So I’m a little nervous, I’m going to be hosting a group this afternoon.
The first one was actually supposed to be last week, but I had to cancel because of both my health and the snow.
It’s sort of a bipolar peer support group (so there are no medical professionals) and I’ve been going to a Monday night version on and off for a couple years now.
Obviously, these sorts of groups can be difficult, both to attend and to host -I do believe I mentioned something about it here.
Most people are afraid to share anything about mental illness to anyone, thanks to our old friend stigma. I’m a firm believer, though, that learning to talk about it out loud can be both a huge tool and help lift a lot of the burden we carry from being silent.
The biggest trouble seems to be: where do I begin? Believe it or not, most folks with a diagnosis would rather chew off a limb than willingly talk about mental illness, so it is ok to take baby steps with this process.
- The first step I took (or was forced to take, rather, as a teenager) was to talk to a therapist. I think this is the simplest and least frightening step one can take for many reasons. Your privacy must be respected by law, so unlike talking with a friend or relative you know for certain anything you say will be confidential (though keep in mind there are one or two exceptions to the rule). Many therapists are also trained specifically in the realm of mental health, so they are people who can usually readily identify what you’re trying to say, even if you don’t really know how to say it. Practicing talking with this type of professional can begin building the skills to talk to other types of people. You know, the ones you aren’t paying to listen.
After a time, I was encouraged by my therapist to join a support group. This was (and can be) a terrifying prospect for many reasons. You may not be someone who is comfortable talking to strangers in general, or you might have an anxiety or panic disorder. Then, of course, there is also the fact that you will likely be talking about that big, scary topic again: mental health.
- The second step was to reach out to others with mental illness. This could be talking one-on-one (my usual preference) with someone with a similar diagnosis, attending a group run by a medical professional, or attending a peer-run group. I was really lucky as a teenager because there was even a summer camp in my area for creative teens struggling with many of the same things I was. The platform here doesn’t really matter, as long as you can begin a conversation with someone else with a mental illness. Many of us have very similar experiences, so we find very quickly that we almost “speak the same language” if you will. Even though some people consider strangers to be scary, I don’t! They’re people I have no relationship with yet, so really I can say whatever I want and I might never see that person again. Just try it once, I promise it is incredibly freeing!
I would say about a year ago I reached the point where I began to feel a little stagnant in regards to the pool of people I usually talked with about my mental health. I really began to feel tension between the times I could be open with a group of people and when I seemingly “couldn’t”. I wanted to bridge the gap a little bit so I could feel like I was able to just “be myself” around a larger group of people.
- The third step was to open up this topic with close friends that may not have been wholly aware of it before. At first I was a little scared to go there, but these were all people that I’ve known for a long time and who I have great relationships with. I couldn’t imagine any of them suddenly “dumping” me for talking about my mental health, and they didn’t. When you finally feel comfortable and are able to explain your diagnosis to a fair degree (and to someone who might not know what any of that medical jargon even means), it might be time to talk to some close friends of family about it. With my own experience I have tried to add this topic to conversation casually (while stable), instead of building it up as this huge, “deep dark secret,” I need to tell someone (even if it often feels that way). If I spew what I want to say out in a big awkward lump, yes, it’ll be awkward. But, if I act casual about it, it is more likely that the person I’m talking to will act casually about it too. After all, stigma might say that this topic is a “big deal” but it doesn’t have to be if we don’t make it!
After the ball got rolling and I was triumphant with talking to my friends, I had a lot more confidence in myself when it came to my ability to explain bipolar disorder, what it is, and how it affects me.
- The fourth step, in a perfect world, would be to be open with everyone about mental health. There have been one or two moments in the last few months, I admit, where I’ve really stumbled on this one, but for the most part I’ve been very open. For me, this is the step where some resistance occurs, and I don’t think it is because people are hateful or malicious, just that they are ignorant. Obviously the more open and casual people can be in normal conversation about mental health, the more ignorance we can eradicate.
Some people reach this last step somewhere in the middle, and are comfortable with that. Personally, I wasn’t. I needed to feel empowered enough to get there.
- The final step is advocacy. Representing those who aren’t feeling strong enough to speak up yet, representing the community in which we are a part of, and helping out our peers. This is what I’m going to do today, and I am nervous, but very excited. It took a little pushing for me to get here, but that’s ok, I must’ve needed it.
I realize, too, that just because I’m hosting this group today doesn’t mean I’ve finished learning how to talk about mental illness and I can move on to something else. On the contrary, I’m constantly learning about how to express what I’m feeling out loud, and it is something I have to work at on a regular basis.