Choosing to go to a support group for the first time is usually prompted by a desperate situation.
I never understood the point of doing math problems that couldn't be solved. I like rolling up my selves and working on projects until they are finished. Getting handed a life problem that doesn’t have a solution presented me with a new challenge. How do I confront this problem without losing hope?
I was pretty desperate the first time I went to a support group. I never saw myself as a support group person, but then again, I didn't know I would ever have to deal with a family member who has a mental illness. For years the behaviors were a mystery. Then there was the dramatic day that a doctor defined the problem by putting a name to the set of behaviors, otherwise known as a diagnosis.
That weekend, someone in Chicago told me about the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI is the only nationwide nonprofit with local affiliates that focuses on helping families understand the predictable stages of emotional response.
I looked up the local number and called NAMI Oklahoma. A woman named Gail picked up the phone. I was sure that whoever answered the phone would be shocked by my story, but I remember the wave of relief I felt when she responded, “Yeah, that is pretty typical. You should come to our support group.” What a comfort it was to know I wasn't alone. Maybe I could find help.
I wanted to know how I could help my loved one. Better yet, I wanted to know how to solve the problem.
Group members who had taken the signature “Family to Family” education program were quick to tell me about the free 12-week class. I was able to register and get started within a few months. It helped me sort out the difference between what I could do and what I couldn’t do and "the wisdom to know the difference."
That first year, I survived Monday to Monday. At group, we take a pledge. “What we say here, stays here.” At that point, I wasn't concerned with the shame of it all. I wanted to talk, and I needed people who would listen.
Each week, I came with questions and listened to the stories presented one by one as we went around the circle. I learned a lot from listening to families unload the latest turn of events in their ongoing sagas.
While observing families dealing with a range of diagnosises, I learned that the alphabet of mental illnesses such as major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, schizoaffective disorder, BPD and other conditions have their differences, but caregivers share a lot of common experiences.
Knowing about the biological underpinnings of brain disorders and the resources available for crisis or treatment is only half of what it takes to deal with serious mental illness. We have to deal with the emotional impact. That takes time.
NAMI support groups remind us that everyone goes though emotional stages. The stages of acceptance are not much different than that of the grieving process, except we have to go through them repeatedly. These highs and lows are known as the “roller coaster.”
My new friends accompany me on the ride. Together we have made it through the ups and downs that come with having high hopes that are dashed by disappointments. This is followed by hoping against hope. Together we repeat aloud our mantra, “We will never give up hope.”
The best part of group might be the laughs. We embrace humor as healthy. And, we also get to share the many little victories where no one else would understand their magnitude.
I’ve learned that embracing this whole package of ups and down is the real gift. Having the encouragement to "see the person, not the illness first" is priceless. I am forever changed for the better by having to deal with this kind of unsolvable perpetual equation.
My involvement in NAMI began in 2010. Since then, I have seen the list of support groups sponsored by the NAMI Edmond North-OKC affiliates continue to grow. The original group is our biggest group with anywhere from 10 to 25 in attendance each week. And, we are always welcoming newcomers. NAMI Caring Families is just one of a wide variety of support groups hosted by Crossing Community Church in north Oklahoma City.
Other groups have been started by people who decided to become NAMI leaders and hold groups closer to home. Now there are groups in Choctaw and Norman. We also have a group for the parents of adolescents with behavioral health issues that meets at Lord of Life Lutheran in Edmond. And, we have a new sister support group, a faith based group, that meets at Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond called “Living Well with Mental Illness.”
This week NAMI Edmond North will debut its newest group. Its first meeting will be held on Monday, June 16, beginning at 6:30 p.m. in Edmond. The group will meet every Monday at the Oklahoma Blood Institute community room, 3409 S Broadway in Edmond.
Jean Williams is a NewsOK Contributor and a volunteer with the Edmond North-OKC National Alliance on Mental Illness. Email: email@example.com
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