Looking out for others: A love letter to Peer Health

Content warning: The first paragraph of this op-ed discusses abusive relationships.

I joined Peer Health after getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship. It was Winter Study of freshman year, and I had spent my first semester supporting a partner who was controlling, possessive and deeply depressed. It was my first “real” relationship, and it was hard to see my partner hurting. So, I tried to help. I woke him up most mornings, brought him food and stayed up late listening to him and helping him with homework. Before long, we had developed a co-dependent relationship, one where he couldn’t function without my help and I craved the feeling of being needed. It was only after he withdrew from the College that it really hit me: I didn’t know how to take care of people without drowning in them.

I care a lot. I’ve been told this both as a compliment and as a criticism. On the one hand, I truly enjoy helping people. It’s fun to surprise my friends by leaving notes and chocolate outside their doors. There are few things I enjoy more than a heartfelt conversation. It is immensely rewarding when someone feels safe enough to confide in me, but I have a hard time with moderation. I overschedule myself with commitments and conversations until I’m spread too thin and I breakdown. Especially after that first semester, I realized that the way I cared for people was unsustainable.

I signed up for Peer Health’s Call-In Walk-In (CIWI) training that Winter Study. It was about 25 hours long and covered everything from academic resources to unhealthy relationships. With each topic, we practiced active listening, which combines body language, verbal cues and open-ended questions. When done right, it should accomplish two things: provide a safe space where the speaker feels validated and heard, and create healthy boundaries so that the listener doesn’t completely drain themself.

Emotional labor is really hard. It is disproportionally borne by the female-identifying population at Williams and rarely gets the appreciation it deserves. But I also think it is the reason I still love this place; people really care about each other. There’s a genuine culture of “checking in” with friends and tending to their needs. This same love bleeds into everything students are involved in, from the JA [Junior Advisor] system and athletic teams to activism and student organizations. The fact that we are so critical of this institution indicates just how much we care about this place and its people.

Over my four years in Peer Health, I’ve held almost every board position available. I’ve seen our office transform into a warmer and more accessible space. I’ve been inspired by upperclassmen and underclassmen who are deeply concerned with the wellness of the student body. All of this has shown me the many ways we can help each other.

One of the simplest ways to care for people is to provide them with the resources they need to care for themselves. When students walk into our office (Paresky 212, past the bathrooms in that little hallway), they’re usually surprised by how many resources we offer. Everything – lotion, Emergen-C, menstrual products – is free. The one exception is Trojan condoms, which are still ridiculously cheap at five condoms for a dollar.

This year, I worked as the “canine coordinator” and learned how non-human companions can also help. Ellis, the dorkiest dog in Williamstown, visits for weekly puppy therapy. He is always excited to see people and gets so worked up that he has to wiggle his whole butt instead of just his tail. Additionally, we’ve put on a few kitten therapy events (thanks to Associate Professor of Biology Luana Maroja!) and had over 100 students attend. Whenever people come in to see Ellis or the kittens, I watch their faces; stressed expressions melt into wide smiles. Instantly, students shed a little of the heaviness they’re carrying.

But, at the end of the day, it still comes down to people. Even though I’m the only “certified” listener in the room, I’m rarely the only one listening. People are quick to open up to each other in this space. A conversation about Ellis will turn into one about taking time off from Williams. People will text their friends to stop by because they know how happy seeing a dog will make them. Strangers laugh together over Ellis’ antics or the painfully cheesy pamphlets in our office.

Working with Peer Health has taught me so much about how to care for other people and myself. It’s been an integral part of my four years. For anyone interested in joining a club that is deeply concerned with making Williams a healthier place, you should stop by. Our door is always open. (That was a cute end line, but it’s important to know that we are actually only open Sundays through Thursdays from 7 to 10 p.m.!)

Johanna Wassermann ’18 is from Washington, D.C. She is an English major with an environmental studies concentration.

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