Peer support is an incomparable asset that speeds one’s recovery. In February 2002, I joined a NAMI group that meets on the first and third Saturday of every month, and it’s made all the difference in my ability to cope with the illness.
Shortly after the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, I fell into despair. My brother, a member of the FDNY, is a New York City firefighter who’s alive today only because he responded to the scene in the late afternoon.
One morning shortly after, I woke up feeling guilty and ashamed because at 22 years old, I couldn’t do what other college graduates could. In 1987, I had a breakdown five months after I obtained my English degree, and spent the rest of my 20s revolving in and out of jobs, trying to find my purpose in life.
The road took me here. After 9/11, nothing was the same. I wanted a room where I could go and talk about my illness openly. The support group I attend evolved out of the NAMI Care peer support model, which has been updated and refined and is now called NAMI Connection.
In San Diego, I attended two of these groups. Everyone there is someone who has lived firsthand with a devastating mental illness. Absolute confidentiality is required. NAMI Connection follows 12 “Principles of Support,” including these:
1. We will see the individual first, not the illness.
2. We recognize that mental illnesses are medical illnesses that may have environmental triggers.
3. We understand that mental illnesses are traumatic events.
4. We aim for better coping skills.
5. We find strength in sharing experiences.
6. We reject stigma and do not tolerate discrimination.
7. We won’t judge anyone’s pain as less than our own.
8. We forgive ourselves and reject guilt.
9. We embrace humor as healthy.
10. We accept we cannot solve all problems.
11. We expect a better future in a realistic way.
12. We will never give up hope!
I’ve listed all 12 principles here because I follow them without misgivings. If any of them resonate with you, contact your local NAMI to see if it has a peer support group or you could start one. Two of the principles that are foremost in my mind are that my breakdown was a traumatic event, and nobody has the right to judge my pain as any less than his.
These stand out because just yesterday a good friend and I were talking on the phone, and he didn’t understand how, 15 years later, my hospitalizations, which only totaled five weeks, could be such a big deal for me. He wanted to know why I count every year I’m living on the outside, and why what happened to me continues to be a reference point.
“You are a success,” he said, as if what I’ve done could take away my need to have my experiences validated.
What am I searching for? My memoir, Left of the Dial, will be published shortly and when it is, I hope more people can understand the illness that I strove to conquer with all my might.
The schizophrenia does shoot dirty pool, and a peer support group is the best way I know to manage the symptoms, set goals in my recovery, and get empathy from others who’ve been in my moccasins. Without such understanding travelers on this same road, I floundered through the early years and had no one to tell me it was going to be all right, that what I experienced wasn’t for naught, and a better life was mine if I accepted the truth and moved on.
9/11 was indeed the turning point. I felt angry that the terrorists did what they did; yet more than that, I didn’t want to live in hiding any more. If someone could bomb tall buildings and kill thousands, I didn’t deserve to be in their league in the media.
At the time, I had been at my librarian job for a year, and because I was settled into a career I loved, I started to seek other outlets for my pain. I joined a writers’ workshop to start my memoir, and at the same time I found a NAMI peer support group. It has been meeting for five years now.
Sometimes, I hear people say that attending a support group is “too much” for them right now. I respect that, because life (and love and peer support) brings up intense feelings. However, there’s no convenient time to be worry-free. I met a woman two years ago who told me, “There’s always going to be stuff.”
When do we deal with it? How do we deal with it? Again, I urge you to consider the discomfort and risk joining a group of peers to talk about what’s going on. How we manage our insecurities determines whether we succeed, or let them rob us of peace of mind.
NAMI Connection has an ambitious goal: for peers to be able to go to a support group any day of the week in every community. That’s a noble objective. You also don’t have to be a NAMI member to attend, though of course you’ll obtain benefits if you join, and open door membership costs as little as three dollars.
To find a NAMI Connection in your area, please call toll-free (800) 950-NAMI (6264). The hotline folk will be happy to help you.
In the next blog entry, I’ll talk about “aging and schizophrenia through the lifespan,” liberally giving my take on the actual 2007 convention workshop that focused on baby-boomer patients and how the medications interact with an aging population. Though it was a good session, it left me with more questions than answers, and I thinking asking the questions will lead to peer-driven techniques for coping with the SZ in our golden years.
Published On: July 05, 2007