A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Seeking & Giving Help

In the last two weeks I've been to two NAMI mental health support group meetings.  The group is small so far, just five people each time, including myself.  I'm coming in contact with my desire to show up and be of some help to the group members and also in contact with my own vulnerability and limitations.  At home I get so into expressing myself through keeping an audio journal, a written journal, blogging, making up songs and sometimes doing artwork that I've felt as if maybe I could teach some of what I've learned to others.  But going to this meeting is teaching me that I have a lot to learn from other people.

The first step is just listening with an open heart, being present while others speak with courage and share their stories.  I did this and found that some of the people in the group were struggling not only with mental disabilities, but physical disabilities, problems with housing, with finding paid work and taking care of a small child amongst other things.  I realized that though my problems with mental illness were certainly valid that I did not have as much of a burden as some of these people.  This made me feel very respectful towards the individuals in this group and towards the group as a whole.

I also felt some feelings of helplessness and a wish to come up with answers to try and "fix" their problems, but I saw that for many of their issues I didn't have the knowledge or the experience and I had to be quiet and let others offer their guidance and ideas.  But when it came to coping with mental illness, I did find that I could contribute to the group.  There was something very special for me about listening and talking and looking into the eyes of the people sitting at that conference table, something that I've been withdrawn from in my self-imposed isolation all these years.  It's been a long time since I've been to any kind of support group and now I see what I've been missing -- personal contact.

Yes, there's also a sense of vulnerability and personal limitations, but that is good, too; it keeps me in contact with a sense of humility and a wish to keep trying.  I think many people don't go to meetings because of that vulnerable quality, but in sharing your vulnerability and recognizing that we are all vulnerable, all in the same boat, there is a kind of liberation.  I'm not saying that going to a support group a couple of times is going to solve all your problems.  It won't, but, with a good attitude, it can help a lot.  Not only do you get the chance to learn from others' mistakes and successes, but you get to share your own.

Sharing in itself gives personal validation and possibly helping others raises the quality of your life.  Unless people come together either virtually online or in person in a group, the opportunity for solutions even little (or big) miracles gets lost.  People can and do change the world for the better despite those stuck in the cycle of blame and violence, but they have to get organized and come together little by little.

My goal for now is to commit to showing up once a week and to think about the people in the group and what I can do to help during the time in between meetings.  Helping also includes being honest about my own problems and open to asking for help from the group.  One of the reasons why I stayed locked into my illness for years was that I wanted to deal with my problems on my own.  I didn't want to bother anyone.  I found out the hard way that I had to ask for help, but I stubbornly resisted that; even now I am awkward about it.  When I did reach out, I found people who were willing to help me. In a sense, being vulnerable before people gave them permission to be vulnerable, too, and when we admit to our problems, we generate goodwill.  That goodwill keeps us afloat during the painful times and give us reason to rejoice during pleasant times.   Conversely, stubbornly refusing help and holding onto, even nurturing, our resentments just makes us internalize our own ill will and keeps us sick and miserable.

My voices did torment me in the beginning, but for a good reason.  They said that I had to be around people and help them even though what I really wanted to do was to crawl into a hole and possibly die.  They hurt me, but in some ways I asked for it.  Before the psychosis took hold of me I was mainly interested in myself and not oriented towards helping others.  As was my way, I pulled into myself, into self-gratification and fantasy.  I had been hurt badly, but I held only my resentment and it colored my world and led me more deeply into serious mental illness.

And that pattern of holding onto resentment repeated itself while I went through the early stages of my recovery and slowed down my progress.  I didn't regret the fact that I did help some people, but I continued to resent the voices' method of teaching me.  What began to change me inside out was the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness towards myself, the voices and the people I encountered.  That little shift in attitude that I cultivated on and off for years rescued me from my own self-centeredness.  It has taken a long time, but I'm in a much better place now and my attitude is good, is open and willing to keep trying to continue recovering and to helping others to do the same.

2 comments:

Chris said...

Hi Kate,

I'm glad you've found a support group that is accessible to you.

Alas, I have no support group option because I work during the week and the Saturday meetings were discontinued.

I wish you much success with your own group.

Cheers,
Chris

Karen May Sorensen said...

Hi Kate!

Fantastic that you finally found a peer support group!

One of the things that puzzled me when I read this entry was your need to help others. I don't know many people in peer support groups who go with that type of purpose. It does happen naturally during group time - but usually something you say makes sense to another, and you were just expressing your own feelings and experience. You don't necessarily know when you have helped when it happens. There is in peer support group a great feeling of "we're all in the same boat" tempered with "but for the grace of God, there go I". In other words we relate as being similar, but we realize too that others can have it worse off than us, or are in holes that luckily we have been able to crawl out of. The misery of others is something to bear by being a sympathetic listener, and good question asker. But alas, there is little you can do to fix another but apply a short lived band-aid. Is frustrating, I know, and sad, but true.

Just be a friendly face! You have no idea how much that helps. Peer support groups work because not that answers necessarily are found, but because it is a safe place to express oneself. I mean, simply by saying your peace, and having others listen, lifts you up. It is freeing to express pain. Frustration vented. No so much anything solved usually by the confession, but having spoken, you usually afterwards feel like you have renewed energy to tackle your problems.

I have had great help with info about social security matters from someone who spoke at length with a representative on the phone about money matters, and I have learned new things about drugs from hearing about other's side effects, but I don't think anyone spoke with the direct intention of teaching me anything. They were just expressing themselves and information naturally got passed along.

I just worry that you burden yourself with the need to be of help. Trust me, being a kind person to someone who is experiencing the world as a scary place is oodles of goodness. I guess a kind person is someone who smiles, listens, and asks personal questions. Although you have to be careful with the personal questions, people are shy or paranoid and everything has to be done with the pace (and sensitivity) that the other guy is comfortable with. Familiarity, and the permission to intrude, takes time. But for instance, if I know a woman loves her daughter who lives across country, I'll ask if she's heard from her, and then hear the story. There's one lady I always know this is the perfect question to ask. Usually I get thanked for just caring enough to ask.

So rather than thinking about fixing problems, a good thing to notice is "what is most important to this person?" It often is something positive, not negative. Even with worries and hassles of mental illness there are still joys to be celebrated. Being fixed is sometimes just remembering and talking about personal blessings.

Oh, I hope you make friends more than I hope you fix people! Don't be too quick to forget your own needs. I think this group is a wonderful antidote for isolation, and it can do you a world of good. Be relaxed and don't forget to unburden yourself of your own problems. You need the group for selfish reasons, and there is no shame in that! My greatest wish for you is that after a meeting you leave with a lighter heart, and while that may not come away with the satisfaction that you helped another, you should be able to leave with the feeling that you have expressed your pain and been heard. The healing powers of the universe are interested in your own personal recovery, or so I believe.

Please keep us up to date how the group experience unfolds for you! Gosh, it would be wonderful if you made some new friends!

All my love,
Karen