This world of ours...must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. ~ Dwight D. EisenhowerI was thinking the other day about how alone people with depression and other mental illnesses feel. Mental illness lies and tells you that you are the only person who cannot get out of bed or has suicidal thoughts. It tells you that you are utterly alone, that you are a burden. These feelings lead to more despair.
Recovery is different. Being in recovery means that you take risks and that you talk to other people. Opening up is scary as hell, but so is remaining quiet. There comes a point when a person must decide whether to suffer in silence with no hope of getting better or to take the risk of opening up and possibly achieving a more meaningful life. Opening up is risky. One might be ostracized, bullied or traumatized by certain forms of treatment and unfortunately, all of those things do happen. There is one thing wonderful thing that will happen too though - one will finally realize that they really are not alone at all. Whether going to a hospital, calling a warmline, attending a support group, participating in group therapy, spending time at a peer center or even just talking to a stranger or friend, one will start to make connections.
My first forays into the world of standard mental health treatment were not good. I attended a hospital's outpatient program and I was the only one diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and the only one experiencing hallucinations. To top it all off, the professionals spent a lot of their time arguing about my diagnosis because while I experienced hallucinations, I did not experience delusions. Apparently, that's weird. I felt like a freak.
On the other hand, at the college I attended I got wonderful support from my friends. It's a little embarrassing when I think of how needy I was. Like the hospital's professionals, the campus therapists had no idea what to do with me - a theme I experienced at college after college - my friends, however, were there for me. I felt reassured when I realized that a lot of my friends were also seeing the same college therapist, even though we had different symptoms.
It took five years to find a treatment center that actually helped me instead of alienating me. SkyLand Trail was the first place where I met people who had the same diagnosis as me. It helped me feel a lot less alone. Apparently, I was not so weird after all.
As the years went on, I attended different treatment centers and different support groups. Some places and groups were really helpful and healing and some I will have to value just for their learning experience...that I will definitely not attend there again. But here is what I have learned - no one is alone. No matter how weird your diagnosis, there is someone else with the same symptoms. And even if it takes a while to find that person, more people will identify with the recovery process than you will think.
Here is something else that I have learned and some might find it surprising - a person in recovery is blessed with understanding friends and peers in a way that many people are not. I have been seeing a lot of posts lately by friends who are not in recovery about how hard it is to make and keep friends. I do not have this problem at all. In fact, I have so many friends that I struggle to maintain meaningful relationships with all the people I value. This is a good problem to have, although overwhelming at times.
One article that has been circulating my friends' facebook feeds says that it is hard to make friends after college because people today stay holed up in their homes more than they did in the past. People tend to meet less people on a regular basis and so have fewer opportunities to make connections. I am so glad to say that this not true for me. At the Peer Support and Wellness Center that I work at I am blessed with ample opportunities to develop relationships with different people. I work at a place with a supportive atmosphere that makes it relatively easy to open up and get to know both my coworkers and my peers in a deep, meaningful way. All this is not counting the other people that I have met at previous centers and support groups.
Of course, there are other ways to make friends. I have many connections formed at my church, book club, and past colleges, but none that I see or talk to as regularly as my recovery friends, with the exception of the people that I am dating. Even if I did not work at a recovery center, I would still have many recovery circles that I could go back to and receive support from if needed. Even people in rural areas have access to our warmline, as long as they self-identify as having a mental health challenge. Many times I have felt sorry for the common person who does not have a mental health challenge, for they do not have access to as many forms of support and I fully believe that all people need support and opportunities for genuine connections, whether having an illness or not.
Today I am grateful for my mental illnesses because they led me to recovery, which has led me to meet some amazing people. I am inspired and supported by many people on a regular basis. I have the opportunity to inspire and support other people, in turn, too. I think, though, that those of us who have learned how to be good supporters should perhaps take extra care to reach out to our friends who are not involved in the recovery social circle. Not that one needs to be involved in recovery to know how to be supportive, but it does help. I would like there to be an effort to add support and sharing in spaces that are not specifically recovery oriented.
What if colleges did not trigger mental illnesses in the first place because they promoted positive coping skills for stress? What if all work environments had supportive atmospheres? What if there were more community centers, especially in rural areas, that had many avenues for learning and communing with different people? What if childcare and transportation were more affordable so that people would have the ability to get out of their houses? In short, I would like there to be a radical shift in our culture - recovery is not just for those living with mental illness or addiction, it is a way to heal our world.