People Skills - A Vital Recovery Tool

John McManamy Health Guide
  • At the navigation bar at the top of this page, if you click Manage and go to Recovery, you will find a series of articles I have been doing here at BipolarConnect.

    My intention was to follow a strict outline, based on a series of principles I had previously articulated in a blog here, entitled McMan's Eight-fold Path to Living Well.
    These included, among other things, being mindful, managing stress, and getting a good handle on your sleep.

    But a month or so ago, I deviated from the script. For more than a year, I had been haunted by an encounter from last year's national NAMI convention in San Diego. An earnest young man - we'll call him Bob - proudly told me he played four saxophones. I would have quickly forgotten all about this, but two nights later, he repeated the same line, this time to a sax player setting up for the convention's farewell social.

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    Maybe Bob thought that the sax man would have replied with something like, "Wow! You play four saxophones? I'm impressed!"

    No doubt, this was the kind of reaction Bob had been accustomed to living in his protective bubble in the home of his parents. But this was the real world, now, and the sax man merely gave poor Bob a blank look. Bob had no choice but to rejoin his mom and dad. No doubt, Bob is still living with his parents, trapped inside his bubble, unable to break out.

    So what is holding him back? His illness or his lack of social skills? The two are related. In all likelihood, the isolation brought on from his illness virtually guaranteed that Bob would reach adulthood socially clueless. Sadly, his profound lack of people skills - even if his illness were to go away tomorrow - will keep him cut off from the rest of the world.

    Why this pained me so much is I see a lot of myself in Bob. I've always been an outsider, socially awkward, prone to shut out the world for long stretches at a time. I only recently emerged from one such stretch.

    One of the things that helped me being more comfortable around people was facilitating a DBSA support group in Princeton, NJ. This was a huge stretch for me, and I made a lot of rookie mistakes, but over time I managed to surprise myself. After three years, I could call myself a success story.

    Then I moved to the San Diego region. I needed a break. Over the next year-and-a-half I stayed away from DBSA. When I wasn't on the road, I pretty much stayed holed up on my mountain. It was a wise choice. The isolation gave my severly-stressed brain a chance to mend.

    But this couldn't go on forever. Last month, I informed the people running DBSA San Diego that I would be happy to fill in as a facilitator. I've now facilitated three times in four weeks.

    The most important skill a facilitator needs to master is the ability to breathe through his nose.

    "Seroquel brings you down," someone in the group commented. "You stupid idiot," I felt like screaming. "Sure, Seroquel is a sleep aid, but it's also FDA-approved to treat bipolar depression."

    "An MAOI should only be a last choice antidepressant," a bunch of well-meaning people told a newcomer.

  • "Haven't you fools been listening?" I wanted to shout. "He's already said he's tried just about every antidepressant. Moreover, he's been talking about fatigue and lack of energy. Not all depressions are the same. For low energy depressions, an MAOI jumps the cue."

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    [Sound of me pulling my hair out.]

    Fortunately, I managed to breathe through my nose. My internal discomfort was a reflection on me, not the people in the group. I had been away from facilitating too long. I realized that I was in danger of losing touch with the very people who shared my illness, people like me, people like you. In support groups, no one is an expert. Rather, through sharing our experiences with each other, we manage to stumble on a lot of invaluable home truths.

    I needed to step back and have faith in the stumbling process. No one likes a smarty-pants. No one likes a know-it-all.

    Over time, with practice, I will be able to sync myself with the dynamics of the group. I will be more at ease, in a better position to give. The experience will enrichen me, make me a better person. I will form lasting friendships, build new confidence, acquire new wisdom. That new wisdom and confidence will carry over into other areas of my life.

    But I also had a very stern reminder of how rusty our people skills can get in a very short period of time. We've all been there. We lose our job. We lose our friends. We lose touch. Next thing, it's not our illness that is making others look at us in a strange way.

    Gaining back those skills - the key to our reconnecting with the world, the key to our recovery - takes time and practice, plus a lot of courage. It's simply not going to happen if you stay home.  

    Me, I'm going to be fine. Bob? He and his four saxophones will haunt me the rest of my life.

    Check out my first of five communication skills articles. More are on the way.   

Published On: October 16, 2008