juicing with fruits and vegetables, and I walk every day. It doesn’t even need to be a long walk. When I walk, I’m not thinking of it as exercise—I’m just trying to have fun for 20 minutes, and that makes it easier.