University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Courage to Come Back

Social worker Cheryl Peever shatters stigmas of mental health and substance dependence

Cheryl Peever took her first drink at 13. By her early 20s, she was drinking heavily, smoking marijuana and taking acid, among other drugs. At 27, Peever was abusing both alcohol and cocaine. By the age of 30, she says, “I was a shell of a human being, a container for drugs…. I wanted to die.”

But this past spring, Peever (BSc 2000,MSW 2002) proudly walked across the stage to receive a Courage to Come Back Award.The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Foundation award recognizes individuals from Ontario who have overcome mental illness or addiction and now use their experience to help others. Peever says her substance dependence went hand-in-hand with her mental illness, depression. She was trying to alleviate the symptoms of
sadness and despair.

Peever, now 46, is tireless in supporting others in their recovery. A social worker, she uses her empathy and compassion in her role as the acting manager of the Women’s Inpatient Program at CAMH in Toronto. And by summoning the courage to accept the award, she is helping shatter the stigmas of mental illness and substance dependence.“The idea of exposing the details of my former life to both strangers and colleagues was horrifying,” Peever said in her acceptance speech. The stigmas produce an internalized shame that leaves you feeling secretive and embarrassed – even when you should know better, she added.

But with her recovery, along came courage. “I decided that if I could beat a cocaine addiction, I could do just about anything,” Peever says. At the age of 32, she started a bachelor of science degree at U of T. While working three jobs, she completed her degree at 40, and then entered the master of social work program.

“When you stop doing drugs, you feel new to life,” she says. “It’s like going to a foreign country. I’m still trying to find my way around.”

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