Sera Davidow is a filmmaker, activist, advocate, author, and mother of two very busy kids. As a survivor of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as a child and relationship violence as an adult, Sera has faced many challenges throughout her own healing process, including many ups and downs with suicidal thoughts, and self-injury. At present, she spends much of her time working as Director of the Wildflower Alliance (formerly known as the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community), which includes Afiya Peer Respite, recently recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of about two dozen exemplary, rights-based programs operating across the world. She also serves on several boards including the Massachusetts Disability Law Center (DLC) Board of Directors, the DLC’s Council Against Institutional and Psychiatric Abuse (CAIPA), as an advisory board member for the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health (NCDVTM), and as a founding Board member of Hearing Voices USA. You can learn more about Sera and her work in an April, 2018 article in Sun Magazine
This interview is the second in a series of conversations being conducted over the next few months around the issue of hotline tracing and intervention. The first interview was with Vanessa Green, founder of Call the Blackline and you can listen to the last podcast in this series with Yana Calou and Robert Jahmil from the Trans Lifeline. It is part of Mad in America’s Suicide Hotline Transparency Project, which was born out of the belief that creating transparency and public access around suicide hotline intervention and call-tracing policies should be a priority. This project includes a directory of lines that do not trace or intervene without consent, a public poll, survivor interviews, and an open call for art. Please visit the project page to find out how you can participate.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Karin Jervert: Hello, everybody. I am Karin Jervert and I am the Arts Editor at MIA. interviewing Sara Davidow from the Wildflower Alliance Warmline. Welcome, Sera. Thank you so much for your time today. Can you tell us just a little bit about yourself?
Sera Davidow: Thanks for having me. I am a part of the Wildflower Alliance Leadership Team, which used to be known as the Western Mass[achusetts] Recovery Learning Community and part of that is a Peer Support Line. We also have a number of other offerings throughout our community.
In addition, I’m also a founding member of the Hearing Voices USA Board of Directors. I love to write and have published a number of articles on Mad in America as well. I like to think of myself as a writer, filmmaker, activist, and a mom.
Karin: That’s quite a lot of things going on there—a mom, an artist, a writer, and the Hearing Voices Network, too, which is a wonderful resource. How did you arrive at your work as a community leader in the Wildflower Alliance – the warmline specifically?
Sera: I am somebody who has a psychiatric history that spent a lot of years trying to figure out what to make of that and what my place would be in the world. I found myself failed by the conventional mental health system, and really what I learned from that was, “Don’t tell anybody.” Don’t tell anybody what you’re going through. So I had to keep looking for other ways to get support and figure myself out.
I started working in a clinical role in the mental health system, which I think a lot of people do, but they don’t admit to it, as a way to try and figure themselves out. I was quite successful in terms of the praise I got for the job I was doing, even in the absence of having any clinical degrees, but when I hit a point in my life where I decided to come out with my psychiatric history, I found myself not so welcomed in that environment anymore.
I ended up finding myself out of that job at a time that happened to coincide with the visioning process for what would become the Wildflower Alliance. A part of that vision was having a peer support home. I should say, all of that was happening between 2005 and 2007 when the Wildflower Alliance became funded. But the Peer Support Line, although it was a piece of the original vision, didn’t take shape until 2012 at the same time that our peer respite was taking shape.
Karin: How is the Wildflower Warmline different? How is it unique?
Sera: You’re referring to it as the Warmline and for whatever it’s worth, I think it’s a really interesting word. Because I think there are warm lines and hotlines, and the implication is that the hotlines deal with the serious crises and the warm lines with something a few steps down from that. In fact, we have found that people who are calling our line are in a lot of distress, and sometimes specifically because they have found that calling hotlines when they’re in that much distress gets them into trouble. They choose these other lines instead. So, we refer to it as a Peer Support Line. I don’t mean to be criticizing your language, I just think it’s an important finding.
Karin: I think the differentiation of how people engage with warm line versus hotline or peer support lines really does change who and why people come to you. It’s important to mention that.
Sera: You’re not the only one who refers to them as warm lines, and I think, in fact, we’re listed on warmline.org or some of these other resources. For me it becomes an issue of internalized oppression of consenting to the idea that we’re somehow lesser than, so we’ve tried to push back on that.
As far as what the Peer Support Line offers, we try to be as flexible as we can in terms of what people need. Sometimes it might be that somebody’s calling from the local area and looking for a particular resource, and our Peer Support Line workers would be expected to explore that with them. They don’t have to be experts.
I think that we get ourselves into a lot of trouble in this world by saying you come here [support lines] for the expert that has all the answers. Our Peer Support Line workers do not have all the answers. But they are willing to explore with people, share what they do know, and explore beyond that. Sometimes it’s about resources, but sometimes people are calling from further away. While we still may be able to find some resources online with them, it’s not necessarily as straightforward.
Honestly, a lot of the time it’s really just someone to talk to. Someone to talk to who is not going to try and take anything away from somebody. Not try to take their liberty. Not try to coerce them into doing a particular thing.
There was a new listing that went up on a particular website recently about peer support lines, and it said that peer support lines can transfer you over to a crisis line. I had our line removed. I said please remove our line until you change that language because I don’t want people to think that if they call us, we’re just at the ready to press some button and transfer them to a crisis line. That’s not how it works.
So, the idea is that you can call and say whatever you need to say to us, and we’re going to listen, we’re going to talk. We’re going to ask you what that means for you or what you want to do with that. There’s also an element of advocacy in there. If someone is trying to figure out what their rights are or where they can go to make sure that they’re getting heard, we will work with them on that.
Karin: What is your philosophy around caring for people who call? For community members who are experiencing crisis?
Sera: I always struggle a bit with these questions, because they’re an ask to boil something down into something really easy to talk about. And I’m not sure it’s that easy. But what I would say is the philosophy is that we are all humans trying to navigate this world, and we all have gained wisdom in our travels, and the most effective way to support someone else is to rely on your own wisdom and be willing to support them to figure out what their answers are.
It’s sort of a long philosophy, but it comes down to all these other ideas that we hear all the time in the peer-to-peer world about trusting people as the experts of themselves, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they have all the answers. But somewhere in them, they have more information about themselves and what they need than anybody else does, and that we have with our [crisis support line workers] questions. We might help them peel away the layers and get to that wisdom that they have inside themselves.
I think our philosophy is very consistent with things like intentional peer support, which is one of our four core trainings that we require of all employees, including the people working on the Peer Support Line. Our other core trainings are a three-day anti-oppression training, and then an Alternatives to Suicide training and a Hearing Voices training.
All of those, ultimately, root back to these values of autonomy, the importance of people retaining or regaining personal power and control in their lives, and the power of supporting people to make meaning of what’s happening in their lives and what isn’t working.
Karin: The Wildflower Peer Support Line specifically offers the community something that is outside of what most mental health crisis lines offer, which is this awareness of the autonomy of the individual. How does it feel to be providing this support for individuals who would otherwise not be able to access this care?
Sera: It feels essential. I also think sometimes it feels really frustrating because there’s not enough of it. We have a Peer Support Line that operates for a handful of hours each day, and it’s answered by one person. Compare that to some of the broader crisis lines where there’s dozens of people available and the calls automatically route to the next person if one person is busy.
We are competing in this way. The lack of access can be so frustrating. So, it feels like an essential thing to be providing. I’m very glad that we’re providing it, and I feel very good about that. But I’m always bumping into the reality that when you have something that’s different, and hard to get to, it can also cause frustration for people. Especially recently, I’ve been really feeling the frustration with our peer respite, with our Peer Support Line, and so many things being too scarce of a resource.
At the same time, as we’ve already talked about, the ability to provide a space, a virtual space where people can say whatever they need to say and have someone on the other end of the line who is not going to be freaked out by it, and not be ready to just shuffle them off, is really powerful.
Too much of the mental health system functions by lying in wait for when someone needs their power taken away from them. Whether we’re talking about the crisis or emergency services, or whatever. They kind of say, well if you’re not bad enough, we don’t have anything for you right now. But we’re watching. The moment you get bad enough, then we’re going to take some power away and we’re going to put you over here. I feel really proud to be able to offer supports that just don’t work like that.
Karin: What you’re doing right is absolutely essential. And so much gratitude for the work that you and everyone at the Wildflower does. That leads us directly into this next question. From your perspective, what are the biggest challenges in this work?
Sera: Again, of course, access and I know we’re talking about the Peer Support Line, but the Peer Respite and the Peer Support Line, while they’re not the same thing, they function out of the same building, and so I think about them both, together, a lot.
The Peer Respite has three bedrooms in a region that has something like eight acute psychiatric units with I don’t know how many beds. So we’re supposed to be proving ourselves as hospital diversion or alternative to hospital. But when you’re always full and there are all these psychiatric beds around you, it gets really hard. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been set up for failure, and I would say similar with the Peer Support Line at times. If you give someone just a little bit of resource, but not enough to really have it take root, or sometimes not enough to pay people to work there consistently, then it can be a bit of a set-up for failure.
While we take whatever we can get, sometimes I wonder if just giving these little trickles of funding sometimes makes it look like “Oh, that’s not an effective approach,” so we don’t have to fund it anymore. I worry about that. Also, we are just one little drip in this psychiatric system. So whenever people come to us, whether it’s on the Peer Support Line or anywhere else, they’ve already come and been through in many instances, but not always, so many other parts of the psychiatric system. So we have to work to gain trust and support people to understand how we’re different.
I don’t begrudge people their need for us to work for them to trust us. I think that’s totally fair given the world we’re living in, and it’s certainly a challenge just to be able to get to the conversations that are the most useful because people have been so harmed in the systems that we’re in. And that’s tough.
Karin: Considering all these challenges that you’re talking about, how can listeners of this podcast support your work?
Sera: Certainly we take donations. That’s always great. We dream of finding wealthy funders who can support us to really expand without having to do the endless grant dance. So many funding sources don’t offer annualized funding, they offer seed funding.
We just recently raised our rates across the board of what we’re paying people, because we just couldn’t continue to justify paying so little. So we’re actually operating at a deficit at the moment.
But I think just being someone who is really invested in the integrity of these lines . . . often when people get ready to fund things more, they only have a surface understanding of it. So, these are moments when things become co-opted or are really at risk of losing their integrity and becoming something else, of becoming the Peer Support Line that does have a button that they press that just transfers you right over to Crisis.
I think what I would ask of listeners is: Be someone who helps us hold that integrity. When you hear that a project is going off course and becoming something else, be someone who speaks up. Be someone who helps us hold what the vision is . . . if a peer support line is using that name and they are doing things that are not consistent with peer support values, then people will experience trauma from that. So it’s important that we band together across this country and beyond in pushing back on co-optation and just making sure that these offerings are what they’re supposed to be.
Karin: I think that’s a really important thing to be aware of. The one thing that I thought about a lot when I was doing this project was the idea of the 9-8-8 number. It is coming out [soon] and there is a move towards lines being funded if they do have that button and not being funded if they don’t. That being the new norm for peer support lines coming online in the world today. And if lines are struggling, and they are trying to stick to their integrity around the trauma and the violence that can occur when police are called and these sorts of things, they may decide that in order to keep on going they need to accept these standards and get the funding rather than being able to stick with their integrity. And then there’s this idea that if a line is in a vulnerable place, you need to find ways that we can support lines like yours and in a financial way that doesn’t come with this caveat.
Sera: Right. That caveat is devastating. It only takes one time. One time that you step over that line and other people hear about it. And why should they trust if we’re willing to cross that line? I think that so much of that roots back to the reality that we as a society need to develop some tolerance of loss and facing the reality that we don’t control everything.
I think the mental health system is poised all the time to figure out when they need to take control, even though the research tells us that when they’re taking control the outcomes are worse down the line.
I’ve said to many people, there are two paths here. One where we accept we can’t control other people but we try to create as much space for them to be with us so we can figure things out together. Sometimes some people will be lost on that path. Or we can follow this other path where we just watch for any sign that someone is about to do something we don’t want them to do, and we try to take that control and prevent them from doing [it] as long as possible. I really think we lose people down that path far more than we lose them down the other.
Karin: I agree with that and have found that to be such an important shift in perspective when you’re facing the suffering of others and yourself. It seems that if you’re going for this temporary control of the moment, like you’re saying, you’re going down a path that does them more harm and causes more suffering. But if you have this – I guess it’s not like a peace or a tolerance, but the understanding and awareness — that suffering is a part of life and loss is a part of life, and that you are just in this together with others, that’s just a fact and you can only do as much as you can.
Sera: I think that’s a really important point. What is a part of life? Because I think that part of what happens is people are projecting their fears of death and their discomfort with death onto everything and everyone around them. If we could get to a place where we accept that pain and death are both a part of life, then we may be able to sit a little easier with people who are in some of those spaces and not just desperately try to control them.
Karin: I wonder if you could expand a little bit upon how you see lines like yours that approach things so differently and so carefully around empowerment are interrupting this cycle of abusive care. And interrupting the cycle of entrenching and reinforcing oppression as it exists in our lives.
Sera: Sure, well oppression is such a rich and multi-layered topic, and I think there are so many different forms of it. I was just having a conversation earlier with someone today about how even the most critical – the people most invested in anti-oppression work– still don’t get psychiatric oppression. They still, somehow think that “Oh, but for that particular group of people we need to figure out how to control them because we want them to be safe.” They’ve been fed these lines that not only will controlling that group of people keep you safe, but also then if you want to be a good person – and everybody wants to be a good person – then you need to make sure that they get the care that they need, and anything less is just not okay.
People have bought into that line, even people who are on the front lines of anti-racism and other anti-oppression work. And so, there’s that challenge. But then there’s also the reality that the psychiatric system has been used as a tool of oppression to reinforce all these other forms of oppression.
Karin: Yes. It’s you. You’re the problem. You’re broken.
Sera: Right. I’ve experienced that myself when I’ve gotten up and shared this story of being a childhood survivor of sexual and physical abuse, of being a rape survivor and still had people say like, “All right, well we hear the trauma, but we’re still going to refer to you as mentally ill.”
When I hear that, I hear them giving a pass to all these people who have hurt me and are still saying, “Regardless of that, there’s still something going on in your head.”
It’s a real bind. And I’ll say it’s a bind because I’m experiencing it very up close and personal right now because one of my kids is having a really, really hard time both in school with some bullying and I’m going through a divorce and there’s a lot of complexity in that situation. It’s really clear that those are the two things that our child is struggling with.
But we’re powerless to fix the school system that’s awful, and we’ve been pretty powerless to fix some of the conditions in the divorce that we’re dealing with, so even I am like “Should I be considering medication, psychiatric drugs, for my child who is struggling so much because I can’t fix these societal conditions?” I need [my kid] to somehow have some protection to move through that.
It’s really painful to see that happen. So many people get stuck in that place of “Things are so terrible, and I can’t control them.” All I can control is maybe I can numb myself out a little, and maybe I can make myself forget these things.
Karin: I have been in this situation myself feeling that way. If the world is just so messed up at the moment and the support is just not there, what if the right choice is to go back on an antipsychotic just because I have no other choice? I know if I were in a different situation in a different world, a different culture, I could possibly live and thrive.
Sera: As far as the Peer Support Line goes, we don’t have any more power than anybody else to fix some of those societal conditions that people are experiencing when they call us, but we can validate that they’re real. We can be one of the places people can call. One of the very few places where we’re not saying, “Oh no, no it’s really about you,” and I think that can be really important.
We also really support people to challenge some of the societal norms. That’s integrated into all of our core trainings that it’s okay to challenge gender norms or expectations of what you should be doing or producing in the world. Who you’re supposed to be. How you are supposed to define your problems. We create that space, and it still doesn’t fix the societal conditions, but it can similarly, in some weird way similar to a psychiatric drug, create a little bit of a buffer or a little bit more protection against dealing with those societal conditions if you have some people, someone who gets it and who hears you, who has your back in that way.
Karin: I have to say I’ve interacted with Wildflower supports — the Peer Support Line and the Peer Support Groups that you all offer there. I have experienced it personally as a psychiatric survivor, and in my journey coming out of a bipolar label and the harm that was done to me. I came to you and your organization. And it has in no small part given me exactly what you’ve just described.
Sera: Thank you for sharing that. It’s helpful to hear.
Karin: Your organization helped walk me back into the world. Walked my art back into the world. Walked my dignity and my empowerment and my love of self. Your organization was a really big part of how that all happened. I think you and others deserve so much gratitude for what you do and in no small part because you’re facing all these challenges, too. Not only just financial and funding [challenges]. Even the most woke people can’t wrap their minds around psychiatric abuse and oppression.
Sera: I was going to say – I actually am experiencing some pretty direct consequences from it at the moment. Again, with my divorce, we just had our pre-trial and in the pre-trial the way it works is you have to say what exhibits you’re going to use and what witnesses you’re going to call, and my ex has listed some of my articles and presentations as an exhibit to try and demonstrate that I have wild ideas about psychiatry and mental health and all this. And therefore questions my ability to parent my kids. So, it’s – it’s pretty intense.
Karin: I’m so sorry you’re experiencing that and also hope that you have support.
Sera: I actually talked to Bob Whitaker when this all first started. I’m like, maybe I should take my articles down. And then I decided no, I’m going to live with my truth regardless of what it brings, but I’m just trying to ride that out at this point.
One thing I haven’t said is that I’m not super fond of, although I’ve used it today, this whole mental health language, because I think it’s the sort of opposite side of the coin to mental illness, both of which come from this medicalized place. If I could push us out of that box and into more of a harm reduction approach, I think that’s really important.
That is a philosophy that we do hold to in all of our work including the Peer Support Line, but I don’t think people really understand what harm reduction means. Sure, it can mean how do we reduce the harm and the impact of the terrible things happening around us. That’s a piece of it, but I think at its core, what it means is we accept that people are making choices and struggling with the things that they’re struggling with and living the life they’re living, and [we] do not seek to change them or to identify what’s bad and need to be gotten rid of. Even in the instance of something like suicidal thoughts. And it’s really foreign to people to think actually the goal might not be to get rid of the suicidal thoughts. It might be really valid reasons someone is having those thoughts. There might be ways in which people value the suicidal thoughts.
I remember at a training a young man said, “If all my suicidal thoughts, if all that pain went away, I think I’d lose my art and my music, and I don’t want that.” So, instead of coming at it from that place, in a harm reduction approach, we might say okay, these suicidal thoughts are a part of this person’s life. How do we support them to change the relationship with those thoughts in a way that works better for them? How do we support them to recognize those thoughts as having a message or having less power than they do?
Karin: Last question. In a few words or a few sentences, what is the driving point of your work, and what do you want listeners to know about providing support for your Peer Support Line?
Sera: I think so much of what we are struggling with is a loss of power and control in our lives. I think that so much of what we’re trying to do is recognize the profound loss of power that comes along with someone saying, “Hey, this is your diagnosis.” That says what is wrong with you and this is what you need to do about it instead of making space to say, “What has happened to you?” What is happening in your life, and what does that mean to you? And let’s talk about this so we can support you to make that meaning and have that ownership and take that power back. If people don’t have even that much power to explore their own experiences and figure out what they mean to them, then it’s really challenging to move forward to a different place.
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations