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‘Lean on me when you’re not strong ...’

December 21, 2018

More than 200 Northwest Georgians struggling with mental illness or substance abuse gathered this week for a twofold purpose: celebrate their ongoing recoveries and offer each other support through the holidays.

The Highland Rivers peer support Christmas party, now in its second year, brought together groups from Floyd, Polk, Bartow, Gilmer and Whitfield counties. Games, songs, prizes and a visit from Santa preceded lunch at the festively decorated Cartersville Civic Center.

Betty Gardner of Rome arrived full of glee and passed that spirit along to everyone she met. She giggled and posed with Santa — played by Jim McGrath — before picking up a gift bag donated by Angel Express and strolling off to another of the event stations dotted around the room.

“I am having fun,” the Mississippi native declared with a blissful smile. “Yes, ma’am, I am.”

Highland Rivers spokesman Michael Mullet said that, for some in the peer support programs, the party is the only holiday connection they have.

“Some have no family or they’re estranged. Others may not have the resources,” Mullet said.

Through the peer support groups, people in recovery share their set-backs, their personal dreams of wellness and their coping strategies for dealing with stress. Each of the groups prepared a special presentation for the party.

Early on, the familiar strains of Bill Withers’ “Lean on me, when you’re not strong ...” rang out as a karaoke production by the Cedartown peer support group. Brenda Byess called it their recovery anthem.

“We lean on each other and support each other,” she said as the singers waved homemade signs naming issues they each have risen above.

At a nearby table, Michael Fears of Rome was filling out his Party People Bingo card — an icebreaker game that sent people off to find “a peer who likes to cook,” “a peer who has been to a NAMI Walk” or “a peer who has gone Christmas caroling.” The party grew more festive as raffle winners were called.

“It helps,” said Jimmy Moore, who’s in the Cedartown program. “We get to know people who are going through the same challenges we are and see some we haven’t seen in a while.”

Debbie Strotz, director of recovery-oriented care at Highland Rivers, has been in recovery herself for more than 23 years. She said it’s a lifelong commitment that must be reaffirmed daily.

“At the holidays, it’s really important to know who your support group is,” she said.

Remembering to stay in the moment is another stress-reduction tip, Strotz said, adding that meditation has been helpful to her.

And it’s encouraging to enjoy a little holiday cheer with others who can relate to you.

“The peers are the ones who show recovery is possible. They give hope to other people by showing it can be done,” Mullet said.

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