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and talking and looking into the eyes of the people sitting at that conference table, something that I've been withdrawn from in my self-imposed isolation all these years.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.