“My friends and family are my support system. They tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear and they are there for me in the good and bad times. Without them I have no idea where I would be and I know that their love for me is what's keeping my head above the water.” ~ Kelly Clarkson
Whenever I talk with a new client about recovery, or lead a group on the tenets of recovery, one of the main tenets I present is maintaining a healthy support system. Based on an outline my boss created about what everyone’s ‘treatment plan’ should be after being diagnosed with a mental illness, the list includes taking our medication, sleeping and eating well, and exercise before touching on the support system. There are other things, too: do enjoyable things, manage stress, be your own advocate, make small and easily achievable goals, be thankful, and help others.
I pretty much agree with that list of steps that aid us in recovery and to a place of wellness and stability. Maybe it was arbitrarily drawn up, though medication is almost always the first and best step in getting any thought or mood disorder under control. But if it were me, that bit about the support system would rank right up there with the meds.
For me, taking meds was not enough. When my depression and anxiety was at its worst, the meds only took the edge off things. Maybe I quit sleeping all day. Maybe I was able to go the grocery store. But there was no enjoyment or sense of accomplishment. There was no “yay, me” in my heart…just a resolve that something had to be done and I did it. Mundane. Ho hum.
When my husband decided to leave, my parents invited me to move home with them in order to give me time to recover from my many psychiatric hospitalizations that year. I was on my meds, but still unstable, and I took them up on their offer. My in-laws came and loaded up my few belongings on a trailer and brought me home.
It was overwhelming at first. My brothers were here. Their wives. My nieces…some of whom I’d never met before. We’d all get together on Sunday afternoons for a big dinner, loud conversations, and games. No one pried into what was going on in my head or with my marriage, but they were available to listen and to ask if I was doing okay whenever I’d start to pull in to myself.
For the first few months of being home with my parents, I would wait until everyone left Sunday evening and then go crash in my room. It was wonderful and exhausting all at the same time. Sometimes, I didn’t make it until everyone left before I had to retreat for a while, but no one complained.
All they had for me…always…was the amazing acceptance of me…wounded, bleeding, trying to heal and act normally and not quite pulling it off. They gave me love…quiet, with many hugs, lots of affirmations, and with lots of laughter.
I gradually became better…more able to interact…able to keep up…ready to lead the charge even from time to time.
Finally, I was back on my feet. Back to my old self. Happy again. Confident in new areas. Ready to try new things.
And again, my family had my back. Cheering and supporting me enthusiastically as I went back to school and pursued a degree in Creative Writing. Doing the same as I accepted a position with the local mental health authority and started working with other people who have depression, bipolar, and anxiety. There’s never been a time when I have felt unloved by my family.
Added to that are my friends who have always been encouraging to me. Willing to tell me when they are concerned about me; willing to ask questions when they don’t understand something I’m doing or saying.
Beyond that, there have been case managers, counselors, and psychiatrists...all working with me in my pursuit of recovery...of living well with my bipolar disorder...of keeping me as symptom-free as possible, but able to cope with the symptoms as we’ve waited for new meds to work, too.
I’m one of the lucky ones, though. I have this huge support system at the ready whenever things start to go south. And believe me, after working with people in the public mental health sector for the past year and a half, I know how very, very lucky I am.
So many people with a mental health diagnosis come from severely dysfunctional families. Negligent or nonexistent parents. Siblings dealing with their own diagnoses and dramas. Symptoms so bad that they have little insight into what they need to do to stop some of the behaviors that keep them in their illness.
It’s harder to tell people like those that they need a support system. They’ve never had one and don’t know how to build one.
So we, as peers, start outlining what we can do to help them navigate the system. We emphasize the role of their case managers and doctors in getting stable. We share the stories of when we were in our illness, and show them, by example, what recovery can look like. We become a small part of their beginning support system.
No one has to be without someone to encourage them, to believe in them, to cheer them on to obtaining the goals and dreams they have for themselves.
I am one of the very lucky ones. Maybe you are, too. If you are, may you join me in being willing to hold out hope and encourage others that aren’t so lucky.
* Marianne Williamson